Thursday, June 23, 2011

Getting away with murder in Colombo

By Eric Ellis | The Age

When governments kill the people they are mandated to protect and help prosper, what is the world's tipping point for outrage? How horrific must despotism be to compel the ''international community'' to pursue and prosecute national leaders whose regimes commit war crimes?

In the Bosnian war of the 1990s, it was incontestable; Srebrenica, the largest mass murder in Europe since the Holocaust, a massacre directly witnessed by the very international peacekeepers deployed to stop it. Two Serb leaders, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, are on trial in The Hague, the evidence against them overwhelming.

Rwanda in 1994 was also a no-brainer - a million Tutsi slain by their fellow Rwandan Hutu in a genocide openly planned as state policy by the then Hutu-led government in Kigali. Almost 100 Rwandans have been indicted by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal. After Darfur, Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir became the first sitting head of state to be formally charged with war crimes, and today in oil-drenched Libya, the Atlantic powers and their Arab allies will drop more bombs on Muammar Gaddafi's Tripoli, to stop him murdering his countrymen.
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But what of Sri Lanka and the appalling end of its 30-year civil war between the mostly Sinhalese state and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the notorious Tamil Tigers? Through April-May 2009, thousands of Tamils were corralled to a supposed safe haven, a sand spit in the island's remote north-east that they were told would be a sanctuary. These were not Tiger combatants but neutral innocents. And they would die en masse under shelling in what the Colombo government had assured them and the world was a ''no-fire zone''.

"This was Sri Lanka's Srebrenica," says Gordon Weiss, an Australian who was the UN's spokesman in Sri Lanka through the war's end and aftermath. Now home in Newcastle after breaking with the UN, Weiss has just published The Cage, a book about the Sri Lankan war that is as damning of the UN's acquiescence in the atrocities that Colombo's forces were perpetrating, as it is of the regime that ordered them.

Weiss has no argument with Sri Lanka's central right to reclaim sovereign territory. His issue is how it murderously went about it. Weiss is right to say that the world is better off without the Tamil Tigers. They recruited child soldiers, brainwashed conscripts into taking cyanide capsules when captured, perfected the suicide bomber-assassin and terrorised Tamils into paying for their war by extracting ''liberation taxes'' from the diaspora. Refusal to part with a third of a Tamil emigrant salary in Sydney or Toronto meant intimidation of relatives back home.

Colombo claims there is no evidence of war crimes from when it vanquished the Tigers in 2009. But that's not true. An incriminating body of verified material cannot be ignored. Indeed, this material is more damning than anything made public by the International Criminal Court in its pursuit of the Gaddafis. Unsurprisingly in this era of portable media, much has been provided by Sri Lankan soldiers in trophy videos they filmed themselves. Last week British TV station Channel Four screened the most compelling evidence yet - a documentary called Sri Lanka's Killing Fields. It's a towering piece of journalism, verifying atrocities committed against Tamil civilians by Sri Lanka's military in nauseating detail: systematic murder, rape and torture of innocents and the surrendered, direct targeting of hospitals and clinics in the no-fire zones after Colombo received their co-ordinates from a neutral Red Cross.

In screening its program late at night, Channel Four apologised for the gruesome content but said it owed it to history to air horrors that the democratically elected government in Colombo denies ever happened. Footage inevitably made its way to YouTube, and the station has kept open the geo-lock on its website to allow the world to see it. For its part, Colombo condemned the program, and claimed the aired footage was the fictional handiwork of diaspora Tigers and Western stooges.

Far from being pursued for war crimes, Sri Lankan leaders insist they should be congratulated, boasting that in the West-led global war on terror, they have been the most successful prosecutors of it. Colombo now hosts how-to conferences while exporting anti-insurgency strategies to places such as Pakistan.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother-cronies of their elected dictatorship look near-untouchable. China runs their defence in the UN, ballasted by $3 billion of sovereign investment Beijing has staked in their home town of Hambantota, now vying with the Gold Coast to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Victory has been sweet, and Sri Lanka is now a safer, though in many respects more sinister, place than it has been for years.

But at what moral cost? By UN estimates, as many as 40,000 people died on that blood-drenched beach in April-May 2009. And as the case builds against the Rajapaksas, people such as Gordon Weiss ask why Australians are more agitated about what happens to their cattle in Indonesia than about the death of so many innocents in Sri Lanka's killing fields?

Eric Ellis is a foreign correspondent specialising in Asia. From 2001-2008 he covered Sri Lanka as Fortune magazine's south-east Asia correspondent.

© The Age

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