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Trade unionists reveal truth about Sri Lankan camps

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Denied access to clean water, forced to share scraps of clothing, with no sanitary facilities and facing starvation on a diet of less than 2 oz. of cereal a day. This is the grim reality for tens of thousands of Tamils held in vast concentration camps by the Sri Lankan government.

Ever since the final defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) President Mahindra Rajapakse and his Defence Minister brother have imposed a shroud of secrecy over conditions in these camps. Humanitarian organisations such as the Red Cross are not allowed to see what is really happening. However, even concentration camps are supplied and maintained by workers and among them are trade unionists who are sickened by what they have seen.

PD Saranapala, an official of the Joint Health Service Workers' Union (JHSWU) heard first-hand from members of the union in Vavuniya about conditions in four camps in the district. Three of the camps, two for men, one for women, each hold 1400 prisoners regarded by the government as LTTE fighters, "Tigers", the fourth is for non-combatants. In these camps just 50 kilos of gramm, one of the staple cereals of the island, are provided each day. Only one sarong, or a shirt, is issued for three or four prisoners who consequently have to tear them into strips to provide any clothing at all.

Some 15 kilometres from Vavuniya lies the town of Setticulam which is the scene of even worse privations. Again there are four camps but penned within them are between 40 and 50,000 Tamils. These are the survivors of the last enclave. As far as the government is concerned "they are all Tigers". Contact to these prisoners is even more difficult than in Vavuniya. All supplies are controlled by the military. Visitors seeking news of relatives are often kept waiting for up to three days because the camp authorities have no records of who they are holding. Instead, the name is announced over a single loudspeaker and relatives have to rely on this being relayed by word of mouth around the camp.

Among the inmates of the Vavuniya camps there are some 300 civilian health workers and the union is launching a campaign to allow them to use their skills and experience to provide at least basic health support for their fellow-inmates. PD Saranapala has proposed to the Director of Health Services in the district and to the Coordinator of the Human Rights Commission that these health workers be attached to the general hospitals in Mannar, Vavuniya, Setticulam and Murungan. The union also supports calls for civilian administrators to replace the current military regime controlled by the Defence Ministry.

In an interview with the Sri Lanka Trade Union Solidarity Campaign, Saranapala referred to President Rajapakse's recent speeches in which he claimed that his government, "wanted to be friends with the Tamils" and commented, "if that is really true he could begin by agreeing to allow these health workers to organise medical support in the camps".

Back in the capital, Colombo, the union, which organises both Tamil and Sinhalese workers, has already approached the "Rehabilitation Ministry" and the Ministry of Health on behalf of the health workers and raised the demand for a civilian administration.

However, as Saranapala explained, its main emphasis will be on campaigning within the working class for assistance and support for those still trapped in the camps. "We see even a very basic medical service as an example of what is possible, workers taking control themselves. It is a step towards self administration of the camps by those who live in them, they are displaced people, refugees, not criminals and we support their right to organise and take control."