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Sri Lankan diplomat denies abuses against Tamils

By Tom Evans, CNN
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Sri Lanka's human rights dilemma
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Palitha Kohona, Sri Lankan Ambassador to U.N., denies his government abusing Tamils
  • He insists his government treated refugees humanely after the war ended in May
  • Human rights groups say conditions in refugee camps amount to collective punishment
  • Kohona insists government doing everything possible to reconcile with the Tamils
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(CNN) -- A top Sri Lankan diplomat Monday strongly rejected charges his government is abusing human rights of members of the country's minority Tamil community in refugee camps after the country's quarter-century-long civil war.

In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Palitha Kohona, the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations, insisted his government treated hundreds of thousands of refugees humanely after the war ended in May.

Human rights groups and Western governments, though, strongly criticized conditions in the camps, saying the conditions amounted to an illegal form of collective punishment.

"It's only six months after the war ended. In May, we had over 300,000 people pouring into camps, which were run by the government in order to feed the people, provide them with shelter, and to provide them with health care," Kohona said. "Now almost 60 percent or maybe even 70 percent have returned to their own homes. At the end of last week, there were only about 114,000 still remaining in the camps."

The 26-year-long civil war, one of Asia's longest-running insurgencies, ended with a crushing military victory by the government.

The war cost at least 70,000 lives.

Kohona refuted charges the Sri Lankan military shot and killed many Tamil Tiger rebels who tried to surrender.

"This is an allegation which popped up very recently, not at the time. And the government has categorically said that this scenario never happened," he said. "When you're caught up in a firefight and you are the one engaged in the firefight, it's quite likely that you get shot."

His remarks follow allegations from former army chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka that the government issued orders "not to accommodate" any Tamil Tiger leaders when the war ended. Government officials quickly denied the allegations, saying those claims were an effort by Fonseka to win political advantage in the upcoming presidential election. Fonseka is challenging President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the poll, scheduled for January 26.

Kohona insisted the government is doing everything possible to reconcile with the Tamil community.

"The Tamil language is an equal official language of the country, Tamil is now being taught extensively in our schools," he said. "Thirty-nine percent of Colombo (Sri Lanka's capital) is now Tamil. Fifty-four percent of the Tamils live amongst the (majority) Sinhalese in the south."

But a Tamil pushing for reconciliation in Sri Lanka -- Ahilan Kadirgamar, who is a spokesman for the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum -- told Amanpour the process should have started much sooner.

"The political climate has to change in the country. The north has remained very much militarized and we can't move on reconciliation unless there is a credible political process, unless there is further resettlement of the people in their own homes," Kadirgamar said.

"The political concerns, the economic concerns, all of them have to come together if that community is to feel they're part of Sri Lanka and that they feel that they are being treated as equal citizens in the country."

Kadirgamar said the most important first step for reconciliation is that all the war victims must be given the opportunity to speak, to explain what they went through, and to say where they want to go next.

The United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, John Holmes, told Amanpour there's got to be a political process that gives the Tamil community in Sri Lanka the feeling that Tamils are accepted as part of the society.

Speaking of the upcoming elections, Holmes said, "I hope the Tamil community and the other minority communities will be able to participate fully."

"But then, once those elections are over, we need to go back to addressing these questions of reconciliation, political progress, and economic progress, because the people going back have got to rebuild their lives somehow," he added.

"They're mostly farmers and fishermen, and they will need help and investment to do that."

 
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