May 28th 2011

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Labor's backflip on asylum-seekers

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Abbott's inroads into Labor's heartland

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Comment on the 2011 federal Budget

ENERGY: Will Windsor and Abbott deliver mandated ethanol?

GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS: How the U.S. can emerge from the global slump

SRI LANKA: Australia silent over war crimes against Tamils

WAR ON TERROR: Al-Qaeda and Pakistan's nuclear weapons program

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Election in Egypt: litmus test for Arab Revolution

CHINA: How Beijing has handled dissidents and protesters

NATIONAL PARKS: Tony Burke's showdown with mountain cattlemen

ENVIRONMENT: Global warming, the latest evidence

POPULATION: Russia to restrict abortions to reverse birth decline

EUTHANASIA: Decisive reasons to reject legalised euthanasia

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: The ups and downs of SA's euthanasia debates


BOOK REVIEW: Hijacking the brain- how pornography works

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Australia silent over war crimes against Tamils

by John Whitehall

News Weekly, May 28, 2011

Everybody should read the United Nations’ recent 214-page report on war crimes committed in Sri Lanka both by the government forces and by Tamils fighting for their homeland in the country’s north-east. (UN Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, March 31, 2011).

It is a timely reminder of “man’s inhumanity to man”.

If Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd had declared that we must intervene in Libya because the world cannot allow another massacre of innocent civilians as had occurred in Sri Lanka, his call at the UN for intervention in Libya would have a certain logic.

If he condemned Mahinda Rajapakse, the President of Sri Lanka, and his younger brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, with the same passion as he has condemned Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for attacking unarmed civilians, there would be consistency.

He would not need to emulate the NATO missile strike that killed the Libyan dictator’s son and three grandsons. With Sri Lanka, the power of the spoken word would be sufficient. Rudd could have used his authority to revoke Australia’s invitation to President Rajapakse to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth later this year, on the grounds of the Sri Lankan government’s abominable record of butchery.

The UN report has attested that there are “credible allegations” indicating that “a wide range of serious violations of the international humanitarian … and human rights law” was committed by both the Sri Lankan government, representing the majority Sinhalese, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who were fighting on behalf of the oppressed Tamil ethnic minority.

According to the report, “the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace”. Some of the breaches of human rights “would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

The report has revealed gruesome details of the butchery of innocent civilians. On January 20, 2009, the perimeter of the LTTE forces was shrinking before superior government firepower. Sri Lankan headquarters demarcated and publicised special no-fire zones for civilians, to one of which two remaining UN workers and “a large number of civilians ... relocated” and set up shelters near a food distribution centre. However, in the early hours of January 24, “hundreds of shells rained down”.

Those with access to the UN bunker dived into it for protection, “but most IDPs [internally displaced people] … had nowhere to seek cover”.

The report said: “People were screaming and crying out for help.” The UN security officer made “frantic calls” to the UN and to Sri Lankan leaders in Colombo, “but heavy shelling continued overnight”.

It continued: “When the UN staff emerged from the bunker in the first morning light at the first opportunity, mangled bodies and body parts were strewn all around them, including those of many women and children. Remains of babies had been blasted upwards into the trees. Among the dead were those who had helped to dig the bunker the previous day.”

As the front contracted, over 300,000 civilians withdrew into another no-fire zone, but this was also shelled “from all directions … land, air and sea … (with) aerial bombardment, long-range artillery, howitzers, MBRLs [multi-barrel rocket launchers], as well as small mortars, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and small arms fire, some of it fired from a close range. MBRLs are unguided missile systems designed to shell large areas, but, if used in densely populated areas, are indiscriminate in their effect”.

Sri Lankan government forces shelled the hospitals and denied medical supplies for the wounded. The International Red Cross (ICRC) evacuated many wounded by ship, but the Sri Lankan government “did not allow UN staff on the ships”. The wounded lined the beaches, which were sometimes shelled, and shelling near the ships curtailed the ICRC’s work.

Conditions in the shelled hospitals were “so poor that a large number of amputations were performed without anaesthetic, using butchers’ knives rather than scalpels. … Many died due to lack of access to proper medical care, and scores of bodies were deposited in front of the hospitals each day”.

When the firing stopped, the Sri Lankan government persisted with the false claim that only 10,000 civilians were involved, but as many as 290,000 civilians ended up in what were, effectively, concentration camps.

The UN report declared that “as a result of the Government’s low estimates, food delivered (to them) … was a fraction of what was actually needed, resulting in widespread malnutrition, including cases of starvation. Similarly, the medical supplies were grossly inadequate”.

Given the types of injuries sustained in the no-fire zones, “doctors requested anaesthetics, blood bags for transfusion, antibiotics, surgical items, gloves and disinfectants”. Instead, they received “Panadol, allergy tablets and vitamins.

In screening Tamil civilians after the war ended in May 2009, government forces conducted “executions, disappearances, and rape and sexual violence”. Suspected members of the Tamil Tigers remain sequestered to this day and “there is virtually no information about the conditions at these separate LTTE ‘surrenderee’ sites. … The fact that interrogations and investigations as well as ‘rehabilitation’ activities have been ongoing, without any external scrutiny for almost two years, rendered alleged LTTE cadre highly vulnerable to violations such as rape, torture or disappearances, which could be committed with impunity.”

Though the UN report has detailed abuses, curiously, it does not emphasise the Sri Lankan government’s motives to commit them. Why did Sri Lanka unleash such terror on the Tamil civilian population while it declared that the LTTE was an unrepresentative group of terrorist thugs?

Why, for example, did the Sri Lankans rain “great destruction” on a particular no-fire zone such that “even the vegetation was shredded. Dead or severely injured civilians lay along the roadsides, amidst shattered shelters, strewn belongings and dead animals”? This was in “stark contrast to the situation outside the NFZ, where there were few signs of shelling... in spite of the presence of a large number of LTTE and far fewer civilians”. (My emphasis added).

The UN report leads to the conclusion that the Sri Lankans knew exactly what they were doing when they bombed civilians in the no-fire zones. They possessed unmanned aerial vehicles for “surveillance, target acquisition and subsequent battle assessments” which could detect “individuals and their movements or positions” day and night, including “civilian installations such as hospitals”.

Why did Colombo inflict its dirty war on innocent Tamil women and children? Why did they incarcerate, starve, abuse and deny medicines to the vanquished population?

In examining the “historical and political background to the conflict”, the UN Report simply declares that it was “Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism … asserting a privileged place for the Sinhalese as the protectors of Sri Lanka, as the sacred home of Buddhism”, that resulted in “devastating and enduring consequences”.

This delicately avoids the word genocide, but does confirm the racial, religious, and cultural basis of the conflict. The Sinhalese war was not merely against the LTTE who sought to resist, but against the ethnic Tamils who merely sought to exist. It was not a war against terrorists as much as it was and is a war of terror for Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy.

The UN also alleges that war crimes were committed by the LTTE, including firing on their own fleeing civilians, hiding behind civilians and forcibly recruiting teenagers into their ranks — and, of course, there are no excuses for such behaviour.

Nor should there be excuses for the past use of terror by the LTTE. This writer has acknowledged and condemned such abuses and continues to do so. Such acts were always morally wrong. And they have been proven tactically wrong.

Perhaps the major reason the LTTE lost its struggle for a Tamil homeland was its loss of international sympathy because of its resorting to the use of terror. This practice was wrong in itself, but, after 9/11, it allowed the Sri Lankan government to claim the moral high ground and accuse the Tamil population of being on the wrong side in the global war on terror.

Last, what of the motives of the Tamil civilians? Why did a third of a million people retreat with the LTTE into a hell hole? It could be argued that the LTTE would not let them leave. However, it could also be argued that ordinary Tamils identified with the struggle and, after decades of structural and personal persecution, were fearful of impending genocide.

Also, they had traumatic memories of what had befallen Tamil civilians who had surrendered to the government in the past. For example, in October 1995, after government forces seized the Jaffna peninsula, the corpses of many Tamils who had surrendered to them were later disinterred or retrieved from wells.

Western history seems oblivious to the fact that almost half a million Tamil civilians preferred to flee Jaffna at that time rather than surrender to Colombo. And they fled with the LTTE.

That 300,000 Tamils persisted to the bloody end in the current conflict reveals a commitment for Tamilhood that is all too well understood by Colombo. That is why the war continues against the population.



UN Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, March 31, 2011.

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