Lanka's war of blame
Even as war crimes claims were flying around, Lankan army held a seminar to share its experience with other armies on wiping out a terrorist organisation in a 'humanitarian operation' without 'harming civilians'.world Updated: Jun 26, 2011 01:50 IST
President Mahinda Rajapaksa could have expectedly felt reassured last week after meeting friends, Hu Jintao and Dmitri Medvedev, at an economic forum in St Petersburg, Russia. No one can blame Rajapaksa for feeling a little hot lately under the collar of his starched white shirt and customary red stole.
The last three months have been particularly hard on Rajapaksa's reputation of being a strongman and meeting powerful friends is one way of snapping out of a dark, diplomatic corner where he was pushed into on human rights issues.
First in April came the damning UN experts' panel report followed in May by a book, The Cage, by a former UN staff. Then rather cruelly in June came the hardest blow: Channel 4 released the documentary, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields - all three squarely blaming the Lankan government and its army for deliberately shelling and killing thousands of Tamil civilians.
The UN report talked about "credible allegation" of war crimes while the documentary showed gruesome cell phone footage about military-style executions and naked bodies of women being dumped in trucks allegedly abused before being shot dead.
Several anonymous interviewees in 50-minute documentary talked about SLA artillery shells raining down on civilian zones and hospitals, systematic rape and abuse and acute shortage of food and shelter.
The last part was the most disturbing: it showed executions of men and women, naked and gagged with their hands tied; soldiers joking about the dead; one saying in Sinhala with a sinister chuckle that a particular dead woman could have been "someone's secretary as she was carrying so many pens and pencils."
Channel-4 screened the hour-long documentary at the UN on June 3. The UN special investigator into extra judicial killings, Christ of Heyns told AP: "It is very rare that you have actual footage of people being killed. This is different from CCTV. This is trophy footage," said Heyns, adding, the video showed "definitive war crimes", believed to have taken place in May 2009.
The Cage's author, Gordon Weiss, former UN spokesperson in Colombo during the last months of fighting in early 2009, quoted colleagues speaking about hundreds of shells falling on hospitals inside the NFZ from military locations, shredding civilians with impunity.
The Tamil Tigers too were accused of heinous war crimes including deliberate targeting of killing civilians and forced recruitment. But it was expectedly the democratically elected government in Colombo that got, well, the lion's share of blame.
Worse, the government was accused of directing civilians into army-demarcated `no fire zones' (NFZs) with the promise of safety and then doing the opposite - bomb them into oblivion.
"Dear Vanni (a large part of north Sri Lanka) citizen: we are conducting a final war in order to liberate the people who have been suffering by the ruthless terrorist acts of the LTTE in the Vanni...We the government of Sri Lanka is doing our best to avoid human casualties in the war…therefore we are requesting you - the beloved Tamils - to come immediately to government liberated areas to protect yourself from this disaster,'' the UN report quoted from a leaflet dropped by the Sri Lankan air force (SLAF) on Kilinochchi in August, 2008.
Even as war crimes allegations were flying around, the Sri Lankan army (SLA) proudly held a seminar to share its experience with other armies on the basics of wiping out a "terrorist organisation" in a "humanitarian operation without harming a single civilian."
It was interesting to note how the same events where differently narrated by the SLA and in the UN report or in The Cage.
In his presentation at the army seminar, Major General Shavendra Silva, head of a crucial army division during the final battle against the LTTE, described SLA maneuvers in glowing terms and portrayed the LTTE as desperate losers using civilians as human shields.
"Even within the NFZs declared for the safety of civilians, the LTTE deployed them as human shield by placing war like material in the civilian-held zones. The LTTE defensive positions and bunkers were observed to be among make-shift shelters of the civilians located in successive lines at regular intervals in NFZs. Adding to the list was the hospital at Udararkadu, temporary hospital at Valipunam and ICRC office at Udarakadu, the UN communication hub in Valipunam and the UN Humanitarian Mission safe houses in Puthukudiyiruppu."
Now, the UN version of events around the same time: "on or around 19 and 21 January SLA shells hit Valipunam hospital killing patients. Throughout the final stages of the war, virtually every hospital in Vanni, whether permanent or makeshift, was hit artillery. Particularly those which contained wounded LTTE were hit repeatedly."
The government's reactions to the allegations were expected: the UN report was "fundamentally flawed" and the documentary was obviously "fake" and made at the behest of the Tamil diaspora. The documentary's gruesome content will do nothing for Sri Lanka's post-war reconciliation, the government said, adding the documentary could incite hatred among different communities in Sri Lanka.
Attorney general Mohan Peiris said he was unaware whether the government was planning legal action against the British television channel but that it "will take appropriate action." Peiris fought Sri Lanka's case at this month's UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva and argued that international agencies and media organisations should testify before the domestic mechanism of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission with evidence of abuses.
"This is an exercise which is carried out by a small section of international media at the behest of certain parties with vested interests and it caters only to the interests of separatist forces living outside Sri Lanka, the final objective of which is to push Sri Lanka back to war, by way of lacerating the wounds that the country is attempting to heal. The Channel 4 film has the potential to incite hatred amongst different communities in Sri Lanka, including future generations, and thereby, adversely affect the ongoing national reconciliation process," a government statement said. The argument is rubbish, say commentators.
"I don't think the documentary would create further division among the communities, nor is the division beyond healing. The main obstacle today is the government's reliance on rhetorical denial of the tragedy and its use of state power to reinforce Sinhalese ideological claims rather than help the victims. Those who are happy with that would go on finding reasons to discredit what is shown in the documentary. Many others, including Sinhalese, know what happened. Official denial provides cover to silence those who want to speak of the LTTE supporters' enormous contribution to the tragedy by supporting LTTE propaganda which almost made out that the trapped civilians were ardent supporters of the LTTE rather than a human shield for its leaders," Rajan Hoole of the respected rights group, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) told HT over email.
Columnist Tisaranee Gunasekara shared the same view. "No merit whatsoever (in the government's argument); it is merely an excuse. The rift is there, it never ended. The only way it can be bridged and healed is if there is an open discussion at different levels about what actually happened. Such an exercise will have a cathartic value. The Tamils need the space to mourn their dead. When mourning becomes impermissible, grief will turn into anger. What is needed is not so much to punish the guilty (heaven knows there were no innocents in this war) but to achieve closure. So long as the Sinhalese cling to the myth of a clean war, and Tamils are forced to deny their losses and the concomitant pain, closure will not happen," Gunasekara said.
Both Hoole and Gunasekera shared their attributable views with HT under considerable personal risk of government censure. But Dr Rayappu Joseph, Catholic Bishop of Mannar, declined to speak to HT.
"Too dangerous for me to speak,'' he said. It's easy to understand why - last year, in a deposition to the LLRC, Jospeh raised the question of more than 1.46 lakh missing persons in north Sri Lanka.
"Based on information from the Kacheris (district administration) of Mullaitvu and Kilinochchi about the population in Vanni in early October 2008 and the number of people who came to government-controlled areas after that, 146679 seem to be unaccounted for. According to the Kacheri, the population of Vanni was 429059 in October 2008. According to the UN update as of July 10, 2009, the total number who came out of the Vanni to government-controlled areas is estimated to be 282380," he said in the deposition.
Following the screening of the documentary, the UK renewed its call for an international investigation into war crimes allegations. Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement that the documentary referred "to some very worrying events that are alleged to have taken place. The Sri Lankan government does need this to be investigated and the UN needs this to be investigated. We need to make sure we get to the bottom of what happened and that lessons are learned".
"We are deeply concerned about credible allegations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations in Sri Lanka. We support a full accounting of, and accountability for, those who engaged in acts that violated international human rights law and international humanitarian law," an US embassy official in Colombo told the Sunday Leader newspaper last week.
The Indian response too has been muted. In a recent Indo-Lanka joint statement, New Delhi asked Colombo to investigate human rights abuses and withdraw draconian Emergency laws. But India has been evasive on specifics.
National security advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, told Indian reporters on June 11 that India doesn't want to see single nations being targeted by international agencies.
It's easy to explain New Delhi's stand: its cultural, people-to-people and historical links with Lanka might be stronger because of geography but China's deep pockets and perceived lack of interest in a country's domestic issues and controversies gives it an edge that is increasingly sharper here.
The Rajapaksa regime is unlikely to carry out any specific probe into the allegations.
Its readymade counter to any call for a probe is the LLRC, which the UN report says,"…is deeply flawed in concept and practice. The concept is flawed because it is constructed on an unsound notion of accountability. It is flawed in practice because it does not meet international standards for independence and impartiality, treatment of victims, witness protection and transparency."
But, Rajapaksa can possibly breathe easy. With Jintao and Medvedev ready to bail out Sri Lanka against any resolution in the UN Security Council - and India ready with its silent support in international forum - it's unlikely that the deaths of the unknown number of persons in the last months of the war will ever be resolved. Instead of being healed, the wound will remain hidden.