Tuesday, 15 July 2014

How many civilians really perished on the Vanni front?



by Shamindra Ferdinando

The media recently received a missive from Brigadier K. J. Jayaweera, Director, Media at Army Headquarters announcing the dates for a Defence Seminar 2014 titled Sri Lanka: Challenges faced by a rising nation. According to Brigadier Jayaweera, the three-day seminar (August 18-20) will discuss matters of national, regional and international security et al.

Can there be a bigger challenge than the ongoing war crimes investigation undertaken by the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner at the behest of Western powers? Sri Lanka faced formidable challenges, countering war crimes allegations directed against the political and military leaderships. In the backdrop of the government’s decision to boycott the investigation, the August seminar can be used to address specific allegations. The country will face a catastrophic situation unless tangible action is taken to provide comprehensive answers to accountability issues raised by the UN. The August seminar can be a platform for a successful counter offensive, but only if those in authority closely examine the allegations directed at the government. There is absolutely no point in talking about resettlement or rehabilitation of ex-LTTE cadres or the reconciliation process.

At the first Defence Seminar held in early June 2011, two years after the conclusion of the conflict, the then US Defence Advisor in Colombo Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith gave Sri Lanka the required ammunition to blast those making wild allegations against Sri Lanka. Lt. Colonel Smith questioned the very basis of allegations, including the execution of surrendering terrorists directed at the Sri Lanka Army. The US official was responding to a query posed by retired Major General Ashok K. Mehta, formerly of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) deployed in Sri Lanka to Major General Shavendra Silva, the first General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division. A highly embarrassed US State Department had no option but to declare Lt. Colonel Smith wasn’t representing the US at the seminar. Surprisingly, the government never exploited the statement made by the US military officer, who was stationed here during the entire Vanni offensive. The government didn’t even realize that Lt. Colonel Smith made the statement nearly two years after the conclusion of the conflict and two months after the release of the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts’ on Accountability in Sri Lanka.

The US embassy man couldn’t have been unaware of the report and the then US ambassador, Patricia Butenis categorizing President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Economic Affairs Minister Basil Rajapaksa as war criminals in a confidential diplomatic cable originated from the US mission in Colombo.

Can India save Sri Lanka from the ongoing war crime investigation? Will Indian Premier Narendra Modi risk upsetting President Barack Obama by trying to derail a major US initiative meant to undermine President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government? Perhaps the most important question is whether India can influence the outcome of the high profile probe.

The Sri Lankan government seems convinced that Modi’s India will come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at the September and March 2015 sessions at the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The government is obviously of the opinion that India’s decision to miss the vote on the US-led resolution 25/1in March this year and vote against a specific paragraph seeking to send a UN investigation team here can influence the inquiry, and hence save the government of Sri Lanka.

Indo-Lanka talks

In the immediate aftermath of External Affairs Minister, Prof. G. L. Peiris’s third visit to New Delhi last week, a section of the media asserted now that India was solidly behind Sri Lanka nothing could go wrong in Geneva. The media quoted Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin as having said that India not only abstained at the vote on the Geneva resolution but voted against a specific paragraph seeking to send a UN team to Sri Lanka to probe excesses committed by the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE during eelam war IV.

India voted twice against Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013, though it missed the vote last March.

Unfortunately, whatever the public sentiments expressed by Indian politicians and officials, India is powerless as far as the UN investigation targeting Sri Lanka is concerned. That is the reality. India’s refusal to cooperate with the UN on this issue cannot impede the investigation in anyway, hence the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) can portray itself as a friend of Sri Lanka, while the investigation continues. But Sri Lanka seems to think otherwise. In fact, India’s perceived opposition to the ongoing probe, as well as Sri Lanka’s refusal to cooperate, will be irrelevant. The bottom line is that Sri Lanka’s decision not to cooperate with the investigation will surely help those trying to cause a regime change in Sri Lanka. The government, for some strange reason, has chosen not make an effort to prove unsubstantiated war crimes allegations made in the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts’ on Accountability in Sri Lanka wrong. Sri Lanka’s decision, in fact, will make things easier for UN investigators, who will basically endorse allegations contained in the Panel of Experts’ report released on March 31, 2011.

The Panel of Experts, in its executive summary alleged that tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days. The panel categorized the following as the five main violations committed by President Rajapaksa’s government: (1) killing of civilians due to heavy shelling (2) systematic attacks on hospitals and other civilian targets (3) denial of food, medicine and other essential items to the Vanni population (4) violation of human rights of those who had survived the war, including LTTE cadres and (5) violations committed outside the war zone, including suppression of the media.

Essentially, the panel endorsed Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, a documentary produced by the UK media outfit, Channel 4 News. The panel referred to ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ on more than one instance, thereby giving credence to both Channel 4 News as well as its work.

It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka’s refusal to cooperate with the UN allowed the panel to produce a highly damaging report. In spite of having the wherewithal to counter allegations, the government preferred to ignore the panel. Instead, the government launched a counter offensive to discredit the panel as well as recollect crimes committed by the LTTE. It didn’t realize that the panel didn’t have any interest in shielding the militarily defeated LTTE. Had the LTTE survived the final onslaught and had been removed to safety to some overseas haven as some Western powers envisaged, at one stage, the panel wouldn’t have taken such a harsh position on the LTTE. The eradication of the LTTE leadership made things easier for the panel. It was able to take a common stand on the issue of accountability when dealing with the government and the LTTE.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which once recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people didn’t utter a word in defense of the LTTE. The TNA silently accepted the panel’s accusations directed against the LTTE. The TNA is obviously happy that the panel conveniently ignored the TNA’s close relationship with the LTTE, as well as the moral support given by the five-party alliance to Velupillai Prabhakaran’s terror campaign.

The panel accused the LTTE of (1) using civilians as a human buffer between its cadres and the advancing army, (2) killing those attempting to flee the rapidly shrinking area under its control (3) deployment of military equipment in close proximity to civilians (4) deployment of children for combat operations (5) forced labour (6) launching suicide attacks on civilians fleeing the area under its control.

The government should realize though it had rejected the Channel 4 News allegations, the UN panel had accepted them, including the main accusation that as many as 40,000 civilians perished on the Vanni east front. In fact, this is the main accusation among five allegations contained in the executive summary of the panel’s report. Let me reproduce the relevant section verbatim (point number 137 in the report): "In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths."

But strangely, the panel has recommended that the identities of those who had provided information to the group shouldn’t be revealed for 20 years since the day of the reports release. Even after that, the release of such information is subject to declassification review. The writer is awaiting a response from the Office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, after having raised the issue with regard to the confidentiality clause over a week ago. In fact, it should be a priority for the ongoing UN investigation to verify various claims made by different parties.

Nothing can be as important as establishing the number of dead in the wake of various persons/organizations making varying claims as regards the loss of civilian life. It is of equal importance to establish the period now called as the final phase. Does the final phase consist of the last three days, five days, final two weeks or January 1 to May 19, 2009.

Different claims

* British Labor Party MP Siobhan McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden-Labour) told the House of Commons in September, 2011 that 60,000 LTTE cadres and 40,000 Tamil civilians perished during January-May 2009 at the hands of the Sri Lankan military. She is the only one to make a specific reference to the number of LTTE cadres killed during a certain period. Obviously, the British MP categorized the January-May 2009 period as the final phase of the conflict. The British High Commission declined to respond to query from the writer regarding the MP’s claim. The MP didn’t even respond to ‘The Island’ query regarding the same. The UK based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) asserted that it couldn’t request the British MP to answer ‘The Island’ query, when the writer contacted the UK based GTF spokesman Suren Surendiran.

The truth is, even if deaths since the mid ‘80s, among those who had fought for the LTTE as well as all other Tamil terrorist groups sponsored by India at one time is taken together, it cannot come near the 60,000 figure. Don’t forget that the LTTE lost hundreds of cadres fighting the Indian army during its deployment here (July 1987 to March 1990). Some Indian trained Sri Lankan terrorists died in a failed attempt to overthrow the democratically elected Maldivian government in November 1988.

The government parliamentary group didn’t at least respond to the Labour Party MP’s allegation. The SLFP-led UPFA should be ashamed of its failure to challenge such a blatant lie. UPFA constituents played politics with the issue. None of them had the courage nor the capacity to pressure the government to adopt a realistic approach.

In February, 2012, MP McDonagh teamed up with Australian Green Senator Lee Rhiammon to recommend the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the Channel 4 News team responsible for ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.’

*In September, 2011, the London headquartered Amnesty International, in a special report titled ‘When will they get justice?: Failures of Sri Lankan’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission placed the number of civilian deaths at 10,000. "Amnesty International’s conclusions, derived independently from eye witnesses testimony and information from aid workers, are that at least 10,000 civilians were killed; that the LTTE used civilians as human shields and conscripted child soldiers; that the Sri Lankan army shelled areas it knew were densely populated by civilians; and that people trapped by fighting suffered severe and avoidable deprivation of food and medical care."

The government failed at least to point out the discrepancy in various figures quoted by the UN panel and Channel 4 News (40,000 civilians), MP Siobhan McDonagh (40,000 civilians and 60,000 LTTE cadres) and Amnesty International (10,000), all during 2011.

Instead, the government hired expensive foreign PR firms which did nothing to counter the lies. Tax payers’ money is being squandered on foolish projects without undertaking a cohesive examination of all facts to pave the way for a robust defense.

*In fact, the UN is still holding back a confidential report prepared by its mission during the conflict for obvious reasons. The UN as well as those Western powers wanting a regime change in Sri Lanka realize that the release of the UN report which dealt with the situation on the Vanni front August 2008 to May 13, 2009 can jeopardize its strategy. Interestingly, the UN panel refused to accept the report prepared by those who risked their lives on the front while accepting unsubstantiated allegations made by interested parties. The UN report estimated the number of dead and wounded at 7,721 killed and 18,479 wounded, respectively. The UN report said that it couldn’t counter the number of dead and wounded only after May 13, 2009. The war ended six days later.

The government should urge the UN to release information collected by an internal crisis group established in early 2009 to gather information relating to civilian deaths. The government’s first priority should be to effectively dispute unsubstantiated allegations as regards civilian deaths. That would be the key to Sri Lanka’s defence. Unlike Channel 4 News and others engaged in a campaign to vilify Sri Lanka, the confidential report can reveal the circumstances under which deaths occurred on the Vanni front, on a daily basis for 10 months.

Sri Lanka’s defence at Geneva entirely remains the responsibility of the government of Sri Lanka. It will have to mount its defence, after closely examining the allegations.