Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, recently shown on Australian television, is a UK (Channel 4) documentary about the final days of the Sri Lankan government’s offensive against the Tamil Tigers in May 2009. It contains shocking evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the deliberate shelling of known non-combatant areas, such as hospitals in the so-called No Fire Zones; the summary execution of prisoners by Sri Lankan Army troops; and sexual violence against Tamil women, many of them militants.
The story of May 2009 is being told in conjunction with the release of a UN report indicating the Sri Lankan government’s failure to protect the civilian population during those final weeks, along with the Tigers’ use of civilians as human shields. As well as discrediting the Sri Lankan government’s version of the events, the report provides credible evidence of crimes perpetrated both by the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Tamil Tigers.
Not surprisingly, the report is condemned in Sri Lanka. Demonstrators have not only burned effigies of the UN General-Secretary Ban Ki Moon, but one demonstrator was filmed furiously biting the neck of an effigy before ripping it apart and then setting it alight. Combined with other protests, partly organised by government members, these images of furious destruction evoked for many people recollections of the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983, especially those families who were forced to flee and make their lives elsewhere.
Those riots helped transform a simmering ethnic conflict into a full-scale civil war involving international participation, the formation of a globally organised and funded militant group (the Tigers), and the deaths of hundreds of thousands, including one ex-national leader (India’s Rajiv Gandhi in 1991) and one incumbent (Sri Lanka’s Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993) who were assassinated by Tiger suicide bombers. Dozens of other politicians and military personnel were killed or wounded by the Tigers’ signature act, including in the last days of the 2009 conflict when militants, both male and female, attempted to storm advancing army positions and blow themselves up.
It was not unreasonable, therefore, for Sri Lankan Army troops to demand that surrendering militants remove their clothes. But this does not explain why prisoners were still naked when they were bound, abused, raped, tortured and executed, as shown in the Channel 4 documentary. Channel 4 first made this allegation in 2010 when it broadcast mobile phone footage of summary executions of male prisoners. In Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, it adds new footage, including of female prisoners, and in late July 2011 it broadcast interviews with anonymous military personnel who have not only endorsed the veracity of the accusations, but added that orders to finish the offensive quickly and to take no prisoners came from the top―the Defence Minister and brother of the President, Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
These claims are hotly disputed by the Sri Lankan government and many Sri Lankans at home, and especially by Sri Lankans abroad. When Four Corners broadcast the documentary, its website was bombarded with demands that the program not be aired. The acting Sri Lankan High Commissioner wrote a press release alleging the footage is fabricated and that many of the Tamil witnesses interviewed are duplicitously linked to the Tigers. As with the demonstrator furiously biting the effigy of Ban Ki Moon, I suspect they protest too much. The Sri Lankan state has a long history of brutal treatment of its own population, including the use of paramilitary death squads to eradicate sections of the majority Sinhalese community.
Moreover, it is strikingly significant that from January 2008—when the Rajapaksa regime formally ended the shaky ceasefire with the Tigers that it had inherited from the previous government— the removal of witnesses began. Foreign journalist visas were revoked, outspoken foreign nationals were deported and popular press campaigns targeting organisations like UNICEF played up the idea of a global pro-Tiger conspiracy. In January 2009, the editor of the most outspoken weekly newspaper, the Sunday Leader’s Lasantha Wickrematunge, was assassinated. Well aware of the danger he was in, Wickrematunge had already written his last editorial, which accused the Rajapaksa regime of his killing.
Australian-born UN spokesman Gordon Weiss served in Sri Lanka through this period. He was so moved by his experience, especially by what happened at the end of the war, that he stepped away from the UN to write The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers (Picador, 2011). This highly readable and insightful account provides a brief historical background to the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict before recounting the events of 2009, when the Sri Lankan military occupied the Tiger-controlled territories, forcing well over 300,000 civilians to flee towards the north-east coast and ultimately a narrow strip of sand where, pounded by artillery and small arms fire, the final showdown took place. As Weiss describes it, the Tigers were accomplices to this human tragedy not only by using civilians as human shields, but also by compelling them at gunpoint not to run away, shooting them if they did, and by pressing people, many of them children, into their dwindling ranks, only for these untrained soldiers to be killed in the massive military onslaught. The Sri Lankan government played up this situation by declaring its offensive to be a humanitarian rescue mission.
Weiss’ non-specialist book provides a useful account of Sri Lanka’s colonial and postcolonial history, the rise of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and the deterioration of ethnic relations. But it betrays a typical Western liberal suspicion of ethnic majorities and sympathy for underdogs that suggests Sri Lanka’s Tamils had little choice other than to take up arms. It does not, for instance, examine the internal divisions (mostly caste based) within Tamil society, or how these were elided in an intense linguistic nationalism—articulated with similar social movements on the sub-continent, influencing a growing antagonism to a post-colonial state—that was always going to serve the interests of the Sinhalese ethnic majority. Ceylon was founded on democratic principles that were predestined to fuel communal discord unless the social and political elite—whose interests the British colonial administration had fostered—were to show foresight and courage about what was likely to happen.
At the heart of Sri Lanka’s long civil war is internal social division and inequality, not simply between but within the ethnic groups. This division has inspired decades of unrest, including the brutally suppressed insurgency of 1971 by the then Maoist/Guevarist Sinhalese People’s Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or JVP), post-insurgency affirmative action intended to appease the JVP, and the growth of minority Tamil militancy reacting in part to perceived ethnic biases in such affirmative action policies. At the same time, Tamil militancy fed on the intense and largely caste-based inequalities within the Tamil population, a factor that inspired young Tamil women to embrace militancy. The Sri Lankan government then responded by deploying poorly trained and led Sinhalese troops in Tamil areas who were often encouraged by their commanding officers to mistreat Tamil civilians.
Weiss depicts the war as ultimately coming down to a struggle between two ruthless and efficient military men, the Tamil Tigers’ founder-leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The former built one of the most efficient, cold-blooded militant organisations the world has ever seen. The latter, a Sri Lanka Army veteran who had spent several years in the United States working in IT until his brother’s rise to power, set about destroying that organisation by rebuilding the army, asserting total control over its procurements and fulfilling his brother’s quest to destroy Prabhakaran. It is important to note that Mahinda Rajapaksa based his political future on ending the conflict and, from stories I have been told by people who for various reasons met with the President in 2008, was obsessed with destroying Prabhakaran. Gotabaya, who narrowly survived a Tiger suicide bomber attack in 2007, delivered the result. The war is now over, the Rajapaksa oligarchy (there are two other brothers and some forty other family members now holding the reins of government) is firmly in power, and the only irritation is world opinion that Sri Lanka’s approach to the ‘war on terror’ should be condemned.
Many gainsayers demand to know why there isn’t an equivalent reaction to the terrible deeds of the Tigers. Unwilling to appreciate that in international law sovereign bodies―nation-states―are subject to very different expectations than are voluntary associations such as militant organisations, these demands belie a concession that war crimes and crimes against humanity were indeed committed. The Sri Lankan gainsayers cry foul and demand to know why Sri Lanka stands accused when, for instance, the crimes of Tony Blair and George W. Bush are ignored—and while this is a good question, it’s also an indirect admission of culpability.
Another argument raised by the gainsayers is that Channel 4, the United Nations and various others are part of a global conspiracy to suppress Sri Lanka’s progress. Sri Lanka is carving out a new niche in the postcolonial world where it is no longer the simpering client of Western patronage but a proudly independent partner (client) of new donor states like Iran and China, states that don’t question internal affairs but simply strive to extend their influence.
Here I am reminded of the tale of the Bibile orange— an indigenous fruit rumoured to have been deliberately destroyed by an introduced disease to create a market for imports. This is a popular JVP story in the south of the country that celebrates nationalism in the anti-imperialist guise of uncovering the wicked European conspiracies that have for so long kept Sri Lanka small, and especially the Buddhist Sinhalese. A JVP off-shoot, the National Heritage Party (Jathika Hela Urumaya, JHU) of Buddhist monks can be grouped here, especially in their sometimes violent antagonism to Christian missionaries and other European NGOs.
Sri Lanka is, of course, not unusual in boasting a long history of paranoid conspiracy theorists, and indeed such views are not always fanciful. Under the Rajapaksas, however, and in the flush of their victory, the ranks of the gainsayers have swollen. In Australia the University of Adelaide’s Sri Lankan-born historian-turned-anthropologist Michael Roberts wrote on a website on 20 June this year that Gordon Weiss reminded him of the missionaries he dealt with as a young man growing up in Sri Lanka. Weiss, he argues, belongs to one of the ‘engines’ of the international ‘coalition of forces’ levelling war crimes accusations, one of the ‘people of righteousness’ working in conjunction with ‘Tamil migrants in the Western world bent on vengeance’ (note, not justice). Basing his opinion of Weiss on nothing more than the photos Weiss includes of himself on his website, this is a pernicious and ridiculous ad hominem argument. Regarding the documentary footage, quoting no evidence, Roberts declares that it is Tamil Tigers training propaganda, nothing more.
All of this begs some questions. Why is the Sri Lankan government so adamant in its denials? Why is it so anxious to depict the allegations as conspiracy? Is the answer simply that the allegations are false, or is it because the crimes are still continuing? Is the Rajapaksa regime still at it, still plundering the country, still displacing and brutalising the Tamil population? Does it still maintain an absolute and terrifying grip on power, perpetuating the brutality of a state that took war as its object and made truth the first casualty? This makes books like The Cage and, even more importantly, proceeding with the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, vital.
Author: Rohan Bastin is an Australian-born anthropologist teaching at Deakin University. He is the author of The Domain of Constant Excess: Plural Worship at the Munnesvaram Temples in Sri Lanka (Berghahn Books, 2002).