Sri Lanka: witness to atrocity

Submitted by Matthew on 9 May, 2012 - 10:04

Film maker Callum Macrae has made two influential films about Sri Lanka.

He has been nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. He spoke to Solidarity.


Under the guise of rehabilitation and reconstruction the Sri Lankan government is attempting a Sinhalisation of the north of the country — an attempt to destroy the Tamil community.

Thousands of Tamils remain displaced while Tamil property is taken over and given to the military.

The army is opening hotels in the north. You can go whale spotting with the Sri Lankan navy. You cannot go to the east, where the final battles took place [in the 2008-9 war]. The army is taking over Tamil farms and shops. This has the very sinister effect of destroying the Tamil community’s ability to rebuild itself.

Soldiers in the overwhelmingly Sinhalese army are paid a bonus if they have a third child; in the north and east the incentive to have a third child is especially strong. [The same processes] are going on nationally: the militarisation of the whole of Sri Lankan society along with the re-inforcing of the pro-Mahinda-Rajapaksa [President] element of the army. Part of that is the jailing of the former general, Sarath Fonseka, who stood as an opponent of the government in the 2010 elections.

All this is illustrated by the attitude of the regime to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commissions. The LLRC called for the military to withdraw from certain elements of civilian administration; the Ministry of Defence was awarded huge contracts for construction work. You even see — ironic given the recent England cricket tour there — the handing over of one each of the main Sri Lanka cricket grounds to the Sri Lankan army, navy and air force. Partially this is a reflection of the corruption of the Sri Lankan cricket board, but also the contempt of the Rajapaksa regime for the civilian administration and for world opinion.

Perhaps most absurd of all, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence is now called the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development!

This is an ultra-nationalist Sinhalese regime which will tolerate no attempt by the Tamils to campaign for their rights. The regime obfuscates on their obligation to grant devolution to the Tamil areas.

Sri Lanka has the fourth-worst record in the world for investigating the murder of journalists. Literally dozens of journalists in Sri Lanka have been murdered, disappeared or exiled. There has been a sinister increase in the use of what’s called “white van abductions”, where critics are abducted and disappeared by anonymous men driving white vans.

The regime is trying to have its cake and eat it. Throughout the war the regime was enthusiastic in its endorsement of the rhetoric of the Global War on Terror. It used that rhetoric to justify its offensive, ostensibly on the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] but also on civilians.

The rest of the world effectively closed its eyes, hoped it would all end as soon as possible and that there would not be too many dead, doing nothing to stop the genocidal behaviour of Sri Lankan forces in the north east.

Having achieved their aim, the regime changed its tune. In a 2010 speech to the UN Rajapaksa warned the rest of the world to back off. He said that Sri Lanka had to find its own mechanisms and its own culturally-appropriate solutions. He said foreign-imposed solutions were rarely effective. As we revealed in our film, that speech was written for him by the western consultancy firm Bell Pottinger.

The claim that Sri Lanka is an independent developing sovereign nation being bullied by the West is preposterous. It is a fake, pseudo-anti-imperialist smokescreen for their repression.

The UN and the international community failed catastrophically for a complex variety of reasons. Partly it was to do with the rhetoric of the global war on terror, used to justify Rajapaksa’s war against the LTTE. Partly it was to do with the almost universal unpopularity of the LTTE.

In India’s case it was largely to do with the Tigers’ execution of Rajiv Gandhi, and because the Indian government had no wish to encourage nationalist sentiment among India’s 46 million-strong Tamil population (mostly concentrated in Tamil Nadu).

Western regimes, especially the US, UK, France, Norway and others, were constantly protesting but never did, and perhaps never intended to, intervene seriously to stop what was going on.

The UN’s tactic throughout was to not do anything which would cause it to be expelled from Sri Lanka altogether. But the consequence was that it did not publish figures on civilian deaths. Many within the UN argue that by not exposing what it knew was happening, was in effect allowing the atrocity to continue.

The UN took a very long time to do anything after the war as well. Astonishingly, in the immediate aftermath of the war, the UN Human Rights Committee congratulated Sri Lanka on the victory.

That appalling episode was somewhat redeemed two months ago when the Human Rights Council voted by a reasonable majority for a resolution — in fact very soft — calling on Sri Lanka to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity and report back to the UN. It was just a symbolic resolution, but important. The Sri Lankan government lobbied energetically to stop it being passed.

It’s fair to say that the revelations in my second film [Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes] played an important role in raising awareness and convincing the Human Rights Council to vote for the resolution.

If the UN is an organisation whose primary function is to prevent these kind of atrocities on an international scale, it has so far failed. It remains to be seen whether it will also fail in retrospectively achieving justice.

It was always clear that the Sri Lankan government were determined to remove potential international witnesses and critics. They forced the UN to withdraw from the area, they prevented any international media from getting anywhere near and they silenced their own internal critics.

At the start of the final offensive in January 2009 the editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunga, a vocal critic of the government including over its treatment of its Tamil minority, was gunned down and killed by forces unknown. It was just one incident, but a warning to critics that they should remain silent. But the government hadn’t allowed for new technology. There were witnesses, and these witnesses were both the victims and the perpetrators. They had small cameras, mobile phones and access to the internet. So the evidence was there and now can be seen [included in Macrae’s first film, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields].

Some of the material came from Sinhala sources, some from Tamil sources. Some of the execution and atrocity footage was filmed by the perpetrators themselves. Some of it was filmed by Tamil civilians, some of it was filmed by Tiger camera operators, who had no doubt expected to film the heroic exploits of their fighters but instead ended up recording the misery of the civilians — a misery in which the Tigers were themselves partly complicit through their use of civilians and human shields.

Channel 4 News began running some of the footage that was emerging and began the process that eventually led to my two films.

One initial short extract showed the execution of naked, bound prisoners; that was supplied by an organisation called Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS, an organisation of exiled Sinhala and Tamil journalists and media workers).

The Sri Lankan government said the evidence is faked, which is isn’t. They claim the execution footage is faked. It is not. We have had it independently assessed by teams of video technicians and even a forensic pathologist to examine the nature of the wounds. They have all concluded that there is no evidence of manipulation or faking, and their assessment has been confirmed by a separate set of experts from the UN.

The Sri Lankan government knows this footage is genuine. In this footage and the many stills from the end of the war you can see soldiers filming in almost every photograph and film. The Sri Lankan government should have gathered all that footage in, and investigated what was going on. They haven’t. That they have not done so speaks volumes because all the evidence is that these events were orchestrated and approved at the highest levels of the Sri Lankan government.

The regime has also claimed that we are apologists for the LTTE, a bizarre claim given that in the films we clearly accuse the LTTE of war crimes and crimes against humanity — as well as the government forces.

They claim, even more preposterously that we have been funded by the LTTE, a claim that seems to have been born of desperation. They have launched an international propaganda campaign, hiring Western PR companies, producing glossy documents and even an hour-long documentary in an attempt to discredit us.

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