"Ethnic Cleansing" in Sri Lanka?

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Even by Sri Lanka's standards, the forced eviction of 375 Tamils from the capital of Colombo last week seemed a step too far. The June 7 evictions, carried out by police and soldiers in a nighttime raid on areas of Colombo populated by the Tamil ethnic minority, was the latest chapter in the brutal civil war that pits government forces against Tamil-separatist militants in the country's north. "We were herded into buses like cattle and even when we were told we could go back to Colombo, we were warned to finish our work there and go back to our home towns [immediately]," says a 19-year-old who gave his name as Ramalingam, of the raid in which he was swept up. Sixty-two-year-old Nadaraja had traveled to Colombo from Jaffna in the north with his family in the hope that they could get to India for treatment for his sick wife. When "we showed a letter from a doctor, the police told us we will have to go back," he says. "Now, it seems even in Colombo, we are not safe or wanted. Are we not Sri Lankans?"

Local human rights groups accused the government of a policy tantamount to ethnic cleansing — some evictees had as little as half an hour to get ready according to activists, and many were bused to places where they knew no one. The government defense spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella initially said that there had been no forced evictions, and that all those who had left the capital had done so voluntarily. Later, other government officials said that those evicted had been suspected of plotting to bomb government installations in the capital.

But Sri Lanka's own Supreme Court brought the evictions to a halt the day after the first raid, issuing a stay order in response to a fundamental rights case filed by the Colombo-based think tank the Centre for Policy Alternatives. And the government found itself in the spotlight after the Sunday Leader, a local newspaper, published the contents of a letter written by Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police for the North and East, Mahinda Balasuriya, detailing directives issued by Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse for the eviction of Tamils.

Following the court order and the media revelations, the government has expressed its regret over the mass evictions, and President Mahinda Rajapakse has ordered a police report on the operation. "Allegations that officials exceeded their authority in implementing this initiative will be thoroughly investigated and appropriate remedial action taken, including disciplinary action against any wrongdoing on the part of any government official," the President said in a statement. But human rights groups say the new sense of fear instilled in Tamil civilians won't disappear anytime soon. "When they [Tamil civilians] ask us whether we could guarantee that this would not happen again, we can not give an answer, there is a lot of fear among those who got caught in the drive, it will take some time for them feel safe here in Colombo," says Rukshan Fernando of the Colombo-based Law and Society Trust, which is helping some of the Tamils who returned to the capital after the Supreme Court ruling.