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Sri Lanka: Caught in the crossfire

30 October 2012

Alex Singer, volunteering for the Conflict Prevention Programme at Minority Rights Group International, attended the Commonwealth Journalists Association’s (CJA) launch of Frances Harrison’s new book: Still Counting the Dead – Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War.

A former foreign correspondent for the BBC, Ms. Harrison has cultivated an extensive career in Southeast and South Asia. As of 2011, she has been appointed Head of News at Amnesty International. The following is a reflection on the political turmoil surrounding the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s 30 year armed conflict and the search for truth in the voices of its victims.

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented – Elie Wiesel

As I hesitantly took my seat, with my Houses of Parliament “visitor pass” draped around my neck, the meeting room began filling up with international diplomats, journalists, researchers, Members of Parliament, writers and community representatives.

On the 19th May 2009, the government declared a military victory against the Tamil Tigers, putting an end to a 30-year period of armed conflict in Sri Lanka. The focus of this launch was on the events that took place during the last five months of the armed conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who were fighting for a separate Tamil state, and government forces.

Caught in the middle of this crossfire were the subjects of Ms. Harrison’s book, the “ordinary citizens” of Sri Lanka. Specifically, ethnic Tamils were the target of mass violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws. The book seemed to challenge the audience with testimonials from these citizens, exposing what took place during a “media blackout,” in which massive human rights abuses in the final stages of the civil war slipped unnoticed through the international community’s agenda.

A common theme in this book, and during tonight’s discussion, is the question of what constitutes truth. Ms. Harrison’s chapters, each revealing the story of individual survivors, are interlinked delicately by the motif of human struggle in a period when “the rest of the world looked the other way.”

The death toll for this five-month period is estimated to be 40, 000, yet the numbers of dead have yet to be officially confirmed, and to this day, none of the underlying issues of the conflict have been resolved.

Meanwhile, the audience continued to chatter and exchange business cards. After a resounding call to attention from MP Steve Pound the room fell into a respectful silence. Ms. Harrison was strategically placed at the center of a six-person panel, which included Chairwoman Rita Payne (President of the CJA), Mr. Vidar Helgesen and Minister Erik Solheim (facilitators in the Norwegian-brokered Sri Lanka peace talks in 2002), MP Steve Pound of Ealing North, and MP Siobhian McDonagh of Mitcham and Morden. After Ms. Payne introduced the speakers, she asked Ms. Harrison to explain why she wrote this book, to which she simply responded that she, “felt a need to find out what happened during those final five months of the war.”

Initially, Ms. Harrison had wanted to construct a chronology of events between November 2008 and May 2009. Although she had been in touch with a senior member of the LTTE before writing, she was still unsure of the level and detail of the violence. However her project quickly evolved into a study of “what it was like” in northern Sri Lanka during the final months of the armed conflict, and how victims experienced that period in vivid detail, without relying on the details and dates of what bombs fell and where.

Ms. Harrison wanted to capture where the victims came from, and details of their daily lives. She wanted to contrast the pre-chaos life with the turbulent last months of the civil war. She wanted each story to draw the reader in, so that they may identify with the victim as an individual. This was clear from an excerpt she read to the audience about a Tamil doctor who risked his life under relentless fire, to save members of the community. Other stories involve nurses, journalists, combatants, and more.

What I found most compelling about Ms. Harrison’s talk was her emphasis on the role of the witness as the bearer of truth. To her own surprise, during these interviews, she discovered details that were not being documented or reported on. While tracing the sensations and aspirations of her interviewees, their experiences overlapped facts presented in the 31 March 2011 report by the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts, whose mandate was to advise the Secretary General with regards to the alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the final stages of armed conflict.

Additionally, she found that the accounts in her book matched details of the witness testaments in the Sri Lankan government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report* (although the Commission’s status as an impartial Truth and Reconciliation Commission is questionable).

Ms. Harrison was wary that, although this search for victim-centered truth is powerful, it is complicated by a government that refuses to credit the truth of the victim’s experiences. The majority of Sri Lankan journalists and human rights activists have been silenced, by force or by threats. This hurts the victims, who seek proof and public support of their individual traumas.

On a policy level, the Government’s unwavering defense of their stance that there were “zero-civilian casualties”, allowed political and military officials to give up all responsibility for harm inflicted on the victims, under the guise of a humanitarian operation. Given the media and popular support for the Government, the human rights abuses recounted by the victims during the final phases of war have not been properly documented nor have they been brought to justice.

This failed reconciliation was emphasized by Mr. Solheim’s solemn observation that the Government has yet to reach out to the Tamil community and the victims post-armed conflict in a meaningful way.

The victim’s desire to tell the truth, and be believed, became more disheartening when the international community turned an apathetic and uninformed eye away from the situation. What was so unique about the last stages of the Sri Lankan armed conflict, which could inspire such apathy in the international community?  Mr. Helgesen and Mr. Solheim explained that, although there were pictures transmitted through the web and television, no foreign media was allowed onto the Island.

I was intrigued by Mr. Pound’s description of the last months of the civil war as a “war fought in secret.” It was difficult to ignore the shock in Mr. Pound’s face as he explained how effective the war propaganda was, to the extent that it disarmed journalistic insight.

Although it truly was hard to gage what was going on, the international community is responsible in part for this inertia. Mr. Pound aptly interjected that, “whatever happened in Sri Lanka carried on with a tacit approval of the international community.”

Those in international government and media bodies, who did have access to what was going on, did not want to act for other reasons: the fact that Sri Lanka does not have natural resources, nor were they against the fall of the LTTE.

Although there is a huge Sri Lanaka diaspora community of protestors in Zurich, London and Oslo—all of which are very powerful—very few organized protests have taken place that were not pro-LTTE. This fact does not, however, take away from the countless Sinhalese and non-Tamil Sri Lankans who have intervened to promote the Tamil civilian plight. Both Mr. Pound and Ms. McDonagh tried to decipher truth from the heavy emotional atmosphere surrounding the events, admitting that the degree of emotion in the community was so high that it was hard to get the “pure” truth.

Apart from the many questions which are still to be answered post-armed conflict, there is a pall of uncertainty of how Sri Lanka is to proceed. Although the evening provoked sentiments of disappointment and outrage about missed opportunities, the unprecedented and unimaginable abuses experienced by the victims remains immortalized in Ms. Harrison’s writing. She hopes some sort of truth-telling process will emerge from the dark period, which will finally allow the victims to move forward. Even those who escaped, who she hesitates to call “lucky,” cannot return to a stable life.

Ms. Harrison is proud her book can voice the truth of the victims, but the more the truth-telling process is delayed the prospect of long-lasting peace remains tenuous.

*As of November 2020, the website on which that report was previously hosted seems to have been permanently taken down.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.