By Brad Petrishen
Daily News staff/The MetroWest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM — A Sri Lankan diplomat and former military official whom many accuse of war crimes spoke at Edwards Church yesterday, denying the claims against him and asking Sri Lankans to move forward.
Former Sri Lankan Major Gen. Shavendra Silva was appointed Sri Lanka's permanent deputy United Nations representative in August, a decision that angered human rights groups that allege Silva played an important role in the killings of as many as 40,000 civilians near the end of the country's 30-year civil war in 2009.
The country's populace is made up of two ethnic groups, the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. From 1983 to 2009, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought an on-and-off war against the government, hoping to create an independent state for Tamils.
That war ended bloodily in May 2009, when, after cornering the Tigers, the government killed many of the insurgency's leaders.
Winchester resident and native Tamil Suba Suntharalingam and a handful of others protested Silva's visit, holding signs at the intersection of Maplewood and Elm streets before going inside to listen.
When reached for comment, a church official said yesterday that leadership was unaware the building had been booked for political purposes.
"These are all lies," Suntharalingam said of Silva's speech, in which Silva praised his forces for a "humanitarian" effort at the end of the war.
In his speech, Silva cautioned Sri Lankans in the crowd about the various eyewitness reports about the last days of the conflict, in which critics of the government allege the military killed innocent Tamil civilians while it attempted to wipe out the Tigers.
Silva, who was flanked by bodyguards, said the operation was actually a humanitarian effort, with his forces rescuing civilian Tamils "from the jaws of (Tiger) terrorists."
He said Tiger fighters took hundreds of thousands of civilians hostage during their final stand, placing them in a circle around their ranks as a "human shield" against military bullets.
Silva said the government succeeded in freeing the civilians, and that the only civilians killed were shot by Tamils as they fled from their captors.
Suntharalingam, however, said the government is responsible for human rights violations, pointing to an incident that allegedly occurred May 18, 2009, when the government is accused of killing Tiger officials after they surrendered.
"They held up white flags, and (Silva) ordered them shot," said Suntharalingam, who raised the issue with Silva during a question-and-answer period following his speech.
"I am glad that you have the courage to ask that question," Silva told Suntharalingam. "I'm so proud we have Sri Lankans of your nature."
Silva said that although some military officers have been arrested and accused of killing innocent civilians, the military as a whole acted in the best interest of the Tamil "hostages."
"If there had been any violations ... it will surface one day," he said. "If there were, then the military will take action against those responsible.
"If I am a war criminal as you say, one day I'll be investigated ... and punished," he added.
Silva said he thinks his surviving a 2009 attempt on his life by a suicide bomber is a sign of his innocence.
"I escaped because I know, in my heart, that I am not a murderer," he said.
Silva encouraged those concerned about human rights to "be patient" and wait for the results of an government committee's investigation of the conflict.
But numerous human rights groups, including Amnesty International, declined an invitation to testify before the committee because it is not being conducted independently.
Last month, Sri Lanka said it would not cooperate with an independent UN investigation into human rights abuses during the war.
Yesterday, Suntharalingam and others also criticized Edwards Church for hosting the event.
Deacon Shelly Cichowlas said the church was unaware when it rented the space that it was doing so for the purpose of political discussion.
She said the room was booked to a monk who had used it before for meditation and other non-political ends. The church was unaware Silva was coming until protestors started calling.
"We had more than 20 calls since yesterday," she said, from protestors in Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio.
"If we knew he was coming, we would never had allowed this to happen, because we don't allow political gatherings," she said.
Cichowlas said she learned after yesterday's event was booked that Silva had been speaking in other parts of the U.S. recently. ~ courtesy: www.metrowestdailynews.com ~