By Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka researcher
Tonight Channel 4 screens its harrowing new documentary, “Sri Lanka, The Killing Fields”. The film highlights massive human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war by both parties to the conflict.
Some of the more shocking imagery includes the fallout of systematic shelling of hospitals by the government.
We see families hiding in terror from repeated shelling, injured children dying as medicines run out. Channel 4 also presents previously untelevised footage, including killing and mutilation of prisoners, making this difficult if essential viewing.
The Sri Lankan government’s immediate reaction is simply to say this is fabrication. I wasn’t surprised by this denial as it has happened before.
Over successive decades both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) have denied inconvenient truths. The government has used censorship to prevent criticism of the security forces while the Tamil Tigers have silenced and even killed dissenters.
In the past, official censorship tended to flare up when the government security forces suffered major setbacks. So, in mid-1996 when the military lost key army camps and territory to the LTTE, there were false media reports of success.
It should be noted that in this context of censorship, reports of torture and ”disappearances” increased dramatically. This, for instance, was the context in which approximately 500 ”disappearances” were reported in Jaffna in 1996 in the spate of a few months.
In May 2000, the President of Sri Lanka brought in new emergency regulations which conferred powers of arrest to ”any authorized person” in addition to the police and armed forces. The new laws also considerably extended the powers to detain available to them.
The regulations also provided wide powers of censorship; provisions for prohibiting public meetings and processions; and broad provisions for proscribing organizations which the president believes could jeopardize national security, public order or the maintenance of essential services.
The government used these regulations even to ban films. In 2000 the authorities used the emergency regulations to prevent screenings of Death On A Full Moon Day (Pura Handa Kaluwara). The film is set in a remote village near Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka’s North Central province and highlights the impact of war on ordinary Sinhalese families.
The plot revolves around a blind father, Wannihami, who awaits news of his soldier son. One day, the state returns a sealed casket. Despite official ceremonies, Wannihami refuses to believe that his son is really dead.
His sorrow hardens to the point of explosion. On the night of the full moon, he breaks open the casket and discovers that instead of his son there are simply stones. The authorities have lied to him as they have lied about the whereabouts of so many soldiers.
Over successive years, all sides in Sri Lanka have repeatedly lied about the scale of human rights violations. Denying the truth does not erase it. Amnesty International has collected many testimonies from victims of torture, families of the disappeared and those arbitrarily arrested.
The organization has also recorded deliberate and inexcusable targeting of civilians by the Tamil Tigers such as the attack on the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy in 1998.
In March this year, the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on accountability in Sri Lanka issued its report highlighting credible allegations that both sides in Sri Lanka’s armed conflict violated international human rights and humanitarian law, possibly committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It recommended that the Secretary-General establish an independent international mechanism to investigate the allegations.
What’s important about this week’s Channel 4 film is that visual images are a way of making real what others may prefer to ignore. The kneejerk response of the authorities that the footage isn’t authentic is simply a repeat of years of denial and subterfuge in the face of inconvenient truths.
Now that the war is over in Sri Lanka people must be allowed to contest official versions of the truth. Before the ceasefire in February 2002, the war appeared in the official media as a story of ‘our soldiers’ or ‘the rebels’, of losses and gains – a game of numbers. Glib talk of reconciliation cannot absolve the pain inflicted on relatives. All sides have suffered as a result of hiding unwelcome truths.
We have a responsibility to stand up for victims who the authorities would prefer to keep silent. In order for Sri Lanka to have a meaningful process of reconciliation there needs to be a genuine ‘truth telling’ exercise. Both parties to the conflict need to come to terms with the atrocities committed.
Despite visual evidence that the Tamil Tigers used child soldiers, some Tamil groups continue to deny the practice. This is why there needs to be a neutral, international body that addresses accountability.