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Final phase of Lankan war merits investigation: Gordon Weiss

The political evolution of China and India and the movements in the UN Human Rights Council offer some scope for a possible international investigation into the alleged civilian deaths during the 2009 siege in Sri Lanka, says Gordon Weiss, author of The Cage, that vividly documented the final days of the defeat of LTTE and the suffering of Tamil civilians.

“I think the ground clearly exists for any basis of fairness, and equivalence with other similar international situations that there should be an international investigation.” However, it will be foolish for anybody to bet precisely on what’s going to happen in the next six months or a year or two years,” he said in an exclusive interview with Firstpost.

Weiss added that he stood by the accounts of civilian suffering and casualties that he described in the book, and said that the great story of the conquest of a terrorist organisation without bloodshed and the greatest refugee operation in history has been thrown out of the window.

It’s very clear to most people, who were saying a year and half ago that nothing was going to happen without India or China saying so, that those positions are subject to political evolutions. India has been explicit in some sense that there ought to be real progress from Sri Lanka in examining what happened.

Weiss said he believed that there was scope for an international investigation into the final phase of the Lankan war: Firstpost

There is a lot of evolution around China as well. China expects to be recognised as a statesmanlike global player and a part of that statesmanship is its role and function in international hotspots. We have seen this evolution in its position in the Arab Spring. China has shown considerable signs that its position of non-interference is not monolithic. “It will have a knock-on effect on Sri Lanka as well,” the author, who was the chief spokesperson for the UN in Sri Lanka during the final phase of the war, said.

With regards to the UN Human Rights Council, Weiss said the movement between players, which also depends on domestic developments, changes all the time. He said when he left Sri Lanka in 2009, he thought any international enquiry would take at least five to ten years. Even while holding on to that position, he said he was surprised to see how swiftly certain things such as the Channel 4 documentary happened.

On reconciliation and reconstruction, he said he doesn’t expect things to change in the short to medium time. “My prognosis for Tamils is a gloomy one,” he said. A great deal has happened both in terms of the security situation and economic colonisation of the North which will make the movement between the Tamils and Sinahlese more difficult. While admitting that verifying subtle changes in land holdings, establishment of businesses, influence of economic life and control of public services in the Tamil areas is very difficult, as in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, he feels that ‘Sinhalisation’ is going on and that would make it very difficult for Tamils to have any increased political leverage in the short term.

The silver lining, however, is the detectable acceptance amongst a broader segment of the thinking Sinhalese, that the government version of what happened in the war zone was not accurate. There are many who question the cost of the final phase of the war or are at least second guessing it.

“The kind of monolithic narrative of this great conquest of this terrible terrorist organisation with almost no blood spilled as the greatest refugee rescue operation in history has been pretty much thrown out of the window by now,” he said. This at least creates a better basis for whatever form of healing or whatever form of reconciliation that could take place in Sri Lanka. “It is not the ideal basis, but a better basis.”

Weiss said he was satisfied that his book was able to overturn the erroneous notion that only a few civilians had died and that the government was not responsible for any deaths. The process of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a government appointed commission that released its own report on what took place in the final stages of the war, is viewed by most as a mere whitewash.

“I think the LLRC gave the answer themselves when they said they were unable to arrive at any conclusions on some of the most important aspects of the final phase of the war.” These are the aspects over which there are big question marks. “They have never said they are not capable of arriving at any conclusion. They have argued that the evidence has just disappeared. I think a number of outside observers will say that the evidence is there.” He also said that the lack of witness protection will come in the way of any fair investigation.

Weiss said he stood by the civilian suffering and casualties that he described in his book because there was extremely fierce fighting over a very small area where tens of thousands of civilians were confined. He also felt that there was mounting evidence that there were executions, Weiss said referring to the “white flag incident.”

“I think it is pretty obvious that there was wrongdoing in terms of the capture of some senior elements of Tamil tigers and the disposal of those people. However, there is a long way to go before we have sufficient evidence of the full picture of what happened to the civilians in those days.”

G Pramod Kumar

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