Last Sunday evening, something remarkable happened in Colombo. One of the luminaries of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese political elite broke ranks and presented to an invited audience a bold critique of the failure of the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to resolve the treatment of the island’s Tamil minority.
The dissident in question? None other than Sri Lanka’s former President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga — better known as CBK — who talked of the “shock and horror” experienced by her and her children on watching Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, the searing documentary screened recently by Channel 4.
This is a courageous thing for her to have done. The Rajapaksa regime does not tolerate dissident voices; those who refuse to toe the line are branded traitors. There have been many documented disappearances, abductions and extra-judicial killings.
CBK – daughter of two former Prime Ministers – delivered her landmark speech at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute in Colombo. She is no stranger to violence and bereavemement. Her own husband was assassinated by Marxist extremists in 1988 and her father was shot and killed in 1959.
Neither was she a political leader known for her soft touch with Tamils. It was she, during her 11 years in power, she sanctioned the aerial bombardment of Tamil civilian areas and her government was lambasted over human rights issues. Now though, she is seen by many Tamils as the great political hope within the Sinhalese community.
CBK spoke of her frustrations over what she called “the battle for peace” in her country. She called for Sri Lanka’s to have the humility to admit that they have failed as a nation, to accept their mistakes, make amends and she criticised the, “continued denial of proven facts and abuse of our honest critics will not resolve the problem for anyone.”
At the end of her address, her voice cracked with emotion as she said: “I shall remember till the end of my days the morning when my 28 year-old son called me, sobbing on the phone to say how ashamed he was to call himself as Sinhalese and a Lankan, after he saw on the UK television a 50 minute documentary called Killing Fields of Sri Lanka.”
She said she too had “had the misfortune to watch” the documentary.
“My daughter followed suit,” she continued, “saying similar things and expressing shock and horror that our countrymen could indulge in such horrific acts. I was proud of my son and daughter, proud that they cared for the others, proud that they have grown up to be the man and woman their father and mother wanted them to be.”
British journalist Callum Macrea, who directed Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, described Mrs Kumaratunga’s speech as “brave and honest.”
“The speech serves as a important reminder that the angry and often misleading denunciations of our film should not be taken as the real voice of the Sinhalese community. We know from the response of many Sinhalese people that there is a real desire in both communities to establish the truth and see justice done so reconciliation and real peace can begin.”
Mrs Kumaratunga’s speech follows other politicians who have spoken out about Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. After it was screened in Australia, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described it as, “deeply disturbing” and said: “[The] Human Rights Council can’t simply push this to one side. Action needed.”
When asked about the film at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron told MPs that the Sri Lanka government, “does need to be investigated” and, “lessons need to be learned.”
And in a statement issued after the film aired in the UK, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said he was “shocked by the horrific scenes” in Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, and “if the Sri Lankan government does not respond we will support the international community in revisiting all options available to press the Sri Lankan Government to fulfil its obligations.”
An edited report on Mrs Kumaratunga’s speech is available to be viewed here, on a Colombo-based news website.