Reporting slaughter-Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields – Channel 4

Reporting slaughter-Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields – Channel 4, 14 June 2011

-Manny Thain, National Co-ordinator for TSC, UK

The horrors depicted in Channel 4’s documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields (shown on 14 June), have rightly led to renewed calls to investigate war crimes allegations in Sri Lanka.

Watch the video

Much of the footage is all-too familiar to us. But Channel 4’s decision to bring it together into one film does a great service by drawing attention to those terrible events in 2008 and 2009, especially to those unaware of what took place. Alongside the publication of the United Nations’ panel of experts’ report earlier this year, it adds weight to the call for a full, independent inquiry into the war crimes allegations. Tamil Solidarity supports that call – as we did at the European parliament hearing on 1 June. (Video and pictures)

As expected, the Sri Lankan government rejects the allegations. It dismisses the film footage as fake. It denounces anyone who exposes the vile acts of the Sri Lankan armed forces, as well as the continuing repression against Tamil-speaking people.

Tamil Solidarity rejects those claims. In fact, we stand for unity in the struggle against tyranny. We stand for democratic rights for all: such as, the freedom of the media and trade union organisation. We campaign for decent living standards, education, housing and health provision for all. We stand for the right of self-determination for Tamil-speaking people, and against the oppression of all working-class and poor people in Sri Lanka.

Although the horrific events are well known to most who visit the Tamil Solidarity website, it is important to run through the main points made in the Channel 4 documentary, above all, for the benefit of those less familiar with what happened.

Issues raised by Channel 4 were:

At least 40,000 Tamil-speaking people were massacred in the last months of the war, which ended on 18 May 2009.

Sri Lankan armed forces launched an all-out offensive in 2008 aimed at crushing the hold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north and east.

In September 2008, when the Sri Lankan armed forces were moving in on Killinochchi, government and military officials told the United Nations that their safety could not be guaranteed. People pleaded with the UN not to go, explaining that they would be slaughtered. But the UN left the area.

In January 2009, Killinochchi fell. Thousands of Tamils fled but were deliberately shelled by the armed forces. It is also alleged that the LTTE used civilians as human shields and that they killed Tamils who tried to leave the area.

The Sri Lankan regime had the tacit support of world powers, using heavy artillery supplied by China and flying Israeli combat aircraft. Western powers turned their backs. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade also says that the British government licensed arms sales to the Sri Lankan regime worth £700,000 in 2009 and £1m in 2010.

Sri Lankan forces declared a ‘no-fire zone’, claiming this would safeguard civilians. Yet field hospitals, desperately lacking medicines, equipment and staff, were shelled, even though they were clearly marked with red crosses. Crowded civilian camps were attacked.

By 12 February, a new ‘no-fire zone’ was set up on a narrow strip of land near Mullaitivu. Food distribution lines were shelled. All aid was cut off. Tens of thousands were forced into internment camps.

By 8 May the so-called ‘no-fire zone’ was merely a mile long. Food queues were shelled, the hospital hit repeatedly.

After 12 May, the images come from the mobile phones of Sri Lankan soldiers. No independent media were allowed in the area.

They filmed the summary execution of naked prisoners, blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs, shot in the back of the head. New evidence shows men and women executed on 15 May. A group of civilians gave themselves up to Sri Lankan forces. The women were raped. Channel 4 says it has evidence of the order to kill LTTE soldiers and representatives who surrendered.

The abuse is systematic. It is absolutely barbaric. It comes from orders from the very top, from Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cronies.

On 23 May 2009, UN general secretary, Ban Ki-Moon, went on a 15-minute government-supervised tour. He did not talk to Tamil-speaking people. He did not investigate conditions in the camps.

Rejecting all the allegations against it, the Rajapaksa regime set up the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to cover up its crimes. The brutal military clampdown continues in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

The Channel 4 film ends by stating that Tamil-speaking people are again looking to the international community for justice. It asks: ‘Will they be failed again?’

Unfortunately, the record of the decision-makers in international institutions such as the UN gives little room for hope. Ban Ki-Moon says that the UN does not have the authority to hold an investigation, that only the Security Council could take that decision.

But how likely is that? Ultimately, the UN reflects the interests of the major powers. Although some criticism of the Sri Lankan regime can be expected, these powers want to strengthen their links with Sri Lanka. Its important strategic position along major world sea lanes, its deepwater ports for trade and military use, and its cheap workforce mean that these powers want to do business with Rajapaksa.

Only mass pressure by Tamil-speaking people and their natural allies in the workers’ and oppressed peoples’ movements can keep the spotlight on the barbaric crimes witnessed in 2009 and before.

Tamil Solidarity, alongside many others, calls for an independent inquiry into all the allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka. For such an inquiry to be free from the influence of the Sri Lankan government and its international collaborators, however, it should be a people’s tribunal with representatives accountable to working-class and poor people from all communities, and observed by international trade union and human rights organisations.