The UN says over 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed during the last stages of the 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka. NGOs put the figure at over a lakh and fifty thousand. The UN also says that the Sri Lankan military committed war crimes. But the Lankan government is in denial with defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa saying, “The figures you are quoting are too high.”
However, eyewitness accounts refute the Sri Lankan war hero. “Sri Lanka has not taken credible steps to investigate war crimes charges internally. Not a single army or government official has been investigated in the two years since the war ended,” says an eyewitness.
Sri Lanka says it will not allow any outside or international agency to investigate war crime charges. “We are a sovereign country,” says Gotabaya.
However, there are reason why it is important for a neutral body to get onto the island and to the bottom of what could be terrible truths.
International agencies and journalists were not allowed anywhere near the war zone when the worst war crimes were said to have been committed. Most evidences of war crimes against the Sri Lankan army have come through mobile phone videos shot as “war trophies” by Sri Lankan soldiers. Some of these were filmed by the media wing of the LTTE and Tamil civilians during the last stages of the war and sent to news agencies across the world.
Most video evidences, like a famous clip of execution-style killings allegedly by Sri Lankan soldiers, have been authenticated by independent forensics experts. The dead combatants have been identified as LTTE fighters or Tamil civilians by their relatives.
While images indicate that thousands of people probably died during the last stages of the war, the Sri Lankan government denies this charge.
“It is not true to say that there were deliberate killingsâ€¦.I am not saying not a single civilian was killed. What I am saying is that the numbers were insignificant. Most of them were killed by LTTE,” says Rajapaksa.
Says a victim, “I saw at least 3000 Tamil civilians killed in shelling and air bombardments on May 13. I lost my daughters and husband.”
Did Sri Lanka take good care of its Tamil war displaced?
“We are Sri Lankans and we are the best people to take care of our citizens,” says Rajapaksa.
A Sri Lankan Tamil government doctor, who worked at forward hospitals and IDP camps till late 2009, says seriously wounded Tamil civilians were denied medicines, medical facilities and left to die by the hundreds. He has since moved to Europe.
Former LTTE leader Kumaran Padmanathan, who has now changed allegiances and is guided by army minders, says the war-ravaged people still suffer.
To a question if the Sri Lankan armed forces sexually assaulted Tamil civilians and captured female combatants, Rajapaksa said, “There was no sexual assault.”
However, a victim says, “I was rapedâ€¦”
“Every time we woke up in the camp, four-five women were missing. We never knew what happened to them,” said another victim.
Yet another victim said, “I was sexually harassed every time for food, sanitary napkins and clothes.”
“Male soldiers would take pictures of us bathing on their mobile phones. We were forced to take bath in the open,” said another.
Headlines Today reporter met families of former Tamil Tigers on the island, who said they surrendered to the Sri Lankan army along with their rebel brethren. But they have not heard from them since being separated after the surrender.
Images shot with a mobile phone by a Sri Lankan soldier show a senior LTTE commander Col. Ramesh being interrogated by the Lankan army, presumably after his capture. No one knows were Col Ramesh is right now.
NGOs talk about hundreds of missing combatants who surrendered – something the government denies.
A woman lost most of her family during the last stages of war. She was interred in a camp for about two years in sub-human conditions and has now been officially rehabilitated in the Vanni region. This is what she now has: A shelled-out house with no drinking water for miles, no electricity, no roads, no job, no dole, in an area which still has land mines and the scars of destruction. She says she will be killed if intelligence agencies learn her identity.
On being asked if the Sri Lankan government is changing the ethnic profile of the north, Rajapaksa said, “We do not ask Sinhalas to go and settle in the north, but if some Sinhala people want to go and settle, they are free to go.”
Will the government demilitarize the Tamil areas? “No. We will keep them as long as it takes,” he says.
Amid question as to whether the government allows the media to report without fear, civil society groups were protesting the attack on a Tamil journalist and editor of Uthayan newspaper, Gnananasundaram Kuhanathan in Jaffna.
Uthayan is known for its stridently independent views and has been critical of the government. Its journalists have been attacked several times in the past and its office has been attacked and it has been denied news print by the government. Kuhanathan’s colleagues say he was deliberately targeted by the government.
The Tamil National alliance, the largest grouping of Tamil political parties, has had 10 rounds of talks with the government to evolve a formula for devolution. Their leader R. Sampanthan is frustrated at the government’s reluctance to yield even an inch. “People are angry,” he says. Gotabaya says, “There will be no further devolution.”
Truth, expectedly, is the biggest casualty in the 30-year conflict in Sri Lanka. Over two years after the end of the war, many questions still have no answers. Only a neutral international investigation can pave the way for honest conciliation on the island nation.
But given that Russia, China and India have thrown their weight behind the current dispensation in Sri Lanka, there is little hope that the truth behind the horrors, war crimes and continued denial of rights to a large section of the Tamil minority will ever be known.