Category Archives: Sri Lanka

Three years on, Sri Lanka still bleeds

A MONTH and two weeks from now, it will be three years since Sri Lanka won its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, effectively ending the campaign for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka.

But there has been no movement on achieving a political solution to put the minority Tamils at ease. Instead, the triumphalism that has pervaded the country has seen the government act in a manner that can only serve to remind the Tamils that during the days when the Tigers were in the ascendant they were at least not marginalised in the way they are right now.

The Tigers had ensured that the north of the country was more or less completely occupied by Tamils. Now, the army is everywhere in the north and Sinhalese people are being resettled in large numbers to change the population mix. And, to rub it in, there are signs in many places that are only in Sinhala, a language that Tamils, cut off from the rest of the country for decades, cannot even speak.

The government was under pressure to institute an inquiry when allegations of war crimes by both sides began to surface after the conflict ended. It launched its own inquiry, called Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, with hearings all over the country. An eminent panel of jurists and academics was chosen to head the body.

The LLRC’s report was released in December last year. While it fell short of being comprehensive in many respects, it did make some recommendations that were sensible – the launching of an independent inquiry to find out how many civilians lost their lives, making restitution to those who suffered, and healing the wounds that have been created over the decades of ethnic strife.

The Sri Lanka government’s reaction has been surprising. It has asked the army to find out about civilians who fell victim during the conflict; the perpetrator of many of the deaths is thus investigating itself. Many of the top army brass have been promoted as ambassadors and now enjoy immunity from prosecution so that makes it very difficult to hold any of them responsible.

In the meantime, the Sri Lanka government has not eased up in any way on the restrictions on the media in the country. It has tightened things considerably by passing a law that all reporting on security matters should be passed through an official censor. And the abduction of people who are known to be opposed to government policies continues apace.

As one commentator put it, it is inconceivable that security forces which could bring an end to a highly organised and motivated group like the Tigers cannot track down any of those who have been abducted or find out who is behind the continuing episodes where white vans turn up and take people away.

Last month the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution asking Sri Lanka to conduct an independent inquiry into the war. Pushed by the US, Britain and Canada – each for its own reasons which I will explain – and backed by India – again for its own separate reason, on which I will elaborate – the resolution embarrassed the Sri Lankans no end as they had put in considerable diplomatic efforts to scuttle the resolution. It is doubtful, however, whether it will serve to push Sri Lanka any more than it has done.

The US is interested in Sri Lanka because China has a big foot planted in the tiny island. The US tried for many years to get a base in Trincomalee but failed; it would have been ideal as a spying post for the entire south Asian region. The Americans are now worried about the extent to which China has made inroads into Sri Lanka and the little island is just one more spot where the fading super power and China match wits.

Britain and Canada have big Tamil populations in certain areas and this issue plays directly into local politics. Else, neither country would give a stuff. Additionally, in Britain, there have been two excellent investigative programs from Channel 4 which provided stark proof of the extent of war crimes by the Sri Lanka government. The media pressure on the British government to do something has been intense.

India is the big power in the south Asian region. But in the case of Sri Lanka, it voted for the resolution against its neighbour because Colombo had broken a promise. During the dying days of the war, the main Tamil leaders had managed to contact US and other Western diplomats and there was considerable pressure on Colombo to allow them to escape. Sri Lanka was wavering when a boat was even sent to the northern area to evacuate them. But India was not about to forget that the Tiger leader Velupillai Pirabhakaran was responsible for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi back in 1991; the Indian naval vessel monitoring the situation from international waters moved a little closer to the area when news of the proposal for the evacuation came through. In effect, India challenged the US to act. The US did not dare to do anything.

The Sri Lanka government was happy about India’s reaction and as a quid pro quo agreed to get serious on devolving power after the conflict was over. It then went ahead with plans to kill all the Tiger leaders. But it never bothered about keeping its word. Having seen no sign of a move in this direction and, increasingly facing calls from its own Tamils for intervention, India had no option but to act against Sri Lanka when it came to voting on the resolution.

The Sri Lanka imbroglio will not sort itself out. The president needs to make some meaningful moves to resolve things politically. Else, to use a cliche, while he did manage to win the war, he will end up losing the peace.

Journalism of the very best kind

CHANNEL 4 has done journalism proud, with a follow-up to its documentary on the war in Sri Lanka. Last year, in June, the television network screened a documentary titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields which provided powerful evidence of war crimes by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers during the civil war which ended in May 2009.

The follow-up, titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, screened on the night of March 14 in London; it is available on YouTube and is a powerful reminder that in a day and age when journalism is often referred to as a dying profession, good investigative reports are worth more than their weight in gold.

The documentary presents four cases of killing, all of which graphically point to planning and execution at the highest level of government. One case is that of the 12-year-old son of Tiger supremo Velupilla Pirapaharan who was executed after being questioned.

The fact that so much footage continues to emerge is a clear indication that many of the soldiers who took part in the war had reservations about what they were asked to do. The footage could only have been taken by soldiers, nobody would have been able to approach the areas in question.

There is some footage taken by Tamil sources, including the media unit of the Tigers, but the main evidence of targeted and planned killings could only have come from inside the army.

There is no over-dramatisation; presenter Jon Snow is sober throughout. The footage that Channel 4 obtained speaks for himself and the Sri Lankan government will be hard put to deny these charges.

The program has gone to air just as the US is getting ready to bring a resolution before the UN human rights council, which is meeting in Geneva, urging Sri Lanka to investigate the allegations of war crimes and seek reconciliation.

Time for Australia to blood new cricketers

NEXT week, the Australian international cricket season kicks off with the first Test against New Zealand. The Kiwis will play two Tests and then India will play four more, beginning in December. Next year, Australia, India and Sri Lanka will play a triangular limited overs tournament.

Australia is in the midst of a transition but it remains to be seen to what extent the new set of selectors are prepared to experiment. Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey are both well into their 30s and not exactly setting the Nullarbor on fire when they go out to bat. Mitchell Johnson has been erratic to put it mildly, with more downsides than upsides. And Brad Haddin has shown an inclination to throw his wicket away at the worst of times. His keeping is pretty poor too.

There are adequate replacement waiting in the wings. One of the very first fast-bowling options tried out, Patrick Cummins, has shown that he can serve as the fulcrum of a good pace attack. There are others like James Pattinson who can be blooded.

The two Tests against New Zealand could well be used to try out some of the aspiring players. The Kiwis are not that strong an outfit and Australia can be reasonably confident of winning both Tests, even if they blood a few new players.

Ponting is not the best batsman in the side any more; Clarke is clearly much better. Usman Khawaja needs to get more time out in the middle if he is to become a regular member of the team and Shane Watson needs to move down the order. The selectors should not be afraid to tap Ponting and Hussey on their shoulders and tell them it is time to go.

Whenever talk of Ponting retiring comes up, he always points to Sachin Tendulkar and says he can do something similar; the Indian has shown no dropoff in scoring, even though he is a year older than Ponting. But Ponting has been going through a drought for the last 18 months and it shows no sign of going away.

With the bowlers, too, there needs to be some firm talk from the selectors. Johnson should be dropped and others tried out. One of the revelations about Cummins is that he seems to have a great deal of intelligence and uses it when bowling; he just does not go out and bang it down the wicket. Peter Siddle does not use his brains when he bowls – at best, he is an honest trier. One should look to the example of Dennis Lillee and the late Malcolm Marshall, who always bowled well within themselves but always got results. Both used their brains when they were out in the middle.

Back in 1999, the West Indies were bowled out for 51 in a Test against Australia in the Caribbean. But the next two Tests were a remarkable turnaround, engineered in the main by one Brian Lara. That was taken by the Windies to mean that change was not needed and that the existing team was good enough to keep soldiering on. Twelve years on, the West Indies are still to win a Test series against decent opposition.

Australia can allow itself to be lulled into a similar state of complacency. The team was bowled out for 47 in South Africa recently but won the next Test with a strong showing. The latter result should not be taken to indicate that the 47 all out was a minor aberration; on the contrary, it was a warning that there is something wrong with the team that needs to be fixed, and fast.

There are good times to make changes in cricket teams, and bad times too. If the selectors are bold enough to make changes for the Tests against New Zealand, it will serve Australia well in the long run. If they opt to wait until desperate times arrive to make changes, then Australia’s goal of trying to climb up the ladder of international cricket will remain just that: a goal.

Sri Lanka is losing the propaganda battle over war crimes

WHEN a sovereign nation has to respond to charges made in a TV documentary that screens in just a few countries, no matter how serious those charges are, then it has well and truly lost the battle to convince people that it is in the right.

Sri Lanka finds itself in this position after having, rather foolishly, decided to respond to a documentary made by Britain’s Channel 4 about alleged war crimes committed during the war against the Tamil Tiger separatist movement that ended in May 2009. (The programme is also available on YouTube; just search for “Sri Lanka killing fields”.)

The Lankan bid to refute the claims came a few days after Channel 4 broadcast even more evidence of Colombo’s complicity in war crimes – evidence given by two unnamed soldiers who went to the extent of claiming that the orders to kill Tamils en masse in order to get the war over with came from the country’s defence secretary, Gotabaya Rakapakse.

That Sri Lanka found it necessary to respond with an hour-long video is, in itself, evidence of the fact that the government is disquieted by the Channel 4 allegations made on June 14, in the programme titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. But Colombo’s effort at propaganda is rather tame, to say the least.

First, the government video is narrated by Minoli Ratnayake, a good-looking Sri Lankan woman with a British accent, a clear sign of the cultural cringe from which Sri Lanka apparently still suffers, 63 years after gaining independence from Britain. Someone with a Sri Lankan accent would have been far more credible. And when a pretty woman, nicely dolled up, with her head tilted to one side in what is a markedly patronising manner, is chosen to be the face of a programme when she has no experience as a news presenter, it is a clear fact that the people who put here there are trying to use her as a prop, to get past the initial resistance that any sane individual has to government propaganda. Channel 4′s Jon Snow will not win any beauty contests, but he has tremendous credibility as a newsman.

There are lots of irregularities in the government video. First, to numbers of Tamil civilians killed. The Channel 4 video made a claim that as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were slaughtered in the final days of the war. Gordon Weiss, the former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, was used as a source. In the government documentary, a figure of 305,000 is cited as being the official number of people in the war zone, the Vanni area, in January 2009. From that, by deducting in dribs and drabs, Ratnayake concludes that only a few thousand were killed. But tellingly, she quietly reduces that 305,000 to 300,000 before beginning her mental pyrotechnics.

The figure of 305,000 itself is dubious. Giving evidence before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, a body set up by the government to supposedly investigate the goings-on during the war, Bishop Rayappu Joseph of the Mannar Catholic Diocese, said there were 429,059 people in the Vanni area as of October 2008. His source was the Kaccheri Office (the government collector or district office). And given this, that figure of 40,000 which Weiss put to Channel 4 looks rather small – the number unaccounted for is well over 100,000.

Ratnayake claims that Weiss had every reason to take part in the Channel 4 programme and spruik his views as he was trying to promote an upcoming book – that, according to the government, is why he participated in the Channel 4 programme. Nonsense. The Channel 4 programme was screened on June 14; I had a copy of Weiss’ book, The Cage, in hand by May 26. As I live in Australia and bought the book from the UK (cheaper by far), I had to place my order about two weeks prior to that date. Promote an upcoming book? Hardly. By the time Channel 4 went to air, Weiss was sitting on a best-seller and he was called in to comment as a result of the book, not the other way round.

The government documentary also claims that a protest by Tamils at the UN office in Kilinochchi, begging the international agency not to leave the war zone, was stage-managed by Tamil Tiger militants who told the people in the area to protest. Channel 4 says this was something which the people did on their own. It is difficult to believe the government claim because it is bolstered by a Tamil from the area – any Tamil who was asked to speak and refused would have been well aware that not taking part would probably have resulted in disappearing in a white van some evening and being never heard of again. Too many people have disappeared in this manner in Sri Lanka ever since Mahinda Rajapakse came to power in 2005.

Ratnayake also tries to cast doubt on the bonafides of Vany Kumar, one of the people whom Channel 4 featured in the programme. According to Channel 4, Kumar is a London-based Tamil, a medical technician, who happened to be in Sri Lanka and got caught up in the conflict. According to the government, she was a member of a front organisation for the Tamil Tigers and landed in Sri Lanka at the beginning of 2008.

The government documentary parades a number of Tamils to speak in its favour – and in such glowing terms that it all looks like stuff made up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. One of these Tamils talks about Kumar being the head of the Tamil Youth Organisation women’s wing in the UK; here, it is a case of claim and counter-claim.

The rest of the documentary is taken up by telling the viewer about how vile the late leader of the Tigers, Velupillai Pirapaharan, was (true, he was a nasty piece of work) and dragging a number of ex-Tiger cadres before the camera to testify as to how good the government has been to them after the war. It all looks far too stage-managed to have any credibility. Sri Lanka’s government under Mahinda Rajapakse has a reputation for muzzling the press and even murdering journalists; given this, one has to take everything said by these Tamils with a kilo of salt.

What is clear is that, as the UN report into the war (PDF, 9.2 MB) claimed, both sides, the Sri Lankan military and the Tigers, were responsible for some outrageous atrocities. It is time for both sides to admit the truth and take their medicine.

Evidence of war crimes in Sri Lanka

BRITAIN’S Channel 4 television screened a remarkable programme on Tuesday, the 14th of June, one that nobody would expect to see in a Western country.

Graphic evidence of war crimes by the Sri Lankan military and the militant group, the Tamil Tigers, during the war that led to the elimination of the Tigers in 2008-09, was screened from 11.05pm in a programme titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. (The programme is also available on YouTube; just search for “Sri Lanka killing fields”.)

The programme is not for the squeamish or those who cannot bear to see what actually happens in a war. This was a war fought between sides which were not equal – as the programme shows the military had heavy hardware and was prepared to use it. All Tamils were treated as terrorists and they were fair game. Indeed, the military gathered them together in so-called no-fire zones and then killed them.

Hospitals were shelled despite the fact that their coordinates had been provided to both sides of the conflict by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Children, old women, the feeble, the sick, pregnant women, aged men – they all served as cannon fodder for the bloodthirsty Sri Lankan military.

The government had given the military carte blanche as far as the war was concerned; they did not have go fight with one arm tied behind them. This led, in the end, to soldiers killing civilians in cold blood and collecting video footage as grotesque war souvenirs. Women were raped and then killed. Half-dead corpses were thrown around like sacks of potatoes.

The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon visited some of the government camps where those Tamil civilians who survived were interned. He stayed a few minutes and then moved on. In April, the UN produced a damning report wherein it cited plenty of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both the government and the Tigers. Ban Ki-moon has refused to act on that report – he says he has no authority to do so. Doubtless, he is also conscious of the fact that with the end of his term looming, his chances of re-election will depend on having China on-side. Beijing has been Sri Lanka’s ally during the war and after; weapons were supplied to Colombo and in return a $2 billion contract to build a port and naval base in the Hambantota district, from where the president, Mahinda Rajapakse hails, went China’s way.

China, of course, is not the only country to help Sri Lanka in this manner. Israel supplied Kfir fighter jets and India provided intelligence to help Colombo destroy Tiger re-supply craft which were being used to replenish the militants’ weapons stocks. In their time of need, the Tigers found no country willing to help.

Now it remains to be seen whether there will be any action by the so-called international community. My guess is that nothing will happen. The US has shown no interest in speaking out about the atrocities and if it stays silent, every other country will hold its peace.

But unless justice is seen to be done, the situation will continue to simmer. Tamils will leave Sri Lanka in increasing numbers but there will be anger and hurt in the community which will resurface some time or the other. By going after the Tigers and ending the 26-year insurrection, the Sri Lankan government has, metaphorically speaking, sown the wind. They may well end up reaping the whirlwind.

The tragedy of Sri Lanka

AS THE Sri Lankan government twists and turns and manouevres in order to try and prevent a war crimes investigation being ordered by the United Nations into its conduct during the war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009, the first definitive account of the conflict has emerged.

Former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss, has written a book titled The Cage which gives a detailed and powerful account of the tragedy as it unfolded.

Weiss had to tread a difficult path as he wrote the book; given the oath that he took as an UN employee, he was unable to divulge any material that came to him in that capacity. Despite this very difficult obstacle in his path, he has done an extremely credible job in tracing the history of Sri Lanka that has a bearing on the country’s current position.

The Tamil Tigers, formed in the early 1970s, became the most powerful of the groups fighting for a separate state for their people and were known for the reign of terror that they imposed. They killed anyone standing in their way and massacred both Sinhalese and Muslims to enforce their writ. They were also not loath to kill their own people, if those people happened to be standing in the way of their supreme leader, Velupillai Pirapaharan and his ruthless ambitions.

The Tigers made a number of miscalculations. They reasoned that no state would resort to the type of bloodthirsty and ruthless tactics they employed, no government would indulge in the kind of indiscriminate killing that they carried out. The Tigers forgot that the state had twice put down rebellions, by Sinhalese youth in the shape of the Janata Vimukti Peramuna, in 1971 and again in 1989, in a singularly, bloody-minded manner, killing all and sundry and in a pretty gory manner too.

The Tigers also thought that India would act as a bulwark if things became really bad – after all, the main powerbroker in the Indian Ocean had broken a siege of the Tamils in the 1980s, at a stage when the Sri Lankan army had them cornered. India, of course, has a Tamil population to which it has to cater, given that the main Tamil party in India is in coalition with the ruling party at the federal level. And finally, the Tigers failed to realise that in the post-2001 world, countries are less inclined to regard breakaway groups as romantically as they did in the past.

Sri Lanka ensured that India would not act as an obstacle this time by bringing China into the picture very cleverly. The Sri Lankans first asked India if it would be interested in constructing a port in the southern Hambantota area; when India declined, realising that it might be obligated to Sri Lanka if it accepted, the Sri Lankans asked the Chinese who gratefully accepted. The contract was then expanded to include a naval base; when Sri Lanka went to China to seek weapons and influence at the UN level for its pursuit of the Tigers, Beijing was only too happy to oblige.

When India realised that China was cutting in on its normal sphere of influence, it agreed to provide Sri Lanka with intelligence that led to the destruction of many of the Tiger arms re-supply craft, thus depriving the Tigers of fresh stocks of arms. By doing this, the Indians once again hoped to get back into Sri Lanka’s good books.

In 2002, the Sri Lankan government had signed a ceasefire with the Tigers; at that point, the Tamil group controlled something less than the one-third of the island which was its maximalist demand for its own state. At this point, Pirapaharan could well have bargained and got at least two-thirds of what he had set down as his ambit claim. But he refused to budge and in 2003 announced that the Tigers were withdrawing from the ceasefire.

In 2005, the current president, Mahinda Rajapakse, came to power. A year later, having put his brother, Gotabaya, in charge of defence, the war began to eliminate the Tigers. Gotabaya was promised that political considerations would not interfere with this goal; in the 1980s, when India made food drops to the besieged Tamils, Gotabaya was a member of the armed forces and that memory remained with him.

The Rajapakses kept to their word. They massacred the Tigers and shot a number of leaders of the movement in cold blood as they were trying to surrender. They did not mind if there was collateral damage in the form of about 40,000 civilians killed by both sides. They had a goal and they were as bloodthirsty as Pirapaharan in their determination to achieve it, come hell or high water. They had a regular well-paid army which was not asked to fight with one arm tied behind; the Tigers did not have the number of troops to match as several of their hardened fighters had left the movement in 2002, confident that the struggle was over.

While the low-level war began in 2006, the government only formally abrogated the ceasefire in 2008. By May 19 the following year, it was able to declare victory and show Pirapaharan’s body on television. His twisted dream had come to an end, a lesson to all those fighting for separate states that one needs to compromise in order to achieve at least a part of one’s objectives.

Sri Lanka: reconciliation will come only after probe into war crimes allegations

TWO years after its war against the Tamil Tigers ended, the government of Sri Lanka is trying desperately to avoid an UN investigation being launched into alleged war crimes during the fighting.

The government is now making the rounds of various countries, trying to bolster support for its position, and has first gone to India, the power-broker in the region. But there is a damning UN report (PDF, 9.2 MB) which clearly indicates that civilians were killed in cold blood during the war which ended an insurrection that ran for nearly 30 years.

There are videos on the internet, including a couple that have been broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 TV channel, of Tamil civilians being blindfolded and shot in the back of the head by uniformed Sri Lankan troops. An army official and a soldier have both told the channel of how the policy during the war was to shoot to kill, not to bother about taking prisoners. And these orders came right from the top, which means the president, Mahinda Rajapakse.

Rajapakse ‘s brother, Gotabaya, implemented these decisions as he is the defence minister. As someone who holds joint US and Sri Lankan citizenship, he is more likely than others to face a a probe for involvement in war crimes. It all depends on which lobby wins out – the government or the supporters of the Tamils.

Sri Lanka is not a signatory to many UN conventions and hence is not bound to carry out a probe despite the damning report. However, the secretary-general can force the country to accept an investigation if he so decides. But like the heads of the UN in the past, Ban Ki-moon has never shown firmness in dealing with anything. A great deal thus depends on countries which still place some value on human rights.

Former UN official Gordon Weiss has written a book about the war which is due to be available in the next day or two. This would be the first authoritative account of the conflict to see the light of day – all that has aired by both sides in the conflict has been propaganda.

There are tens of thousands of Tamils still held in camps in Sri Lanka; the government’s stance is that it wants to weed out the guerrillas among them and the release the rest. But two years on, this excuse is beginning to wear a little thin.

Trying to convince the world that it is aiming at reconciliation at this stage is unlikely to work – unless there are powerful sponsors. It looks like India is attempting to play the sponsor, judging by the sentiments reportedly express by Indian officials to the Sri Lankan foreign minister G. L. Peiris. India is, of course, aware that if it took the high road on human rights, then there would be umpteen calls for investigations into the savagery wrought by Indian troops in Jammu and Kashmir.

By the end of this year, if no UN probe is begun, one more government would have killed its own citizens in cold blood and got away scot-free. The most dangerous thing about this whole episode is that other countries, like the Philippines, which are plagued by internal unrest due to militant groups fighting for legitimate rights, are beginning to talk of the Sri Lankan method as the model.