16 Apr 2011

'Tense and frustrating' – reporting Sri Lanka's secret war

A leaked document reveals the United Nations believes there is credible evidence that war crimes were committed in Sri Lanka’s civil war. Already the government of Sri Lanka has put up its defences, blogs Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson.

A leaked UN report reveals the United Nations believes there is credible evidence that war crimes were committed in Sri Lanka’s civil war. Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson recalls the “frustration and the tension” of trying to report on a “secret war”.

Already the government of Sri Lanka has put up its defences as the report is leaked. To nobody’s surprise Colombo’s position is that this is just so much hearsay because the United Nations team never got real access. And they have got access because Colombo banned them… and so the merry-go-round goes on.

All of it, merely the latest in a long chapter of secrecy, censorship and intimidation from both the Sir Lankan government and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) down the long years of civil war from 23 June 1983 to the Tigers admitting defeat in May 2009.

For any foreign reporter visiting the island it was generally a barely endurable excercise in frustration and the tension. Frustration at interminable briefings in Colombo from government officials telling you virtually nothing. Or highly sanitised visits “to the front” during which one would be shown next to nothing.

Any attempt to reach the other side as it were – the LTTE – was always a high- risk venture from the crossing of lines and possible minefields to the more likely danger of exposing your local fixer/translator to serious police action or worse for helping foreign reporters to try and cover both sides of the long war.

More from Channel 4 News – Sri Lanka: civil war special report

Few succeeded and I certainly failed. For some days we had followed one path or by road through the north eastern jungles, gone from tip-off to tip-off, only to end up at a coastal lagoon one evening at dusk with no way across and only one way back – to the waiting Sir Lankan police whom we knew were after us.

A night of somewhat hopeless shouting across the lagoon for any possible boat was futile. This was deep into the no-man’s land of the war – some miles north of the last Sri Lankan government checkpoint – but still too many miles south of the first Tiger positions. We acquired a good many mosquito bites and a very long night in the jungle.

We then plodded back to inevitable arrest and a short period locked up by Sir Lankan police and army. To be fair we were more inconvenienced than threatened in any way. But we had tried to unlock the secret war – surely the most secret of wars ever fought in modern times. That was how the Sir Lankan government wanted it. It is also to a good extent how the LTTE wanted to play thing as well.

Thus the final months covered by this UN report and the aftermath remained – typically – a very secret affair. The amount of TV footage is minimal. The eyewitnesses to hospitals being shelled and civilian areas hit were not journalists – foreign or Sri Lankan in almost all cases – but courageous and exhausted hospital doctors and NGO officials. Most of them Sir Lankans. Most of them putting themselves at great risk.

Read more – Sri Lanka footage: behind the UN verdict

Colombo was now in a big hurry to end matters. With LTTE arms supply lines cut, weapons ships destroyed and critically – the international finance shut down by global anti-terror laws, the quick-end option was in sight for Colombo and never mind the cost.

So it would be fast, sharp and bloody and – according to the UN and eyewitnesses – bloody and pretty indiscriminate. But it was, judging by the standards of 26 years of civil war, relatively short. Above all though it was pretty much secret and secrecy was always what Colombo prized, second only to victory.

Follow Alex Thomson on Twitter – @alextomo