Sri Lankan Army deserter gives ‘rare’ insider account of government forces torturing civilians
An officer in the Sri Lanka Army, who fled to Canada and claimed he was ordered to plant explosives at the home of an outspoken opposition politician, is raising new questions about military abuses committed during the island nation’s long civil war.
Captain Ravindra Watudura Bandanage, 38, deserted after flying to Toronto in October 2009.
He has since told Canadian immigration officials he was aware of torture and other crimes carried out by government forces against minority Tamils.
Testifying at his refugee hearing, he said a colonel ordered him to place bomb materials in the home of a member of parliament named “Silva Jilingam,” an apparent reference to M.K. Sivajilingam, a controversial Sri Lankan MP then aligned with the Tamil National Alliance party.
But the captain said he refused and was transferred to Colombo, where he helped with search and cordon operations that rounded up ethnic Tamils. He said he knew the army was torturing, beating and raping civilians.
“I admit that it is a harassment of these people,” he said. “I admit that.”
While there has been mounting evidence both sides in the Sri Lankan conflict committed atrocities, the testimony is noteworthy because it comes from a veteran former commissioned officer.
Frances Harrison, a British journalist and author of Still Counting the Dead, a new book that tells the stories of survivors of the brutal end of the civil war, agreed it was unusual to hear such allegations from an ex-soldier and member of the country’s ethnic Sinhalese majority.
“A few Sinhalese have helped bring out war crimes evidence from Sri Lanka but, assuming this testimony is truthful, it’s unheard of for a Sinhalese soldier to speak out openly about human rights violations. It would be a huge blow to the Sri Lankan government,” the former BBC correspondent said.
Both the Tamil Tigers rebels and the government forces have been widely accused of conducting themselves with reckless disregard for the welfare of civilians. While the rebels forced children to fight and used civilians as human shields, the army shelled populated areas and executed captives, according to several international investigations.
“We remain tremendously concerned about the lack of accountability for the actions taken by both parties at the end of the war,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the National Post in an interview Friday. “We are deeply concerned about the lack of reconciliation and the authoritarian trend we’ve seen in many government actions in recent months.”
The captain’s allegations come amid growing international pressure for an independent investigation into the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war. Two weeks ago, a UN review concluded the international body had failed to protect civilians despite verified evidence of atrocities.
A kung fu champion who joined the army in 1993, Mr. Watudura Bandanage told the Immigration & Refugee Board he had been trained in counterinsurgency.
While he denied taking part in combat, the IRB did not believe him.
He recounted how, in 2008, a colonel had asked him “to do something which was not right…. He said there is an order in regards to this MP, there’s an order from the Defence Ministry…. I was asked to go to this MP’s residence and place some explosive material and detonator, and maybe they had planned to blame him for something and make him leave that area and to do something in that area that way or maybe they wanted to get rid of him.”
The Sri Lankan forces routinely framed government opponents during the war to discredit them and justify their arrests, said Gary Anandasangaree, a Toronto lawyer who has been making presentations about human rights violations in Sri Lanka to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. But he said it was “rare” to hear such an account from a former soldier.
In his refugee claim, Mr. Watudura Bandanage said he spent 16 years in the army, but feared for his life because he had complained to police about a prominent politician and his connection to drugs and prostitution.
He said he had also leaked sensitive information to a Sri Lankan newspaper.
“I know my life is at risk if I go back to Sri Lanka,” he said.
But the board ruled in February he was not eligible for refugee protection because he was complicit in crimes against humanity. It said the fact he was asked to place a bomb at an elected official’s home showed he was a trusted officer and aware of the “relentless brutality” of the Sri Lanka Army toward Tamil civilians.
“I find that during the last few years of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which includes the entire period that the claimant was a captain in the Sri Lankan army, military forces conducted ongoing widespread and systematic attacks on the civilian population in Sri Lanka. I find that the military forces of Sri Lanka committed countless crimes against humanity,” IRB member Michal Mivasair wrote.
Mr. Watudura Bandanage’s appeal to the Federal Court of Canada was dismissed last week.
“I think it’s very significant,” John Argue, Amnesty International Canada’s co-ordinator for Sri Lanka, said of the ex-soldier’s allegations.
“I hope it gets discussed publicly because then we get closer to what really happened in the last stages of the armed conflict and could have a serious discussion about accountability.”