The war against the LTTE restored peace in Sri Lanka, but there is no denying the fact that it had a bloody climax. Horror tales of civilian casualties are being told till date.
Still Counting the Dead, authored by Frances Harrison gives a detailed picture of how the island of Sri Lanka became hell for its Tamil minority. The book states, ” Caught in the crossfire were hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, doctors, farmers, fishermen, nuns and other civilians. And the government ensured through a strict media blackout that the world was unaware of their suffering.”
Frances Harrison worked for many years as a foreign correspondent for the BBC posted in South Asia, South East Asia and Iran. From 2000-4 she was the resident BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka. She has worked at Amnesty International as Head of News and while writing this book was a visiting research fellow at Oxford University. In this interview Frances Harrison says, if Sri Lanka does nothing to address Tamil grievances – which is unfortunately the case now – then this problem may arise again in another generation and probably more brutally, if that’s conceivable.
How has your book been received?
There has been criticism from both parties to the war but many ordinary Tamils around the world who’ve read it have thanked me for telling these stories. At the London launch a burly Tamil man rushed up to me having just read the chapter on the doctor. He had tears in his eyes and gave me a huge hug, then said thank you and walked off crying.
There was an attempt made in broker a surrender of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Why do you think that failed?
There was a Norwegian initiative, which I write about in the book, to broker a laying down of arms in early 2009. It involved offering an internationally monitored amnesty to all LTTE cadres except Mr Prabakharan and Mr Pottu Aman who would have had internationally supervised custody, according to the plan. Obviously the international community’s leverage over the Sri Lankan government was stronger in January 2009 than in April/May 2009, when the army had all but won. It was not a done deal by any means but there was backing for it internationally. My understanding is that the Tigers abruptly pulled out of the negotiations, opting instead for martyrdom. This was in my opinion a mistake because a negotiated surrender in good time might have saved tens of thousands of civilian lives and prevented the abuse at the end of the war. However the LTTE’s insistence on fighting on to the bitter end, amidst hundreds of thousands of civilians, does not in any way exonerate the Sri Lankan military of its responsibility for what ensued. The moral equation is very complex and inter-dependent
Do you think Sri Lanka went over board while eradicating the Tamil Tigers. Were such tough measures needed?
The Sri Lankan military stands accused in the UN Panel of Experts report of committing alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity and challenging the entire regime of international law on war. That’s more than going over board!
Crushing the Tigers unfortunately involved crushing civilians too which is not acceptable. Now the Tigers are eradicated, the Sri Lankan government seems to think what it calls the “terrorist problem’ is finished. This singularly fails to address the root causes of the long running conflict, which are still simmering
What role do you think India could have played in preventing such action which led to so many war crimes?
There is little doubt India has huge political influence and interests in Sri Lanka. Politicians in India were talking about a post-war power sharing deal for Tamils right at the time when innocent civilians were being killed in the thousands. That sent a message that India was not looking too closely at what was going on in the warzone – rather it was focused on the post-LTTE future. That seems to me to be turning a bit of a blind eye to the killing. But India is definitely not alone in doing that – many Western countries did the same. My hope is India will now put more pressure on Sri lanka to improve the lives of minority Tamils and deliver justice.
Is Sri Lanka doing enough to rehabilitate the survivors? You say Sri Lanka is in a habit of denial.
Most people in the south of Sri Lanka deny there were any war crimes committed by their army in 2009 and on the other hand many Tamils deny the abuse by the LTTE of their own people – such as forced recruitment of teenagers even when defeat was certain. I think it has become very emotional and difficult to disentangle fact from feeling. I worry that Tamils and Sinhalese have such different narratives of the conflict that they can’t find any common ground any more.
As far as rehabilitation goes, thousands of survivors of the last war have escaped abroad via Southern India and South East Asia. Some make it to Europe, America or Australia but many get stuck. They have no official rehabilitation programme abroad and badly need all sorts of help which they do not get.
In terms of people in the country, I am concerned about reports that religious services commemorating the dead cannot be held openly and that even trauma counseling has been at times discouraged. People who went through Mullivaikkal are destroyed, smashed, broken individuals who can’t sleep at night and feel guilty that they survived when so many others didn’t. They need psychological help as well as security, jobs and houses.
Do you think the UN inquiry into the war crimes will yield much of a result?
If you mean the UN Panel report published in 2011 well it’s an excellent document of record and it has helped. It led to the UN Human Rights Council vote last March. But do I think enough is being done generally – obviously not. There needs to be more pressure on Sri Lanka. What happened in Mullivaikkal is probably one of the bloodiest conflicts this century so far and yet those who are responsible have got away with it. Worse still few even know or care.
What was the exact death toll according to you?
Nobody has an exact death toll. That is the shocking thing in this day and age of satellite images, social media and forensic science. We can’t round up the number of dead human beings even to the nearest 10,000! At my book launch in London on Friday one of the UN Panel authors, Yasmin Sooka, said the number of dead in Sri Lanka in 2009 could possibly reach 75,000. The UN panel report cited 40,000 as a credible figure. The Bishop of Mannar has asked where 147,000 people are that appear to be missing in the government’s own statistics. So there are huge differences in the figures used. It is certainly tens of thousands – definitely more than better-known events such as the massacre in Srebrenica and so far the ongoing war in Syria.
Has this issue got enough world attention. What role can the international community play to ensure justice?
It is a forgotten issue internationally. Only Tamils protest in Europe – hardly anyone else is that bothered. The Tamil diaspora has failed to build a wider solidarity movement.
The international community should look into what happened. I would say read the UN Panel report, my book, watch the Channel 4 Killingfields films as well as read the Sri Lankan government’s report into the war (the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliaton Commission report) and make up your own mind.
Personally, I agree with the UN panel’s call for an independent international investigation. That is the only way to establish the truth and build a future.
There have been wide spread protests in Tamil Nadu, India. They have called for a trade black out with Sri Lanka. Do you think such a measure would help?
I am a journalist not a politician. This is a policy question for a politician.
Is there a chance of the Tamil cause rising once again in Sri Lanka?
Yes but not immediately. None of the Tigers I interviewed for my book want to fight again now. I doubt any of those individuals will resume armed struggle. But if Sri Lanka does nothing to address Tamil grievances – which is unfortunately the case now – then this problem may arise again in another generation and probably more brutally, if that’s conceivable. Rememberhat Mr Prabakharan was inspired to take up arms by hearing about anti-Tamil riots as a child. Can you imagine what the next generation of children will think if they hear these stories from Mullivaikkal? The cycle of revenge and violence needs halting but tragically I do not see that happening.
Can there be a reconciliation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese if both move away from their rigid stand. What are your suggestions to a complete end to the entire issue?
There can be no reconciliation without a degree of truth first. There has to be an honest acknowledgement on all sides of any wrongdoing. What is happening now is the exact opposite – more polarisation than ever.