NEARLY four years after its civil war ended, Sri Lanka is far from at peace over its recent history. Despite denials by the country’s leaders, notably its powerful defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that Sri Lanka’s army committed war crimes in the final weeks of fighting, in 2009, troubling new evidence keeps on appearing.
In March the United Nations’ human-rights council is expected to renew an American-led resolution calling on Sri Lanka’s government to report on its efforts to investigate war crimes, and on relations with Tamils in the country. India and European Union countries look set to back the resolution, as they did with the original a year ago.
In preparation, activists and journalists have been providing disturbing new proof that forces under Mr Rajapaksa (and so also under the control of his brother, Mahinda, the president), committed violent crimes with impunity. Worse, convincing evidence is also appearing that state-security forces have continued to torture, rape and otherwise violently abuse Tamils, even after the war.
A British television broadcaster, Channel 4, previously showed images of Sri Lankan soldiers executing several naked, presumably Tamil, prisoners. These were recorded at the end of the war, in 2009. Asked by your correspondent a year ago about the images, Sri Lanka’s defence secretary called them “fake”, angrily denied ever having ordered a civilian or a prisoner killed, and (unprompted) said his forces had not committed “genocide”.
By contrast Tamil political leaders suggested 10,000 Tamils had been killed in the closing stages of the war, and that over 1,000 survivors remained missing. They spoke of mass graves hidden in the north of Sri Lanka and of the murder of many civilians.
This month, ahead of the UN vote, Channel 4 broadcast a new documentary showing a 12-year-old, Balachandran Prabhakaran, the son of the feared Tamil rebel leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in the custody of Sri Lankan forces at the end of the war. In the first pictures he looks nervous, but is seen eating while under guard. A subsequent photo shows his bullet-ridden corpse.
The pictures appear to be war trophies snapped with phones by Sri Lankan soldiers themselves. The photos strongly suggest the child was murdered. It is reasonable to ask whether the order to do so would have come from high in the military, or political, hierarchy. The film may be broadcast at the UN meeting in Geneva, though Sri Lanka’s government is trying to block it.
Perhaps equally disturbing is evidence of the Rajapaksas’ authoritarian rule getting entrenched, as is argued in a new report by the International Crisis Group. And the violent crimes continue. A new report by Human Rights Watch, an activist group, released on February 26th, publishes testimony from victims, doctors and others, who describe how Sri Lanka’s security forces—its army, police, intelligence agents—use arbitrary detention, violence, torture and rape against Tamil suspects.
It documents 75 cases—including 31 from 2010 to late last year—of Tamil men and women (including two who had been forcibly deported from Britain to Sri Lanka) who were detained, violently interrogated, threatened with execution, raped, burned with cigarettes, tortured and forced to sign confessions of supporting the former rebel army. Many were snatched by plainclothes figures travelling in white vans, either in the capital, Colombo, or in northern Sri Lanka. It makes for harrowing, convincing reading. The group says it has evidence such practices have continued in the past few months.
Sri Lanka’s official response is angry denial. A version of the UN resolution is doing the rounds in Colombo. The Rajapaksa government may fail to block it, and prefers to talk up its diplomatic ties with China. In any case, foreign criticism has limited impact: domestic critics among the press, activist groups, religious bodies and unions look ever more cowed; the parliamentary opposition is all but silent. Among the Sinhalese majority, the Rajapaksas remain popular for winning the war and delivering strong economic growth. They portray foreign criticism as an international conspiracy to smear Sri Lanka’s reputation.
Thus, one can expect no decisive change. Once the UN has had its vote, the next clash is likely to concern a summit of Commonwealth leaders in November, which is due to be held in Colombo. Various countries, perhaps including India, where local Tamil political parties can influence national policy, may demand better treatment for Sri Lanka’s Tamils (and other domestic opposition) ahead of that meeting. For the Rajapaksa family, the summit is supposed to be a moment of international glory. In the face of clear evidence of atrocities and abuse, that looks ever more tainted.
(Picture credit: Human Rights Watch)