New photographs of a 12-year-old Balachandran Prabakaran in the apparent custody of Sri Lankan security personnel in the final days of the war against the Tamil Tigers have caused widespread anguish and outrage, and understandably so. Last year, when another photograph showing the body of the LTTE chief Prabakaran’s son with visible bullet wounds on his chest surfaced, Sri Lanka’s explanation that the boy died in crossfire seemed plausible. But the photographs obtained by Channel 4 Television, in which Balachandran is seen sitting inside a sandbagged military enclosure, suggest an entirely different story of how the boy’s life ended, one that underscores other allegations of war crimes against Sri Lanka. Colombo has dismissed the photographs as “concocted lies, half-truths and speculations” intended to embarrass the country at the forthcoming Human Rights Council session in Geneva. If that is so, it is in Sri Lanka’s own interest to begin immediately an honest and credible investigation to find out how Balachandran died, and make the findings public. If the young boy was indeed in an army bunker, as the photographs indicate, the chain of custody can easily be established and those responsible for his eventual killing in cold blood must be identified and handed down exemplary punishment. For its part, Channel 4 says that experts consulted by it have established the three photographs were taken with the same camera. It has also openly said that its reason for releasing the new evidence at this time, and a documentary next month, is precisely to bring maximum international pressure on Sri Lanka to make it accountable for civilian deaths in the final weeks of the war in 2009.
It took three years for the Rajapaksa government, which first spoke of “zero civilian casualties” to accept that some civilians died, though how many and in what circumstances are still contentious issues. It undertook to implement the recommendations, as advised by the 2012 HRC resolution, of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, but a “national action plan” towards this end displayed on the government website gives no sign of progress. New Delhi, which worked to tone down the language of last year’s resolution before casting its vote for it, will need to chalk out a more well thought out response to the new photographs than its initial reaction that their “authenticity” needs to be established. Reactions from political parties in Tamil Nadu, and the State government’s decision to cancel the July Asian athletics meet to avoid hosting Sri Lankan participants indicate that the issue is set to take a toll on the traditionally good ties between people of both countries. Quickly and confidently, before the situation deteriorates, India needs to chart a course that can convince its own people and the international community that it is on the side of what is right and just in this matter, while impressing on Colombo that the issue will not fade away just by stout denial, as it seems to hope.