In December, the report of the Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was published. It called on the government to investigate war crimes by both sides (government armed forces and the Tamil LTTE army). It also stipulated requirements for long-term reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamil groups. But are there signs of any form of reconciliation?
Many Tamils doubt the possibility of an unbiased investigation as long as the military continues to kill, abduct, torture or rape Tamil civilians, they say.
“There are around 40,000 troops in Jaffna alone with a population of 550,000. That is a civilian-military ratio of 1:11," says Ramesh, a Tamil academic from the Tamil-majority city of Jaffna. "It will be a joke to suggest that investigations can happen under this climate. He declined to give his real name because of fear of reprisals.
The government has been saturating Tamil-majority areas with military personnel mostly after the LTTE was defeated in May 2009 and its top leadership was killed. Human rights organisations say the manner of some of the rebels deaths are suspicious and could be classified as war crimes.
While admitting there had been attacks on civilians by government troops, the LLRC report says they were the result of individual misdemeanours and not systematic military policy.
Anandan, a Tamil who also refused to give his name fearing intimidation, was as dismissive as Ramesh of the thought of an unbiased government investigation. “It is a farce and violation of natural justice to say that the culprit will [investigate] allegations against him or herself.”
Anandan believes that the LLRC’s report is aimed at exonerating the military while pinning all the blame for war crimes on the LTTE. He supports his view by giving an eye witness account of a deposition before the LLRC.
Dr. Thurairajan Varatharajah was one of the three government doctors who treated Tamil civilians as the military shelled and bombed areas near their makeshift hospital during the final months of the war. During that time he gave an interview to the international media about civilian casualty numbers.
Later, in July 2009, he and other doctors were arrested. While in police custody however, Dr. Varatharajah made a public statement that he was forced to exaggerate civilian casualties by the LTTE to bring to disrepute the military.
Anandan says that Dr. Varatharajah was not only aware of the bombing of civilian areas, but also of the government denying civilians medicine and food.
However, at the deposition before the LLRC, the commissioners had directed their questions only to establish if the LTTE had artillery positions near Dr. Varatharajah’s hospital, thereby justifying the military shelling and bombing the area, rather than to find out what actually happened.
“They were only interested in incriminating the LTTE not in knowing what happened to the civilians,” Anandan claims.
The biggest threat
The LLRC has recommended to the government to disarm Tamil paramilitary groups to reduce violence. Among the groups mentioned by name is the EPDP that works with the Sri Lanka army in Jaffna and is accused by various organisations, such as the UNHCR, of murder, abduction and intimidating the media.
But to Ramesh and Anandan the recommendation is only pulling the wool over the actual culprits.
“Disarming illegal armed paramilitary groups is necessary and will help normalise things. But the biggest threat today is not these armed groups but the army. Will they cut down on the size of the army?”
Tamils like Anandan and Ramesh are convinced the government will not pursue an honest investigation into war crimes by the military. And the failure to do so will inevitably ruin any chances of genuine reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamils.
“How can you have reconciliation when the culprits who committed genocide and war crimes are at large? That will only promote further crimes and escalate genocide,” said Anandan.
Tamils who live in the most violent and instable regions of the South Asian island feel that enduring ethnic reconciliation is still far away. They attribute this to what they believe is the continuing impunity enjoyed by the Sri Lankan government.
By our Sri Lanka reporter J. S. Tissainayagam