Revisiting the Horror in Sri Lanka

by Manu Joseph, 'The New York Times,' February 27 & 'International Herald Tribune,' February 28, 2013

Letter from India

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NEW DELHI — In the series of photographs shot in 2009, the bare-chested boy is first shown seated on a bench watching something outside the frame. Then he is seen having a snack. In the third image he is lying on the ground with bullet holes in his chest. The photographs, which were released last week by the British broadcaster Channel 4, appear to document the final moments in the life of 12-year-old Balachandran Prabhakaran, the youngest son of the slain founder of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The images are from the documentary film“No Fire Zone,” which tells the story of Sri Lanka’s violent suppression of Mr. Prabhakaran’s equally violent revolution, which had come very close to securing a separate state for the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka. After 26 years of civil war between the Tamils, who are chiefly Hindus, and the Sinhalese majority, who are chiefly Buddhists, the Sri Lankan state won decisively in 2009. Human rights activists say that hundreds of Tamil fighters, political leaders and their families, including Mr. Prabhakaran and his family, did not die in action but were executed. They estimate that more than 40,000 Tamil civilians died in the final months of the war.

Within its borders, the Sri Lankan government appears to wink at its Sinhalese population to accept their congratulations for ending the war, but it maintains a righteous indignation when the world accuses its army of planned genocide.

“No Fire Zone” includes video footage and photographs shot on mobile phones by Tamil survivors and Sinhalese soldiers that were somehow leaked. The film’s director, Callum Macrae, told me that it will be screened at the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, now under way in Geneva, where the United States plans to introduce a resolution asking Sri Lanka to investigate the allegations of war crimes by its army.

It is not clear what such a resolution will achieve because Sri Lanka’s powerful president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has a rustic swagger about him and a manly black mustache, is the triumphant face of Sri Lanka’s victory in the war. The Sri Lankan Army is unambiguously under his control. Whatever the worth of the resolution, India is expected to support it more enthusiastically than it did a similar resolution last March.

Over the years, the shape and location of Sri Lanka have inspired several Indian cartoonists to portray the island nation as a tear drop beneath India’s peninsular chin. This is an illogical depiction of Sri Lanka’s trauma because a tear drop is not sorrowful; it is a consequence of someone’s sorrow. Some caricatures that appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, showed the Indian peninsula weeping and Sri Lanka as the consequent tear drop. This imagery had a stronger logic. India’s history with Sri Lanka is, in a way, about a bumbling giant being hurt by a cunning dwarf.

Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the type of strategists who imagine that they are great Machiavellian characters, and love to add the prefix “geo” to “politics” to feel good about their advisory jobs, ensured that India armed and financed the Tamil rebels. In 1984, when she was assassinated and her son Rajiv Gandhi took over as prime minister, Sri Lanka was engaged in a full-fledged civil war. Now, India wanted to play gracious giant in the region and bring peace to Sri Lanka. In 1987, it sent troops to achieve that end. It was a disastrous move, and resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,200 Indian soldiers and thousands of Tamil fighters. In an act of vengeance, Mr. Prabhakaran made his greatest strategic blunder: ordering the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

On the early morning of May 22, 1991, as the news spread through Madras (now Chennai) by phone and radio, I saw people run out of their homes in some kind of delirium to pick up the newspapers from their porches. The city had just woken up to the improbable fact that a suicide bomber had killed Mr. Gandhi the previous night in a small town not far from Chennai. Until then, the southern state of Tamil Nadu, whose capital is Chennai, was a haven for the Tamil Tigers. Bound by a common language, the masses of Tamil Nadu felt a deep compassion for the struggle of Sri Lankan Tamils. But Mr. Gandhi’s assassination was seen by them as an act of war against India. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu at the time, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who was accused of being a friend of the Tigers, went around Chennai in an open-roof van, standing with his palms joined in apology. That was not good enough. In the 1991 Tamil Nadu assembly elections, his party won only two seats.

But now, the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils has returned as a passionate political issue in Tamil Nadu. Mr. Karunanidhi is too old to stand anymore but even as a patriarch who uses a wheelchair, he is a useful ally of the Indian National Congress Party, which heads the national government. He has often demanded that the accomplices of Mr. Gandhi’s assassin now on death row in India be pardoned, and that President Rajapaksa be tried on war crimes charges. Last year, when the United States introduced a resolution against Sri Lanka, India was reluctant to back it for strategic reasons, including that it has commercial interests in Sri Lanka, which China is fast grabbing. But Mr. Karunanidhi and public sentiment in Tamil Nadu finally persuaded the Indian government to support it.

In a few days, when the United States introduces its new resolution against Sri Lanka, the brute forces of politics and practicality will ensure that the Indian government led by the Congress Party, whose leader is Sonia Gandhi, will join other nations in asking Sri Lanka to explain how exactly it eliminated the organization that made her a widow.

Manu Joseph is editor of the Indian newsweekly Open and author of the novel “The Illicit Happiness of Other People.”

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