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War crimes and denial – ‘Dawn’

by Irfan Husain
ONE of the most disturbing TV documentaries I have seen recently was Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields when it was aired in the UK a fortnight ago. Chronicling the last few days of the murderous civil war against the Tamil Tigers that ended in triumph for government forces two years ago, it is a searing indictment of the methods used in the final phase of the last battle in Mullivaikal.

To recap: after months of largely conventional warfare, the outgunned and outnumbered Tamil Tigers had been pushed into an ever-shrinking corner of a sand spit between a large lagoon and the sea. This area was now surrounded by the closing pincers of the army from two sides, while the navy maintained a tight blockade along the sea. Refusing to surrender, the Tigers drove around 300,000 terrified Tamil civilians before them to use as human shields. Anybody trying to flee was ruthlessly gunned down.
Before the endgame, the Tigers – or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, to give them their full name – had maintained a state within a state in the north and east of the country, collecting taxes, running services, and controlling the Tamils there with an iron hand. Families were forced to hand over a boy each for the cause, and these child soldiers were routinely deployed on dangerous missions, including suicide attacks. The hundreds of thousands of Tamils who had fled to form a thriving diaspora abroad were often blackmailed to donate to a fund that financed the war effort.
All in all, the LTTE, led by Prabahakaran, was probably the deadliest terrorist organisation in the world. It pioneered the use of suicide attacks, killing many politicians, including Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. But despite his efficient killing machine, Prabahakaran was not politically adept: when offered major concessions, including a substantial degree of autonomy, he rejected the peace proposals. Later, he called for a boycott, enforced at gunpoint, just before the presidential election. This ensured victory for the hawkish Mahinda Rajapakse, and sent his opponent, Ranil Wickramesinghe, into political irrelevance, together with his search for a peaceful end to the civil war.
So all in all, the Tamil Tigers were not very nice people. But this neither explains nor condones the brutality displayed by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the final days of the war. The Channel 4 documentary, compiled from footage shot by Tamils trapped in the fighting, as well as sequences filmed on cellphones by Sri Lankan soldiers, shows scenes straight from hell.
A field hospital is shown being shelled again and again while doctors and nurses struggle to save lives under desperate conditions. Children, traumatised by days of intense bombardment, are killed and wounded as they try and flee. Corpses are scattered around on the beach as civilians seek cover. And in the gruesome finale, trophy films recorded on cell phones by audibly laughing soldiers show naked, bound men – presumably captured Tamil Tigers – being made to kneel and shot in the back of their heads. We are also shown women who have been raped and killed.
The film has been met with a chorus of condemnation, and demands for a full international enquiry. Over the years, as stories of excesses committed by the army have filtered out, the international community has called for an impartial investigation into allegations of crimes against humanity. Most recently, a UN report has repeated the charge that both the government and the LTTE committed major human rights abuses.
But the fact is that almost the entire leadership of the Tamil Tigers was wiped out in the final hours of the war, many of them while trying to surrender. So that leaves the Sri Lankan government left to answer the charges against its armed forces. Unsurprisingly, Rajapakse and his spokesmen reject all allegations out of hand, insisting that it will set up a ‘truth and lessons-learnt’ commission to investigate.
According to a WikiLeak, US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis, wrote to the State Department:
“There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigation of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power. In Sri Lanka this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapakse and his brothers and opposition candidate General Fonseka.”
Since this cable was written early last year, General Fonseka, the army chief and war hero, was defeated in the presidential election, and subsequently arrested for corruption. He remains in jail, awaiting trial. That leaves the president and his brother and defence secretary Gotabaya facing the charges of war crimes.
Clearly, as long President Rajapakse is in power, there is no possibility of an impartial enquiry into the last days of the war. But more than the ruling family, most ordinary Sri Lankans from the majority Sinhala community are in denial. Whenever I have mentioned the Channel 4 documentary, or earlier footage that has surfaced, some Sri Lankans have insisted that the films have been doctored.
When I point out that Jon Snow, the presenter of the documentary, is a very respected and experienced journalist, and that Channel 4 would hardly use tainted material, I am told about how the West is out to get Sri Lanka. As a Pakistani, I am very familiar with this paranoid narrative. But when I ask why any foreigner would want to frame Sri Lanka, nobody has a coherent explanation, apart from mumbling about the country’s strategic location along major sea-lanes.
Indeed, Jon Snow did state that Channel 4 had the footage checked by experts, and they confirmed that it had not undergone any tampering. Nobody has yet explained why Channel 4 would be gunning for Sri Lanka’s leaders.
Wars are never pleasant, and throughout history, soldiers have committed terrible atrocities. But civilised nations and disciplined armies do investigate allegations of exceptionally brutal acts. In Pakistan, we never conducted the kind of accountability required by the war crimes committed by our troops in present-day Bangladesh 40 years ago. As a result, most Pakistanis are still in denial. Sri Lanka should not repeat Pakistan’s mistake.


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