Photo courtesy Amnesty International
May 2009 will always be an exclamation mark in Sri Lanka’s history. Many will celebrate the defeat of the Tamil Tigers as a rupture with a brutal past. For others it will mark a period of remembrance as families mourn relatives lost in crossfire or shelling. It was a time of rumour, elation and pain. Supporters of the final offensive against the Tigers danced in the streets of Colombo while survivors emerged from the ruins of war carrying terrifying survival stories. T.V footage in the country replayed the government’s ‘humanitarian rescue operation’ to free civilians while children languished in Manik Farm forgotten from public view. Historians will make better sense of the year that ended Sri Lanka’s bitter war against the Tamil Tigers. My own reflections here are grounded in my work with victims’ families struggling for justice in Sri Lanka.
17 May 2009
On 17 May I spent my day at Amnesty International’s London headquarters trying to clarify information about the unlawful detention of several doctors who had been working in the ‘No Fire Zone’ area in northeastern Sri Lanka. The doctors were last seen on 15 May at the Omanthai checking point and had then disappeared. I was worried that the doctors had been targeted and punished for providing information about life in the ‘No Fire Zone’ zone. Their reports detailed the suffering of ordinary civilians many of whom died from war related injuries. It was difficult to get additional information from sources inside Sri Lanka. The country was on tenterhooks as state media covered the ‘heroic’ final moments of war as security forces closed in on former Tiger leader Prabhakaran. But the missing doctors had a right to their part in history and late afternoon on 18 May 2009 Amnesty International issued an urgent action about their incommunicado detention (UA 129/09).
Bypassing due process
The significance of the doctors’ detention is that it was unlawful, bypassing normal procedures. In July the Sri Lankan authorities held a press conference, the doctors appeared before the media and recanted their earlier reports from the ‘No Fire Zone’. I wondered how genuine these ‘confessions’ were, given the doctors’ prolonged detention and their vulnerability to ill-treatment given the unlawful nature of their detention. If the doctors were complicit in criminal offences they should have been arrested with transparency and charged. The nature of their detention and the subsequent press conference was a troubling signal that even if the war was over in Sri Lanka the authorities control of the media and dominant narratives had not loosened.
Years of Make Believe
On 12 June 2009 Amnesty International hosted a public panel discussion at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to discuss our new Sri Lankan report on impunity, ‘Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry’. Findings showed that the promise of justice by domestic mechanisms is often betrayed by lack of implementation of official Commission recommendations. Present at the discussion were Gene Dewey, a member of the last International Commission of Inquiry on Sri Lanka and Dr Manoharan, whose son was killed in the ‘Trinco 5’ incident, one of the high profile human rights cases covered in the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (COI).
To prepare for the launch I met with Dr Manoharan to find out more about his experience of campaigning for justice in Sri Lanka. His son, Ragihar, was one of 5 students killed on a beach in Trincomalee town by the security forces in 2006. Dr Manoharan had spoken out demanding an investigation and had subsequently been forced to flee the country for safety.
A series of photos was lain out on a table in front of me. Chilling images from a mortuary recorded by a journalist Sugir who was killed weeks later. The photos revealed a cover up, a case of state make-believe. The authorities originally put out a statement claiming the students were killed by a grenade blast when in fact they had been victims of extra-judicial executions. Dr Manoharan notes:
“I visited the mortuary. When I opened the door, the first body I saw was my son’s. He had five gunshot wounds. While I was there, a police officer demanded that I sign a statement saying that my son belonged to the Tamil Tigers, the armed group fighting for independence in Sri Lanka. He told me if I did this, they would release his body immediately.
I refused. I told him that my son is not a Tamil Tiger. He is a sports person, a table tennis player and coach – he coaches police officers and children. He is a chess player, a student, a good boy.
The government claimed that my son and his friends were killed in a grenade attack. But three of the boys had head wounds – all of them shot through the back of the head. I have photographs, and the doctor’s report confirms this. The entry hole was small, and the exit wound was big. That shows they shot Ragihar at very close range. That night, I took a decision. I would challenge the authorities, no matter what”.
During our first meeting Dr Manoharan also showed me photos from Ragihar’s funeral. It was clear from the massive presence of people including a Buddhist monk, Hindu priest and Muslim cleric that the community was outraged at the senseless killings. Many expected the authorities to expedite an investigation. Instead the security forces were given a carte blanche to threaten Dr Manoharan who was prepared to appear as a witness. He was forced to flee the country.
Challenging the authorities to tell the truth
Dr Manoharan subsequently testified before the Presidential COI. His emotionally charged testimony, delivered by video conference from an undisclosed location outside the country was televised, attracting a high level of public attention. Despite this, the 2006 Commission’s report, delivered directly to the President, has never been published.
It was clear from Dr Manoharan’s emotional state that Ragihar’s death was still an open wound. As a father he felt it his duty to travel to Geneva to appeal to the international community as he felt the domestic justice system in Sri Lanka was in tatters.
At the side event on impunity he made a direct appeal to Sri Lankan government delegates invited to the event:
“My name is Dr. Kasippillai Manoharan. On 2 January 2006, Sri Lankan soldiers brutally murdered my beloved son Ragihar on a beach in Trincomalee”.
Remembering his son, Dr Manoharan was filled with emotion and begged Sri Lankan officials present to help him find his son’s killers. Former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleke commiserated with Dr Manoharan on his loss and another government representative present, Dr Rajiva Wijesinha promised that the 2006 Commission of Inquiry’s report would soon be made public. Interestingly in June 2009 officials in Geneva were willing to acknowledge the broader culture of impunity and need for accountability for violations even if debates on the large-scale violations at the end of the war remained taboo. This acknowledgement of Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity was to be shortlived as subsequent travels to the Human Rights Council demonstrated a shriller tone by the government as official denials of human rights violations became more insistent.
Real stories versus make-believe
Working on the ‘Trinco 5’ case grounded me and guided my advocacy. It was easy in 2009 and 2010 to get lost in vitriolic attacks and counter-attacks about what happened at the end of the war. Amnesty International’s focus on Sri Lanka (a country we have reported on since 1971) has always been on impunity and the crimes by all parties to the conflict. The organisation has a long tradition of interacting with the UN and its mechanisms on behalf of victims’ families, yet staff were denounced as ’liars and apologists for terror’. During this period the Sri Lankan government deployed an enormous amount of spin to contain any damaging information about human rights violations surfacing. What sharpened my focus on why the UN needed to be aware of the human rights crisis in Sri Lanka was the clarity of victims’ families like Dr Manoharan’s to see through the fog of official lies. When the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was established I asked Dr Manoharan if he wanted to prepare a brief for the Commission. He smiled wryly at me and said “this will just be another eyewash for the international community”. He explained that he had already testified before a Presidential Commission of Inquiry so why would he put himself through the charade again. He wanted the 2006 Presidential COI to be made public before he could trust another domestic mechanism. As far as he was concerned the Commissioners could request and access the material that was collected for the COI.
Since 2009 Dr Manoharan has made an effort to raise the ‘Trinco 5’ case in UN fora as often as possible as a way to deepen an understanding of the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka.
In January 2011 I travelled with Dr Manoharan to New York where we presented over 50,000 petitions calling on the United Nations to establish an independent, international investigation into the ‘Trinco 5’ case and other war crimes alleged in the conflict. It was bitterly cold and I remember a poignant moment outside the UN headquarters where Dr Manoharan and I wondered whether the UN would actually make good on its promises to follow up on accountability. The process to enter UN buildings was very formal and at one point we were asked to move on by UN security but our cameraman insisted on our right to film on the sidewalk.
UN establishes a Panel of Inquiry
But lobbying and the persistence paid off. In April 2011, an independent panel of experts, appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, recommended the UN establish such an investigation after finding credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both government forces and the LTTE.
In some of the coverage of how Sri Lanka has played out at the Human Rights Council it is sometimes forgotten that debates include investigation of the Tamil Tigers. The LTTE forcibly recruited children as soldiers, used civilians as human shields against the Sri Lankan army’s offensive, and attacked civilians who tried to flee. Amnesty International has raised this issue with UN member states, with the UN Panel of Experts and historically with the LTTE leadership itself. The Tamil Tigers’ bad behavior however cannot be used as an excuse to bury other crimes in secrecy. Dr Manoharan was particularly aggrieved that the authorities tried to claim his son was a member of the Tamil Tigers back in 2006. In a video interview about Ragihar’s death his wife says “he was an innocent one”.
Dr Manoharan and I have met regularly over the last 5 years. We have shared exasperation at some of the spin – the government’s demands for more ‘time and space’. We know that a pattern of official cover up for violations dates back years. Dr Manoharan has repeatedly said that his campaign is not just for the ‘Trinco 5’ families but for all the other families – Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese who have been affected by conflict and are waiting for answers. On our journey towards justice for the ‘Trinco 5’ we have collaborated with a number of Sri Lankan human rights defenders who have braved reprisals to raise concerns about the rule of law and lack of freedom of expression in the country. It has not been an easy journey to remove the rose-tinted spectacles of UN member states but there have been moments of reprieve.
In March 2012 at the 19th session of the Human Rights Council, UN member states finally saw through the governments’ spin and demanded accountability. Resolution 19/2 called for implementation of the recommendations made by the Sri Lankan government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and asked for a plan to implement those recommendations and investigate the alleged violations at the end of the conflict.
Instead of discussing options the Sri Lankan delegation engaged in stand offs with missions and sustained attacks on a number of human rights defenders. The lack of decorum by the Sri Lankan delegation did not go unnoticed by the President of the Council, Laura Dupruy Laserre who pointed out the “incidents of harassment and intimidation” as NGO representatives were photographed and videoed without their permission. The strident tone of the delegation and overt intimidation marked a worrying trend. The authorities were no longer just protecting a certain narrative about the war they were closing down all discussion on human rights.
Dr Manoharan observed that if this form of intimidation was going on in Geneva it was terrifying to imagine what tactics of silence were used inside Sri Lanka particularly in the North and East.
2012 Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review
At Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November 2012 Sri Lanka continued to deny human rights problems – rejecting references to impunity and the need for independent investigations into alleged human rights violations and past crimes under international law despite concerns raised by UN members. But the denial was starting to wear thin particularly when victims’ families continued to remind member states of their reality. During discussion of the Universal Periodic Review Dr Manoharan issued this appeal:
“In its 2012 national report for the UPR, the Government of Sri Lanka informed this Council that the case of my son and his four friends who were also murdered was referred to the Attorney General to determine whether a prima facie case existed to launch prosecutions. The Attorney General advised the Inspector-General of Police to conduct further investigations.
Today, 7 long years have passed since my son’s murder, without any justice or decision from the Sri Lankan magistrate’s court!
A Presidential Commission of Inquiry has reported on my son’s murder, but no results have been made public. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission strongly recommended further investigation and prosecution of the killers. Last November, at the UPR Sri Lanka’s former Attorney General and now Chief Justice Mohan Peiris promised to finish this case by December 2012, but nothing has happened”.
In March 2013 the Sri Lankan government wrote a letter to the President of the Human Rights Council asking them to withdraw Amnesty International’s consultative status. The rationale being a screening of the documentary, ‘No Fire Zone: Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ sponsored by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. This attempt to bully NGOs and silence debate failed as it simply gave more publicity to the film with diplomats wanting to know what it was the Sri Lankan government was so keen to hide. Denial of the real issues – victims’ failure to find redress by a practice of make-believe – were now being recognised as tactics of obfuscation. Make-believe may work in a context where the media is controlled but it was hard to dispute the kind of evidence which was now being submitted in Geneva – photos of extra-judicial executions, testimonies of torture, the pleas of mothers of the disappeared clutching folders with details of their search for their son’s or daughter’s location.
Tell the Truth campaign
In June 2013 Dr Manoharan launched Amnesty International’s ‘Tell the Truth’ campaign aimed at highlighting some of the key human rights issues in Sri Lanka. The campaign was intended to be a counterpoint to the whitewash of human rights issues underway with preparations for the Heads of the Commonwealth meeting scheduled for October in Colombo. Activists from around the world were inspired by Dr Manoharan’s fight for justice for his son and shared photos of their support from countries as far apart as Cyprus, Nepal and New Zealand. There were messages of support too from Sri Lankan families.
Pressure mounting on Sri Lanka Ahead of Commonwealth Meeting
In July 2013 the Criminal Investigations Division (C.I.D) arrested 12 Special Task Force (STF) officers in connection with the ‘Trinco 5’ murders. The day after their arrests I spoke to Dr Manoharan to ask him if he was happy with this development. He pointed out that the arrest did not include the Senior Superintendant Police officer in Trincomalee at the time of the incident who was mentioned in the Presidential COI. While the chief suspect roamed free he could not take the investigation seriously. He reminded me that the same 12 STF officers had been arrested before and subsequently released.
Linked to growing international scrutiny on the ‘Trinco 5’ case the government felt compelled to provide an update at the September Geneva Human Rights Council session and informed the Council that the ‘Non-Summary Inquiry’ was proceeding. The rhetoric of the government was not satisfactory to Dr Manoharan who felt that the promises made were simply a farce. The idea that a case of mass murders was tied up in a ‘Non Summary Inquiry’ enabling postponements was deeply frustrating and emblematic of many other cases endlessly delayed. In this context Dr Manoharan appealed to the High Commissioner for Human Rights to get updates of the case during her visit to Sri Lanka.
Rule of Law Eroded
In August 2013 security forces fired at a group of protesters in Weliweriya in Gampaha District killing 3. The incident acted as a lightning rod for civil society’s dissatisfaction with the dominance of the military in society 4 years on from the end of the war.
On 31 August Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded her visit to Sri Lanka. In a public statement released at the end of her week-long visit, she highlighted ongoing human rights violations in the country, saying: “The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded.”
The last five years have witnessed a dramatic volte face by UN member states in their understanding of accountability issues in Sri Lanka. The external environment has shifted from a situation where Sri Lanka was congratulated for dealing with ‘terrorism’ to one in which the Human Rights Council has now mandated an international inquiry to be led by the Office of the High Commissioner. Part of this external recognition is due to the courage of human rights activists and victims’ families. They travelled to the Council to give testimony on the world stage providing a foil to spin. Countries as diverse as Mexico and Botswana began to raise concerns about the erosion of rule of law with the impeachment of the Chief Justice puncturing the narrative of state make-believe.
Breaking with the Past
It is challenging in any society to deal with a troubled past. In 2012 Amnesty International released a report on Northern Ireland, ‘Time to Deal with the Past’ which addresses the lack of political will from both the UK government and Northern Ireland’s political parties to deal adequately with peace and justice. Sixteen years on from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement the report finds that victims and their families have been failed by successive attempts to investigate abuses. What is important to those affected is that they have the space to discuss these issues – a space missing in Sri Lanka as the government cracks down on dissent.
It is easy to argue the past should be forgotten. For many families affected by violence this is an impossibility. On one of my visits to Geneva with Dr Manoharan, I noticed that his phone screensaver is a photo of his son Ragihar. You cannot erase those you love. Dr Manoharan travels to Geneva not because he is ‘against’ Sri Lanka – he served for many years as a medical practitioner in the East Coast and has friends from all communities. In his own words to the Council he says:
“With all the pain of losing my son Ragihar, I seek your help and that of the Human Rights Council to move the investigation of the murder of the five young men in Trincomalee to the international level because I have no hope for justice in Sri Lanka”.
What victims’ families want is real truth-telling not the fog of official lies. Despite promises made to Dr Manoharan back in June 2009 justice continues to be delayed in the case of Ragihar’s murder. In September 2013, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva delivered a promise that the Attorney General would ensure ‘an expeditious conclusion of the non summary inquiry’ in the ‘Trinco 5’ case. But the reality is Dr Manoharan is still waiting. On 24 April this year the ‘Trinco 5’ case (scheduled to be heard at a magistrate’s court) was postponed again as relevant security forces witnesses were absent.
Why is Sri Lanka still failing victims?
Victims’ families have turned to the United Nations in Geneva as their quest for justice inside Sri Lanka has failed. They know that the Sri Lankan government is unwilling and unable to investigate events itself, so an international probe is the only way to obtain truth and justice. The raw pain evident when Dr Manoharan speaks about his son Ragihar is something that thousands of other families also live with. Dr Manoharan is a modest yet steadfast advocate. He is reluctant for his case to be used as a political football. His quest for justice is based on evidence he has seen with his own eyes – the photos from the morgue, a jeep seen in the environment of the killings. He was brave enough to speak out and demand an inquiry. All he expects is that no stone should be left unturned in the prosecution of the killers. And yet in a case as high profile as multiple murders the inquiry remains at a Magistrate’s Court and is not a cause of common outrage.
Quo Vadis Sri Lanka?
The debates about where Sri Lanka is today should not just focus on the terrible ghosts of 2009 or be a tit for tat argument about numbers killed and the inevitable blame game. Sri Lanka has lived through 3 decades of violence including terrifying acts of suicide bombing by the Tamil Tigers. But to move forward societies sometimes need to hold up a mirror to their darker side. Families want to know what sort of truth-telling is possible so that they can lay their loved ones to rest. One of the disturbing facts I learnt when looking at the history of Commissions in Sri Lanka is that thousands and thousands of disappearances from the 1980s remain uninvestigated today despite lists of names and recognition by official Commissions. Rather than acknowledging failures to investigate the authorities continue to develop astonishing narratives of make-believe. The latter reached new heights in March with some official Sri Lankan delegates at the Human Rights session claiming that torture does not exist in Sri Lanka. This denial seemed absurd in a context where the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission itself publishes statistics of cases that happen monthly. This practice of make-believe is not serving Sri Lanka well – externally or internally. It’s why Sri Lanka has remained a central agenda item at the Human Rights Council. Countries like Brazil and Benin voted for a resolution to mandate an international inquiry on Sri Lanka as they recognise make-believe feeds impunity. The Geneva resolutions are not part of a ‘conspiracy’ they are simply ripples from the terrible impunity within.
Standing apart from the rumours and accusations one reads daily in the Sri Lankan media are all too human families waiting for their stories to be heard. 5 years on from the end of war I hope Sri Lanka can honour the memories of Ragihar and his friends by finally making public the 2006 Presidential COI report. It’s time to abandon make-believe and seek the truth where violations are alleged. Quo vadis? That depends on what sort of stories Sri Lankans are prepared to believe.
(This essay is written by Yolanda Foster. She works with Amnesty International’s South Asia team in London. Yolanda is an alumni of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and has been a research fellow with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies as well as the Social Scientists’ Association in Colombo).
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.