The Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense expressed shock and anger on Friday atwhat it called a “baseless allegation” against the nation’s military in a photo caption posted on the official Twitter feed of the United States Embassy the day before.
The photograph showed the American ambassador to Sri Lanka, Michele J. Sison, and Stephen J. Rapp, the United States ambassador at large for war crimes issues, during a visit to the Tamil-dominated north of the country, where government forces routed Tamil Tiger rebels in the bloody final days of a civil war in 2009. The caption that enraged the ministry referred to the “killing of hundreds of families by army shelling” at the site that the United States diplomats were pictured visiting.
That photograph was preceded by another on the embassy Twitter feed that showed the diplomats at the site of a United Nations compound in asupposedly safe area that was strafed with shelling during the final phase of the civil war.
A United Nations panel reported in 2011 that the Sri Lankan Army, in the course of what the government called a “humanitarian rescue operation,” caused the deaths of as many as 40,000 civilians in the final stages of its war against the Tamil separatists.
The Defense Ministry issued an indignant statement that suggested that the American officials might have published the images and remarks as part of a plot to support Tamil separatists by insisting on an international investigation into claims that war crimes were committed in the last days of the conflict.
It is surprising to see a baseless allegation of this nature being released by the U.S. Embassy without any credible verification. Although the reason for this release is best known to them, this could be part of a much larger campaign that they intend launching in the near future. It could also be an attempt to give credence to otherwise baseless allegations that have been propagated by some governments and separatist elements with the support of some international media organizations.
The BBC correspondent Charles Haviland reported that an unnamed embassy source confirmed to him that the message posted on Twitter about the killing of hundreds of families did reflect the official stance of the United States government.
Two additional images from the visit, showing the diplomats meeting with Tamil leaders who have accused Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated army of genocide, were posted on Ambassador Rapp’s Twitter feed, which uses an image of the Nuremberg war crimes trials as a backdrop.
One woman the diplomats posed for a photograph with, Ananthi Sasitharan, who now serves on the regional Northern Provincial Council, says she saw Sri Lankan soldiers taking away her husband, who was a political leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, at the end of the war in 2009. Ms. Sasithran’s husband never returned and graphic video evidence later surfaced that appeared to show that the army had carried out summary executions of some prisoners.
Ambassador Rapp’s visit, and reports that the United States plans to call for a war crimes investigation within months, had already inflamed government supporters in the capital, Colombo. Protesters there marched to the U.S. Embassy on Thursday carrying banners that read, “We Condemn Unfair Allegations of War Crimes,” “Probe Into Crimes Committed by British in Ireland,” and “Stephen Rapp Your Army Killed Civilians for Your Safety.”
A similar tone was struck in a long opinion article published Thursday in Sri Lanka’s Daily News, under the headline, “Stephen Rapp, Are U.S War Crimes Legal?”
The author of that piece, Shenali D. Waduge, began: “Does the U.S. Government and its officials actually believe they have done the world a favor by maiming, killing and making homeless over 20 million people since Vietnam? The U.S. Government seems to have a very haughty opinion that the entire world except for America is guilty even if proved innocent and the U.S. thinks it can go bombing people and places to smithereens and get away with it.”