Sri Lanka: The Killing Fields

Photo by Tom Barber Photography

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Bombs in no fire zones, executions with no evidence of combat, a corrupt regime that is still in power – what will it take for the international community to respond to the cries of the Sri Lankan victims? Indrani Balaratnam reviews the Channel 4 documentary The Killing Fields

Sri Lanka: a tropical haven tucked away at the tip of India.  Beautiful beaches, exotic fruit and rich culture – on the outset, it is the ideal holiday destination.  Unbeknown to many, underneath this alluring exterior Sri Lanka is marred with the scars of a 26-year civil war and ridden with evidence of extensive war crimes that continue to be uninvestigated.

In July 2011, Channel 4 attempted to expose these war crimes by airing their documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,” with the aim of spreading the humanitarian message: war crimes have been committed and we must not let them go without analysis under international law.  The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was thus set up in Sri Lanka in a bid to investigate the war, but this week Channel 4 responded to their findings by arguing that the LLRC investigation was insufficient and their report was an attempt to cover up the truth.  Channel 4 produced more damning evidence that lays responsibility for the war crimes in Sri Lanka with President Rajapaksa and his regime.  “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished” showed that although ceasefire may have been declared in 2009, there is a long way to go before justice can prevail from this war.

Sri Lanka isn’t all as idyllic as pictures in tourist brochures. Photo by S Baker

The tensions between Sinhalese and Tamil in Sri Lanka were sown during the colonial era.  Since the 1500s alliances were formed between the Sinhalese and the colonial empires, leaving the Sinhalese with a significant level of power and authority upon independence.  Sinhalese nationalism dominated the country and after independence was gained in 1948 their determination to push the Tamils out of the country became clear through measures such as the Sinhalese-only language law, a Sinhalese Marxist rising and the disenfranchising of Tamil plantations, stripping many Tamils of their citizenship.

Resentment amongst the Tamil community grew and eventually the Tamils formed several rebellious gangs to fight their oppression: the main organisation being the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  In 1983 the civil war was sparked following the deaths of hundreds of Tamils.  In the 26 years that followed a cold, brutal and bloody war was fought and basic human rights were eroded in the process.  Crimes were committed by both parties to the war but Channel 4 have chosen to focus on the crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government as ultimately, “a democratic government is held to higher standards than a terrorist group” (David Milliband, UK Foreign Secretary 2007 – 2010).

The two documentaries released by Channel 4 were both aired late at night: they had no intention of holding back on the horrific imagery of crimes that had been captured on mobile phone footage during the war.  And quite rightly so.  If the display of shocking, disturbing and bloody imagery is necessary to provoke an international response then Channel 4 should not play the game of the Rajapaksa regime and attempt to hide the terrifying truth from the public.

President Rajapaksa. Photo by scan0123

The recent documentary expanded the list of international crimes that were committed during this war as revealed in the first documentary last year. Tamil Tigers: systematically stripped, bound, forced to their knees and a single bullet wound to the back of their heads; the 12 year old son of Vellupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the LTTE, with 5 bullet wounds in his chest shot at close range – a basic understanding of criminal law is sufficient for one to acknowledge that these crimes amount to murder – a criminal offence – and given this occurred as part of a war it is undoubtedly international crime that cannot be ignored.

The Army’s use of heavy weapons in a no fire zone, attacking clearly marked hospitals – a crime which amounts to genocide. Video footage showed at least 100,000 civilians wading through lagoon water desperately trying to reach safety and escape the no fire zone that the Government had taken control of, else if they remained they would have faced the brutality of a detention camp.  The sudden disappearances of Sinhalese and Tamil journalists, and the sexual assaults of female LTTE journalists as revealed by graphic video footage which captures the voice of a perpetrator wishing he had done more to his victims’ corpse.  In the final months of this war the Sri Lankan government had one mission: eliminate the LTTE, and “they were not going to let anybody stop them do that, either the international community, the media or the fear of humanitarian issues or civilian casualties” (Sir John Holmes, Head of Humanitarian Affairs, 2007 – 2010).

In response to the first documentary aired in 2011, the Sri Lankan government produced its own documentary in reply: “Lies Agreed Upon.”  They attempted to discredit the Channel 4 documentary by accusing the producers of relying upon sources that were not mentioned, distorted voices and hidden faces.  This second documentary produced by Channel 4 was careful to include exact sources for their statistics, a display of a thorough study of the images and videos by experts, direct quotations of official UN reports and interviews with David Milliband and Sir John Holmes who both visited Sri Lanka during the war gave a voice of unmasked witnesses to the war who spoke to those at the top of the military regime.  David Milliband accused the Rajapaksa government of being “liars” who were prepared to downplay the full extent of the war in order to give them time to end the war without international interference.

Photo by RubyGoes

This week, as a result of the Kony 2012 video, the world suddenly made it their responsibility to hunt down Joseph Kony for the heinous war crimes he committed in Uganda.  Kony has been hiding in the jungles of Uganda and has not been seen for several years.  In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa regime, which is also responsible for serious international crimes, remains in power today. The President and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa have covered up their crimes for several years but the greatest travesty from this war is that they still run the country.  Recent evidence has shown that Tamils are still being kidnapped in Sri Lanka and journalists continue to randomly disappear, despite the war ending 3 years ago.

When I visited Sri Lanka last year the image of the President of Sri Lanka was the first thing I saw upon arrival at the airport – a gentle reminder of who controls the country before I went any further.  I was warned by family members not to mention any interest in human rights law during my stay, because the words “human rights” do not exist in Sri Lanka. The locals fear speaking out against the regime for fear of the repercussions.  The Sri Lankan civilians (Tamil and Sinhalese) deserve justice for what they suffered during the war.

A large part of the reconciliation process for this country is an investigation of the war crimes – reconciliation cannot be possible when there is a possibility of a corrupt government. The international community should not ignore the Channel 4 documentaries: the images may be horrific and the brutality displayed in the videos is beyond what we in the West can even begin to comprehend, but they need to be watched.  And action must be taken.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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