The Unknown Killing Fields: Looking into the Sri Lankan Civil War
Summary executions, bodies of raped women, and families hiding from bombs in hastily dug trenches. The images shown in a recent Channel Four documentary bring back memories of tragedies such as the killing fields in Cambodia and the genocide in former Yugoslavia. But these massacres occurred just two years ago in Sri Lanka, at the bloody end of a conflict that had been going on for more than twenty-five years. Despite suggestions from the United Nations, the Red Cross and Amnesty International that war crimes and crimes against humanity had possibly been committed, there has not been an international inquiry. Why is it that Sri Lanka does not seem to be able to keep the international community’s attention?
The civil war in Sri Lanka was a result of an attempt by the Tamils’ (the largest minority group in the country) to create their own, independent state. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, initiated a bloody conflict, fully controlling a part of Sri Lanka for years. In 2008, the government launched a large-scale offence on Tamil areas. They encouraged civilians to gather in ‘no fire-zones’, and proceeded to shell these areas, targeting hospitals and denying humanitarian assistance to the 330,000 people trapped there. With the LTTE preventing civilians from leaving the area, estimates of casualties ranged from 40,000 to 75,000.
While the International Criminal Court opens investigations into Africa very regularly, it seems strange that there has not been an investigation into what happened in Sri Lanka. However, since Sri Lanka is not a member of the Court, the Court can only have jurisdiction if the Security Council refers the situation to the prosecutor. With the lack of interest from the permanent members of the Security Council, this is not very likely to happen.
One reason for rest of the world’s disinterest might have been the lack of information. With foreign observers removed “for their own safety”, no journalists present, and conflicting stories from the army and the LTTE, it was not an easy story to report. The images that have surfaced now were made on small cameras and on mobile phones as trophies for the army; a far cry from the constant twittering and the abundant presence of television crews during the uprisings in the Middle East.
Another problem might be that over the years, the word ‘Tamil’ has become synonymous with terror. The LTTE was responsible for several high-profile attacks on politicians, and introduced the use of the suicide belt and female suicide bombers to the world. To change this narrative and identify the government as the main perpetrator against Tamil civilians proved to be a very difficult task without sufficient evidence.
A less immediate factor that could have contributed to the lack of attention from the world’s media and governments is the fact that there was and still currently is not much at stake for other countries. The UK has hardly been involved in Sri Lanka since the country gained independence in 1948. As opposed to conflicts in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, there is little chance for a spill-over: the situation is essentially an internal problem. With regards to the War on Terror, Sri Lanka is one of the few remaining Buddhist countries, and apart from rumours that certain LTTE tactics were copied by Al-Qaeda, there is little evidence that the groups are linked. In short, Western countries did not have anything to gain by getting involved in the conflict in Sri Lanka.
With the beaches once again open for tourists, and the country hosting part of the cricket world cup this year, it seems as if peace has returned to Sri Lanka. Refugees are flocking back: last year, almost 200,000 internally displaced persons were able to go back to their homes, and this trend is expected to continue this year. However, many more Sri Lankans are still displaced, both inside the country and abroad. Sri Lanka is still a large recipient of foreign assistance, but the economy is starting to catch up now that the war has ended.
The government’s defeat of the LTTE seems to have brought some stability to the country. However, hundreds of thousands of civilians have had to pay a large price for this. Even if the story does not fit into a larger narrative, powerful states should act to make sure it is not forgotten.