PEDRO UGARTE / AFP/GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO via The Star
In the aftermath of the media circus surrounding the resolution on Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council, it is worth asking: how much does this kind of reporting contribute to (a) establishing the truth about the civil war in Sri Lanka and (b) the welfare of anyone in Sri Lanka?
The Report of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka (2011) is a valuable document. It includes information about the background to the civil war, a comprehensive list of war crimes by both sides in the conflict, and recommendations for protecting the human rights of survivors and detainees and restoring freedom of movement, assembly and expression, apart from a wealth of references. The resolutions of the UNHRC on Sri Lanka have also emphasised the need to end ongoing attacks on human rights not only in the North and East of Sri Lanka but also in the the rest of the island. Yet most of the reporting – and this includes documentaries like Callum Macrae’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields and its sequel, presented by Channel 4 – focuses almost exclusively on war crimes by the government of Sri Lanka in the last stages of the war.
The question being asked here is not whether truth and accountability are important; clearly, they are. Nor is the authenticity of the films or of the concern about war crimes being questioned. The question, rather, is whether the extremely partial approach by these media may be inimical to the aims they profess.
Establishing the whole truth
There is a reason why witnesses in a criminal trial are required to speak ‘the whole truth’: anything less could lead to a miscarriage of justice. If an investigation into war crimes in the civil war in Sri Lanka is carried out, it must at least look at the whole war, if not its antecedents. Taking an analogy, if we looked solely at events at the end of World War II – like the fire-bombing of Dresden and nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – we would hardly get a ‘true’ picture of the war. From an objective point of view, there can be no doubt that these bombings were heinous war crimes, and indeed crimes against humanity. It is a blatant case of ‘victor’s justice’ that no one has been prosecuted for the wholesale slaughter of civilians in these cities, and it is good that people’s tribunals have been set up to look into them. However, to focus exclusively on these events while ignoring the holocaust, rape of Nanjing, and other atrocities committed by the Axis powers, would certainly be misleading. No sane person would accept an account of World War II that focused exclusively on the end of it.
Yet this is precisely what the media in the West and in India tend to do in the case of the civil war in Sri Lanka. They mention that war crimes have been committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but never bother to specify what these are, or demand accountability for them. Even the brief summary in the UN report of 2011 makes it clear that the truth is far more complex. The anti-Tamil pogroms of 1983, carried out under another government and widely considered to have started the war; the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency of 1987 to 1990 and the brutal counter-insurgency, with tens of thousands of Sinhalese victims during this period; the slaughter of rival Tamil militant groups and assassination of Tamil political leaders by the LTTE; terrorist attacks on Sinhalese and Muslim civilians by the LTTE and their ethnic cleansing of Muslims from the North; forced conscription of child soldiers by the LTTE; previous ceasefires used by the LTTE to eliminate Tamil dissenters and prepare for war: if all these factors are taken into account, the narrative of the war becomes a great deal more complicated. Perhaps the media are not willing to or capable of dealing with complexity, but in that case, their claim to be reporting the truth becomes questionable.
For example, the previous regime of Chandrika Kumaratunga made serious attempts to negotiate a political settlement which would be acceptable to the vast majority of Tamils in the North and East. But the author of an important proposal, Neelan Tiruchelvam, and the Foreign Minister who pursued it, Lakshman Kadirgamar, were both assassinated by the LTTE, while Kumaratunga herself narrowly escaped with her life and lost an eye in an assassination attempt. If the LTTE leadership had accepted a political settlement which would have given them a great deal of power over the territory they were claiming instead of trying to kill those who were offering it, the war would have ended and all subsequent casualties, both military and civilian, could have been avoided. But they were not interested.
As for allocating responsibility for the carnage at the end of the war, even the UN report of 2011 fails to draw the logical conclusion from its findings that the LTTE was guilty of ‘(i) using civilians as a human buffer; (ii) killing civilians attempting to flee LTTE control; (iii) using military equipment in the proximity of civilians [including hospitals]; (iv) forced recruitment of children; (v) forced labour; and (vi) killing of civilians through suicide attacks’ (p. iv). When it says that ‘Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling’ (p.ii), it ignores the fact that government shelling aimed at the LTTE would not have caused most of those casualties if the LTTE had not kept hundreds of thousands of civilians hostage and used them as a human shield, had not stored military equipment near and fired from the vicinity of civilian installations such as hospitals, had not forcibly conscripted large numbers of children whose families did not want to abandon them, and had not forced civilians to dig trenches under enemy fire.
Worse still, journalist Frances Harrison alleged that ‘The Tigers refused a credible Norwegian surrender plan with international supervision, which would have given amnesty to all but the two top rebels. It would have prevented all the torture, rape and disappearances after the end of the war’. This was confirmed by Norwegian negotiator Eric Solheim, who said in an interview, ‘Basically, we proposed to the international community… to send a ship with UN officials and representatives of the international community to the northern and eastern parts of the country. These officials would carry out a census in the war zone, including LTTE members and civilians and register them with their respective photographs. All these people were taken back to Colombo, and then they were to hand over their arms to the Lankan army. Except for the LTTE leader, Prabhakaran, and Pottu Amman, all the others were released under a general pardon. This was our plan. If they accepted our proposal, thousands of people, including the LTTE killed in the war, would be alive today. The LTTE International wing leader Kumaran Pathmanathan, was scheduled to visit Oslo to take a final decision in this regard. However, at the last moment Prabhakaran stopped him’.
No one can vouch for the Sri Lanka government’s willingness to abide by the terms of such a surrender, and there is, in fact, ample evidence that LTTE surrendees and prisoners were abused and killed. However, there is no doubt that a large proportion of the civilians who perished would have been saved if the LTTE leadership had agreed to the plan. The testimony of the award-winning University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), which would necessarily have to be part of any future war crimes investigation, states, ‘children as young as 11 or 12 were being conscripted and sent to the front after a few hours of training in carrying a gun, and the LTTE was holding people against their will in utterly de-humanising conditions as both a human shield and to service stories of genocide for expatriate lobbies… The pro-LTTE lobby never protested when the LTTE abused peace processes in the past and spurned opportunities for a political settlement, applauding it as part of a Machiavellian strategy to acquire Eelam. This made their recent cry of genocide a sham. They and the LTTE must bear principal responsibility for the fate of the civilians’.
In other words, many of those who are calling most vociferously for a war crimes investigation are themselves war criminals guilty of complicity in the slaughter of civilians. Particularly despicable is the role of Tamil Nadu politicians who have professed support for the LTTE as a means of enhancing their own popularity without considering the devastating consequences for Tamil people in Sri Lanka.
In the context of the trajectory of the war as a whole, the ‘truth’ embodied in documentaries like Callum Macrae’s Channel 4 films is so partial that it almost constitutes a lie. Even the UN account, though better, is too illogical to constitute the basis for a criminal investigation. Establishing the whole truth is certainly necessary, but honesty, integrity and logical thinking would be prerequisites for such a task.
The importance of timing
In his 2013 Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Oration, Francis Gurry said, ‘It was a deeply enriching experience to work with Lakshman Kadirgamar. Of the many things that he taught me, there is one that always stands out for me because it was something that could be acquired only from a person of culture and experience, as opposed to a book. It might be called the principle of timing. Instinctively, whenever a decision needed to be taken, Lakshman would ask: “Is the timing right?” In other words, an action which could be absolutely correct at one point in time may be grievously mistaken at another. This is surely true of the demand for accountability for war crimes in Sri Lanka.
Going back to the analogy of a criminal investigation, if there are two victims of a crime, one dead and the other severely injured, what should the priority be? Clearly, leaving the seriously injured victim to die while conducting an exhaustive post mortem examination of the dead victim would be considered gross incompetence or worse. The priority would necessarily be to save the life and ensure, as far as possible, the recovery of the second victim. Similarly in postwar Sri Lanka, the priority must be to ensure the security and welfare of survivors, especially Tamil survivors but also others, like Sinhalese human rights defenders and journalists. This preoccupation does come through in the UN report and subsequent UNHRC resolutions, but is rarely reflected in media reports, which tend to focus exclusively on accountability for war crimes. There is some evidence that wide publicity for and campaigns against ongoing violations of human rights can be successful – for example, the campaign against the incarceration of Tamil survivors of the war in internment camps for months on end in 2009, or, more recently, the campaign for the release of human rights defenders Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesan – and this should clearly be a priority from a humanitarian perspective. Even from the standpoint of a criminal investigation, it is surely better to ensure the survival of witnesses than to allow them to be eliminated.
We also know from experience that while a regime is in power, it is extremely unlikely that it will cooperate with an investigation into its own conduct, and that the UN is equally unlikely to invade and carry it out in the teeth of resistance by the regime. In a context where the Rajapaksa regime is losing popularity, what is the likely effect of repeatedly reminding the people of Sri Lanka of its victory over the LTTE? Most people in Sri Lanka believe that given the nature of the LTTE, if the government had not eliminated its leadership, the war would still be continuing. For the vast majority of Sinhalese citizens, each UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka is a reminder that the war has ended, the one thing for which they are grateful to the regime: not because they hate Tamils but because they no longer have to send their young men to war and get them back crippled or dead, no longer have to fear that they will be blown up on public transport or in markets and other public places. It reminds Muslims displaced from the North and East and too terrified to go back while the LTTE was around that they can now hope to return, despite enormous obstacles in their path. Even for Tamil residents of the North and East, might there not be a sense of relief that their children do not constantly face the risk of being torn away from their families and sent out to kill and be killed? All those who demand accountability now are either ignorant of or deliberately ignore the reality of the war for those who were subjected to it, and thus fail to understand that the demand could actually help to prop up the regime they seek to indict.
What needs to be done instead is to build up solidarity between people from all communities who have suffered from the government’s postwar policies. Apart from Tamils, human rights defenders and journalists, Muslims, Christians, workers, fishing communities and slum dwellers have faced state-sponsored violence. All but a tiny minority of citizens suffer from the regime’s assaults on democracy and independence of the judiciary, as well as its mismanagement of the economy. An important way to build up such solidarity is to engage in common action on issues that affect all communities. There have been such alliances across ethnic and religious lines in strikes and struggles against displacement. A particularly inspiring example was the 2012 strike by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations, which progressed from a simple demand for higher salaries to issues of academic freedom and state funding of education.
Commenting on a survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Tisaranee Gunasekara observes wisely, ‘Clearly the Sinhala public is far less majoritarian supremacist than their rulers want/need them to be… The CPA study paints a picture of a people who are open to logic, reason and ordinary kindness, a people capable of drawing closer together on the basis of common problems, shared interests and human sympathy. The divides do exist, but they are not unbridgeable’. Bridging the divides is a necessary prelude to defeating the Rajapaksa regime, which is in turn a precondition for achieving accountability.
Establishing the whole truth about the finale of the civil war in Sri Lanka requires an inquiry into the entire war and painstaking allocation of responsibility for casualties caused by multiple agents. Accountability for war crimes cannot be ensured unless divides between communities have first been bridged. Neither truth nor accountability is served by uncritical acceptance of accounts of the end of the war propagated by the pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora. The priorities at present must be fighting against postwar violations of human rights and working for reconciliation between communities at a grassroots level.
This article is part of a larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.