SPECIAL REPORT : Part 14
War Crimes charge: Urgent need for reappraisal of GoSL's response
A WFP/UN food convoy pictured at Omanthai in October 2008 before moving to LTTE held area.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields was meant to pave the way for Western powers to intervene in Sri Lanka. Last week, The Island dealt with some of the issues highlighted by the documentary produced by the British media outfit, Channel 4 News and the failure on the part of the government to counter them. Although the documentary was first shown to UK audiences on Channel 4 in June 2011, Channel 4 News made its initial allegations in August 2010.
Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields is often mentioned as the basis for an international war crimes probe primarily due to the government’s failure to expose lies propagated by the British media outfit.
The documentary alleged that the final offensive got underway in September, 2008 in the absence of foreign staff of the UN as well as INGOs. The continued presence of international staff of the ICRC in the Vanni region was purposely ignored by the Channel 4 News production team and others wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal.
For want of a cohesive strategy, the continued ICRC presence in the Vanni east (East of Kandy-Jaffna A9 road) even months after the UN pullout from Kilinochchi never received the required international media attention. In fact, the army had been struggling in the face of fierce resistance from well experienced LTTE units defending Kilinochchi and the LTTE remained confident of repulsing the offensive. The LTTE held Kilinochchi until the first week of January 2009. The LTTE’s bid to defend Kilinochchi collapsed in the wake of Major General Shavendra Silva’s celebrated 58 Division crushing the town’s northern defences, after having seized Pooneryn and Paranthan.
The main anchor of Channel 4 News, Jon Snow, cleverly propagated the lie the Sri Lankan military compelled international workers to leave to pave the way for annihilation of innocents.
The then UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss, explained to Snow how the fall of Kilinochchi caused a massive exodus of people. Weiss accused government forces of forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee. The military was also accused of failing to distinguish civilians from LTTE cadres. Blaming the LTTE for using them as human shields, Weiss said that over the next four months, they were deliberately targeted
Snow alleged: Civilians fell victims to the relentless government offensive. This was an unequal war. The Sri Lankan government had the tacit support of most of the world’s powers and was equipped with heavy artillery from China as well as a squadron of Israeli built Kfir aircraft."
Having accused the LTTE of adopting brutal tactics, including the use of child soldiers as well as suicide bombers, Snow subtly painted a picture of government forces having had superior firepower on the Vanni battlefield. Snow suggested that excessive government firepower had been the cause for heavy loss of civilian life. The Channel 4 News presenter refrained from making any reference to the LTTE’s awesome firepower. It was a clever move on the part of the Channel 4 News team. Although the government had accused the LTTE of having a range of weapons, it failed to counter the Channel 4 News allegation, pertaining to the use of excessive firepower.
The LTTE had an arsenal comprising a range of mortars as well as artillery pieces of Chinese origin, anti-aircraft guns also of Chinese origin, high explosives and a highly trained fighting cadre. Snow was careful not to mention the vast experience gained by the LTTE fighting cadre during its war against the Indian army deployed in Sri Lanka in the wake of Indo-Lanka peace accord signed on July 1987. Snow also ignored that the LTTE and about six other terrorists groups had their initial military training in India, under the supervision of Indian instructors and intelligence personnel. India quit Sri Lanka on March 1990 after having lost nearly 1,600 officers and men and more than double that number wounded. It would be pertinent to mention that at the onset the war, Sri Lankan terrorists also received training from Palestinians fighting the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
Channel 4 News conveniently ignored that the US in late 2002 recommended the use of cluster bombs against the LTTE as the world’s solitary superpower felt such drastic action was necessary to break the backbone of the LTTE fighting cadre. But Sri Lanka never resorted to the use of cluster ammunition, though it was being accused of utilising the same.
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa used his appearance before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to highlight the LTTE’s ferocity. The Defence Secretary Rajapaksa asserted the huge losses suffered by the Army during eelam war IV revealed the true extent of the LTTE fighting capability. The LTTE, he said, had weapons similar to those used by the army and the amount of artillery and mortar rounds fired by the outfit was a testament to its tremendous fire power.
In his presentation before the Lessons Learnt Commission headed by former Attorney General C. R. de Silva, the war veteran said that the combined forces campaign (June 2006 to May 2009) had claimed the lives of about 6,000 officers and men and wounded about 30,000. About half of them died during the Vanni campaign.
Sri Lanka produced Lies Agreed Upon in response to Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. Lies Agreed Upon effectively countered the young British passport holder Vany Kumar, who had been with the LTTE during the final phase of the battle. She was depicted as a UK qualified bio medicine technician who ended up on the Vanni east front as the multi-pronged army offensive cornered the LTTE fighting cadre. Snow said that Kumar was in Sri Lanka to spend six months. He never explained why the British passport holder wanted to spend six months in a war zone despite being aware that the LTTE was retreating.
Snow interviewed several faceless persons who accused the military of indiscriminate as well as deliberate attacks on civilians. On the basis of eyewitness accounts attributed to faceless persons, Snow alleged the military of intentionally attacking a makeshift hospital, east of the Kandy-Jaffna road causing many deaths. Speaking in Tamil, an unidentified person alleged that there were scattered body parts, bodies and blood everywhere. Claiming that this was happening continuously, he declared that he felt it was not an accident.
Snow declared that the UN monitored what was happening on the ground.
The presenter interviewed another unidentified person who discussed the situation at Puthukudirippu hospital immediately after an artillery attack directed at the building. Snow claimed that the man whose identity had to be concealed for his protection, arrived at the scene after 10 to 15 persons were killed in an artillery strike. Responding to Snow’s queries, the man insisted that the hospital was targeted intentionally. "Over the next few days, government shelling of the hospital intensified. Although both Snow and unidentified accusers alleged massive bombardment, there was no footage of totally or partially destroyed buildings. They alleged that the army had caused more deaths among civilians by firing shells at the nearby no fire zone situated close to Puthukudirippu hospital and also due to incursions by troops.
The Sri Lankan military was accused of intentionally attacking civilians fleeing the war zone. Snow interviewed another unidentified accuser who described how indiscriminate military fire claimed the life of his 14-year-old son. The military was accused of firing at the same location in accordance with an overall plan to maximize casualties among civilians. Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields alleged that subsequent artillery fire was to target those volunteering to assist the war wounded. Then the LTTE too, was accused to resorting to violence to stop people from fleeing to government held areas. Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields recollected the circumstances under which an LTTE woman suicide cadre killed a large number of soldiers at a frontline facility to welcome those reaching the army-held lines. The LTTE was also accused of violating rules of war in no fire zones.
Although the accusers remained unidentified, hence no verification of their allegations possible, the UN, US and UK had accepted them and brought war crimes charges against Sri Lanka.
Gordon Weiss alleged that the LTTE used civilians as a shield. Weiss said: "We know from available evidence that Tamil Tigers were killing people in order to stop them from fleeing.
Snow: Laws of war apply equally to both sides.
Another unidentified accuser said that those trapped in the second no fire zone had no food.
Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields accused the Sri Lankan military of depriving the civilian population of adequate food. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) was used to justify that particular allegation, while Steve Crawshaw, Advocacy Director, Amnesty, declared that civilians shouldn’t starve under any circumstances.
The British media outfit was either ignorant of what was happening in Sri Lanka or it felt an extremely nasty picture of the Sri Lankan government could be painted. Although the Defence Ministry on several occasions clearly responded to this particular charge, Channel 4 News continued to propagate lies. Had Channel 4 News bothered to ask the World Food Programme (WFP) and that the ICRC, it would have had a clear picture of measures taken by the government to ensure essential supplies were delivered under the extremely difficult situation. The international community wouldn’t be able to pinpoint a similar situation in any other part of the world since the Second World War.
It would be important to remind those making ridiculous allegations against the Sri Lankan government the circumstances under which food supplies were delivered. Following the LTTE launching eelam war II on August 11, 2006, the government faced the daunting task of moving supplies to the Jaffna peninsula by sea. As the re-opening of the Muhamalai entry/exit point would have given the LTTE an advantage, the army felt it should remain closed until the ground situation could be stabilized. Having decided to close the Muhamalai entry/exit point for the time being, the government sought the ICRC’s assistance to move supplies needed by the civilian community in the Jaffna peninsula. The ICRC declined to lend its flag to enable food ships to move from Trincomalee to Kankesanthurai without being targeted. Those now accusing Sri Lanka of starving the civilian population didn’t utter a word. The international media and their Colombo based local correspondents ignored the crisis. The ICRC insisted that it couldn’t lead convoys unless both parties agreed. The LTTE warned the ICRC not to get involved in the operation. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) conveniently remained silent on the issue. The LTTE pushed for the re-opening of Muhamalai entry/exit point, as it knew of the advantage of having the obstacles on the main access road to Jaffna removed. India too, pushed for the re-opening of the road (Jaffna won’t be accessible overland-The Island September 28, 2006).
The LTTE strategy was simple. Prabhakaran most probably felt the government’s failure to move supplies to Jaffna peninsula could cause chaos there, hence facilitate his operations in the Eastern Province as well as the Vanni region. The army was on the defensive at that time, though it managed to halt the initial LTTE push across the Muhamalai frontline.
In January 2007, the LTTE caused massive damage to a civilian cargo vessel, ‘Liverpool’ carrying supplies to the Jaffna peninsula. But the government sustained the operation.
Channel 4 News completely ignored LTTE efforts to disrupt food supplies throughout eelam war IV. While the British media outfit accused the government of starving the population, the World Food Programme can help Sri Lanka to establish the amount of food moved to Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts overland amidst some of the bloodiest fighting during the conflict. Food convoys were launched after UN and other foreign staff quit Kilinochchi following a Defence Ministry directive in September 2008. According to WFP records available with its mission in Colombo, it delivered 7,694 metric tons of food items to LTTE held areas from October 2008 to January 2009. Altogether, there were 12 separate convoys. As the ICRC too facilitated this operation, the Geneva-based organization can help establish the circumstances under which food convoys moved from Vavuniya to the LTTE-held area. When heavy fighting east of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road brought overland food convoys to a standstill, the government moved food stocks by sea. The ICRC facilitated the transportation of 3150 metric tons of supplies from February 19, 2009 to May 8, 2009 to those trapped in the Puthumathalan area.
Sri Lanka should request both the ICRC and the WFP to explain their role in facilitating supplies to those trapped on the Vanni front, as the army gradually pushed the LTTE towards the eastern coast.