On the night of 14 June, UK television company Channel 4 aired graphic evidence of war crimes in Sri Lanka. Both government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam committed serious abuses throughout the conflict, and atrocities intensified during the last stages of the war.
The documentary, ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’, focused on that time between late 2008 and May 2009. The Tigers sent children into battle and used Tamil civilians as human shields, while the state was ruthless in pursuit of victory. Experts had authenticated the images broadcast, which had largely been taken on small hand-held cameras and mobile phones.
There were scenes of government shelling of helpless men, women and children in so-called ‘no-fire zones’ and hospitals, which appear to have been deliberately targeted. The Tigers were notorious for suicide bombing, and the aftermath of an explosion in a government centre for the displaced was screened. There was also ‘trophy’ footage filmed by some of the state troops involved in murdering bound prisoners, some of them naked. It appeared that some of the women captives had been sexually assaulted before they were killed.
Blood and bodies were shown but, perhaps sadder still, the terror and distress of the survivors, many of whom had watched their loved ones die. There were also scenes of kindness and heroism, in particular by the medics, administrators and volunteers who cared for the sick and injured in field hospitals with minimal supplies and equipment, at the risk of their own lives.
The Channel 4 film – which had been shown to the United Nations Human Rights Council at the end of May – will renew pressure to take action to bring the perpetrators to justice. A UN human rights panel report released in April had highlighted strong evidence of war crimes by state and Tiger forces, and made a number of recommendations.
In particular, the Sri Lankan Government was urged to take forward an effective accountability process, beginning with genuine investigations. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission which it has set up is widely regarded as ineffective.
But there are serious obstacles. To begin with, many of the Tiger leaders are dead, and thus beyond the reach of human justice, though some might believe that they are answerable to a higher Judge, or have travelled into the next life with much bad karma to expunge. Some of their followers – at least abroad – are still in denial about the misery they brought to Sri Lankans of all ethnic communities, but most of all the Tamils they claimed to champion, and whom they sought to dominate with devastating results.
What is more, the Sri Lankan government is resistant to admitting that it might have done anything wrong. The president, Mahinda Rajapakse, and his brother Gotabhaya, the defence secretary, are heavily implicated themselves. They are also popular among members of the Sinhalese majority, many of whom are so grateful for the end of Tiger terrorism that they refuse to consider the human cost of the tactics used during the last stages of the war. The president has also been successful in portraying himself as a victim of the international community, and any criticism of him is widely regarded as a slur on Sri Lanka. It has also been pointed out, correctly, that Western governments too have been guilty of breaking the rules of war – though why this should justify abuses elsewhere is not clear. Some in Sri Lanka also feel that it is best to leave the past behind.
There are human rights activists in all communities, but many of them are scared of a government that cracks down on dissent. Journalists who question the ‘official version’ have faced harassment, arrest and even assassination.
The most pressing need is perhaps not to punish the offenders but to relieve the problems of the survivors and minimise the risk of further violence. Sooner or later, if the government’s response to disagreement is repression, discontent will boil over in one part or another of the island. Bloodshed is likely to follow, unless democracy is strengthened and militarism challenged.
Sri Lankans overseas, and all worldwide who care about the wellbeing of the people of Sri Lanka, can play a part in trying to break through the wall of denial. Though there were well-meaning individuals in the ranks of the Tigers and still are in the armed forces, their top leaders behaved in ways that inflicted terrible harm on non-combatants. Whether or not the perpetrators of abuses are punished, the grief and suffering of those who were hurt deserves to be acknowledged, and efforts made to ensure they have a secure future.
This also involves tackling ethnic nationalism, and the notion that people of one ethnic community are somehow of less value than those of another. In this case, it includes insisting that Tamils, Muslims and other minorities are as much Sri Lankans as their Sinhalese neighbours, and working for full equality within a society where cultural and political diversity is welcomed.
Underlying this is the need, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, to strengthen a culture of respect for human rights and protection of non-combatants in the course of conflict. Faith-based and community groups, along with humanists and atheists, can play a part in this, including recognising and addressing the powerful social and psychological forces which can lead people to treat their ‘enemies’ with appalling cruelty or indifference.
The Channel 4 footage showed graphically what happens when ordinary people are regarded as mere pawns who can be sacrificed in a contest between rival commanders. But all human life is precious.
© Savitri Hensman, who was born in Sri Lanka, works in community care and equalities in the UK. She is a long-standing and respected writer and commentator on Christian social action and theology, as well as an Ekklesia associate. She has written extensively on the situation in Sri Lanka.