Sri Lanka’s Tamil question: Justice, Lies and Videotape

Sri Lanka’s thirty year war is now more of words than of guns, but it is no less bitter. RNW’s team in the country met with fierce resistance from the Sri Lankan government to the current calls for justice from the international community.

But the problem is that the international community’s presence in the country is dwindling, a fact witnessed when travelling across the east of the island – where once there were distinctive white NGO vehicles on every corner, the sight is now rare.

With the help of one remaining NGO which requested anonymity, RNW met nine freshly ‘reintegrated’ former Tamil Tiger guerillas who spoke of their desire for justice for all Sri Lankans. But people in the heavily militarized north and east live in fear of reprisal if they openly criticise the authorities – which is why a vociferous Tamil diaspora, the foreign media and a UN investigation have stepped in. The Sri Lankan government is now hitting back.

Video counter-punch

This week Colombo released a documentary video in response to British Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, in which it looks to discredit all claims that government troops killed and raped Tamil civilians and prisoners of war during the closing months of the conflict in 2009. The narrator of Lies Agreed Upon rubbishes Channel 4’s documentary: “Doctored footage and deliberate lies are presented as authentic. It begs for review.” The film proceeds to refute claims that the military deliberately bombed no-fire zones and seeks to bring into focus atrocities committed by the Tamil Tigers.

Reactions from the Tamil diaspora to the film are predictable – “The Tamil community is disappointed. The whole documentary is based on lies. The people speaking are all under pressure from the government. What would you do when you were a Tamil and you were under that pressure? You would probably go along with what the government wants,” said Mohan, a Dutch Tamil campaigner.

Tamils who feel free to speak openly say they want an independent, international investigation into the many claims of atrocities committed in 2009 and before. “We are requesting, pleading, begging the civilised world to stop the hypocrisy and double standards. And we’re calling for impartial investigations into missing persons,” said Donald Gnanakone head of the US-based ‘Tamils for Justice’.

Probing for the truth

Colombo says it is investigating the period in question and that all Sri Lankans watched over by President Rajapaksa, who smiles down from countless billboards around the capital.

Evidence of this, it claims, is his creation of the ‘Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC) last year, the stated intention of which is to “focus on the causes of conflict, its effect on the people, and promote national unity and reconciliation.” This body claims to have interviewed five thousand people of all ethnicities around the country in the building of its report, expected later this year.

The international community though, led by the United Nations Secretary General’s office, is not impressed by the LLRC’s work so far, saying it is “deeply flawed, (and) does not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism.”

Lakshman Wickremasinghe is spokesman for the LLRC. Does he hear the ever louder calls from the outside world to make the Commission’s work more credible?

“I hope the international community doesn’t put pressure on the Commission because it’s the best mechanism the country has.”

Whether the Sri Lankan government likes it or not, greater pressure is being brought to bear on it. The US Foreign Affairs Committee, which advises Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, says it is pushing ahead with plans to stop American aid to Sri Lanka unless meaningful investigation takes place and the guilty are brought to book.

Wanted: justice for all Sri Lankans

During RNW’s conversations in Sri Lanka with former Tamil Tiger fighters it was clear justice was a high priority for the Tamil community, not only indicting Sri Lankan generals but Tamil leaders too. Critics point out this is easy to say since most of the Tamil Tiger leadership was killed during the closing months of the war.

The desire for justice is not confined to one side, according to the UN’s former spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss: “I think there are many Sri Lankans of all ethnicities who support accountability, who support the rule of law, who support a frank and full discussion of the past history.”

The problem is there is no history of accountability in Sri Lanka: “Almost nobody has done jail time for the crimes that were committed in 1971 when tens of thousands of Sinhalese were killed, or during the uprising from 1987 – 1990. So there is a long and very profound history of a lack of accountability,” said Gordon Weiss.

He remains hopeful about an independent investigation and justice in the future. The UN however only wants to launch an investigation with the approval of the government of Sri Lanka, which is unlikely to happen. The International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction, as Sri Lanka is not one of the 114 countries that have signed up to the court. Direct referral by the UN Security Council seems to be the only option left, but with China, India and Russia’s major investments in the country, they would be expected to veto any resolution on a referral.

Silenced guns or guns with silencers?

Sri Lanka has suffered from a cycle of oppression and violence for decades. And as the former Tamil rebels in the town of Batticaloa told RNW, if basic rights are not upheld, that cycle will simply continue into the future. The danger for Sri Lanka is that silent guns continue to be interpreted as lasting peace. As the NGO vehicles pull out, fear and impunity are left behind. Former Tamil Tiger Mutu told RNW: “I think there needs to be justice supervised by the international community. Because if the Sri Lankan government does it, it won’t be done properly.”

The other articles from RNW on Sri Lanka:
Sri Lanka’s white vans deliver fear and oppression
Sri Lanka: picking up the Tamil Tiger’s scent

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Content from Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) is republished with permission on Groundviews for further debate and discussion, under a content sharing agreement between this site and RNW’s South Asia Wired programme.

  • Candidly

    Judging from this article Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) is not taking a balanced view of the situation in Sri Lanka. Nowhere in this item, or the others by RNW cited here, is there a single moment of consideration of the views of the majority Sri Lankan Tamils, Sinhales & Moslem who suffered from Tamil Tiger crimes and terrorism for 30 years. It is as if the victims are invisible & their suffering is unimportant, only the offender’s situation is important.

    This is why the presence of what the article calls “the international community” is dwindling, in my opinion. Actually that term refers to Westerners who see their role as manipulating people they regard as primitive and uncivilized because they refuse to accept the Western radical-chic philosophy of giving more rights to the criminal & the terrorist than to their victims. This view now seems to be being pushed out of more and more countries as the the ignored majority become aware of its disastrous consequences.

    Radio Netherlands Worldwide seems to be hear writing its farewell message to the global South. Goodbye! Enjoy the peace and tranquility of “civilized” Europe!

    • Agnos

      “…Western radical-chic philosophy of giving more rights to the criminal & the terrorist than to their victims.”

      Of course the current regime in SL is precisely a “criminal and terrorist” regime, and little wonder it has arrogated to itself the power of taking on all rights of individual citizens, especially Tamil citizens, to the point of murdering and raping them at will. That must be some radical chic.

      • http://www.blacklightarrow.wordpress.com David Blacker

        Really? Where is this raping and murdering going on?

  • PitastharaPuthraya

    Candidly,

    The issue of accountability, the writer tries to emphasise, is the key to the problems Sri Lanaka is suffereing with at the moment.

    When you say that no body should be accountable for the civilian suffering during the civil war you also accept the GoSL’s behaviour vis a vis other branches of its governance.

    The behaviour of its members in the public, the way that crimianls are given pardon by the president and Attorney General, the corruption, nepotism: they all come from the same source, which is lack of accountability.

    Imagine if there is no this so-called international community (IC), how would the GoSL behave with regards to its opposition? Although this IC is far from being saints it does a service to the oppressed all over the world including SL.

    If you do not like the IC to poke their fingers into SL’s internal affairs the best thing GoSL can do is keeping its house in order.

    • Hela

      PitastharaPuthraya,

      The only way SL can stop pressure from USA & the West is to submit to their dictates. This is nothing to do with human rights, accountability etc. Barak Obama refused to review Bush era attrocities. He ordered killing of Osama Bin Laden when he was unarmed and sleeping in his home. It was done execution style and his body is missing. Millions died in Iraq due to sanctions and subsequent invasion. Thousands still die in Iraq & Afganistan. There is an illegal, undeclared war being conducted against Libya, ostensibly against a dictator while another repressive dictator in Bahrain is protected because it provides sanctuary to US 7th fleet.

      Tamil diaspora is being used to steer SL in a path that allows Western domination in the Indian Ocean rim. The gullible diaspora thinks that they can get a better deal (i.e. a country of their own as Tamils do not have a country though their population is quite significant in a regional sense).

      However, these comentators prefer to ignore (just like those proverbial monkeys), the continuous decay in the West. Economic collapse in major EU economies. USA sinking under it’s debt weight. The resultant anger directed against “others” by individuals such as the massacre in Norway, riots in England & instigating wars overseas.

      They also ignore that imported solutions forced down the throats of Sri Lankans would eventually fail miserably, just like the failed “parippu mission” in ’87.

  • Shiva

    The civilzed world must stand together against state terrorism, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and human rights abuses and take a firm action against alleged criminals.

    Rajapakse regime has committed unspeakable crimes with the collaboration of the Indian Congress regime in New Delhi. It is shame to India that voted against human rights and war crimes invesigation at the Un Geneva last year.

    India is a land of corruption and political violence under the Congress regime and the world should keep India out of any global issues.

    • Vasula

      Shiva, true, true. So where was the civilized world when a despotic megalomaniac organisation ruthlessly oppressed innocent Tamils for over 25 years, killed of all its opposition -just so that they can call themselves the Sole Voice of Tamils, ran a despotic regime where no elections could be held;expelled over a hundred thousand legitimate Muslim and Sinhalese population from the North;forcefully conscripted child soldiers as well as demanded one youth per family; used human bombs,civilians and children as weapons; placed bus bombs in crowded public places killing hundreds of innocent civilians; horded and corralled a whole population as a human shield; fire from within no-fire zones and hospitals; killed more of its own people, than the Dutu Gamunu et al, Portuguese, Dutch, British, the Indian(IPKF)and the legitimate forces of Sri Lanka put together in the recorded history of this country?
      Just wondering.

  • Candidly

    And now we see on the streets of the UK further results of Europe’s policy over the last 10-15 years of increasing the legal rights of the criminal & terrorist minorities while decreasing the rights of the law-abiding majority. We should always try first to find peaceful solutions to our social problems, which is what that policy was intended to do. But there comes a point where people realise that, despite many concessions being made, certain elements just do not want peace and then we, the silent, long suffering, peace-loving majority have to make a stand & do what has to be done even though it’s difficult & unpleasant.

    No amount of word-spinning, lies, distortions & exagerations and harping back to what happened 30, 50, 100 years ago can disguise the fact that the leadership of the self-styled “Eezam Tamils” of northern Sri Lanka, and their supporters in the West & South India, chose the path of unrestricted violence & terrorism against the majority of the people of the island and rejected the peaceful alternatives. They sowed the wind of total war against the rest of the island & India & then reaped the whirlwind of suffering the consequences of choosing that path.

    That’s now finished & settled it’s time to learn the lessons & move on to a peaceful & harmonious future between all communities.

  • Siva

    If this video is the Singalese people’s response to the channel 4 video I think no one should have any doubt whatsoever about the Portuguese calling the Singala people modayas.

    This Derana video reminds me of the story of the Cow and Coconut tree. ‘Some primary school students were asked to prepare essays on subjects such a ‘coconut tree’ and ‘cow.’ They were lazy students and they wanted to know which among the two would show up on the exam. They heard from reliable resources that they would ask to write ten sentences about a coconut tree. All of them thoroughly learnt ten sentences to be written about the coconut tree. But as they sat in the exam, to their great dismay the only question that appeared was about a cow. Some of the students found it difficult even to start and they left the examination hall. Some other students wrote ‘in Sri Lanka cows are usually tied up to the coconut trees and then wrote 9 more sentences on ‘coconut tree’ and completed the subject’.

    Similarly the Sri Lankan government has no answer to the serious war crimes committed by the Singala armed forces and the video evidence showed in the channel 4 video. Just like those primary school students who only prepared to write about a coconut tree, the Singalese are only prepared to talk about the LTTE crimes and do so for the most part of this video. The Channel 4 video is about the war crimes committed in the final stages of the war but this Derana video is showing the forced statements of those Tamil detainees who are under the control of the Singala armed forces.

    Everyone knows these Tamil detainees must and will say what the Sri Lankan government says to save their lives. But the funny part is there are so many Singalese [Edited out] who hail this video as the most intelligent fitting response given to Channel 4. LOL

  • Candidly

    Siva wrote:

    “I think no one should have any doubt whatsoever about the Portuguese calling the Singala people modayas.”

    By resorting to racist abuse you are showing us all how empty your arguments are. You should be ashamed of yourself.