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Tamil Communities in Southeast Asia Prepare to Help Sri Lanka's Displaced

  • Ron Corben

Tamil communities across Southeast Asia are preparing to contribute aid to thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils displaced by the fighting that ended almost three decades of conflict. But the fighting that claimed thousands of lives over recent months has also left deep scars within the Tamil population across the region.

The United Nations says it will take $50 million in emergency relief over the next three months to help rebuild the lives of the 300,000 Tamils displaced in northern Sri Lanka.

After fleeing weeks of fighting, they are now housed in more than 20 government camps.

The World Food Program has been providing meals at the government screening point at Omanthai. WFP country director Adnan Khan says many of the displaced are traumatized.

"The people who are coming out you would appreciate have suffered from multiple displacement inside - they are coming out of the conflict zone - so clearly they are traumatized. They are also dehydrated. They have been traveling. There are cases of under-nutrition especially among the vulnerable groups such as elderly people, such as children under five, pregnant and lactating mothers," explained Khan.

The Tamil Tiger rebels fought the Sri Lankan government to establish a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in the island's north. They said a separate nation was needed because of discrimination and abuse by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority, which dominates the government. More than 70,000 people most of them civilians, died in the war.

Government forces overran the final remnants of the Tamil Tiger rebels earlier this week in a final bloody conclusion to more than 25 years of fighting. The battle forced hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes.

Humanitarian groups and several governments have criticized the Sri Lankan government because it has given aid workers little access to the displacement camps. The United Nations says access needs to be "full and unimpeded".

Suresh Bartlett, the World Vision director in Sri Lanka, says his agency's key concern is the more than 60,000 children caught in the war.

"Our focus has been the children. Certainly they have been traumatized over a long period of time," said Bartlett. "They have lost family members - parents, brothers, sisters. There have been people dying all around them - and they've been scarred and I think the issue is (that) psycho-socio support and counseling is absolutely critical."

Regional Tamil organizations are preparing to help. In Malaysia, home to almost two million ethnic Tamils, plans are underway to send members of parliament to Sri Lanka to assess the needs.

S. Pasupathi, a lawyer with the World Tamil Relief Fund in Kuala Lumpur, says it is important to ensure aid goes directly to those in need.

"Once we've got the green light and we can send these parliamentarians - they can go there and assess and they can let us know what are the immediate needs for shelter, clothing, sanitation, and education, and things like that. Then we want to make sure we want to whatever assistance we give goes directly to the internally displaced people," said Pasupathi.

But Pasupathi adds that providing emergency relief is just a first step in rebuilding the Tamil community.

"Until the Sri Lankan government recognizes the Tamils have to live with self-respect and dignity and be a part and parcel of the total Sri Lankan community, I think it's going to be very difficult situation," he said.

Pasupathi says the Fund thinks more than 10,000 Tamils had died in the past three months of fighting. There are fears that more will die because of a shortage of medical care in the camps.

In Singapore, Nara Singhan is the vice president of the Ceylon Tamil Association. He says that although the Sri Lankan president has called for national unity now that the civil war is ended, the government still needs to come forward with a long-term political solution.

"You beat them militarily, but it's the beginning of another problem, which will go on for generations," said Singhan. "What they are doing is very foolish - they should give a political solution and the whole thing would be over - but they don't what to do that - they are not talking about that. So are they going to humiliate the Tamil's further?"

In Bangkok, members of the Tamil Mosque met to assess the way ahead for their community in Sri Lanka.

Ahsan Uwise, a businessman, says Sri Lanka faces a long road to recovery.

"We've have come from the beginning again. It's a very difficult, difficult process," said Uwise. "We have gone 150 years backwards now. Sri Lanka now after this war it's gone 150 years backwards. Now the economy is in the doldrums, nothing is getting on, it's in a bad state. The whole country needs development."

Asraf Sultan is also a businessman. He says the Tamil community in Bangkok is preparing to offer help.

"We'll help the Tamils in Sri Lanka - these people like us by donating the funds through United Nations, Red Cross like that. … If there is an organization trying to collect funds for them as me I will help whatever I can," he said.

Many Tamils throughout Southeast Asia expressed deep sadness over the bloodshed. But their grief has pushed them to try to help Sri Lankan Tamils take the first steps to rebuild their lives.



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