In 2009, the Sri Lankan army decided to move forward relentlessly to annihilate the Tamil Tigers. The government had tacit Western support and access to weapons from China, and India was not about to help the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), despite the exigencies of coalitions, particularly when the coalition was led by a party (Congress) whose leader, Rajiv Gandhi, the LTTE had assassinated in 1991.
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And so when Sri Lanka declared victory on 16 May that year, there were few tears shed for the LTTE. Sure, human rights groups condemned the army, but they would, wouldn’t they? The LTTE had earned few friends in its long campaign for Eelam. Sri Lanka was getting praise: military analysts wanted to learn from Sri Lankans how the war was concluded. One lesson that seemed to be emerging was to expel providers of humanitarian assistance, non-government organizations, journalists, and other foreign busybodies, and swiftly, brutally, clinically complete the job. First-hand accounts began to emerge, and slowly, the carefully crafted narrative—of Sri Lankan military’s precision, of the Tigers’ capitulation, and their use of women and children as human shields—began to unravel.
First were those videos on YouTube. Grainy and sporadic, those short films suggested that the Sri Lankan army had used brute force. The Sri Lankan government dismissed the allegations, but then in January this year, The New Yorker magazine published Jon Lee Anderson’s meticulously researched piece, where Anderson let facts speak for themselves, reporting what witnesses saw, and what some politicians boasted about.
Then a panel of international experts—Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, Yasmin Sooka of South Africa, and Steven Ratner of the US—who were appointed by the United Nations (UN) secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, concluded there were credible allegations of war crimes. Their report said as many as 40,000 civilians may have died in the final stages of the war. It took the UN several weeks to make the report public; Sri Lanka, meanwhile, launched an aggressive campaign to discredit the report, even as it was being circulated surreptitiously, first among officials, then lawyers, academics, experts and others. I read it two days before it was finally made public. It told on a grand scale what those videos conveyed piecemeal.
A month earlier in a European city, I had met two journalists living in exile. They described the circumstances in which they operated during the final stages of the war. They used cellphones to film bombings, uploaded the videos with brief narrations, and promptly left the scene because Sri Lankan forces had the means to identify where the signals were emanating from, and once they had tracked down the location, they attacked the place with reasonable accuracy. I found their account credible; it also explained why those videos had jerky camerawork and why they ended so abruptly, making it difficult to piece together the images into a coherent narrative.
Now, the British TV network Channel 4 has added to the good work of Anderson and the UN panel through a shocking film, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. If what it shows doesn’t constitute crimes against humanity, nothing does. Two particular incidents stand out: hospitals with Red Cross insignia were hit, but that wasn’t collateral damage. As per the laws of wars, relief agencies send coordinates of civilian locations and safe zones, including hospitals to the combatants, so that such places, where doctors and nurses work against overwhelming odds to treat the wounded, are protected from harm. Attacking such places is a war crime. But soon after the coordinates were sent, those hospitals were attacked. At that stage of the conflict, only one side controlled the airspace.
There are other images, of men and women, who were stripped naked, sexually abused, and shot. One haunting image is of a young Tamil Tiger, made to squat, insults hurled at him in a language (Sinhala) the soldier may not have understood. He is in uniform, and he may have committed crimes himself. But there are rules under the Geneva Conventions about how prisoners of war are to be treated. You can see the raw fear in his eyes, which dart from one person to another in the film. And then you see his blood-splattered face, now still. In another sequence, you see Isaipriya, an anchor on a clandestine LTTE propaganda channel. In the next image, she lies naked and dead, more gruesome than any image in a Goya painting. You hear Gordon Weiss, former UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka, and William Schabas, a leading expert on war crimes, say that the film presented a compelling case for criminal investigation and prosecution.
But don’t expect the UN Human Rights Council to do much. In late May 2009, within a week of the war’s end, the council passed a resolution commending Sri Lanka. Twelve countries, mainly Western democracies, opposed that travesty of a resolution; 29 countries voted for it, including China, Pakistan, and Russia. And India.