By Col. R. Hariharan
I have received a number of mails asking for my comments on the Channel 4 video ‘Killing Fields’ on alleged war crimes committed by Sri Lankan Army, particularly after I participated in a panel discussion on the subject in the Headlines Today TV channel recently. I am giving my views and comments on questions summarised below:
Do you think the Sri Lanka army’s war crimes depicted graphically on Channel 4 video are true?
There are two issues related to the allegations war crimes.
First is whether the video footage is genuine or not; the footage has been examined by international experts (including some from the UN) who believe they are original. However, Sri Lanka government’s experts claim they are doctored. I feel the video establishes a prima facie case for an international commission to look into the war crimes allegation; the same commission can also get the video footage examined by neutral experts in the course of its inquiry.
A second aspect is Sri Lanaka’s extreme reluctance to allow any external or internal inquiry into the allegations. Internationally, the Sri Lankan argument on the subject had only been based on technicalities of jurisdiction of UN Secretary General or procedural aspects of bringing UN panellists’ report before the UN Human Rights Council. From the beginning Sri Lanka had been reluctant to allow foreign media (except for the PTI perhaps) to cover the war front. Sri Lanka could have sought the help of the International Red Cross in evacuating the civilians from the war affected areas and saved a lot of lives. Somehow, it had provided only limited access to the ICRC; in the case of the UN even the limited access was denied. Post-war, Sri Lanka never made public the names of LTTE cadres held prisoner. Despite two years of incarceration, it has not started prosecuting any of them (except for two). There had been contradictory reports emanating from the island during the last two years on the fate of some important LTTE personalities taken prisoner during the war: Balakumaran, Ramesh etc.
Cumulatively all this information strengthens my belief that probably at least some of the allegations of war crimes are probably true. And definitely they need to be investigated.
Do you think Sri Lanka government has handled the issue well?
I feel any responsible government should give top priority to issues affecting its governance. Whether Sri Lanka government likes it or not, many in Sri Lanka, and probably many more internationally think Sri Lanka’s conduct on this issue is not above board. As a result Sri Lanka’s reputation has been affected by the allegations. Unmindful of this, Sri Lanka appears to be in a state of denial for its own reasons. Overall I would say Sri Lanka has failed to handle the issue with the seriousness it deserves.
In Sri Lanka some people, including political leaders, say some of the Western nations are conspiring against to tarnish Sri Lanka for their own internal compulsions or as part of international power politics. What are your views on this?
Of course, all countries (including Sri Lanka) view developments in other countries from their own perspective. So perspective of other countries on this issue will also be conditioned by their policy and public perceptions. Power politics is part of the geo-political reality; and nations like Sri Lanka which are located in a geo-strategically sensitive region (astride the Indian Ocean) will always be subject to its fall out. However, these realities cannot form the basis for any nation to absolve its own responsibility to respond to international concerns.
The talk of ‘international conspiracy’ might find takers only in Sri Lanka. The very same international community was ready to underwrite a few billion dollars of their money to bring peace in Sri Lanka in 2002. And most of these countries banned the LTTE; their action curbed LTTE’s international arms procurement and supply chain during the war. Despite their disappointment with Sri Lanka on its dismal record in human rights, countries like the U.S. and India helped Sri Lanka in its war against the LTTE. Why should they conspire now to defame the same Sri Lankan leadership they had helped?
Many Sri Lankans feel the Channel 4 video is being promoted by Tamil Diaspora because they would like to revive the LTTE and fight for Eelam. Please give your comments.
Elements of LTTE present among Tamil Diaspora probably see the war crimes allegations as god sent opportunity to revive the LTTE. However, to dismiss the Channel 4 video as LTTE’s handiwork would be crediting the international rump of the LTTE with influence and ability they do not have at present. In fact, Sri Lanka’s stubborn refusal to investigate the war crimes allegations is strengthening their hands as it has provided a rallying point.
Moreover, Sri Lanka cannot afford to ignore the deep anguish among Tamil Diaspora about the war crimes allegations and Sri Lanka’s attitudes. They would like to support any action, including the Channel 4 video release, to bring pressure on Sri Lanka to be more accountable. There is also genuine concern among international community about war crimes anywhere in the world. There are recognized international NGOs that are looking into allegations of war crimes all over the world. All these sections are providing momentum to the international call on the Sri Lanka war crimes issue.
There is a belief that any war crimes probe would be a set back to the on-going ethnic reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. What are your views?
Is there a genuine reconciliation process on in Sri Lanka? It appears to be only at the thought process level. Look at the repeated call and forgotten promises on addressing Tamil grievances on ‘devolution’ (now it’s a bad word to use) of powers. Implementation of 13th Amendment in full was promised; there was the APRC and its report sleeping in the shelves; this was followed by a promise of 13th Amendment plus, and now one more committee to look into the forming of a parliamentary committee on the issue. If this is the ongoing ethnic reconciliation process then there is little to be lost by inquiring into war crimes allegations.
In fact, ethnic reconciliation process would be seriously affected if Sri Lanka ignores serious allegations of violations of human rights and war crimes. It would only enhance the suspicions of Tamil community about the government’s repeated affirmation to promote ethnic reconciliation. Only a dispassionate and neutral investigation into the allegations and follow up action on its recommendations would put life into the reconciliation process.
Do you think the reputation of the victorious Sri Lanka Army would be affected if a probe into the allegations of war crimes is ordered?
No. An army’s reputation is built on not only winning the war but on how it conducted itself during the war. The investigation into the allegations would not be against the whole army, but against a few who perpetrated the crimes. So if such an action is taken the army’s reputation would be enhanced as all ethnic communities would hail it as a truly national army.
Don’t you think India can play a role in ensuring Sri Lanka becomes more accountable for its actions in the last lap of Eelam War which have given rise to all these allegations?
Of course, India which enjoys a close relationship with Sri Lanka can play a bigger role in this issue. Somehow, like the proverbial Hanuman of Ramayana, New Delhi does not appear to be confident of its own strength in this regard. The ruling coalition has tied itself in knots on handling Sri Lanka as it would like to please all sides – the Sri Lanka government and Tamils in India. As the Tamil Nadu election results have shown it has miserably failed in this tight rope walk. Now that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms Jayalalithaa has taken up the issue more stridently, I expect India to take visible interest in this issue.
Tailpiece: Why are you not writing much on Sri Lanka these days? Is it because the Eelam War is over and everything is fine in Sri Lanka?
1. I had academic teaching commitments at Indian Institute of Management at Indore and Raipur. These had been keeping me busy for the last five months. However, as they are coming to an end, I hope to write more from next month.
2. As a military analyst, the Eelam War provided greater incentive for me to write regularly as the battle progressed. (And I am not too keen on analysing political issues, which unlike war have no rules of the game.) Though the war is over in Sri Lanka, I don’t think Sri Lanka has come out of its fall out; so everything is not fine there.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: [email protected] Blog: www.colhariharan.org)