Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sri Lanka's dirty secret

By Stewart Bell | National Post

During the last gasps of Sri Lanka's long civil war, Lieutenant-General Jagath Dais held a briefing for journalists at a compound in Kilinochchi, a Tamil Tiger rebel stronghold that had fallen to government forces.

Using a slide projector, the Sri Lanka Army commander gave a detailed accounting of the number of rebels and troops killed and injured in the fighting. But when asked how many civilians had died, he soured.

"No civilian casualties," he said. "Zero."

Two years later, that claim is less credible than ever. While Sri Lanka continues to defend its wartime conduct, a mounting stack of independent reports have concluded that at least 10,000 died, many due to government shelling.

"It would be a mistake for Sri Lankans to gloss over the fact of these deaths; those who hope for a genuine peace and for the preservation of their democracy must eventually look full in the face at a violent past," Gordon Weiss wrote in The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers.

As the United Nations spokesman in Colombo at the time, Mr. Weiss had a unique perch from which to observe the calamitous end of the war, and he has documented his account in a critically acclaimed nonfiction book.

The book's version of what happened is hardly far-fetched. Mr. Weiss argues that a lot of civilians needlessly lost their lives during the final months of fighting and that the government bears its share of responsibility.

For this, the 45-year-old Australian, who was in Toronto this week for a panel discussion hosted by Sri Lankans Without Borders, has been defamed as a rebel apologist by the government and its supporters.

But he is hardly a voice in the wilderness. Investigations by the International Crisis Group, a panel of experts appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Amnesty International, among others, have come to the same stark conclusion.

Witnesses to the bloodshed have been coming forward. Videos apparently showing troops executing captives have been broadcast by Britain's Channel 4. The UN Human Rights Council was asked this week to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper took a stand last week when he said he supported an independent investigation. He also said he would not attend an upcoming Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka unless the country's human rights record improved.

"I think there is momentum building," Mr. Weiss said in an interview. "There have been some fairly momentous reports come out . a series of things that tended to argue that the position that was consistently held by the government of Sri Lanka - that nothing much happened at the end of the war - was an absurd one."

A former journalist and humanitarian worker, Mr. Weiss had spent more than a decade in world hotspots, from Angola and Sudan to Bosnia and Kosovo, when he landed in Colombo in 2006 to help the UN get its message out.

"You have the first experience with Sri Lankans, it's a very friendly one, they're very smiley, and the resorts. There's a whole life that operates at that level," he said. "But dig a little deeper and learn a little bit about Sri Lanka and you realize it's a place that's got multiple tensions running at cross purposes to each other, and all taking place on this hothouse island."

Days after he arrived, he got his first look at those tensions when a suicide bomber tried to assassinate the country's defence secretary. A ceasefire between the government and separatist Tamil Tiger rebels soon collapsed, and a "final war" began.

Both sides thought they would emerge victorious but the Sri Lankan army soon pushed the outgunned rebels, who had initially controlled a third of the country, into an evershrinking enclave.

Trapped in the fighting areas with them were some 300,000 civilians in a no-win situation. The rebels used them as human shields, shooting at those who tried to leave. And the military's use of artillery fire and air strikes caused heavy civilian casualties.

By May 2009, the government forces had corralled the rebels on an isolated beach where the civilians had also fled. The army then moved in for the kill. Among the dead were the rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his top commanders.

Few mourned the rebel defeat. The Tigers were suicide bombers and assassins who armed children and sent them to frontlines. They also used Toronto, with its large Tamil-Canadian population, as a base for supporting the cause through extortive fundraising and weapons procurement.

But questions about the government's methods have dogged Sri Lanka ever since. Outside agencies that examined the war said Sri Lankan forces had intentionally shelled civilians, hospitals and humanitarian operations, while silencing critics of the operation with abductions and disappearances.

Mr. Weiss said he does not know how many civilians died in the final offensive but that a "reasonable guess" is that 10,000 to 40,000 remain unaccounted for. Amnesty says at least 10,000 died, while the ICG said tens of thousands were killed.

"By denying that its military operations resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths, and intimidating and threatening those who challenge that view, the government is effectively closing off the opportunity to open a serious national dialogue on the recent past and needs of the future," the UN panel wrote.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has so far dismissed calls for an independent inquiry. Instead it launched the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which rights groups say is too flawed to be taken seriously.

"There is a propaganda war going on against Sri Lanka," said Karunarathna Paranawithana, the Sri Lankan Consul-General in Toronto, "so some individuals who work in some international agencies also have joined that." He said Mr. Weiss's book was factually wrong and that the author was not an "authentic observer with regard to the Sri Lankan conflict."

In addition to its fact-finding commission, Sri Lanka has embarked on a program of economic development, as well as resettlement of those displaced by the war and rehabilitation of ex-combatants, many of whom were women and children.

"I think it is going in a positive direction," Mr. Weiss said. "Merely by virtue of the fact that peace has returned, that's brought huge benefits But it doesn't mean at the same time that there aren't important outstanding issues that need to be dealt with."

Perhaps most glaring is that, more than two years after the war ended, the government has not yet proposed any meaningful reforms to address the grievances of minority Tamils that exploded into a quarter century of war.

"In one sense you could say that the initial grievances that gave rise to the insurgency in the first place are still there, they haven't gone away," he said. "They've not been dealt with and simply saying to people, 'Well, we're all one Sri Lanka now' is not a solution."


"We are concerned about the situation. That country needs to make progress, not just in terms of what they did against, yeah, the Tigers, but they do have to make advances in terms of political reconciliation, democratic values and accountability. We support the calls of the United Nations Secretary General's representative for an independent investigation ... " - Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Sept. 9, 2011.

" . Amnesty International's conclusions, derived independently from eyewitness testimony and information from aid workers, are that at least 10,000 civilians were killed; that the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] used civilians as human shields and conscripted child soldiers; that the Sri Lankan army shelled areas it knew were densely populated by civilians; and that people trapped by fighting suffered severe and avoidable deprivation of food, water and medical care. These actions constitute serious violations of international law."

- When Will They Get Justice, Amnesty International, Sept. 7, 2011.

"The government of Sri Lanka made every effort to protect civilians in the conflict zone . Despite the clear intent of the government of Sri Lanka and the numerous precautions taken, it was impossible in a battle of this magnitude, against a ruthless opponent actively endangering civilians, for civilian casualties to be avoided."

- Humanitarian Operation Factual Analysis July 2006-May 2009, Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka, July, 2011.

". I believe that the tactical choices the SLA [Sri Lanka Army] was directed to make, and which contributed to the deaths of so many civilians, warrant a credible judicial investigation of the kind that the Sri Lankan state, in its current guise, is no longer capable of mounting."

- Gordon Weiss, The Cage, May 2011.

"The government says it pursued a 'humanitarian rescue operation' with a policy of zero civilian casualties.

In stark contrast, the panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed both by the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace."

- Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, March 31, 2011.

"The Sri Lankan security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) repeatedly violated international humanitarian law during the last five months of their 30-year civil war.... An international inquiry into alleged crimes is essential ..."

- War Crimes in Sri Lanka, International Crisis Group, May 2010.

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