Our Selective Moral Outrage

There’s a Facebook post doing the usual rounds calling for the United Kingdom to try/extradite/spank Adele Balasingham, the widow of former Tiger theoretician Anton Balasingham. At various times, Mrs Balasingham was recorded handing out cyanide necklaces to Tiger child fighters, and otherwise encouraging them to be little terrorists. The individual preambles and comments that this post is accompanied by claim that the London and Manchester attacks are karma, that the UK is reaping what it sowed, and other assorted quasi-religious proclamations that are gleefully typed out as fast as a keyboard can endure. The post has a tone of righteous … Continue reading Our Selective Moral Outrage

Parama Weera

One of the most iconic images of the end of the war in Sri Lanka. A soldier walks past destroyed vehicles in Mullivaikal in May 2009. The Vijayabahu Infantry calling card scrawled in the background is almost symbolic. The very last PWV of the war would be awarded to an NCO of this regiment.

The eyes stared expressionlessly back at me from the fifteen small pictures, some clear, and some blurred; reflections that only hinted at the men behind those eyes. But sharp or soft, they all looked so innocuous, so devoid of any indication of what they had once seen. So normal. To look into those fifteen pairs of eyes, to read their names on the Wall that held thousands of similar names, was to gain no hint of the impossible acts of bravery that their owners had committed. Acts that would now see them join the eight who had gone before. Twenty-three names for twenty-three men. Twenty-three individual acts of supreme courage, selected out of twenty-eight years of war. The faces were tucked away in the second page of the Sunday Times, and I stared back at them for awhile before reading the short paragraph beneath each. The words were trite, cliched, dry; unable to capture the struggle of courage over fear that must have dominated each man’s last moments; the pain, the heat. And of course, that ultimate singularity, as they stepped forward and died. Alone. That solitude was also what singled them out, along with their courage, for none of them had done what they did as part of a whole, or at the order of someone else. They had each decided alone to do what they did, each for his own reasons.

At this year’s commemoration of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government decided to award the Parama Weera Vibushanaya, Sri Lanka’s highest award for bravery (equivalent to the British Victoria Cross and the American Medal of Honour) to fifteen members of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces for courage displayed in combat and, almost without exception, conducted in the last two years of the war. Fifteen may not seem like a huge number, but to give you an idea of its significance, consider that since the PWV was established in 1981, it had been awarded only eight times in the twenty-one years that preceded the Cease-Fire Agreement between the GoSL and the Tigers. Therefore, for it to be awarded over a dozen times in two years is an indication of the intensity of the fighting after the CFA collapsed, and the sacrifices needed to destroy the Tigers; particularly in the last year of combat.

Front face of the Parama Weera Vibushanaya (left) and reverse (C Ameresekere)

The Presidential Proclamation of 1981 that brought the PWV into effect states that the medal is to be awarded for … individual acts of gallantry and conspicuous bravery of the most exceptional order in the face of the enemy, performed voluntarily whilst on active service and with no regard to the risks to his own life and security with the objective of safeguarding thereby, the lives of his comrades or facilitating the operational aim of his force.

The twenty-three recipients of the PWV are all men and, with few exceptions, young. These are not generals or admirals. They didn’t command thousands of subordinates, or carry out great acts of strategy that would be recorded in military textbooks. Usually, they were in charge of less than a dozen men. Sometimes, not even that; being the youngest and most junior soldiers in their units. Only eleven of them, less than half their number, were officers. Twenty of them were soldiers. Two were sailors. And one an airman. Twenty-one were Sinhalese, one a Moor, and one a Tamil. And all of them are dead. In the eighteen years since the PWV was first awarded in 1991, not a single one of its recipients has ever lived to feel that medal’s weight on his chest or test the military code that requires even the Chief of the Defense Staff to salute, without regard to rank, the wearer of that 32-mm wide crimson ribbon. Some died leading attacks that would drive the enemy back to ultimate defeat; but many died in desperate rearguard actions to ensure that their comrades and friends retreated to safety; and at least one to save the life of a politician. As many of them died to save someone as those who died whilst killing the enemy. Continue reading “Parama Weera”

Why does the Darusman Panel Ignore Evidence of War Crimes?

In June 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed a panel to investigate and and advise him on the possibility of large scale human rights violations in the closing stages of the war in Sri Lanka, primarily in the first quarter of 2009. This was done close on the heels of the UN Human Rights Council’s rejection of a call by advocacy groups for a full-scale international investigation. Ban appointed his Special Rights Investigator to North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, as the panel’s chair and, in April 2011, the panel released its report. This report has been variously viewed by the different parties. At one end of the spectrum it is seen as totally biased and unfair by the government of Sri Lanka, and at the other end as proof of genocide by the Tamil nationalists. Somewhere in the middle, most balanced observers have seen it as a scathing indictment against both the victorious Sri Lankan military and the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Certain international advocacy groups such as Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, and Human Rights Watch, then immediately mounted a media campaign accusing the GoSL of war crimes, and one particularly contentious issue is that in this campaign, the panel’s use of the phrase “credible allegation” has been replaced by that of “credible evidence”, giving the impression that the panel has evidence of war crimes committed by the GoSL. The recently aired Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, opens with this lie.

In reality, the panel uses the phrase only twice; in the positive, saying that it had credible evidence that superiors in the Sri Lankan chain of command were responsible for any violations committed by their subordinates; and in the negative, claiming to have no credible evidence of the LTTE’s use of human shields. Everywhere else, the term used is that of credible allegations. At no point does the Darusman Report reveal what evidence it examined, which portions were deemed credible, and which portions were rejected. Nor does it explain how an allegation was deemed credible, and whether this credibility was based on actual evidence, eyewitness testimony, or both. In spite of this, legal minds contend that credible evidence is necessary for an allegation to be termed credible, though it is unclear as to how the Darusman panel adjudged credibility.

Let’s take the statement by the panel that they cannot find credible evidence of the Tigers using civilians as human shields. This is what the report says:

“…With respect to the credible allegations of the LTTE’s refusal to allow civilians to leave the combat zone, the Panel believes that these actions did not, in law, amount to the use of human shields insofar as it did not find credible evidence of the LTTE deliberately moving civilians towards military targets to protect the latter from attacks as is required by the customary definition of that war crime (Rule 97, ICRC Study).”

Rule 97 of the Customary International Humanitarian Law, as set out by the ICRC, prohibits the use of human shields, and is based on a number of customary practices, international conventions, military manuals, and state laws which are cited in support of Rule 97.

Now, given that in addition to eyewitness testimonies to the fact, there exists video footage shot by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of the Sri Lanka Air Force which clearly show violations of Rule 97, the Darusman report seems to fly in the face of the actual evidence. Continue reading “Why does the Darusman Panel Ignore Evidence of War Crimes?”

The Ban Panel — to Ban or Not?

UN Sec Gen Ban Ki Moon with SL President Mahinda Rajapakse

There’s been a lot of discussion and drama around the UN Secretary General’s advisory panel on Sri Lanka, it’s validity, necessity, and legality. These have ranged from newspaper editorials to street farce. Rather than adding my own narrative to this, I thought I’d reproduce some of the conversations that have been taking place online. This particular one emerged in the comment thread of one of Indi’s posts on the matter, and amongst other things, discusses Star Trek. The debate can be seen in whole on that blog, but I’ve just selected a portion of it that I think highlights some of the viewpoints, as well as a lot of the fallacies. It often gets off the topic, but in order to avoid being accused of manipulation, I haven’t edited any of the comments.

Mahinda: This whole mess was created by our dearly beloved Mahinda & Co. in the run up to the Presidential Elections.

Our General (who has a bit of a bad habit of speaking his mind sometimes, even when it may not be appropriate) mentioned to Indi’s boss, the Jansz woman, that he had information that our friend Gota issued a silly order to a certain Major General to “shoot any LTTE personnel, even if they were trying to surrender waving white flags”. The General went on to add that no such thing occurred on the ground, and that he himself took responsibility for actions of the Sri Lankan Army during the final stages of the war, as the serving Commander of the Army. I think the General was just getting involved in a spot of character assassination here, and to try and show the public what sort of man our Gota is, in his opinion. Our Frederica immediately got extremely wet, sensing an opportunity to flog a few more copies of her rag with a controversial exclusive. She wrote and published her infamous story, presumably omitting bits she felt would have lessened the impact of the controversy. The General and his media team, understandably upset, issued a correction, stressing that the General was certain, as a Commander who had direct contact and control with and over troops on the ground, that no acts in contravention of the Geneva Convention were committed by the SL Army. Frederica made some noises to the effect that she had a tape recording of the interview and that he actually said war crimes had been committed, but seeing as she has failed to produce the said tape, I suppose we can write this off as a little white lie.

Sunday Leader editor Frederica Jansz

Philip Alston also got wind of the Jansz woman’s controversial article, and was obliged to contact the Sri Lanka Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights regarding the article. The Secretary of the said Ministry at the time, (who was, unusually for a Secretary to a Sri Lankan Ministry, an Oxbridge educated, presumably intelligent man) promptly replied to Alston saying that the article was erroneously published and that the General had issued a correction claiming that no one waving a white flag trying to surrender was shot by SL Army troops.

However, Team Mahinda & Co. had other ideas-they retracted the reaction of the Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights and Disaster Management (which would have solved the whole problem) and turned the issue into a political drama to dupe the easily fooled masses. They even went as far to publish full page ad’s of a noose with the caption “don’t vote in the man who will send our brave soldiers to the gallows”. And lo and behold, the highest ranked serving Officer in the history of the SL Army, the man credited with ending the war, became a traitor who betrayed the country (this was similar to the process by which Ranil, the man who convinced Karuna to defect along with his eastern LTTE types, which weakened and lead to the defeat of the LTTE, became a “deshadrohiya”). Continue reading “The Ban Panel — to Ban or Not?”

Protecting Crime by Criminalising an Entire Populace

Part 6 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: Protecting Crime by Criminalising an Entire Populace

Welcome to Snake Farm

Although the plight of the IDPs in Manik farm has received considerable media attention, an aspect of the IDP situation that has received little attention, illustrates best the rationale behind mass detention of IDPs. Until mid-March 2009, IDPs with the most serious injuries from shelling and bombing who were evacuated from the NFZ by the ICRC, with their care givers, landed at Trincomalee. Trincomalee is a place where most Tamils have social contacts in the local civil society, its hospital and in the government administration. It is also a place with several foreign organisations and is frequented by foreigners.

Trincomalee thus became a major point of information exchange about how the war affected civilians, but this was not a situation the Sri Lankan government appeared happy about.. During the early half of March 2009, Amos Roberts of Australia’s SBS spoke to Major General Palitha Fernando, the military liaison officer in Trincomalee. The latter informed Roberts that there was ‘absolutely no problem in visiting Trincomalee’, but added that it is not possible to interview wounded people who have been evacuated from the war areas and brought to Trincomalee. Asked why, Maj. Gen. Fernando replied, “That’s the way we want it, Simple answer.” Continue reading “Protecting Crime by Criminalising an Entire Populace”

Disappeared on Paper

Part 5 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: The Population Game: Disappeared on Paper and Killed with Cannon

Strategic Numbers

For a government’s claim to have accomplished the ‘hostage rescue’ with zero civilian casualties to carry conviction, it should have had some idea in advance of how many hostages it had to rescue and where they were. Minimally it had to ensure that they did not starve. It was basic intelligence, and indeed administrative work, to determine how many there were, and where. After all it is the government of these people, with administrators in the area whom it regularly met formally and informally and who would have told them where matters stood even when local records were flawed. Tamil administrators were worthy of at least that little respect. By rejecting their word the Government was deliberately or through incompetence preparing to act blindly.

The Government’s cavalier attitude to the lives of the trapped people is revealed by its unacceptably low figures for the displaced population, and is further illustrated by its claim on 17th May before the final free-for-all that 50 000 civilians had come out of the NFZ and all the civilians had been rescued. After the final bash it announced on 18th May: “Despite the speculations of a ‘bloodbath’ and a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ at the final military push Sri Lankan soldiers were able rescue about 70,000 people within the last 72 hours without causing any harm to the innocent” (defence.lk). In fact 29 000 civilians were transported from the battlefield to Chettikulam Zone 4 from 18th May and 1400 injured civilians to Padaviya Hospital. Civilians were coming out of the war zone until at least 20th May 2009. This means there must have been nearly 35 000 civilians left when the Government said on the 17th afternoon there were none. Continue reading “Disappeared on Paper”

The Final Phase

Part 4 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: The Final Phase

Deception over Civilian Safety

Having taken Valaignarmadam after overcoming strong LTTE resistance, which gave it time to build three defence bunds, the Army on 28th April launched a fierce attack on the first bund at Irattaivaykkal. The result as civilians had experienced repeatedly was a rain of army shells falling among IDP camps in Mullivaykkal, two miles south, causing enormous civilian casualties. The Government denied using its heavy weapons while blaming the LTTE of using its. President Rajapakse the previous day pledged that the Government was abandoning the use of heavy weapons.

If there was a military method in this madness, one needs to look back at the experience of civilians in the Udayarkaddu-Suthanthirapuram-Thevipuram safe zone during January and February 2009. In the reality of things, calling the war zone a safe zone was a mere piece of deception for the international community. The civilians were in their bunkers listening to the music of falling shells, having no idea where those shells were coming from. It was when they saw withdrawing LTTE cadres that they knew the Army was very close, perhaps just 50 yards away. Continue reading “The Final Phase”

Escape invites Death and Staying is Worse

Part 3 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: Mattalan: Escape invites Death and Staying is Worse (continued fromPart 2)

Use of Bombs, Cluster Munitions and White Phosphorous; and Curtailment of Medical Aid

The first public reports on the use of cluster munitions appeared in the international media in early February 2009. On 4th February AFP’s Ravi Nessman reported citing the Colombo UN Spokesman Gordon Weiss that 52 civilians had been killed in intense fighting over the past day and that cluster munitions were fired outside the Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital, which too had been struck by artillery killing 12 persons. The Government immediately denied it. Mr. Weiss as quoted by AFP said that cluster munitions had been used at least once earlier in recent weeks. The same report also quoted him saying, ‘the UN accepted the government’s assurance that they did not have the weapons’. It appears the UN took a political decision not to pursue the matter.

Our sources have assured us that cluster shells, known locally as kotthu kundu, were regularly fired from 21st January. They were then noticed by the Oxfam staff at Thevipuram and subsequently by the OCHA, which had its office near Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital. Both observations were reflected in the UN statement. Continue reading “Escape invites Death and Staying is Worse”

From Kilinochchi to Puthukkudiyiruppu

Part 2 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: From Kilinochchi to Puthukkudiyiruppu (continued from Part 1)

The fall of Kilinochchi and After

Soon after Kilinochchi fell on 1st January 2009, senior LTTE leaders conferred in Visuamadu. While several of the senior leaders reportedly believed that the war could no longer be won and that it was time for a new approach, none was in a position to tell Prabhakaran, who had acquired a reputation of invincibility to live up to.

Sources who had access to senior leaders said that the counsel of men like V. Rudrakumaran and K. Pathmanathan would have been of little consequence because they were not on the ground and it was often easy for those like Castro and Nadesan to discredit them by dropping innuendos suggesting they were agents of outfits like CIA or RAW. If a difference was to be made it need have come from persons like the late Anton Balasingham or Shankar who had the capacity to force the leader’s attention and carry through an argument to its end. The talk got around among the people that Prabhakaran had become mentally unbalanced after the fall of Killinochchi. Other reports said that he was refusing to meet groups like the Christian clergy and intellectuals, who were pressing for course change. Continue reading “From Kilinochchi to Puthukkudiyiruppu”

When People Do Not Matter

I normally do not repost material from other sites here; however, I am going to make an exception with the UTHR(J)’s Special Report No 34 released on 13th Dec 2009. On my blog, I have dealt with mostly the SL Army side of the conflict, and occasionally the LTTE side, but haven’t really touched on the civilians’ plight, except peripherally, mostly because of my lack of first-hand experience. Another reason I’m doing this is in the hope that more people will read this horrifying account of the last year of the war and its immediate aftermath. For ease of reading, I will be breaking the report into its eight parts and posting it unedited. Many of us might disagree with the conclusion and analyses put forward by the UTHR(J), particularly on deducing motive, but it remains a very balanced and sobering piece. The original report appears on the UTHR(J)’s site.

When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it, ALWAYS. – Mahatma Gandhi

Part I of UTHR(J) Report No 34: When People Do Not Matter and Tyrannical Egos are Dressed-Up as Nations

The Still Eloquence of Wastelands

The legacy of war and the devastated lives of hundreds of thousands of people will remain with us long. Its effects will be felt in every corner of the country, by the blind, blighted, marred and crippled; and beyond this is the mutilation of democracy, freedom and the ability of different communities to live together.

Weakened, impaired communities of widows and fractured families may be rehabilitated in name, but they continue to live in isolation under a paramilitary regime; their sons, brothers and fathers who were LTTE conscripts – some for only a short time – , have been intimidated and recruited as agents of the state security apparatus. Under these conditions human rights abuses would inevitably remain hidden deep below the surface.

Highlighting a few that are hard to prove such as rape may actually help the State to hide others no less grave and systemic.

The truth must be faced in its full horror without compromise for partisan gain. Visible tokens of what thousands of ordinary Sri Lankans were compelled to endure owing to the ideological games played by those more powerful are nowhere more evident than in what mine clearing teams have found in their treacherous and delicate labour, where a slip could be fatal. The wastelands they move in have their own story to tell.

Just north of the Mannar – Vavuniya Road that had been a frontline for more than a year, no house in the once prosperous agricultural area stands undamaged. Most of them are ruins. Virtually all the trees are destroyed. In the fields, a larger version of the thorny Udai trees have grown up, making thereby cultivation this season far more arduous after resettlement is done.

The variety of weapons that they had collected on the field is an indicator to the heavy casualties that both sides must have suffered. There were all types of weapons collected and piled up in houses to be cleared. These are all that remain of many a friend and foe, who once fought one another with them.

The whole area had been heavily mined by the defenders – in this case the LTTE. They had built up a long trench for their line of defence and then heavily mined a vast area behind it. They left behind varieties of mines with timing devices. The delayed action mines had been set to various times. Wire-trip mines were also used widely. Observers with military experience are amazed at the sophistication of the devices. To this day, soldiers on patrol die regularly as they go inadvertently into certain areas and houses that have been mined.

Four groups are working on mine clearing, including a local company, two Indian companies and one from the Sri Lankan Army, each allocated different areas.

A widely understood catch in the affair is that the last “No-Fire-Zone”, the strip of coast north of Mullaitivu that was the final, traumatic and devastating home for over 240 000 persons, has been given to the Sri Lankan Army unit. Far more than mines, which our informants tell us the LTTE was very short of at that time and, at best, laid astride a handful of well defined bunds across the narrow strip between the sea and the lagoon, the area undoubtedly contained a great deal of incriminating material including remains of a huge number of shells and cluster munitions the Army fired into the helpless IDPs from February to May 2009. This is just the tip of the iceberg in the continuing war on truth. Continue reading “When People Do Not Matter”