This is part one of a two-part series on Sri Lanka.
Picking apart the policies of a country already predicted to become the world’s “next Burma”is certainly an easy task. It is also a necessary task, although in the case of Sri Lanka, states of the European Union as well as the United States would be better served to take a more even-handed approach towards the civil war between the official Sinhalese-dominated government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended in 2009.
To begin, this article has one very important disclaimer: sympathy for the civilian victims of the war should never be conflated with sympathy for the perpetrators. This seems an obvious statement, but then again it is continually ignored in the case of the Tamil people and the LTTE as well as the Sinhalese people and the official government of Sri Lanka. Neither of the two militaristic agents of the people are deserving of any sympathy. It should be quite telling that Sri Lanka has taken pride in this year’s failed state index, in which Sri Lanka climbed four places over the 2010 ranking, from 24th most failed state to 29th below Sierra Leone, Kyrgyzstan, and the Republic of Congo. In due course, the LTTE is the terrorist group (recognized as such by the EU, USA, India and others) that pioneered new methods in suicide bombing in the 1980’s which were inspirational to other groups including al Qaeda. Both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have committed egregious violations of human rights and war crimes; the fact that each side suffered horrendously does not excuse their dogged-determination for retribution in a vicious cycle of violence that lasted over 25 years.
For this reason praise as well as criticism should be leveled against the recent BBC Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, which heavily covers the alleged war crimes of the Sri Lankan government, but takes a rather muted stance against the LTTE. The documentary is misleading in its one-sided portrayal of the conflict, but that alone is not sufficient evidence to suggest that what it did in fact show was fake – the practice of systematic torture, rape and summary killings in addition to intentional bombing of hospitals and other off-limits targets carried out by the Sri Lankan government are virtually undeniable. Even if the documentary were not convincing enough, the UN Panel Report on Sri Lanka is quite damning in terms of the possibility of war crimes committed by the government.
Yet the actions of the Sri Lankan government do not excuse those of the LTTE (or vice-versa). The documentary deliberately underplays the policies of this terrorist group, which had a long-standing history of manipulating and sacrificing the innocent Tamil civilians that it claimed to protect through the use of human shields, intentional use of schools as hide-outs, forced conscription of child soldiers, not to mention other flagrant violations of human rights including the ethnic cleansing of Muslims, terrorist activity and likewise targeting of off-limits targets. As an illustrative reminder, it was the LTTE that assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi in 1991. Crimes perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government are explained in horrific detail and corresponding footage screened, whilst the policies of the LTTE are scarcely even mentioned in “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”. It is for this reason that the documentary should be critiqued, as a project seeking to portray only the suffering of the Tamil people in the final months of the war, absent-minded of the suffering that Sinhalese and Muslims faced, and with a disregard for the equally harrowing alleged war crimes of the LTTE.
The activist nature of the documentary, namely the appeal to international actors to intervene in Sri Lankan affairs, could explain this tendency. The bias of the documentary is understandable but still quite indefensible on account of one major predicament: there are effectively no equivalently high-ranking LTTE officials left to prosecute in comparison to the Sri Lankan government. The commanders of the LTTE were decimated in the final period of the civil war whilst government officials have either retained their positions or been promoted. Channel 4 may have reasoned that a poignant, if biased, condemnation of the government would be more likely to elicit an immediate international response than a murky two-sided documentary of the chaos would have done.
To some extent this has been successful. The UK, France and USA have called for action, with the latter even initiating a trial against Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The United Nations has even had some of its own screenings of the documentary. (UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon claims that his presence in Sri Lanka was inaccurately portrayed in the documentary as well.) Beyond official responses, the documentary has far exceeded the public of the United Kingdom and reached audiences across the globe. To take perhaps the most pertinent and distressing line from Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, an old Brahmin pleaded with UN officials, saying, “We don’t care about our food, shelter and water, we’ll take care of ourselves. We need international eyes on the ground to see what’s happening here,” [emphasis added].
If this is the measure of the documentary’s success, then the international eyes now want to know what happened.
Thus the praise reserved for the documentary, despite its many faults, is that it has successfully attracted international attention. For too long the world – minus China and to some extent India – has simply turned a blind eye, preferring indifference over action in the plight of the Sri Lankan people. There are major problems on this South Asian island and international pressure is likely the only way to counter increasing authoritarianism and address festering ethnic tension that could potentially lead to renewed violence between Sinhalese and Tamils.
But for now, what are the international eyes doing? Are they only half open to the cut-and-dry narrative of the war or are they willing to open themselves to the whole gruesome reality, complete with the fog of war, mutual acts of terror, war crimes committed by Sinhalese and Tamil, and only an imperfect set of options to choose from?
How the international community can respond without running the risk of creating another Burma is the subject of this article’s second part.
Jochen Kiesow is a German student working in Sri Lanka.