14 Feb 2013

Sri Lanka: skeletons in the cupboard?

The UN human rights commissioner didn’t mince her words this week when she accused the Sri Lankan government of “triumphalism” in the Tamil north, home of the vanquished Tamil Tiger insurgency.

The UN Human Rights Commissioner didn’t mince her words this week when she accused the Sri Lankan government of ‘triumphalism’ in the Tamil north, home of the vanquished Tamil Tiger insurgency. In a report published on Monday, Navi Pillay said civilians in the region known as ‘the Vanni’ have been forbidden from commemorating those killed in the war.

Tamil Tiger cemeteries, containing more than 20,000 graves, have reportedly been bulldozed by Sri Lankan government forces, now occupying the Vanni. Museums and memorials commemorating the victors have sprung up across the province. These, in Ms Pillay’s words, “tend to use triumphalist images from which the local population feels a strong sense of alienation.”

Government rejects call for demilitarisation

The high commissioner again called for an international investigation into alleged war crimes committed as the 27-year-long war drew to a close four years ago.

The Sri Lankan government response to the UN human rights commissioner’s report was predictably dismissive. It rejected her call for the demilitarisation of the Vanni.

The government also continued to insist that “there is no evidence that the Channel 4 footage of executions is genuine”. The footage, first broadcast by Channel 4 News has been authenticated by numerous independent experts including the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings.

Immediately following the publication of Ms Pillay’s report, President Mahinda Rajapaksa decided it was an appropriate time to pay a visit to Jaffna, capital of the Vanni. He’s just spent two days on the Jaffna Peninsula, inspecting “ongoing development activity”.

‘Military-run tourism’

The triumphalism described by Ms Pillay is well illustrated in this article, on “the rise of military–run tourism” in the former war zone, and published by the London-based Sri Lanka campaign for peace and justice.

“Visitors are offered a guided tour” of the former Tamil Tigers’ operations hub, it reports, comprising “a three-storey underground bunker, a firing range, a film hall, a semi-underground garage and a funeral parlour.

“What is absent are details of the suffering faced by the Tamils who lived in constant fear of the LTTE, and then persecution by the Sri Lankan army.”

The ghosts of Sri Lanka’s violent past are proving hard to exorcise. Not least for the second-most-powerful man in the country: the president’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapakse.

The defence and urban development secretary, credited with crushing the Tamil Tiger rebellion (at the cost of tens of thousands of Tamil civilian lives) has now been widely linked in the Sri Lankan press to mass killings 20 years ago while he was a senior army commander. Back then, though, the alleged victims are said to have been Sinhalese Marxist insurgents.

JVP demands investigation

Human remains of what could be as many as 200 people were first discovered in the central town of Matale in December last year. Politicians belonging to the JVP party allege that the victims were killed having been tortured and that the heads and arms of legs of many of them had been severed.

The then government was widely accused of running torture chambers in the Matare area in the late 1980s and of conducting extra-judicial executions. As many as 60,000 JVP insurgents were reportedly killed. The JVP, now a parliamentary party, is demanding a thorough investigation into what happened in Matale.

According to the Sri Lankan defence ministry website, the military’s coordinating officer and then commanding officer in the area at the time was none other than Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

And among more junior officers serving under Lt Col Rajapaksa, names familiar to Tamil survivors of the Vanni war. Names like Shavendra Silva and Jagath Dias, both senior generals in the final decisive months of the civil war. Another was Sumedha Perera, the security forces’ commander in the Vanni until last August.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter via @millerC4