Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lifting the lid on Sri Lanka's war crimes

By Callum Macrae | The Guardian

Callum Macrae is a writer and film-maker. His work on Iraq has included the Panorama: On Whose Orders, and the award-winning Dispatches investigation: Iraq's Missing Billions. Besides directing the film "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields" he is currently working on films in Mali and Mauritania.

It is a moment that speaks volumes. While the Kfir combat jets of the Sri Lankan airforce scream overhead and the heavy artillery of the Sri Lankan army maintains a remorseless barrage on the ground below, a family of terrified Tamil civilians huddle in a shallow trench.

It is January 2009, and the beginning of the end of the 25-year war for an independent state of Tamil Eelam. The increasingly battered remnants of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are on the run and along with perhaps 400,000 Tamil civilians, they are being herded into an ever smaller area of land in north-east Sri Lanka.

The brutal Sinhalese government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa – armed with the rhetoric of the "international war on terror" and the tacit support of most of the world – believes it has a licence to eradicate the Tamil Tigers for ever. The UN and other international agencies have been pressurised into leaving, the world's media have been excluded and critical local journalists have been exiled, disappeared or murdered. The world is looking away.

As the shells fall, the trench provides little protection. It is only three feet deep and the adults, crouched protectively over their children, can barely get their heads below the level of the ground. But someone has not jumped into the trench; someone with a small video camera. Despite the nearby crump of the shells, he keeps filming. A woman in the trench is clutching a baby and crying desperately. "Please get in the bunker! Don't take the video!" she shouts in Tamil. "What are you going to do with the video? They are killing everyone …"

Over the next four months, two things happen. First the government does appear – through the deliberate targeting of hospitals and laughably named "no-fire zones" – to try to kill as many Tamils as possible; perhaps 40,000 civilians, perhaps far more (that they were in effect aided and abetted by the Tamil Tigers who used those same civilians as human shields does not in any way lessen the government's culpability.)

The other thing that happens is that the cameraman – or camerawoman – keep filming. As do many others. Sometimes on small domestic cameras, sometimes on phones. The Tamil side gets many of these images out on the internet. Other footage – grotesque images of war crimes, execution and brutality by Sri Lankan armed forces – is recorded by the perpetrators themselves on mobile phones. And so two years later there is an answer to that woman's terrified question: "What are you going to do with the video?"

We have been able to make that footage – along with many hours of even more disturbing images – into a film which might, belatedly, play a part in bringing the perpetrators of those crimes to justice. It is called Sri Lanka's Killing Fields and will be aired on Tuesday night on Channel 4.

The film has been creating a stir partly because some of the images are probably the most horrific ever to have been broadcast on mainstream television (hence the late-night slot). But we hope it will be remembered for another reason: we hope it will act as a reminder to those who would massacre their own people – and perhaps more importantly to the UN, the international community and the world's powers – that modern technology means you will never again get away with committing these kind of war crimes and crimes against humanity in secret. From now on, the victims – and all too often the perpetrators as well – will keep a record.

But that is only the first stage. The next is to ensure that this awful evidence is not ignored. These pictures push to the limit every normal rule of what is acceptable on television. You will see prisoners, bound and gagged, being executed in cold blood. You will see innocent civilians dying in agony on the ground in makeshift hospitals, which have been denied medicines and supplies by the Sri Lankan government. But if this is the only way to make people take this seriously, we believe it is the right thing to show these images.

Two months ago the UN's "panel of experts" concluded that the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers are "credible", and called on Ban Ki Moon to create an international mechanism to properly investigate them. So far he has declined – saying he doesn't have the authority. That is debatable, but the nation states of the UN through bodies such as the security council and the human rights council do have that authority. If the UN fails yet again, the message to every tyrant and repressive government will be clear: if you want to kill your own people with impunity, you will probably get away with it.

© The Guardian

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sri Lanka: Brutalisation of Society

By Col. R. Hariharan | South Asian Analysis Group

Recently there had been a series of seemingly disconnected events in India, UK and the UN that have a common thread: Sri Lanka’s conduct in the post war period. Though these events were not unexpected sequels, surprisingly Sri Lanka’s response had been reactive than proactive. Peevishness, rather than calculated strategy, appears to be dominating its thought process. As a result Sri Lanka’s actions show lack of confidence, rather than determination, in handling the issues.

Sri Lanka appears to be looking for reprieve rather than resolution of three issues bugging it ever since the war ended: allegations of war crimes, inadequate rehabilitation of war affected population, and inadequate efforts to address political grievances of Tamil minority. These issues have gathered strength as the state chose to disregard accountability for its actions under the cloak of its war against terrorism. Sri Lanka’s credibility progressively going down, it has been reduced to finding reprieve than finding solution as each critical issue gathers mass.

In India, the newly elected chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms Jayalalithaa pushed through two resolutions in the state assembly relating to Sri Lanka. The first resolution related to three key issues that have continued to haunt Tamils in the aftermath of Sri Lanka war: alleged war crimes Sri Lanka army, rehabilitation of war displaced, and meeting Sri Lanka Tamil aspirations for equitable share of power. The chief minister wanted New Delhi to impose economic sanctions on Sri Lanka for its continued intransigence on these issues.

The second resolution called upon Tamil Nadu government to implead itself in a pending case in Supreme Court on the legitimacy of transfer of Kachchativu to Sri Lanka. Ms Jayalalithaa had filed the case in 2008 and the resolution seeks to show the state’s solidarity on the issue.

There is no doubt that Ms Jayalalithaa had timed the two resolutions to pressurise New Delhi on the eve of departure of a high power Indian delegation to Colombo. The delegation consisting of the National Security Advisor, Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs and the Defence Secretary met with President Rajapaksa and discussed India’s concerns on some of the longstanding issues relating to Sri Lanka Tamils. Unlike the bonhomie usual at these meetings, this time the atmosphere was a little frosty. Few weeks earlier India had made its concerns public in a joint communiqué issued after the Sri Lankan ministers of external affairs visited New Delhi. Sri Lanka’s pronouncements after the Indian delegation’s visit indicated that Sri Lanka was still using the old templates of its relations with India. Apparently, Sri Lanka is either not sensitive to the changing dynamics of New Delhi’s coalition politics, or it could not care less.

The Congress-DMK coalition’s showing on Sri Lanka during the Eelam War IV has been interpreted by many in Tamil Nadu as insensitive and weak-kneed. The severe drubbing in Tamil Nadu elections it received has unnerved the Congress party (while DMK has tied itself in knots other than political). As an adroit politician Ms Jayalalithaa is exploiting this situation to her advantage. At the same time her strong statements on the Sri Lanka Tamil issue also reflect the prevailing mood in Tamil Nadu on Sri Lanka’s intransigence on war crimes issue.

Many Tamils felt that Rajapaksa’s promises made to India during the war on implementing the 13th amendment (including the so called 13th plus) lacked sincerity. Probably New Delhi also knows that Sri Lanka is not serious about resolving the issue with its laid back approach while President Rajapaksa initiates new slogans that delay concrete action. Whether these summations are correct or not, Sri Lanka Tamils have been stranded in political isolation.

Ms Jayalalithaa’s strident criticism of both Indian and Sri Lankan governments on this issue is a logical sequel to this mess. So India’s recently found public articulation of its stand on Sri Lanka Tamil-related issues is as much to assuage Tamil Nadu as pressurise Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka does not appear to have fully realised the adjustments New Delhi is making in its Sri Lanka policy to smoothen its interface with the new Tamil Nadu chief minister for its own domestic reasons. So we can expect Sri Lanka to continue to face problems in its relations with India unless it changes its act. Will it change?

At the end of last month, Sri Lanka army organised an international seminar on defeating terrorism, expounding on mechanics of its successful war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Though it was scheduled well in advance, its timing on the eve of the convening of the UN Human Rights Commission is not without significance: to direct the attention to present the Sri Lanka side of the conduct of war. However, key presentations by the defence secretary and minister of external affairs were defensive, focusing on the very issue of war crimes the army wanted to avoid.

There is probably a sense of relief in Sri Lanka that UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva would pass off in the next few days without taking any concrete follow up action on the war crimes issue. But the reprieve is likely to be short lived. The war issue has come as a shot in the arm for the LTTE remnants and fellow travellers outside Sri Lanka. They can once again claim legitimacy by joining the protests organised by the mainstream Tamil Diaspora. So before the September session of UNHRC, we can see once again a scaling up of public protests in international capitals demanding concrete UN action against Sri Lanka.

The moral of the story is Sri Lanka has to positively show it is serious about handling the human rights and war crimes baggage that had been accumulating. It is not merely to satisfy the international community but for its own sake.

Even before the foreign delegates for the army seminar moved out of Sri Lanka, the President was grappling with public grievances that have been incubating for some time: strike by university teachers demanding pay rise, strident trade union opposition to the private pension scheme bill, and simmering university students’ discontent. These are legitimate political and trade union activities and it would be short sighted to dub them as “international conspiracy to malign Sri Lanka.”

Even after two years of war, Sri Lanka state continues to wield extra clout under emergency and prevention of terrorism dispensations. As a result those in power find it easier to give accountability a short shrift to produce ‘visible results’. It was probably such an emergency mindset that caused the tragic death of a youth when the police handled a protest by workers at the Katunayake FTZ .

Sri Lanka did creditability in winning the war, but will lose its peace unless it changes its mindset. Otherwise it will be brutalising the society. It has to be accountable for its actions to its own people. Then it can care a fig about international opinion because the people will be supporting it wholeheartedly.


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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sri Lankan universities are no place for the army

By Rohini Hensman | The Guardian

Students in Britain have protested vociferously against government cuts in education funding, and rightly so. But students in Sri Lanka, where state-funded higher education is also under attack, face an additional ordeal: compulsory "leadership and positive attitude development" of university entrants by the military. The scheme was introduced without warning by the ministry of higher education, and is being carried out by the ministry of defence.

It faced no fewer than five fundamental rights objections in the supreme court; students and teachers pleaded that the rights of students would be infringed if they were forced to undergo a residential training programme in army camps without regard to their beliefs and cultural sensitivities. But the petitions were dismissed, and the programme was initiated in May.

What makes this development especially grotesque is that it occurs at a time when allegations of war crimes have been levelled by the United Nations against the government and armed forces of Sri Lanka. The report of the UN secretary-general's panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka, released in April, found credible allegations that both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had committed serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the final stages of the war that ended in May 2009.

The government shelled no-fire zones, where it had encouraged civilians to congregate, hospitals, food distribution lines, the UN hub, and near Red Cross ships that had come to evacuate the wounded. It also deprived civilians in the conflict zone of food and medical aid. Outside the war zone, it abducted and killed journalists and other critics. The LTTE, for its part, used civilians as hostages and human shields, shooting them if they tried to flee to safety, forcibly recruited adults and children to its armed forces, and used forced labour to build defences. Outside the war zone, it carried out suicide attacks on civilians. As a result of all these violations, tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of them in the carnage of the last few days.

Responsibility for the government violations goes right to the top: the buck stops with the commander-in-chief, president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But this does not exonerate soldiers who carried out commands to slaughter civilians, nor those who abused and executed prisoners. An appendix to the report by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to the human rights council in May documents technical assessments by forensic experts authenticating video footage, obtained by Channel 4, of Sri Lankan soldiers executing prisoners who have been subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including women. Such behaviour may be atypical; indeed, survivors have testified that some soldiers treated them with compassion and kindness. But there is no guarantee that military personnel who are guilty of appalling crimes are not involved in providing leadership training to young students.

Jayantha Dhanapala and professor Savitri Goonesekere of the Friday Forum, a multi-ethnic group of concerned citizens, point out that military training, with its emphasis on regimentation and unquestioning obedience, is contrary to the core values of freedom of opinion and expression, and discussion with respect for opposing viewpoints, which should be encouraged by a university education.

Most disturbingly, they note that the content of the module on history and "national heritage" focuses exclusively on cultural symbols of the majority Sinhala community with none from other communities. In short, "the curriculum seems to discourage tolerance for viewpoint difference, and sensitivities for the pluralism and diversity of our country. Regimentation, military discipline and taking pride in a majoritarian version of national heritage and history are what seem to be envisaged as the ideal model of leadership".

The purpose of the programme seems to be to reproduce the authoritarian, militaristic, Sinhala nationalist vision of society that characterises the Rajapaksa regime. Even if this goal is not achieved, the "skills" imparted by an army that has perpetrated horrific war crimes could, in a country awash with weapons, spawn armed robbery and gang warfare as well as state and anti-state terrorism.

Fortunately, there seems to be widespread opposition to the programme from students, parents, teachers and other concerned citizens from all ethnic communities. Among the responses documented by the Young Researchers' Collective was the lament of a student from Jaffna: "Militarism within the student sector will only lead to the destruction of the whole country." A senior lecturer observed: "This programme is to brainwash students to suit the needs of the government." Many respondents protested against the lack of consultation and bizarre setting for the programme. Such opposition should certainly be supported by anyone interested in democracy and peace in Sri Lanka.

© The Guardian

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sri Lanka: Police 'to release' detainee details

BBC Sinhala

Sri Lankan Police say they will release the information about those held by the police Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) to relatives. However, concerned organisations will not be given the details.

"On the request of detainees we are not releasing their information to any body other than the close relatives”, police spokesperson SP Prishantha Jayakodi told BBC Sandeshaya.

Police will set up three centres in Colombo, Vavniya and Galle.

“The centres will operate twenty four hours a day but information is available only to close relatives” the spokesperson said.

Any relative who wants to find out the well being of their loved ones detained by the TID can either contact the centres by telephone or visit the centres in person, he added.

According to the police spokesman SP Jayakodi, information about the suspects detained by the Military will not be available unless the detainees were handed over to the TID.

How many in detention?

In his address to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said that out of the 11,644 ex-combatants who surrendered or were arrested at the end of the conflict, 6,530 have already been rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

Human rights organisations have been campaigning to reveal details of those held in detention.

SP Jayakodi declined to reveal how many people are detained by the TID.

“There are people arrested under detention orders and some of them are in remand custody after producing before the courts, we will release information of the suspects held under detention orders” SP Jayakodi added.

© BBC Sinhala

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