Sunday, May 01, 2011

Sri Lanka: Dare not criticise

Himal: South Asian

After many months of work, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka submitted its report to the Sri Lankan government. Though the report has only been sent to Colombo for review, and the formal release is still awaited as Himal goes to press, extracts have already been leaked to the media. As a result of these leaks, the report framed by this advisory panel – not an investigative panel, as often misrepresented in the media – has led to heated debate in the national and international arena. The External Affairs Ministry in Colombo has already rejected the report as flawed, and President Rajapakse has called for protests and mass mobilisations as a show of strength against the UN.

The report addresses the major abuses alleged to have taken place in the lead-up to the May 2009 end of the 25 years of civil war on the island. The Panel of Experts – composed of three members, from Indonesia, South Africa and the US – has decided that there are credible allegations that both the government and the LTTE committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during this period. The report also details the denial of humanitarian assistance to civilians by the government as well as systematic attacks against them, involving widespread shelling and targeting of civilian facilities, including hospitals. The LTTE, for its part, is condemned for having used civilians as hostages and ‘human shields’, shot at and killed civilians who attempted to escape the conflict zone, forcefully recruited children into its army, and used military equipment in the proximity of civilians.

The report also addresses obstacles to accountability after the war. This includes the state of emergency that remains in place, having been extended month by month, including, most recently, in April; the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which likewise continues to be in force; as well as lingering militarisation of the conflict zone and restrictions on the media. Sections of the Tamil diaspora also come in for criticism for two reasons: for having provided support for the LTTE and for continuing to refuse to acknowledge the LTTE’s role in the humanitarian disaster, thus undermining a sustainable peace. Finally, the report rejects the ability of the Sri Lankan Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission – set up by President Rajapakse in May 2010 – to credibly address accountability, due to lack of independence and impartiality.

While the LTTE is gone, the significance of the report has to do with the record and continuing attitude of the Rajapakse government. None of the findings are new as such, reiterating concerns that have been voiced by rights groups and the media; nevertheless, the Panel of Experts report paints a very bleak picture of both the Sri Lankans state’s conduct during the war – and the steps taken since its end. This adds considerable weight to the demand that these concerns be taken seriously and addressed, which might go some way towards explaining the Rajapakse government’s vociferous reaction. However, what actually comes out of the work of the UN panel will depend on the steps that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon takes henceforth, as well as the political backing he gets from powerful international actors.

Here, the role of India and the US is probably going to determine whether the pressure mounts on Sri Lanka or the report is quickly forgotten. If one takes a cue from developments over recent years, Colombo’s successful prosecution of the war would not have been possible without both overt support and sins of omission and commission by both New Delhi and Washington.

Soon after the end of the war, an attempt by the European Union and other Western actors to condemn Sri Lanka’s wartime conduct at the UN Human Rights Council backfired. At that time, India, China and other governments turned the entire affair into a resolution congratulating Sri Lanka on ending the conflict. Indeed, one of the recommendations of the Panel report is for the UN Human Rights Council to reconsider that resolution. Now that India is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and is positioning itself as a regional power, it will be interesting to watch whether there is any change in New Delhi’s stance.

Polarising triumphalism
Since the war’s end, Colombo’s strategy has been to reject any criticism of its wartime actions, saying that such censure is being manipulated by the Tamil diaspora. While the new report does criticise sections of the diaspora, the latter’s importance as a political force has been on the wane. In fact, it could be argued that it is now the Western governments who use the politically weak diaspora to send a message to the Sri Lankan government, rather than the other way around. While Colombo is depending on Beijing and Moscow to mobilise support to undermine any political pressure relating to the Panel of Experts report, political will is required on the part of Washington and New Delhi ultimately to determine whether Sri Lanka will be called to account.

This month, we are seeing the second anniversary of the end of the war. But, after a quarter-century of conflict, with over 100,000 lives lost, the government of President Rajapakse has done little to deliver on the historic opportunity for political reconciliation presented by the conflict’s close. Rather than broad democratisation and a constitutional political settlement, which could have won over the country’s minorities, the Rajapakse regime has continued with its war-time mentality, promoting a polarising triumphalism in order to consolidate its power.

In this situation, the UN report could be a window of opportunity for progressive and democratic forces within Sri Lanka to begin a debate on the future of the country. Admittedly, this seems unlikely, given that the continuing repression and extreme nationalist demagoguery of the Rajapakse regime seems to have closed possibilities for a free, rational debate. Nonetheless, at the international level at least, if the Rajapakse government is in trouble with what it describes as the politically motivated ‘international community’, it has only its own post-war hubris to blame.

© Himal

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Sunday, May 01, 2011

Last phase of Sri Lanka's civil war: What happened really?

By Sivanendran | South Asia Analysis Group

The events at Mullivaikal mark the climax of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the most vicious of the battles where the lives of poor civilians were totally ignored.

That the innocent civilians got massacred in large numbers is not in doubt, but the orthodox story omits entirely the context in which this occurred.

What is most important to keep in mind is that Mullivaikal today has sadly become largely a political tool, an excuse for ethno-nationalists on all sides to let loose their most radical sentiments and score points with their supporters. In the 2009 massacre in reports, the background and responsibilities for the disaster in Mullivaikal were absent. Preferred was the simple explanation: a black and white event in which the Tamils the terrorists were solely to blame.

"Truth and reason are eternal," Thomas Jefferson wrote to Rev. Samuel Knox in 1810. "They have prevailed. And they will eternally prevail . . ."

Mullivaikal was a village in Vanni besieged by the government forces. This massacre occurred because the Sri Lankan Army savagely lashed out s against the LTTE ignoring the civilian population of the area.. After promising safety and protection to the innocent inhabitants of Mullivaikal the governmental forces are said to have used disproportionate force indiscriminately attacking even assigned "no fire zones".

Throughout this period the U.N. adopted a position of "neutrality" that in practice meant inaction, even when large number of men, women and children were killed in these attacks. Sri Lankan forces attacked "no fire zones" or the warring parties otherwise violated ceasefire agreements.

It's a distasteful point, but it has to be said that, if you're committing whole scale slaughter, you don't let the women go since they are key to perpetuating the very group you are trying to eliminate. Many of the boys and girls were executed and buried in mass graves. Every day of this war has seen the most unspeakable atrocities committed against ordinary civilians. Trapped in this small land area, under constant Sri Lankan bombardment, sleepless and thirst-maddened, unarmed men, women and children succumbed to hallucinations, paranoia, and despair. The psyches of the people ruptured.

Mullivaikal is not simply a case of the international community standing by as a far-off atrocity was committed. The actions of the international community encouraged, aided, and emboldened the attackers. The fall of Mullivaikal did not have to happen. There was no need for thousands of skeletons to be strewn across that north eastern coast. There is no need for thousands of Tamil children to be raised on stories of their fathers, mothers, uncles and brothers slaughtered by Sri Lankan army.

How many died?

There are various estimates of the maimed and the dead. Some estimate the dead as about 10,000 whilst some others have even suggested as much as 100,000. The massacre accounts for an astonishing number of missing from the brutal conflict as a whole. By any standard, it was one of the worst and most concentrated acts of killing in the post-World War II era.

The fact beyond dispute is that during the siege of Mullivaikal thousands of Tamil men, women and children were killed. Most of them died when the enclave was completely encircled by the Sri Lankan Army and fell almost without a fight. A significant number reached safety only after the 18th May 2009.

It is now two years since the fall of Mullivaikal . Much has been written about the matter. Nonetheless the majority of reports have been limited to a broad media exposure of the event, with very little analytical rigor. Discussion of Mullivaikal cannot be limited to genocide and mass graves. A rigorous analysis of the events must take into consideration the background circumstances, in order to understand the real motives which led to the massacre.

Does Mullivaikal exemplify state brutality over the twenty five years of war? Let the truth be told. This is the question that needs to be answered by all including the international community.

Who is responsible?

The zone of Mullivaikal, like almost that entire coastline, is characterized by its flat terrain offering clear advantage to offensive forces. Sri Lankan army waited for months without attacking this enclave until the Indian elections were over. Given the resources available to both parties, and the characteristics of the terrain, it would seem that the Sri Lankan army had the necessary force to defend itself and be ever so mindful of the innocent people trapped in the war zone. This, however, did not occur.

Given the military advantage of the Sri Lankan forces it is very difficult to explain the amount of disregard that they showed to the innocent men, women and children in a siege situation, recklessly prosecuting a war in the absence of effective military resistance. The heavy casualties amongst the civilian population could have been avoided. The victims have many stories to tell. There are about 300,000 who survived these onslaughts waiting to tell their stories. There is no one asking for their stories much less to listen to them. There are many harrowing tales from these victims of Mullivaikal yet to be told.

The international community also bears responsibility for this massacre. Had the UN asserted its authority perhaps the world would have been spared of these mass killings.

The aftermath

Extensive forensic investigations of the Mullivaikal massacre sites have not been carried out systematically to identify the bodies and bury them appropriately. That area has been out of bounds to its inhabitants except the Sri Lankan military to enable them to clean up the land. We still do not know what the Sri Lankan army has done to the bodies. Is there a combined memorial or a mortuary in Mullivaikal for the dead?

The memory of Mullivaikal’s dead men women and children was kept alive by the surviving victims. They will continue to raise the memory at all international forums and will not rest until the truth is revealed.

Since the ending of the war in May 2009, the Tamil Diaspora has continued with their protest at the stalled investigations into the fate of their missing men, women and children and will do so again on the second anniversary of the massacre in May 2011. Their list of primary demands would include:

1.The full facts of massacre should be revealed and publicised.

2. A list of all dead and executed to be identified without delay.

3. A list of all survivors of Mullivaikal held prisoner in Sri Lanka should be released immediately.

So, here we are, two years later, going over the same old lines, while the families of the victims of Mullivaikal win nothing more than the moral high ground, which provides little in the way of closure. But, then, even closure is a tricky business. Even if the perpetrators themselves were to admit to the genocide and pay for their crimes, justice would not be served and the dead will not be brought back to life:

After all these years, there is still not a single high-profile political figure in Sri Lanka–who is capable of thinking of humanity over politics, of country over career. How can the people of Sri Lanka shrug it off not as the massacre of thousands of human beings, but as a tool to be used in political games?

UN Secretary General

A UN Secretary-General is not responsible for all UN actions - or lack of such, or for decisions made by the Security Council. Mr Bank ki Moon is however responsible for his own actions. During those fateful days in 2009, he had a choice: standing up against the Security Council in an attempt to shame politicians into intervening or keeping his head down and pretend he didn't know what was going on. Mr Moon chose silence, which satisfied the governments bent on ’business as usual’: seeing nothing and hearing nothing..

It has been argued that the Security Council was not really 'interested' or 'willing' to intervene and that this exempts him from blame. It is agreed that many politicians were extremely reluctant to intervene with force in Sri Lanka. But is it not exactly during such times when we most need a Secretary-General of the United Nations to speak up? Or, put differently, if politicians were head over heels to intervene to prevent crimes against humanity, why would we need a Secretary-General of the United Nations? Besides, the (unfortunately very belated) intervention of Britain and France almost at the end of the massacre showed that it was indeed possible to create enough public awareness for the international community to react.

If Mr Ban ki Moon had vigorously demanded a UN intervention and thereby confronted those governments in the Security Council that left civilians to their killers, he could rightly have washed his hands as he has since tried to do. However, for reasons of political and bureaucratic expediency he chose not to do so.

The United Nations must shoulder a large share of responsibility for allowing the massacre to take place under their noses however odious the LTTE tactics were. Through error, misjudgement and the inability to recognize the scope of evil confronting them, they failed to do their part to save the people of Mullivaikal from the mass murder.

The blame surely extends to the member states of the United Nations.

In the final days and hours of the advance on Mullivaikal, which American and Indian intelligence could monitor closely, the international community fell strangely silent. Mullivaikal duly fell, with consequences which were unspeakable in human terms, but not inconvenient diplomatically.

Mullivaikal– A call for justice

The Sri Lankan government deny that that there is anything to be explained or debated on this matter. This was only a problem of terrorism and its elimination. So many thousands people were killed and unknown number of prisoners were executed is not a matter that needs investigation. Even if a distinguished international judicial forum of unquestioned authority has found it to constitute unacceptable does not appear to persuade the Sri Lankan government that there is a need for an appropriate investigation of the matter. According to them there is nothing to debate because everything is settled and clear.

However, for the Tamils, it is noteworthy that "Mullivaikal" is used not as a geographic location but as a stand-alone term that denotes horror, "Mullivaikal" used in this sense has established itself as a horrible massacre of the innocent Tamils. Is Mullivaikal a hoax? Is it a myth based on a lie?

A distinguished panel of reasonable people with no ethno-religious axe to grind in the Sri Lankan quagmire have called for an investigation. If Sri Lanka has no blood on its hands why not agree for such an international investigation to bring a closure to this tragedy. We repeat- Let the truth be told.


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Sunday, May 01, 2011

US envoy heads to Sri Lanka amid war flap

AFP | Yahoo! News

A US envoy heads to Sri Lanka next week to encourage a full accounting over its civil war after the government angrily rejected UN-backed allegations of atrocities, officials said Friday.

Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state handling South Asia, will leave Saturday on a six-day trip to Sri Lanka and Maldives for talks with political leaders and civil society, the State Department said.

A US official said Blake's visit to Sri Lanka had originally been planned a month ago and was not linked to the war panel report released Monday but that it was certain to come up in conversation.

The report commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon found "credible allegations" that both the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels had been involved in what could amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The United Nations has estimated that tens of thousands of people died in the 2009 offensive, in which the government killed the top leadership of the Tamil Tigers and ended their nearly 40-year separatist insurgency.

Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris, meeting with diplomats on Thursday, denounced the report as "legally, morally and substantively flawed," and accused the United Nations of trying to destabilize the island.

But the United States has welcomed the report, with US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice calling for "an independent and full accounting of the facts."

Another US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States planned a "candid dialogue" with Sri Lanka and other countries to seek accountability over the civil war.

"We strongly support the secretary-general's call for Sri Lankan authorities to respond constructively to the report," the official said.

The Tamil diaspora has been actively pressing for an accounting of the war, contributing to calls by a number of US lawmakers for an international probe.

© Yahoo! News

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