A British TV documentary and a United Nations-commissioned report have confirmed long-standing Tamil allegations that the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) committed large-scale war crimes in the course of its May 2009 victory over the pro-independence Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Atrocities perpetrated by the army during and after its recapture of the rebel-held areas of Tamil Eelam (Tamil areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka) included shelling civilians, depriving civilians of access to food, water and medicine, executing and torturing prisoners of war, systematic rape and holding civilians in concentration camps.
The Channel 4 documentary, screened in Britain on June 14, catalogued how the army declared “no fire zones” ― areas behind rebel lines that they undertook not to attack if civilians gathered there ― and then bombed them relentlessly when they were overcrowded with displaced people.
Hospitals were targeted after Red Cross workers had supplied the army with their coordinates.
The program included gruesome “trophy footage” shot by Sri Lankan soldiers on their mobile phones. An edited version of some of this footage, showing the beating and shooting of bound, blindfolded prisoners ,was released by Channel 4 in December.
Other footage showed the naked corpses of victims who had been raped and tortured.
Even more shocking than the graphic images was the soundtrack, such as light-hearted banter between soldiers about their rape of women whose corpses they were loading onto a truck.
The documentary’s maker Callum Macrae described it as “probably the most horrific ever to have been broadcast on mainstream television”.
Channel 4 defended screening the footage by pointing to the lack response by Western governments to the UN report, released on April 25, which documented the same war crimes.
In Australia, the documentary was screened by ABC TV’s Four Corners program on July 4.
When Four Corners screened footage two weeks earlier of livestock being kicked and beaten, the revelations were considered serious enough to demand a government response that created widespread economic dislocation in northern Australia and strained Australia’s important trading relationship with Indonesia.
The government’s response to the abuse of Tamils has been more muted, although foreign minister Kevin Rudd did tell ABC radio’s PM on July 5: “No-one watching this program could emerge from that undisturbed and we don’t either.”
Thiru Thiruchchothy, president of Maison du Tamils, the democratically elected council representing France’s 100,000-strong Sri Lankan Tamil community, condemned the UN panel’s report as belated.
He told Green Left Weekly: “The UN can have a report of 250 pages, or whatever it is, but they should first answer why they didn’t do anything when they knew they were about 400,000 people in that territory.
“After two years, UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, because of pressure from human rights organisations, opened the panel. But he opened a trap for himself because the people can ask: Why did you not stop it?
“He did the same thing in Gaza ... With Gaza he waited untill the end and in Sri Lanka he waited untill the end … This UN report was made just to satisfy the human rights groups.
“But don’t think the human rights groups are going to stop with that. Because the journalists who are really working, like Channel 4, are bringing the truth out.”
Thiruchchothy also criticised the UN report because, like the Goldstone report into Israel’s 2009 assault on Gaza, it tried to even-handedly share the blame for war crimes between the states involved and armed movements resisting them.
This ignores the fact that in both conflicts the state actor killed a much higher number of people than the non-state state actor, as well as the fact that international law holds states more accountable.
“The UN panel put the blame on both sides … But what we feel is that the UN should not criticise the LTTE because the LTTE is not part of the UN, it didn’t sign the UN charter,” he said.
“Sri Lanka is a UN member state. Sri Lanka signed the UN charter … If the UN wants to take action against the LTTE, there should be two countries.
“At the moment there is only one country and that country is Sri Lanka … but as in Gaza they blame both sides. They just want a way out.”
He pointed out that the LTTE emerged in response to state violence. “If these people took up arms, it is because they were pushed to take up arms. They did not do it just like that …
“All these videos that are coming out show that the government did a lot of human rights abuses … They shot people. They raped people. There is proof.
“What happened in 2009 … changed the way the world was seeing the problem. But the problems of the Tamils did not start today, or yesterday, or 30 years before. The problems have been there since independence.
“It was there in 1956, in 1977, before the armed struggle. But the world did not look into it,” he said, referring to two violent government-instigated anti-Tamil pogroms since Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948.
An even more violent pogrom in 1983 drove the Tamil population to generalised armed rebellion.
“The UN says the Tamil diaspora aided Tamil nationalism that pushed the Singhalese [the dominant ethnic group in Sri Lanka] to become nationalist ― it is not true. Singhalese nationalism started in 1915, when they started killing Tamils.
“Singhalese nationalism made Tamils become nationalist. Tamils for a long time were going for a federal system … but Singhalese governments have been adamant since long ago to have one country for one people, one religion, one language.
“We can both live together, side by side. The problem in Sri Lanka is the [Singhalese] Buddhist monks and other groups of people who think it’s their land and no one else's.”
Thiruchchothy’s two brothers were killed in 2009. Surviving family members were among the 300,000 Tamils held in concentration camps after the conflict.
Like 90% of those in the camps, they since been released, but they have been left destitute in Jaffna, the capital of Tamil Eelam, forbidden from returning to their home village where they have farm land.
Thiruchchothy said this experience is typical because the government was settling demobilised soldiers on Tamil land.
“The government is building houses for soldiers. It’s a new method of colonisation.
“They have 100,000 soldiers. If they send them home and say ‘we have no jobs for you’, that would be another problem for the government in the south. They would have to find work for them.
“It easier to give them land in the north and it’s a way of colonising Tamil lands. It’s like with Israel and Palestine.”