Groundviews

“War Crimes” and Democracy in Sri Lanka


Photo courtesy Online Focus

Lieutenant William Calley of the Charlie Company was a confused man. It was just two months ago that his company and others took a heavy toll when the Viet Cong  attacked during the Tet festival and television screens around the world showed the carnage they wrought. So when Calley’s CO Colonel Oran K. Henderson advised his officers to “”go in there aggressively, close with the enemy and wipe them out for good.”Calley must be thinking whether or not he should spare unarmed men, women and children. However Calley and his men had already taken their decision when they descended on the hamlet of My Lai on that fateful day of March 1968 ostensibly to wipe out remnants of Viet Cong units after the devastating US counter attack, supposedly harbored in that village following the grisly Tet Offensive. By the time Calley and his men were finished 504 Vietnamese men, women and children were dead or dying. Women were raped, some were mutilated, babies were killed, and civilians photographed before they were killed by the USIS photographer attached to the unit, which later became evidence. US Army tried to cover up the whole issue, but finally when all came out only Lieutenant Calley was sentenced to life. But to the disgust of many President Nixon so quintessentially pardoned Calley and he would only serve four and half months in prison. Colin Powell who was charged with investigating the incident would later tell Larry King Live on CNN in 2004 “I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored”.

Nearly 41 years later in the island of Sri Lanka, the government forces were locked in the final phase of a battle against a ruthless terrorist outfit. LTTE by that time had 300,000 odd civilians with them as the final insurance of the lives of their motley leaders. In the meantime government was facing intense world pressure to stop the operations and spare the lives of LTTE leaders while in Western world capitals Tamil Diaspora was wreaking havoc.  The Sri Lankan government asks Tamil civilians to cross over while LTTE threatens to kill anyone who leaves which they put to practice as well. Also from air conditioned offices in London, Diaspora publications like ‘Tamil Guardian” scoffs at government offer imploring Tamil civilians to die as ‘free’ people by staying with the LTTE. But civilians still leave Tigers for the so-called ‘barbaric’ Sri Lankan forces that assist them; while thousands of Sri Lankans, majority of them Sinhala Buddhists, heed government appeal to provide urgently needed supplies to surging IDP population even when LTTE sends in suicide bombers to kill the “traitors” to relief centers set up by the government. Taking extraordinary risks Sri Lankan army takes all measures possible to rescue Tamil civilians coming over to liberated areas.

Now almost two years after these incident Channel 4 of UK finally comes up with a 48 minute documentary sensationally titled “Sri Lankan Killing Fields’ which ,guarantees Dorothy Byrne, Head of News and Current Affairs of Channel 4, “It’s horrific. The images will remain in your mind, maybe for years. I can’t get them out of my head.” Despite this advance publicity the documentary raises more questions than answers however, including the veracity of translations, credibility of people appearing the documentary, the staged nature of especially demonstration before UN Compound in Killinochchi, and most of all the credibility of famed “execution footage” etc. I do not wish to revisit this area as David Blacker in previous comments in Groundviews brilliantly explained scenes containing disposing of bodies etc, using own experience as a soldier. But suffice to say Ch4 engaged in a form of yellow journalism perhaps partly to boost their flagging ratings.  The questions must have been there of course. Why the army had to shell “safe zones”? LTTE it seems ‘cleverly’ placed artillery batteries among the civilians and near hospitals. The LTTE goaded by Diaspora still harbored faith in a so-called “humanitarian” intervention by Western nations. Best way to do that is to precipitate a significantly high body count courtesy of SLA.

So was it really genocide?  Was Sri Lankan Government will diabolically and systemically ethnically cleansing Tamils as was evinced in Sudan, Rwanda, Serbia or like what US Government did to Native Americans ? Please note, that on the contrary there was no anti Tamil sentiment from the government, even implicitly. There were no “kill the cockroaches” messages. So it was no genocide, no matter how much the vested interests try to sensationalize these events. Hence Channel4’s intention to vilify President Mahinda Rajapakse and Gotabaya Rajapakse is highly suspect and reeks of knowing or unknowing collusion with the unscrupulous elements in the Tamil Diaspora.

The reactions to the C4 “shockumentary” ware predictable  , ‘Channel 4 footage, constitutes convincing evidence of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and if the Sri Lankan government does not respond they would support the international community in revisiting all options available to press the Sri Lankan Government to fulfill its obligations.’ Says Alistair Burt, the British Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. At the same time US re-iterates need for an investigation. We have to analyze then whether these guys are qualified to cast the first stone and what prompted them to behave in this manner and finally consequences of their actions on the democracy of Sri Lanka.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind an independent investigation has to be launched if and only if C4 footage found not to be doctored, even though the emerging evidence suggests otherwise. However we must note that US and its proxies like UK, has repeatedly failed either to launch independent investigations or to punish those individuals who were accused of dastardly crimes. From My Lai massacre described at the beginning of this article to the Haditha massacre, the very authentic footage of US soldiers indiscriminately killing Afghan civilians leaked by wiki leaks, the disproportionate use of force during battle for Fallujah etc.etc, this point was proved over again and again. Even in those instances that investigations were managed due to international outcry, the accused were either set free or given extremely lenient sentences as was in the case of William Calley, a mass murderer by any standard. The only exception was Abu Grahib issue, but even then some lowly soldiers were punished, not the people like Dick Cheney who authorized a policy of extraction of information from prisoners through coercion. Hence it is inimically clear that US or its proxies are not in the position ethically to acquire a holier than thou attitude vis a vis the Sri Lankan situation. In examining what prompted them to do so, it is obvious that domestic political compulsions played a major role in the form of Tamil Diaspora lobby groups. But also note in the case of US, Sri Lanka’s closeness to   emerging world powers set to take the mantle of global supremacy from USA, might have played a major part in its hostile attitude towards us. Perhaps a need to set precedence for other nations emulating us in a foreign policy that makes US to play a second fiddle to China.

These machinations by the West are in the long terms highly damaging to the democracy of Sri Lanka. Ever since the implementation of the Constitution of 1978 Sri Lankan Democracy is on the retreat and the situation was exacerbated by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which gave unbridled powers to the Executive Branch. In such environment system of patronage thrives reminiscent of such from the pages of Godfather. Therefore the Western pressure against Sri Lanka acts as a veritable red herring which can be used by the rulers to deal effectively with the dissent against anti democratic measures. One such instance is when a government MP charged of a Western conspiracy behind workers uprising in Katunayake against hastily put up Private Sector Pensions bill. The increasing militarization in the form of “leadership training” for University entrants, the defeat of “Right to Information bill” all speaks of a worrying trend in our society. The space for civil society to democratize our political systems as a whole is severely curtailed by the systemic application of pressure by external forces. The regime can always use the word “Anti National Forces” as a catch all phrase to vilify individuals and organizations agitating for more transparency, democratization in governance. The Bush Doctrine is also applied to browbeat dissenters in some cases. Despite all talk of strategic importance of Sri Lanka to USA, its current approach only serves to drive Sri Lanka more in to the bosom of China and Russia, further depleting what ever influence it once had. Therefore West should end its policy of “proselytizing” Sri Lanka in to a Democracy in their own image which is ultimately detrimental to the interests of people of Sri Lanka as a whole.