In May 2009, hell was a strip of sand on the north-east coast of Sri Lanka where a surrounding government army was raining shells, bullets and bombs on a cut-off rebel army, the Tamil Tigers, and thousands of trapped civilians. As the end came near, three Tiger leaders tried to save themselves and their families, arranging a surrender in mobile phone calls and text messages involving the government’s foreign secretary in the capital Colombo, Norwegian diplomats, a British journalist and others.
They were told to advance across to government lines in a non-threatening manner, raising their hands, and bearing a white cloth.
Later the next day, government troops found the bodies of Balasingham Nadesan, Seevaratnam Pulidevan and Ramesh, along with those of several family members, lying in the former no-man’s land, riddled with bullets. An unfortunate accident, understandable in the chaos of battle, the government said.
Coming up to three years later, as tourists flock back to Sri Lanka’s beaches, temples and tea country and his government still basks in the glow of ending a 25-year separatist insurgency, the incident is returning to haunt the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Within months of the Tigers stronghold’s fall, Rajapaksa’s military commander, Sarath Fonseka, was contesting the credit for the victory and running against him for the presidency. He gave Colombo newspaper The Sunday Leader a quite different account of the surrender attempt.
On learning about the negotiated surrender, the President’s brother, the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had called the military commander in the sector concerned, the 58th Division’s Brigadier Shavendra Silva, and ordered him not to accept any Tiger leaders trying to surrender. ”They must all be killed,” Gotabaya Rajapaksa was alleged to have said.
Fonseka later backtracked on his interview, saying he’d been quoted out of context, as denials flew around the government. Fonseka lost the election and was hit with charges of corruption, sedition and so on. According to British magazine The Economist, he now sits in a cell wearing shorts, under a portrait of the Boy Scouts founder, Lord Baden-Powell.
Yet his story still has legs. According to reports circulating around Sri Lanka and its diaspora, Washington officials have let it be known to the Sri Lankan government they have intelligence intercepts of the conversation in which Gotabaya Rajapaksa is alleged to have ordered the surrendering Tiger cadres be gunned down.
There is no documentation or attribution to back up the account, and intelligence agencies have rarely, if ever, offered the results of signal intercepts to help war crimes prosecutions.
This is chiefly to avoid alerting future targets to the vulnerability of their communications. But it’s possible the Sri Lankans had become so brazen at this stage of their campaign, even a former career army signals officer such as Gotabaya Rajapaksa, they used open mobile phone networks. In which case there is not much secrecy to protect.
The alleged order would then be perhaps the clearest evidence we’ve had in a recent conflict showing direct command responsibility for a particular war crime.
It is an explosive subject, since Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains the most powerful figure in his brother’s government, commanding a huge army that has not been stood down, the police force, and as if that wasn’t enough, the ministry supervising urban development in the country.
But it’s also a powerful tool for Washington. Over the past month it has been used. The Americans have teamed with India, to pressure President Rajapaksa into applying the recommendations of his own inquiry into the Tamil Tiger conflict.
This was called the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, which gave its findings in November after an 18-month study. Of course it was a whitewash as far as government actions went.
Sri Lanka’s armed forces had given highest priority to protecting civilians, while the Tigers had no respect for human life. Government forces had not deliberately fired into declared ”no-fire zones”. Some allegations of specific abuse needed further investigation. And so on.
That’s unsurprising. Does any victorious side in a conflict indict itself for war crimes?
America and India seem to be focusing more on the commission’s proposals for a post-conflict settlement: withdrawing the army from the Tamil-populated regions; reining in the paramilitaries; building up representative institutions; investigating disappearances and attacks against journalists and human rights activists.
So far, President Rajapaksa has shown little sign of applying them. In a visit last month, India’s External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna, urged him to show more urgency if he didn’t want the issue taken to world forums.
The United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, sent a letter saying the US would join a critical vote against Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Last weekend, Clinton sent two senior officials to Colombo to rub in the warning. While they were there, another ”white-van abduction” occurred: a Tamil businessman who was due to appear in court on Monday to press a case against the government over his earlier illegal detention for two years without charge.
Fear remains part of the Rajapaksa reign. But bullies react to force. Whether the Americans are serious or not about exposing his brother, President Rajapaksa is said to be preparing to announce a pardon for General Fonseka, a timetable for the reconciliation process, and talks with the main Tamil party about a long-shelved political devolution.
For what it’s worth, Canberra has finally snuck in this week behind the Americans, calling on Sri Lanka to apply its own inquiry’s findings and ”investigate all allegations of crimes committed by both sides”.
This drew praise for the Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, from Sri Lanka’s high commissioner, who had been naval chief during the 2009 fighting. He was relieved Rudd, vocal on Libya and Syria, was not calling for an international inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka.
As ever on human rights, boldness increases with distance, and we have boat people to worry about.
(Hamish Mcdonald is the Asia-Pacific Editor,of “Sydney Morning Herald”where this opinion piece appears)