Sri Lankan war crimes in spotlight

March 17, 2012
A refugee camp in northern Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is under pressure over repeated allegations of war crimes committed during its war against the pro-independence Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The war, which lasted nearly three decades, ended with the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. An estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the first five months of 2009 alone.

A panel of experts appointed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon concluded that the bulk of these deaths were due to the bombardment of Tamil civilians by government forces. The panel recommended the setting up of an international investigative body.

To avoid this possibility and placate international concerns over the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Army, the Sri Lankan government set up its own enquiry, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

The United States has drafted a resolution on Sri Lanka to be put before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which is in session until March 23.

The resolution calls for the implementation of the LLRC's recommendations. Predictably, the LLRC exonerated the government of war crimes allegations.

It did, however, make some recommendations to ameliorate the plight of the Tamils, whose traditional homeland in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka is under military occupation.

Fr example, the LLRC recommended the involvement of the military in civilian activity be phased out; pro-government paramilitary groups disbanded; and some degree of devolution of power from the central government to "the periphery" be implemented.

It also recommended that all government offices and police stations should have some Tamil-speaking personnel. At present, many have only personnel that speak Sinhala — the language of Sri Lanka's dominant Sinhalese ethnic group.

These recommendations are meant to reduce the alienation of Tamils from the Sri Lankan state. But while they might ease the suffering of Tamils a bit, the proposals fall a long way short of the goal of self-determination that Tamils have fought for — first by peaceful means, then by armed struggle — over many decades.

The proposed devolution of powers would be very limited, with the central government continuing to hold the most important powers.

However, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been reluctant to implement even the limited concessions to the Tamils recommended by the LLRC.

Rajapaksa was elected by appealing to anti-Tamil racism among Sri Lanka's Sinhala majority. He prefers to keep Tamil areas under military occupation to facilitate Sinhalese settlement.

However, the US government believes some limited concessions should be made to the Tamils. The US resolution at the UNHRC aims to pressure the Rajapaksa government to carry out the LLRC's recommendations.

This has prompted some Sri Lankan government ministers to indulge in anti-imperialist rhetoric when addressing protest rallies against this pressure.

Vickramabahu Karunaratne, the secretary-general of the New Socialist Party (NSSP), described this as "bogus anti-imperialism".

He told a recent anti-governemnt rally: "The government leaders claim that the imperialists in Geneva are taking actions against a patriotic government.

“But this government has accepted the dictates of the IMF based in Washington. These are the orders of global capitalism.

"The government heeded these orders and devalued the rupee, raised interest [rates], reduced social welfare and cut the subsidies. Workers, fishers and peasants are super exploited while local capitalists are plundered.

“This is exactly what Lenin explained to be imperialism. Mahinda [Rajapaksa] has acted as a faithful agent.

"On the other hand when the UN human rights committee raised questions about disappearances, white vans that carry out abductions, the suppression of Tamils, the killing of workers and fishers and [the government's use of] paramilitary organisations, Mahinda screams of imperialism."

Unfortunately, some progressive governments have been misled by this "bogus anti-imperialism", and have supported the Sri Lankan government in previous sessions of the UNNHRC.

The real relationship of the Sri Lankan government to imperialism was shown during the war. The US and its closest allies such as Britain, Israel and India provided military equipment and training to the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Israel supplied war planes and patrol boats. The US supplied satellite intelligence which played a key role in the government's military victory.

Read more of Green Left's Sri Lanka coverage.

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