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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sri Lanka's Tamil question: Justice, Lies and Videotape

Sri Lanka’s thirty year war is now more of words than of guns, but it is no less bitter. RNW’s team in the country met with fierce resistance from the Sri Lankan government to the current calls for justice from the international community. 

But the problem is that the international community’s presence in the country is dwindling, a fact witnessed when travelling across the east of the island – where once there were distinctive white NGO vehicles on every corner, the sight is now rare.

With the help of one remaining NGO which requested anonymity, RNW met nine freshly ‘reintegrated’ former Tamil Tiger guerillas who spoke of their desire for justice for all Sri Lankans. But people in the heavily militarized north and east live in fear of reprisal if they openly criticise the authorities – which is why a vociferous Tamil diaspora, the foreign media and a UN investigation have stepped in. The Sri Lankan government is now hitting back.

Video counter-punch

This week Colombo released a documentary video in response to British Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, in which it looks to discredit all claims that government troops killed and raped Tamil civilians and prisoners of war during the closing months of the conflict in 2009. The narrator of Lies Agreed Upon rubbishes Channel 4’s documentary: "Doctored footage and deliberate lies are presented as authentic. It begs for review." The film proceeds to refute claims that the military deliberately bombed no-fire zones and seeks to bring into focus atrocities committed by the Tamil Tigers.

Reactions from the Tamil diaspora to the film are predictable - "The Tamil community is disappointed. The whole documentary is based on lies. The people speaking are all under pressure from the government. What would you do when you were a Tamil and you were under that pressure? You would probably go along with what the government wants," said Mohan, a Dutch Tamil campaigner.

Tamils who feel free to speak openly say they want an independent, international investigation into the many claims of atrocities committed in 2009 and before. "We are requesting, pleading, begging the civilised world to stop the hypocrisy and double standards. And we’re calling for impartial investigations into missing persons," said Donald Gnanakone head of the US-based ‘Tamils for Justice’.

Probing for the truth
Colombo says it is investigating the period in question and that all Sri Lankans watched over by President Rajapaksa, who smiles down from countless billboards around the capital.
Evidence of this, it claims, is his creation of the ‘Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC) last year, the stated intention of which is to "focus on the causes of conflict, its effect on the people, and promote national unity and reconciliation." This body claims to have interviewed five thousand people of all ethnicities around the country in the building of its report, expected later this year.

The international community though, led by the United Nations Secretary General’s office, is not impressed by the LLRC’s work so far, saying it is "deeply flawed, (and) does not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism."

Lakshman Wickremasinghe is spokesman for the LLRC. Does he hear the ever louder calls from the outside world to make the Commission’s work more credible?

"I hope the international community doesn’t put pressure on the Commission because it’s the best mechanism the country has."

Whether the Sri Lankan government likes it or not, greater pressure is being brought to bear on it. The US Foreign Affairs Committee, which advises Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, says it is pushing ahead with plans to stop American aid to Sri Lanka unless meaningful investigation takes place and the guilty are brought to book.

Wanted: justice for all Sri Lankans
During RNW’s conversations in Sri Lanka with former Tamil Tiger fighters it was clear justice was a high priority for the Tamil community, not only indicting Sri Lankan generals but Tamil leaders too. Critics point out this is easy to say since most of the Tamil Tiger leadership was killed during the closing months of the war.
The desire for justice is not confined to one side, according to the UN’s former spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss: "I think there are many Sri Lankans of all ethnicities who support accountability, who support the rule of law, who support a frank and full discussion of the past history."

The problem is there is no history of accountability in Sri Lanka: "Almost nobody has done jail time for the crimes that were committed in 1971 when tens of thousands of Sinhalese were killed, or during the uprising from 1987 – 1990. So there is a long and very profound history of a lack of accountability," said Gordon Weiss.
He remains hopeful about an independent investigation and justice in the future. The UN however only wants to launch an investigation with the approval of the government of Sri Lanka, which is unlikely to happen. The International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction, as Sri Lanka is not one of the 114 countries that have signed up to the court. Direct referral by the UN Security Council seems to be the only option left, but with China, India and Russia’s major investments in the country, they would be expected to veto any resolution on a referral.

Silenced guns or guns with silencers?
Sri Lanka has suffered from a cycle of oppression and violence for decades. And as the former Tamil rebels in the town of Batticaloa told RNW, if basic rights are not upheld, that cycle will simply continue into the future. The danger for Sri Lanka is that silent guns continue to be interpreted as lasting peace. As the NGO vehicles pull out, fear and impunity are left behind. Former Tamil Tiger Mutu told RNW: "I think there needs to be justice supervised by the international community. Because if the Sri Lankan government does it, it won’t be done properly."

RNW