By Frances Harrison
Asian countries thinking of investing in post-war Sri Lanka should put more emphasis on helping the country really overcome its past by addressing issues of injustice. It’s not enough to fund tourist hotels and roads without ensuring there is rule of law and a process to confront uncomfortable truths.
It’s normally Sri Lanka’s relationship with India and, to a lesser degree, Pakistan that are discussed but its connections to South East Asia are also strong. Thailand and Japan both played an important role hosting peace talks during the conflict, while Malaysia has a sizeable Sri Lankan Tamil minority with strong ties back home. There are also the many Asian countries that sold arms to either side during the war and now reluctantly host increasing numbers of Tamil refugees fleeing persecution.
It is not helping Sri Lanka to endorse Colombo’s version of the conflict unquestioningly. When it crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, Sri Lanka initially claimed it had a zero civilian casualty policy. Today it concedes some deaths but still denies its soldiers were involved in any atrocities. This is in spite of plenty of credible evidence to the contrary.
A preliminary investigation by legal experts for the United Nations said Sri Lanka’s “conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law” concluding that up to 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed in just five months. There are indications that the death toll could be even higher.
At conferences attended by Asian militaries, Colombo has promoted its victory over the Tigers as a new way to defeat terrorism, called “the Sri Lankan option”. This is in fact a callous euphemism for a scorched earth policy, failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians and removing independent witnesses.
Between the months of January and May 2009 the Sri Lankan military indiscriminately shelled and bombed hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in a small rebel enclave in the north of the island, ordering all journalists and international aid workers out first so there would be no one to say what really happened.
The traumatised survivors who escaped describe a living hell. Starving Tamil women and children cowered in earthen trenches as the Sri Lankan army pummelled them with volleys of shells fired from multi-barrelled rocket launchers and dropped bombs from supersonic jets. In a lull in the fighting, people would emerge to find human body parts strewn around, quickly burying the remains with shovels to prevent the dogs eating them.
Makeshift hospitals staffed by a handful of brave doctors were systemically attacked more than 30 times as life saving drugs for surgery and bandages ran out. Mothers and babies were shelled while queuing for milk rations despite being visible to the drones that flew overhead constantly. Exhausted surgeons resorted to amputations without anaesthetic and donating their own blood to keep patients alive.
The war crimes were of course not perpetrated by only one side. The Tamil Tiger rebels compounded the catastrophe by refusing to allow civilians out of the killing field, rejecting the idea of surrender and forcibly recruiting teenagers to fight.
But when the Tigers were finally obliterated the killing didn’t stop. In the final hours eyewitness saw soldiers throw grenades in bunkers to finish off the injured rebels. Some of the last civilians who walked out say thousands of dead bodies lay sprawled on the ground, rotting in the tropical heat. Every single survivor was herded into a giant refugee camp, where women lived in fear of rape by the security forces who roamed inside the camp at will. Today there are reports of scores of disappearances and executions all over the island, torture in custody is commonplace and there is still an overwhelmingly heavy military presence in former conflict areas. The rebels are nowhere to be seen but the “ethnic problem”, as it’s referred to in Sri Lanka, has not gone away.
The Sri Lankan government did conduct its own flawed inquiry into the war – known as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Unconvincingly it seemed to blame everything on the Tigers and exonerate its own security forces though there were some sensible suggestions for improving the human rights situation in general. Several ministers disowned the inquiry and so far nothing whatsoever has been done to implement its findings.
The government did draw up a “national action plan” to implement its Lessons Learnt and Reconcilliaton Commission but it looks increasingly like an attempt to stall and obfuscate in the hope the world will forget. It was a response to a politely worded resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in March. Worryingly the government’s accountability plan relies on the wrongdoers to investigate themselves – and that too over the next five years.
In the meantime Sri Lanka is storing up trouble for the future. Denying the experiences of Tamil survivors makes reconciliation and forgiveness impossible. The deep ethnic grievances that led to conflict in the first place remain dangerously unresolved if not intensified. The defeated I have met are shattered broken people who never want to fight again, but in another generation the desire for revenge may well kick in.
Frances Harrison is a former BBC foreign correspondent based in Sri Lanka. Her book of accounts of survivors from Sri Lanka’s civil war “Still Counting the Dead” is published this month (Oct 4) in the UK and online in ebook form by Portobello Books .