I’ve covered wars and seen some awful things, but few that could prepare me for the hours of video and mobile footage that emerged from the last 138 days of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war between the government and the Tamil Tiger secessionists; a war that ended four years ago – and whose bloody denouement is the subject of my film.
The film records what happened when the government of Sri Lanka told some 400,000 civilians to gather in what they described as “no fire zones” – and then subjected them to merciless, sustained shelling. We humans are good at reducing terrible massacres to statistics. We instinctively distance ourselves from the lost humanity represented by heaps of corpses or rows of dead bodies. A few of those who died were killed by Tamil Tigers, who are accused of shooting Tamil civilians attempting to escape the no fire zones’ killing fields. The Tigers saw the civilians as a bargaining counter that would force the international community to intervene, and so would not let them leave. That was a crime, a betrayal of the trust of the civilians – and also a terrible miscalculation, because the international community did not intervene: it did not even impose meaningful diplomatic or economic sanctions against the Sri Lankan government.
These crimes by the Tigers – and the failure of the international community – must not be forgotten. But the vast majority of the civilians were killed by government forces. The next meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (Chogm) is to be held in Sri Lanka in November – and he has said he will go.
I know he is broadly aware of what happened in those terrible weeks in Sri Lanka. In fact, in 2011, the day after Channel 4 broadcast our first film on this subject, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, he told parliament it was “an extremely powerful programme” that referred to some “very worrying events”. After decades of violent repression of the island’s Tamil minority by the Sinhala Buddhist majority, a brutal but effective secessionist rebel force, the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, launched a 26-year war that saw the establishment of a de facto independent state of Tamil Eelam in the north-east. In pursuit of this war they were prepared to use child soldiers and suicide bombers against civilian as well as military targets.
But by January 2009 the Sri Lanka, had inflicted major defeats on the Tigers. In the last few days of the war, in May 2009, the massacre of the civilians was followed by another series of war crimes. Victorious government troops systematically executed bound, blindfolded prisoners. Women fighters were stripped, sexually assaulted, blindfolded, and shot in the head. sri lanka shelter from bombs Tamil civilians seek shelter during the bombardment.
Because although the war in Sri Lanka is over, the repression continues – indeed it is escalating. Throughout the country, government critics are being attacked, silenced and are disappearing. Just last week the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, ended a week long fact-finding trip to Sri Lanka by warning that “surveillance and harassment appears to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, which is a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced.”
When Cameron announced he would attend Chogm, Alistair Burt, the minister responsible for Sri Lanka, stated that the British government expected the Sri Lankan government to “guarantee full and unrestricted access for international press covering Chogm”. Yet when I was in Australia recently to promote the film, a senior Sri Lankan diplomat there, Bandula Jayasakara (formerly Rajapaksa’s chief media adviser), tweeted a message to me. White vans are recognised as an instrument of terror in Sri Lanka, regularly used to abduct government critics. Lasantha Wickrematunge was the editor and founder of the Sunday Leader – a respected newspaper critical of the Rajapaksa regime.
Two years ago the Commonwealth of Nations pledged a renewed commitment to its core principles of “democracy, the rule of law and human rights”. If Sri Lanka hosts the next meeting of Chogm, normal practice decrees that its president will assume the chairmanship of the Commonwealth for the next two years. And so a regime accused of some of the worst war crimes of this century will be in charge of the Commonwealth’s drive for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. The UN’s Responsibility to Protect – formally adopted in 2005 – was given its first real test by the last few months of the war in Sri Lanka; it failed, shamefully and catastrophically.
The Sri Lanka Government has had more than four years to launch a credible independent investigation into the war crimes. As for the Commonwealth, if it expects to survive as a credible advocate of democracy and human rights, Cameron must raise objections to it being led by a regime accused of these crimes.