LONDON — For the past three weeks, dozens of flag-waving Tamils have been camping out in Parliament Square, trying to draw attention to the desperate plight of their ethnic minority in far-off Sri Lanka. Several are on a hunger strike. Busy Londoners seem to ignore them, except when the demonstrators hold up traffic. The Tamils are one of the world’s least popular causes.
An estimated 70,000 of them have been killed in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's decades-long struggle for independence against the Sri Lankan government. Civilians trapped between the Tamil Tigers and government troops are in particularly dire straits right now. But their suffering is largely unseen by the world.
The Sri Lankan government has barred independent news organizations and most aid agencies from the combat zone in the northeast, where a dwindling band of rebel militia members is making a last-ditch stand against the Sri Lankan army. Tens of thousands of Tamil civilians are trapped in the war zone and trying to flee. Almost 3,000 have been killed in the fighting in the past two months. The government is pushing hard to finish off the rebellion and believes that if the cameras are not there, the world won’t care what happens.
That’s the same tactic the Israelis used when they attacked the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip last December. Like the Sri Lankan government, the Israeli army said it was keeping foreign journalists out of the war zone “for their own safety.” But some reporters, mostly Arabs, managed to transmit stories and pictures of the horrors of the Israeli bombardments of the densely populated Gaza Strip.
Now, under pressure from world opinion, the Israeli Army has completed an investigation into the actions of its soldiers during the siege of Gaza. Gen. Dan Harel, the deputy chief of staff, has announced that the army “discovered a small number of mistakes, not many, among the dozens of incidents we investigated.” That sounds suspiciously like a whitewash, and human rights organizations are calling for an independent investigation.
The plight of the Tamils attracts far less media attention, and one reason for this is that reporters and editors have a hard time figuring out who are the good guys and the bad guys in that conflict.
The Sri Lankan government accuses the rebel fighters of holding the Tamil population as hostages by refusing to allow them to escape to the safety of a government-declared sanctuary. The Tigers are notorious for their cruel tactics. Their specialty is wiring up men and women as human bombs and using them for suicide attacks.
On the other hand, the Tigers accuse the government of shelling the shrinking enclave where the Tamil population is trapped, killing and wounding civilians. It’s hard to establish the facts when there are no independent observers, but it appears that both sides systematically violate humanitarian law and human rights. The reaction of the news media, when they think about it at all, naturally tends to be “a pox on both your houses.”
The fact that the United States, the European Union and a number of other governments have labelled the Tamil Tigers a “terrorist organization” makes it easier for the world to wash its hands of any responsibility for failing to come to the aid of the Tamil population. The same is true in Gaza, where the west refuses to deal with a Palestinian government run by Hamas, another designated terrorist organization. That’s a pity because, whatever the rights and wrongs of these nasty conflicts, innocent civilians — men, women and children of all ages caught in the ethnic crossfire — are paying the price for the western world’s indifference.
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