THERE IS little doubt that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s war machinery spared neither a bullet nor a thought for civilians trapped in an ever-shrinking area in the final stages of the offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. The United Nations has noted that not only did the Sri Lankan forces disobey all rules of war by deliberately forcing fleeing citizens into areas that were being carpet bombed, their blood-thirsty campaign led to crimes that would even put the warring African militias to shame.
Of the thousands of wartime photos and torture videos that were shot by disgruntled soldiers and sold by opportunistic ones, two stand out. One shows a woman, naked, hands tied, shot in the head even as the soldiers stomp on her breasts and try to poke it with a twig. Shot in May 2009, in Mullivaikkal, the photo is of a female LTTE cadre separated during the screening of civilians after the Lankans wrested control of Mullaitivu in January 2009.
The government not just shelled three no-fire zones (NFZs) where it was encouraging the concentration of civilians but also subjected the victims and survivors to further suffering as hordes fled the incessant pounding. The UN expert panel report says, “Screening of suspected LTTE cadre from civilians was done without transparency or external scrutiny. Some of those who were separated were summarily executed and women may have been raped.” The other is the clinical execution of LTTE chief V Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son Balachandran — shown shot in the chest by Lankan soldiers.
Thousands of such photos have been pored over by the UN expert panel comprising Marzuki Darusman, Steven Ratner and Yasmin Sooka. In the midst of new evidence emerging, the world’s eyes right now are on Geneva where the US has tabled a resolution with reverberations being felt in the Indian Parliament as well.
“India knows what happened to the innocent Tamils. It is high time for India to send a strong message to Sri Lanka,” says CPM leader D Raja. “The Indian government should have taken the initiative in moving the resolution. There should be an impartial international panel to investigate accountability in the atrocities against Tamils.”
The US resolution was placed before the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on 7 March and is expected to be voted on by the council’s 47 member states, including India. The council’s 19th session currently underway in Geneva should see India evaluating the resolution that, “calls on the Sri Lankan government to implement the constructive recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) report and to initiate credible actions for ensuring accountability and reconciliation of all Sri Lankans.” The resolution also “requests the government to give a comprehensive action plan for implementing the LLRC recommendations and address violations of international law.”
The resolution, which is bound to be opposed by Russia, China and India, also “encourages Sri Lanka to submit an implementation report before the UNHRC in the 22nd session to be held in September”.
Although a storm has been whipped up in India with parties such as the DMK, AIADMK, CPM and BJP asking the Indian government to vote for the resolution and isolate Sri Lanka on the issue, South Block mandarins believe that there is too much emphasis being given on the resolution without understanding its implications.
“We have traditionally never backed country specific resolutions at the UN,” said Pranab Mukherjee, the Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha. India realises that the focus is on two words — LLRC and accountability. The resolution merely seeks to reiterate what Sri Lanka is already doing; asking Colombo to fix “accountability” through the LLRC. The eight-member LLRC appointed by Rajapaksa in May 2010, which is at the centre of the US resolution, has been slammed by the UN as incapable of conducting a fair investigation into the war crimes.
‘It is high time for India to send a strong message to Sri Lanka for killing innocent Tamils,’ says D Raja
The UN panel report observes, “The LLRC’s work demonstrates that it has not conducted genuine probes about what happened in the final stages of the conflict, not treated victims with dignity or provided the necessary protection for witnesses even in circumstances of actual personal risk. The LLRC is deeply flawed, does not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism and cannot meet the joint commitments of the Lankan president and the human rights commissioner to an accountability process.”
THE PROBLEM with the LLRC is that it is headed by Sri Lanka’s Attorney General whose powers have been diluted to make Rajapaksa the undisputed master of deciding whom to prosecute for the war crimes. Tamil activists say that an all-Sinhala body under Rajapaksa cannot be trusted to carry out a probe in a fair manner. Because if the United Nations findings were anything to go by, the Lankan war room, including military top guns, would be guilty of “murder, extermination, persecution, enforced disappearances and intentional attacks on civilians” — in effect, the entire gamut of violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.
The UN’s distrust with Sri Lanka’s internal processes have been fuelled partly by the manipulation of the mass media by Rajapaksa to make ordinary Sinhalese believe that their “sovereignty is under threat from the West” and by the fact that the war was run by the Rajapaksa family and all the top commanders who abused civilians are already well cocooned from any domestic or international law.
For instance, the naked woman in the picture was shot dead during the screening process in Mullivaikkal. The area was captured by the 59th Battalion under Maj Gen Nandana Udwatta, while the 58th Battalion under the command of Brig Shavendra Silva rampaged through Killinochi. Silva was rewarded for his heroics and promoted as Maj Gen before being made Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN headquarters in New York, while Udwatta was promoted as commander of the Security Forces HQ in Mullaitivu.
Sri Lanka officially ended its 28-year-old emergency in 2011, a good two years after the war. Tamil nationalists allege that officers such as Silva and others “clinically silenced all the justice seeking Tamils during the post war continuation of emergency that makes it impossible to hold any one in the establishment accountable”.
The UN expert panel relied on reports of its own workers and eyewitnesses who were trapped in NFZs and hospitals. And eyewitness accounts point to all-night shelling by Lankan army in NFZs, where the next day outside the UN bunker revealed “mangled bodies of women and children. Remains of babies had been blasted upwards into the trees and among the dead were people who had helped dig the bunker the previous day”.
And now with pictures of systematic torture of LTTE cadre coming out in the open, things are becoming clearer. Sri Lanka’s dirty war closet holds untold tales of torture and the insane violence unleashed by soldiers and commanders who were yearning for sadistic pleasures.
In the heat of the war, the Lankan army misled people to flee into death traps. Those Tamils who survived these traps were then screened and randomly tortured and executed. That should make it clear that the future of justice for Lankan Tamils does not depend on this US resolution. It depends more on how India can use its power to ensure that the innocent women and children who died don’t just get counted as collateral damage — as Colombo wants to make the world believe.
Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.