23 June 2011
A TV documentary with gruesome footage that appears to back up war crimes charges against Sri Lankan troops has aggravated ethnic wounds two years after the end of the island’s civil war.
The decision by Britain’s Channel 4 to provide free Internet access to the documentary after its broadcast last week, means that members of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, as well as majority Sinhalese, have been able to view and share the content.
The programme, titled “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,” contained footage shot on video or mobile phones during the final months of the ultimately successful 2009 offensive by government troops against Tamil Tiger rebels.
The images appear to show troops carrying out summary executions, as well as the bodies of female Tamil fighters that have been sexually assaulted.
It also includes footage that lends weight to repeated allegations — strongly denied by the Sri Lankan government — that the military deliberately targeted Tamil civilians caught up in the fighting.
The documentary was not broadcast in Sri Lanka, but many downloaded footage after friends and relatives in the Tamil diaspora sent Internet links which were passed on through social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook.
“I borrowed a laptop from a friend so that I could show the documentary to my mother,” said a Tamil university student in Colombo. “My uncle took a copy to show his family.”
A Sinhalese lawyer working with the Tamil community also said that the footage was making the rounds.
“Ordinary Tamils have shown a great interest in it, but they are afraid to publicly articulate their feelings,” said the lawyer, who declined to be identified.
Although the programme showed some footage of alleged war crimes by the Tamil Tiger rebels, the bulk of the images involved government forces and army shelling.
“It is traumatic for Tamils to see these videos, but it is important to show the rest of the world at least some of what happened,” said Tamil politician Mano Ganeshan, who also runs the Civil Monitoring Committee rights group.
Dharmalingam Sithadthan, another Tamil politician, said the shock value of the images was, for many members of his community, tempered by actual experience.
“Certainly a lot of bad things happened and both sides are responsible,” Sithadthan told AFP. “These videos are nothing compared to what some have seen in real life.”
Nevertheless they still fuel deep resentment over what Tamils see as the government’s failure to address their grievances in the wake of the conflict.
“It is more hurtful because there is no genuine reconciliation process even two years after the end of the war,” Sithadthan said.
In an official response to the documentary, the Sri Lankan High Commission in London again denied that civilians were targeted, but added that action would be taken if the allegations were shown to be true.
The authorities have questioned the authenticity of the footage, accused the filmmakers of bias and suggested they were motivated by a desire to incite ethnic unrest.
Official outrage over the actions portrayed in the documentary has been limited to international rights groups and foreign governments.
British Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said he was shocked by the “horrific” scenes and added that the international community would require “a serious and full response” from Sri Lanka.
A UN panel reported in April that there were “credible allegations” of government forces killing thousands of civilians in a no-fire zone.
A leader from the Sinhalese JHU, or Heritage Party, Udaya Gammanpila rejected the Channel 4 video as a fabrication and argued that the rift between the island’s ethnic groups had been exaggerated.
“Even at the height of fighting, most of the Tamils lived among the Sinhalese,” Gammanpila told AFP. “We are a nation which is ready to forgive and forget.”
More than 70,000 people have been killed since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took up arms in 1972 to fight for their own homeland in the northeast of the Sinhalese-majority island.
Tamils, who comprise around 12.6 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million population, say they have long been discriminated against, both in education and the workplace.