A letter from Colombo

Legacy of a civil war

Jessica Van Lieven

Society and culture | South Asia

7 August 2014

In the second installment of our ‘Conflict’ series, Jessica Van Lieven writes from Colombo, Sri Lanka.

He tells me that he is from a small town at the foot of the mountains. In the night, he and his family left their home and hid in the surrounding jungle as the Tamils came down from the hills and slaughtered those who remained in their beds.

“I had to learn how to use a gun when I was fourteen. I had to shoot anyone who came too close to where my family and I were hiding, otherwise they would kill us, too.”

This man is elderly and well dressed. We are sitting next to each other at a busy train station in Colombo. Throngs of people periodically flood the station as trains arrive and leave, and for several minutes the platform is teeming with men and women on their way to work, or going home, or carrying children or shopping or potatoes. People take short cuts through the trains, weaving their way nimbly through the stationary carriages and crossing the tracks on the other side, oblivious or apathetic to the risk of one such train abruptly ending their short cut. The ebb and flow of people is at once striking and calming, and I have been sitting contentedly, watching a large part of this tiny world go by, for the better part of an hour and a half. My travelling companion is asleep on her bag, and the train is an hour late.

My conversation with this man started with an enquiry about the train – I wonder whether I’ve missed it, and he just laughs and says it will be on its way. The conversation has now taken a very different turn. He describes with pride how his son is a disaster policy advisor in Washington, D.C. He says that his daughter works for the UN in Sri Lanka, travelling around the country raising awareness about the concept of human rights.

“But,” he tells me, “she has to be careful who she informs about their human rights, otherwise she might find a government official knocking on her door one evening.”

Dangerous business.

Sri Lanka’s civil war raged from the 1950s between the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government. It came to a brutal end in 2009, when government forces, led by newly elected President Mahinda Rajapaksa, cracked down on the remaining Tamil forces in an assault whose human cost remains unknown. Indeed, much of the human rights abuses that occurred on both sides of the civil war have remained shrouded in mystery. Only since the UN Human Rights Council voted in favour of a resolution calling for an investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the civil war has the issue become prominent in international parlance.

The resolution noted that “the national plan of action and the Commission’s report do not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” and recalled the High Commissioner’s conclusion that “national mechanisms have consistently failed to establish the truth and to achieve justice”.

Sri Lanka has historically defied any attempts by the international community to threaten its sovereignty and meddle in its internal affairs. President Rajapaksa has formally rejected the resolution, emphasising the significance of Sri Lanka’s own commission into alleged human rights abuses, the Commission of Enquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, and its Final Report.

The report, which estimated LTTE deaths to be 22,247 for the period between July 2006 and May 2009, also emphasised that “the whole strategy of the Security Forces was designed to avoid or minimise harm to civilians and civilian property”. The report continues, saying that given the Tamil violation of the No Fire Zones by “amassing arms and ammunition”, “it would be reasonable to conclude that civilian casualties must have occurred,” but that “there was no material placed before the Commission suggesting any policy or incident of deliberately targeting civilian concentrations in the No Fire Zones or elsewhere by the Security Forces…”

However, the report has received international criticism. The Canadian Foreign Minister called on Sri Lanka to make a “credible” investigation into human rights abuses raised by the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts. The International Crisis Group, in a statement released on its website on 22 December 2011, stated that the report “fails in a crucial task – providing the thorough and independent investigation of alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law that the UN and other partners of Sri Lanka have been asking for.”

The Australian government has resisted calls to establish an International Commission and voted against the UN Human Rights Council resolution. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stated, “I do not think the resolution adequately recognised the significant progress taken by the Sri Lankan government to promote economic growth and its investment in infrastructure in areas formerly dominated by the LTTE in the north and north-east of the country.”

My experience of Sri Lanka was a country just getting back on its feet. The scars of the conflict are still raw, and families are still grieving for the losses of their loved ones. The presence of President Rajapaksa is undeniably potent – huge signs littering the country, emblazoned with a smiling President Rajapaksa, declare something along the lines of “We have won our country, now we will win the world!” Worrying signs of the centralisation and entrenchment of Rajapaksa’s power are also manifesting themselves. Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesan, two prominent Sri Lankan human rights activists, were detained under new anti-terrorism laws on March 16. Furthermore, journalists continue to come under pressure for what they report, and self-censorship is encouraged.

It is clear that the fog of war has had time to clear, but perhaps the government doesn’t want to take a closer look. Whether or not human rights abuses occurred during the Sri Lankan civil war, a failure to investigate such abuses cannot be tolerated. Despite wails about incursions into national sovereignty and dismissals of the UN as a purely ‘soft power’ organisation, the recently passed UN Resolution is an important step in bringing the Sri Lankan government to account for its conduct.

My conversation with the man at the train station is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of the train. He stands, and encourages me to do the same. With broad gestures and laughing eyes, he shouts over the approaching din of the train, “Run! Run alongside the carriage and jump on while it’s moving! Otherwise, you’ll never get a seat!” With no time to make a decision, I do as he tells me, jolting along the platform with my heavy backpack, and leaping onto the train as it slows down. Just as I sit down, the train is filled to the brim with people, some hanging out of the open doors, others swinging their legs between the carriages or sitting on their friends. The train screeches into gear and soon enough the platform has, quite literally, disappeared into the dust.

As I pass the long hours of the train ride, I wonder whether the escalation of the civil war wasn’t like me jumping on that train to get a seat – once you start running, you can’t stop, and one you’ve taken the leap, it’s too late, even if you realise you’re on the wrong train. After that gut-jolting, sickening, horrifying realisation, the only thing you can do, really, is work up the courage to get off, find your bearings, and see if you can find the right train. And if not, you can always sit down at the platform and take a break – you never know who you might end up talking to.

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