Sri Lankans Address World's Worst Human Rights Record

TALK about human rights violations in Sri Lanka, and a whole smorgasbord of abuse arises.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the separatist guerrilla group, are responsible for countless deaths, including the assassination of former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and, most probably, the killing of President Ranasinghe Premadasa last Saturday.

The Marxist, pro-Sinhalese Janata Vimukti Peramuna, or JVP, led a reign of terror in the south from 1987 to 1989, killing anyone it deemed an enemy.

A regiment of 45,000 Indian soldiers, who controlled the north and east provinces from 1987 to 1990 in a vain attempt to fight the Tigers, were responsible for many violations. More people were killed, injured, or dislocated by battles among competing Tamil separatist groups.

But all these pale in comparison to the state terror unleashed by the Sri Lankan government under Premadasa and his predecessor, J. R. Jayewardene.

In 1992 the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reported that at least 12,000 people had been killed by the Army, police, and death squads since 1983 - "by far" the highest number recorded in any country, according to the report. Those figures are considered conservative. A European Community group put the figure at 60,000.

Most of the disappearances occurred in 1988 and 1989 during the government's fight against the JVP. Every day young men's bodies were found on the beaches of the south, in the rivers inland, or burned on town squares. Analysts say the government took a shotgun approach, killing any youth suspected of involvement with the JVP. The opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party charges that the government also killed hundreds of political rivals during the JVP pogrom - and many Sri Lankans believe the charge.

After 1989, under pressure from Western aid donors, the government allowed human rights groups to visit and subsequently accepted a large number of their recommendations, especially changes in the country's emergency regulations.

`IT was essential that the government worry about its image," says Deepika Udagama, director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the University of Colombo. "We're talking about a massive number of extra-judicial executions and disappearances." This should help curb future abuses, although the main threat to the government died with the JVP.

Analysts and human rights workers say the exact human toll will probably never be tallied. And no one knows the psychological impact of such widespread terror on a small country. "Every family has somebody who has disappeared," says Ms. Udagama.

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