Tuesday 28 April 2009

Sri Lanka: The Other "100 days"

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 28 April 2009.


It seems the media have been gearing up for the "100 days" milestone of Obama's presidency since election night -- not just in the US, but around the world. There's nothing like a long-predictable news peg for getting op-eds honed, reporters positioned and TV news graphics coordinated. Such extensive preparation creates a momentum of the mainstream news machine that is almost impossible to divert off course, even with a "we're all going to die" porcine pandemic story.

But there is another "100 days" story: on 20 January 2009, the same day as Obama's inauguration, the UN began tallying civilian casualty figures in the war in northeastern Sri Lanka. As government forces steadily constricted the rebel LTTE (Tamil Tigers) into a smaller and smaller zone, some 200,000 civilians were trapped, shelled by their own army and prevented from leaving with equally lethal force by the cult-like LTTE who claim to fight in their name.

In recent weeks, more than 150,000 civilians have escaped from the area, which now measures less than ten square kilometres, but the UN and Red Cross estimate 50,000 to 60,000 civilians remain trapped in the death zone. After significant political pressure from the international community -- including from Obama's Administration, by the way -- the government yesterday pledged to stop using heavy weapons.

Despite this, fighting continues to rage around the trapped civilians, including reports of government artillery and air attacks. Conditions for those who have fled to government-controlled territory are horrendous, with reports of scores dying from lack of food, water, and medical treatment. The Sri Lankan military refuses to allow the ICRC and UN and other humanitarian agencies access to those most in need of urgent care.

Today, after 100 days of the UN's body count, we know that at least 6500 people are dead. Over 13,000 have been injured, including 1000 children. And the counting continues...

I don't pretend this "other 100 days" is going to make much of a dent in the media frenzy over the unofficial end of the beginning of Obama's Administration, but who knows? There may be some media gatekeepers out there who opt for news of massive human suffering over a stale anniversary peg.

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