Sri Lanka: who makes the rules of war?

Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields - 4oD - Channel 4

Last week I saw a programme on Channel 4, broadcast late at night (no doubt because it contains footage of people being killed), which purports to expose war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government and army during the campaign to defeat the Tamil Tigers in 2009, which ended with all “Tiger”-held territory taken and the rebel leadership dead. Various claims were made by surviving Tamils of the government deliberately bombing areas where they knew there were civilians, of them shelling the same place twice, ten minutes apart, so as to injure or kill those tending to the wounded, and of them offering a “no-fire zone” to civilians then bombing it; the programme also included mobile phone footage of captured “Tigers” being killed and of women’s bodies being displayed openly and naked, some showing signs of having been raped. The women included the “Tigers’” TV propagandist known as Issipriya.

The programme was presented by Jon Snow, who noted that the “Tigers” used child soldiers and suicide bombers, but only a few short minutes — if that — of the programme included mention of the rebels’ atrocities for the preceding decades of the civil war. The rest was dedicated to claims of atrocities by the government in the last few weeks. On the surface of it, it might make more sense to draw attention to the crimes of a government that is in power than to those of a rebel army which is defeated and whose leadership is dead, but the programme failed to consider the issue of whether the defeat of the “Tigers” was necessary.

Most people would support the idea of an oppressed minority having self-determination; the problem is that the “Tigers” did not offer a democratic Tamil state but a manner of governance that was compared to that of Pol Pot. In this report in the Independent from 1994, for example, the execution of two commanders, both popular and regarded as moderates, in Jaffna was described; at the time, the atmosphere was said to be thick with suspicion, with nine “betrayers” being publicly shot and a hundred purged from the leadership. The régime was also busy recruiting child soldiers, each of which carried a cyanide capsule around their neck, by showing a recruitment video for the “Black Tigers”:

In the video, a boy leaps jubilantly in the air when his name is picked for a mission, and he is shown dutifully sweeping the barracks before he hops into a bomb-laden car and blows himself to bits. The only perk for the assassins is they are treated to a lavish supper with Prabakharan before their final mission.

Map of the proposed Tamil state, showing its extent from the north along most of the east and west coastsA more recent report, written by a former “Tiger” sympathiser just after the end of the civil war, mentions the strategic blunders by the military leader, Prabhakaran, that led to his army’s defeat, mostly brought about by his “paranoiac suspiciousness and intolerance of dissent” (among them was using the 2002 ceasefire to re-arm, when they were supposed to be decommissioning). If anyone looks at the map of the Tamil State proposed by the “Tigers”, they will see that it occupies nearly all of the country’s coastline, leaving the state of Sri Lanka with only the south and the southern part of the west coasts. The idea that the Sri Lankan government would have agreed to that is preposterous (although the “Tigers” might have agreed to less, particularly in the south and east). Not mentioned by Jon Snow is their ethnic and religious cleansing of Muslims and Catholics from the North, the looting of their property, and their extortion of Muslims in eastern Sri Lanka. (Prabhakaran later apologised and invited Muslims back during the 2002 ceasefire; there have also been claims of attacks on Muslims by Sinhalese, including a comment on this blog that alleged, “Buddhist monks and their lackeys have been terrorizing both Muslim and Hindu populations in my father’s home country of Sri Lanka for decades now”.)

Most of the evidence of atrocities consists of claims by a small number of Tamil survivors, and while I am not going to claim that the Sri Lankan army acted impeccably, much of the footage does not prove that atrocities were committed. As the programme admitted, the “Tigers” had the respect of much of the Tamil population; there was a mass migration in which, no doubt, a substantial number of rebels also took part as they were expelled from their capital, Kilinochhi. Footage was shown of what was alleged to be captured combatants being executed, which was called “murder” by one expert on international law. The fact is that, like so much of modern international law, these laws were invented by Europeans to govern their wars, while Europeans dominated much of the rest of the world (including Sri Lanka) and that other civilisations have allowed such executions. We were also not told whether those killed were commanders or ordinary soldiers, or whether they were known terrorists (something the soldiers might have known about, but the home viewer in the UK, not knowing much about the country, would not).

The programme also alleged that two members of the “Tigers’” civilian leadership voluntarily surrendered to the Sri Lankan government forces and were subsequently killed. Again, this gives the impression that they were the civilian leadership of a normal state that was involved in a war, rather than a terrorist operation that carried out massacres, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombings, mass murders of civilians and various other criminal activities, i.e. a grand-scale criminal organisation. Their role in the organisation was, of course, not mentioned in the programme. It is not the first time the civilian leadership of a state, or entity with pretensions to statehood, has been executed after capture. True, the leaders of the Nazi state that were captured were tried, but how necessary a trial is when crimes were committed in full public view is debatable and some might argue that it is nothing more than an unnecessary ritual humiliation. Of course, nowadays we would not execute a genuine war criminal, even Ratko Mladic or Radovan Karadzic, as the death penalty is now abolished throughout Europe. The reasons for abolishing the death penalty for ordinary crimes in the west are quite strong — notably, the well-documented risk of someone being put to death on the basis of prejudice or political convenience — but these were not men suspected of killing someone during a robbery.

When crushing a force such as the Tamil “Tigers”, they need to be well and truly crushed and their leadership decapitated, such that their supporters and those that suffered from their oppression and terror know that they are not coming back. There are still those who will vigorously defend those acts in World War II in which civilians were killed where not strictly necessary for combat — the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as some of the bombings of German cities, for example — on the grounds that they averted possibly greater numbers of military and civilian deaths elsewhere or hindered the production of weapons for the enemy. Nobody was prosecuted over those acts (much as has been the case in any subsequent wars when western powers have been involved), and it was not military commanders that were killed but ordinary people. Where the makers of this programme stand on those matters I have no idea, but getting rid of the Tamil “Tigers” was something that needed doing, much as the defeat of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan was. Who are we to point the finger at any other country when a very necessarily war is won, but not entirely cleanly?

Map source: Wikimedia.

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