COLOMBO (Reuters) - Under unrelenting military pressure, Sri Lanka’s separatist Tamil Tigers have increasingly subjugated Tamils with forced military service or labor and kept them trapped in the war zone, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.
In a new report based on eyewitness accounts from Tamils in the northern war zone and from aid workers, the rights watchdog said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) “treatment of the very people they say they are fighting for is getting worse.”
“The LTTE claims to be fighting for the Tamil people, but it is responsible for much of the suffering of civilians,” Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said in a statement.
The LTTE could not be reached for immediate comment, given that most communication in the war zone has been cut off. The military has made more progress against the rebels in the past year than at any other time in the 25-year war.
Only about 1,000 people have been able to flee the war zone — which the LTTE claims as a Tamil homeland — since March. The LTTE used to force those who wanted to go to leave a family member as guarantor of their return, the report says.
“But now they stop everyone, saying, ‘We are fighting for the people, but the people have to stay with us,’” the report quotes a humanitarian worker as saying.
The report says all men aged 18-45 must go through two weeks of compulsory military training, and that LTTE fighters increasingly are recruiting at schools and may be reversing a trend of falling recruitment of fighters under the age of 18.
Instead of now requiring each family to submit one person to service, the LTTE sometimes requires two or more, it says.
The trapped civilians — which aid groups say number 230,000 — provide a ready force “for future forced labor and recruitment of fighters,” the report says. That includes building the mazes of trenches and bunkers near the battlefront.
“In doing so, the LTTE is unlawfully seeking to use the presence of the large civilian population in areas under its control for military advantage,” the report says.
Defense analyst Iqbal Athas said the Tigers had several reasons to keep civilians nearby, first of which was the fact that the LTTE takes its food from aid supplies sent to the north.
“It is their source of food supply. It is their shield against isolation that will make them an easier target for the military,” he said.
The government — itself long on the receiving end of criticism from rights watchdogs it accuses of imbalance — has repeatedly accused the LTTE of using civilians as human shields, to prevent the military from using superior air and firepower.
“We have been saying it for a very long time. So Human Rights Watch saying it doesn’t make it any more or less credible but the fact is, it reflects the reality,” said Rajiva Wijesinghe, secretary of disaster management and human rights.
The LTTE started fighting the government in 1983, saying it was battling for the rights of minority Tamils in the face of mistreatment by successive governments led by the Sinhalese majority since Sri Lanka won independence from Britain in 1948.
But since then, it has landed on U.S., E.U. and Indian terrorism lists because of a series of assassinations by suicide bombing against politicians including those from rival Tamil political groups and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Sugita Katyal