Sri Lanka Brief



Even as Sri Lankans cry foul and engage in a finger-pointing, tongue wagging, mud-slinging exercise against UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, none of us, and that includes the entire local and foreign media in Sri Lanka were present in the hinterlands of the Wanni or anywhere near the Nandikadal lagoon as the war drew to its bloody close in May 2009. 

We can more than understand the emotions that bedevil Mahinda Rajapaksa following the advisory report on possible war crimes in Sri Lanka which was handed over to the UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon. But we must at this juncture point out a few salient facts to Sri Lanka’s moonstruck public – poised to raise a show of hands when ordered to do — all in the name of patriotism.

Let us be more explicit.

Even as Sri Lankans cry foul and engage in a finger-pointing, tongue wagging, mud-slinging exercise against UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, none of us, and that includes the entire local and foreign media in Sri Lanka were present in the hinterlands of the Wanni or anywhere near the Nandikadal lagoon as the war drew to its bloody close in May 2009.

The government controlled war, which on a daily basis dished out carefully skewered monologues courtesy of a ‘military spokesman’ successfully barred journalists and any independent or foreign observers from being present in or around the theatre of war.
Therefore, what exactly happened during the last days of the battle, none of us know. Which is why, it is now a subject of fierce debate.

The government is on record saying the LTTE used civilians as human shields, while the Tamil diaspora says thousands of Tamil civilians were killed as a result of indiscriminate shelling by the armed forces.

In this context the advisory report to Ban Ki-Moon, which finds the allegations against both sides having committed serious violations of humanitarian law as being credible, can indeed be faulted.
It was intended by the government that nobody should see what was going on and any journalist working on the ground in Sri Lanka understood that nobody could get near the frontlines.  Both foreign and local journalists did not have access. That included the staff of the UN apart from a couple of members of Tamil staff. It was a silent war.

The UN was entirely dependent for its information on people who were on the ground, who had some affinity with what was happening.

This was a result of the government having ordered the UN in 2008 to vacate areas in which the LTTE were operating.

The current report in fact draws attention to this very salient point reiterating if the UN had made public its use of casualty figures it had at the time, it could have strengthened its call for the protection of civilians while those events in the Wanni were unfolding.

“I was certainly part of that UN structure and I bear my portion of the responsibility and blame,” former UN Spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss, told Britain’s Channel 4 News in an interview last week.
Yes indeed. Gordon Weiss should have taken whatever casualty figures he had at the time and used those figures as leverage to stop what the UN is now claiming was a full frontal assault on unarmed civilians by government and rebel forces.

We can be certain there will never be any kind of judicial inquiry coming from within Sri Lanka to account for those tens of thousands killed.  So if it is justice we are looking for that can only come from an international inquiry.  Unless and until the truth is established reconciliation in this country may prove impossible.

But why there has been no international outcry up to now is also a moot point.  Perhaps, because Sri Lanka is not an oil producing country.  Sri Lanka is just another country. She slipped through the cracks in a particular geo political moment in time when Barack Obama was sworn into office in the US and China was on the ascendency. China was effectively able to protect Sri Lanka inside the Security Council but India too has to bear their proportion of the blame for they protected Sri Lanka in other forms such as at the UN Human Rights Council which failed to make any move to arrest Sri Lanka’s full on assault.

But now there is a report. The sheer strength of this report is clearly designed to prevent any of the great
powers from ignoring what happened in Sri Lanka.

This panel report has reversed the tide. And it is very likely a war crimes investigation on Sri Lanka will take place.

China may have bunkering rights in Sri Lanka but the records show China is increasingly conscious of her role and reputation as a great power. It gave way in Libya and eventually in Sudan.  With the types of allegations coming out now of tens of thousands of civilians dead,  it would be difficult for China as a responsible member of the UN community to ignore these deaths and block any actions by the UN Security Council.
Culpability rests on a fairly narrow range of senior leaders in Sri Lanka.  A lot of those people are on record for their actions and statements during the war and for their attempts to obscure what was going on.  Any inquiry will narrow around the Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka who were responsible for driving and steering and making the decisions over this offensive.

But there are more questions that beg answers. When it comes to the UN who is to blame? There has to be an inquiry into what went wrong.  How did the UN fail in Sri Lanka?  These are questions for the UN to grapple with.

We have our own. Has peace brought happiness to Sri Lanka?

Since the bloody 30 year war ended in a shoot-out in a remote mangrove in the North we in Colombo have been enjoying a semblance of peace.

But we are yet to witness strong institutions which would boost Sri Lanka’s democracy. Good discipline, accountability and freedom to voice alternative views are sadly lacking at all levels for peace to grow.  Discipline and accountability should be part and parcel of the laws of this country.  Unfortunately, we have a situation where the law of this country is still arbitrarily invoked and applied by individuals or authorities.
Mahinda Rajapaksa should take note and ensure that good governance is the requirement for a stable and peaceful future. Peace in this country is certainly not going to last or grow based on a military victory.

However, it is not just the Rajapaksas who appear to be walking around with wool over their eyes.
As we have said before in these pages, we Sri Lankans are absolute suckers. Our “elected” leaders are robbing us right in front of our eyes and all we do is complain at the dinner table. We must be the only people who “elect” leaders and allow them (or is it beg them?) to treat us like their slaves. His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa and his clan to Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his incompetent hangers-on  are all living off us. Snollygosters – the lot of them. While our quality of life is diminishing daily, theirs is improving by the hour. And all we do is keep “electing” them over and over and over. No wonder they treat us like dirt.

The war is over, the enemy vanquished – exterminated, one might say – the island reunited for the first time in a generation. Why is almost everybody across the board still afraid to speak out or be identified as having done so publicly?  When one of the most senior editors in this country requests anonymity on a matter of press freedom it surely brings to the fore that the war maybe over but we have created another monster much more dangerous and destructive for our country.  And that monster is feared by one and all. Specially, Sri Lanka’s journalistic fraternity – who please don’t forget have paid a heavy price under this regime. This government has literally got away with murder.  Ten journalists have been murdered over the last decade for their coverage of war, human rights, politics, military affairs, and corruption. Not a single conviction has been obtained in any of the cases.

Days after the war ended, declaring a new age of peace, President Mahinda Rajapaksa  sounded almost Churchillian. “This is our country,” he told parliament in May 2009. “This is our motherland. We should live in this country as children of one mother. No differences of race, caste and religion should prevail here… All the people of this country should live in safety without fear and suspicion… Let us all get together and build up this nation.”

But nearly two years on, the shadow of fear still won’t go away.

What makes the Rajapaksa regime especially sick is that sovereignty is being used to deprive the people of this country their basic democratic rights and yet establish a one family dictatorship, at any cost.
Although peace returned to Sri Lanka nearly two years ago – it has not so far been the bright new dawn one might have imagined.

True, tourist numbers have soared – but the tourists never went away altogether. Sri Lanka was always too beautiful and too much of a bargain to be snubbed. A lively civil war is normally the kiss of death to tourism, but the island’s loyal following worked out early on that all the fighting was going on far away, in the east and in the north, which is mostly scrubby and flat. That left the most gorgeous parts – the central and southern highlands, the tea country, the southern and south-eastern beaches –  free of trouble to enjoy.

But fear runs silent over this island nation.  Like the fear of silent blood – it stalks the floor of this nation growing on a like by like basis – afraid to take the unconventional approach and meet its tormentor head on.
There’s the prominent businessman who got a dinner invitation from one of the Rajapaksa clan: “The President has a family member in a controlling position in every important institution in the country,” he told me. He didn’t want to accept but didn’t dare refuse.

There is the manager of a hotel who spoke eloquently about how everyone around him told him to shut up and keep his controversial opinions to himself.

Of course we do have the bright but slightly seedy spectacle of those who fraternise Colombo’s hotels, the island’s prosperous fatties shoulder to shoulder with the pink visitors as they tuck into the hotel’s super-size Sunday buffet brunch. And we have the stubborn prospect of fear, well-founded, mortal fear laying siege even to the braver and more thoughtful members of the community. Neither of these faces of the island is new; but the persistence of fear, as peace sinks its roots in Sri Lanka, is disquieting.

The question: Where is President Rajapaksa planning to take a Sri Lanka that ended a bloody civil war?  How will he reconcile with the truth?


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