Many writers in Sri Lanka seem to treat war crimes with a broad brush and seem unaware or unwilling to clarify the issues
by Dushy Ranetunge in London
I read with interest SL Gunesekera’s article international thuggery on Monday the 28th of March. He ends with “fiddlesticks”, more a two fingers up to the concept of the allied military operation in Libya being “noble”.
Home grown thuggery
One could measure the “nobility” of the Allied operation in Libya to the “humanitarianism” of the Sri Lankan military operation in the Vanni.
An even better comparison would be Indian aircrafts escorted by Indian fighters dropping “humanitarian” supplies over Jaffna after violating Sri Lankan airspace in 1987.
The Indian intervention in Sri Lanka and the Allied intervention in Libya were and are against the established state and on the side of “rebels” who had declared war on the state.
In both instances, the “state” declared the “rebels” to be terrorists, “Al Qaeda” muttered Gaddafi and “LTTE” said the Sri Lankan state.
The “defenders of the faith” in Lanka, say that it can never happen in Sri Lanka because we are a democracy, unlike Libya. But it has already happened in Sri Lanka in 1987 and could easily happen again.
When Gaddafi branded his opponents as “terrorists” no one believed him. When Sri Lankan’s refer to Tamil rebels as terrorists, the world hesitates. The Sinhalese seem incapable of understanding that the diaspora has the sympathies of most host communities, including India.
Only the LTTE were proscribed as a terrorist organisation, because of its own foolishness but none of the other Tamil militant groups made it to the list.
In both Libya and Sri Lanka, a certain section of the population is hostile to the state and is “rebelling” against the state.
The “peace” that was in Libya and the “peace” that is in Sri Lanka is a militarily “enforced peace”, with soldiers in every street corner in Jaffna.
In a recent interview one of our most respected ex-diplomats H.M.G.S. Palihakkara stated “Sri Lankakn governments, and the political parties, had shown a failure of leadership and that therefore “external prescriptions become inevitable” with the country facing intense international attention."
“Diplomacy was not a “zero sum game of cultivating one or one set of friends at the expense of another”. Instead, it was about seeking common ground.”
Palihakkara’s words apply to Sri Lanka as well as Libya.
It is the failure in “leadership” and “diplomacy” in Tripoli and Colombo, that results in external prescriptions.
“Democracy” in Sri Lanka is a label for convenience, similar to the label “terrorist”. The extent of “democracy” and “terrorist” in Sri Lanka is as variable as demonstrations and death fasts against the UN are allowed, and student demonstrations against the state are broken up, and all this in the capital Colombo. If this is what happens in the capital, one can only imagine the quality of democracy in the streets of Jaffna, where journalistic access is still restricted.
Mr Gunesekera in his article also highlights injustices to the Sinhalese in 1915 at the hands of the British. Writers in Sri Lanka frequently resurrect past injustices to selectively have a go at “colonials” of their choice to grind present day axes.
These are irrelevant in the 21st century.
Sri Lanka has been the subject of “colonisation” from the beginnings of history and there is absolutely no difference in the behaviour of the “colonisers” who have landed on our shores throughout the millennia.
The first “colonisers” to ravage our land were the “Sinhalese”, when Vijaya and his merry band drove the many tribes that inhabited Sri Lanka into the forests after massacring them and then grabbed their best lands. The natives were denigrated and portrayed as inhuman barbarians and this in “Buddhist” chronicles.
There is absolutely no injustice that the European “colonials” did to the natives of Lanka, that the Sinhalese “colonials” did not do to the native tribes of Lanka.
Therefore it is somewhat ludicrous and misleading to selectively highlight injustices of colonials of choice. Since we are currently under scrutiny for War crimes, the British are the favourite “colonials” of choice to have a go at.
When Ranil invited the Portuguese to celebrate an anniversary of their arrival on the island, Portuguese colonial “injustices” were selectively resurrected by the “faithful”.
If on the other hand we had celebrated the Portuguese arrival on our island and their heritage, it would have rejuvinated our links with a European nation and generated economic activity around the anniversary celebrations providing employment. Instead we expect the countries in the Middle-east to solve our unemployment problem and complain that our women are mistreated.
Rather than blaming the British and the Portuguese for colonial injustices and blaming the Arabs for employment injustices, we should perhaps look more closer to home, if it is blame that needs to be allocated, for failing to follow policies to maximise employment opportunities for our citizens.
Mr Gunesekera also touches on the subject of war crimes. Many writers in Sri Lanka seem to treat war crimes with a broad brush and seem unaware or unwilling to clarify the issues.
In school, during our Buddhism lectures we were taught that according to Buddhist teachings to commit the sin of taking a life, certain criteria had to be satisfied such as seeing the animal, the thought of killing, the plan for killing and the execution itself etc.
The act of a war crime follows a similar process.
If the US, British, Sri Lankan militaries could demonstrate in a court of law that their targeting system has integrity, and that a target was acquired believing it to be a legitimate military target, and later after the attack it was revealed to have been a civilian target, this would not constitute a war crime.
Attacking a hospital knowing it was a hospital irrespective of it being in or out of a no fire zone, extra judicial execution of those who have surrendered would constitute war crimes. “Following orders” is not a defence in a court of law.
In the militaries of the United States, United Kingdom, France and NATO forces, the level of accountability is high and follows a transparent process that would stand up in a court of law. Their targeting systems are regularly scrutinized and procedures reviewed in a transparent manner so that they could withstand criminal investigation. Those who do not follow due process are triggered and face investigation. The Press in the West expose irregularities without intimidation and selfcensorship.
The presence of reporters in the ground in the Libyan conflict zone will result in whistle-blowing of any transgressions, and this in itself acts as a deterrent and careful action by allied bombers. These are all processes, which will legally protect and defend the Allies and now NATO against war crimes allegations.
In the Vanni in Sri Lanka, only selective reporters were given “monitored/controlled” access. This in itself created suspicion and gives credence to allegations of war crimes. Even today, foreign journalists access to the North is restricted.