A documentary collates the horrors from the final war against the LTTE
BY SATARUPA BHATTACHARJYA
“Are you still afraid to kill a terrorist?” asks a man, most likely a soldier, in Sinhala to the one standing next to him, with his gun pointed at three blindfolded people, their hands bound, naked and kneeling on the ground. Gunshots are heard, the three prisoners flop to the ground, their heads drenched in blood.
Gruesome images emerge in quick succession—naked and possibly sexually abused dead women being dumped into a trunk, heaps of dead bodies of child soldiers of the LTTE, streams of blood flowing out of hospitals located in no-fire zones which the Sri Lankan government forces allegedly shelled, repeatedly and deliberately, killing countless civilians. To this carnage the LTTE too contributed, its suicide bombers detonating amidst civilian crowds or maniacally shooting at people trying to escape its control.
These are some of the horrific images from the Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, which depicts the relentless bloodbath in the final months of war between the LTTE and the government in 2009 that claimed, third-party figures suggest, around 40,000 lives. It took Channel 4 two years to source these grotesque images, apparently caught on mobile phones and small cameras by victims and perpetrators (as war trophies). Not only does the film echo incidents mentioned in a UN panel report released two months ago, it also appears to belie the post-war statement of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, “Soldiers carried guns in one hand and the human rights charter in the other.”
In Sri Lanka, though, the veracity of the documentary has been challenged. Asked whether he found the visuals shocking, Sri Lankan army spokesperson Maj Gen Ubhaya Medawala told Outlook, “What is shocking is that Channel 4 fabricated such a story. It was designed to tarnish the country’s image and that of its armed forces.” At a press conference last week, external affairs minister G.L. Pieris said, “The Channel 4 video footage on Sri Lanka is a part of a vicious, politically motivated campaign against the country.” These views have the endorsement of the average Sinhalese on the road, from trishaw drivers to workers at departmental stores to young professionals. They feel that western governments are “victimising” Colombo and, more importantly, that reopening old wounds would only hurt the process of reconciliation.
But for many Tamilians, the walk down the road to reconciliation must include justice for those who allegedly suffered state brutality. Rajan Hoole, a founder member of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), feels the Channel 4 film is “partly the consequence of the government keeping international observers away…to fight a war without witnesses, and then failing to respond to the worldwide concerns for the civilians during and after the war and adopting a course of total denial.”
Colombo’s concerted attempts to bar independent observers has been borne out by former UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka Gordon Weiss’s comments in the film. He accused Colombo of “intending to remove independent witnesses” from the north as fighting peaked between 2008-end and early ’09. The UN was asked to get out of the war zone by the Rajapaksa government which said it could not guarantee the safety of its staffers. In his book out now, The Cage, Weiss writes, “…I believe that the tactical choices the Sri Lankan army was directed to make, and which contributed to the deaths of so many civilians, warrant a credible judicial investigation of the kind that the Sri Lankan state, in its current guise, is no longer capable of mounting.” About the film, former foreign ministers of UK and France, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, recently wrote, “If foreign policy is about anything, it should be about stopping this kind of inhumanity.”
Sri Lankan ministers and media commentators here are quick to counter such opinions: what about Libya where NATO’s air-raids are even killing children? Have you forgotten Iraq and Afghanistan? Young Facebook users, born well after the civil war began, talk about the West’s “hypocrisy” in status messages. This isn’t to suggest that there is no dissenting voice from the Lankan political class. Former foreign minister and opposition parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera told Outlook, “The government’s denial of human rights violations may lead to its further isolation in the international community…in defence of sovereignty, nobody has the right to ill-treat its own citizens.”
The documentary, available on YouTube, has outraged the ever expanding circle of critics abroad. When it was screened at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Geneva, in the first week of June, some viewers cringed; one cried openly. The British House of Commons even debated whether the visuals could be considered as evidence of war crimes. Last year, talk about rights violations prompted the European Union to suspend its trade concessions to Sri Lanka.
But the government remains seemingly unperturbed. A fortnight ago, the Sri Lankan army had organised an anti-terror international seminar in Colombo, touting its model of counterinsurgency and winning encomiums from many participants. And on the sidelines of last week’s 15th St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Rajapaksa was assured of support from Dmitry Medvedev and Hu Jintao, his Russian and Chinese counterparts. With Chinese investments in major infrastructure projects here growing and now with Russia’s GAZPROM ready to explore oil and gas off the island’s Mannar coast, a new axis is on the move.
The growing Chinese influence has further weakened the Indian approach which, many here contend, was anyway weak on multilateralism in Sri Lanka. Says Dr Hoole, “When India places the onus on bilateral relations, the human and political rights of the Tamils tend to become hostage to Sino-Indian rivalry, as appears the case now.” Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran feels that India’s foreign policy in Sri Lanka has failed, pointing out how New Delhi has been unable to get a devolution package for the north and east. He adds, “India had satellite images of the war…its government knew how many people were killed. India must decide whether it wants to isolate itself from the Sri Lankan Tamils.” With the government change in Tamil Nadu and AIADMK leader Jayalalitha’s negligible influence over the UPA, it scarcely matters that the state assembly recently passed a resolution asking New Delhi to impose economic sanctions on Colombo.
Even pro-government Tamil politician Dharmalingam Siddarthan says human rights issues, if left unattended, would further widen the gap between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Despite the civil war ending in 2009, the island remains a nation at war with itself.