A Small Matter Of Murder
By Gordon WeissMarch 13, 2012
The battlefield execution of a 12-year-old boy is fresh evidence of war crimes. Gordon Weiss was close to the drama as UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka.
IN death, the boy’s face is a picture of youthful repose, lips lazily agape as though sleeping. But five neat bullet holes in his bare chest prove otherwise. One puncture is skirted by what looks like a bruise, “speckling from propellant tattooing,” an indication, according to a forensic pathologist, that his killer fired from a distance of a few feet.
As the United States reels this week from the consequences of a soldier’s rogue killing of nine Afghan children, it is worth considering the government-sanctioned murder of young Balachandran. Not sanctioned by the US government of course, but by the government of Sri Lanka, which for almost three years has bristled at suggestions that it acted illegally when wiping out the guerrilla Tamil Tigers in May 2009. A new documentary, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, due to air this Wednesday on Britain’s Channel 4 presents overwhelming new evidence of war crimes.
While the killing of civilians has been notably well-documented in Afghanistan, and is under intense scrutiny in Syria, the contrary was true in Sri Lanka in 2008 and 2009. There, in the final stages of a civil war between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese, the Sri Lankan army trapped 330,000 civilians and a small number of Tamil Tiger (LTTE) fighters. It then pounded them with artillery fire, starvation and, compelling new evidence suggests, the summary execution of fighters and civilians. There was no independent reporting of events.
The murder of Balachandran is more than just nasty. It is a loose thread in a shabby tapestry of lies woven for years by the government of Sri Lanka and its proxies as it has denied all wrongdoing. The video sequence suggests that the son of guerilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was captured with his bodyguards on May 18, 2009, the final day of battle. The five men were trussed and blindfolded, and shot while the boy watched. He was then neatly executed, a final few bullets pumped into him as he lay on the ground.
But as well as Balachandran’s murder, there is another sequence which I was shown in secrecy many months ago by a source. A frightened man in civilian clothes is being questioned by Sri Lankan army officers in a room. He is then filmed inside an armoured personnel carrier, changing into fresh military fatigues. He is driven to a place of execution. The corpse of the LTTE commander known as Colonel Ramesh is filmed on a pile of rubble, his brains oozing from the death wound. His body is then set alight.
The killing of Ramesh is not especially terrible so far as wars go. But it is more evidence of war crimes, evidence that the government of Sri Lanka decries as trickery, deception and a foreign conspiracy to besmirch a victory they describe to this day as a “humanitarian operation”. A Channel 4 documentary last year showed a “trophy” video shot by Sri Lankan soldiers of the execution of prisoners and the apparent sexual violation of captured women and the defiling of bodies. The film, called Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, was dismissed by Sri Lanka’s government as “a fake”. So who is duping whom?
In the new documentary, an Australian engineer, Peter Mackay, provides eyewitness testimony of other killings of civilians, allegedly by the Sri Lankan military. He says that the Sri Lankan army deliberately targeted thousands of Tamil civilians who had been drawn to an area declared a “no fire zone” by the government of Sri Lanka. Mackay knows that at least dozens were killed, because he was there, trapped with a United Nations food convoy inside the siege zone. I describe the fate of UN Convoy Eleven in my book.
In March 2011, a UN inquiry found widespread credible evidence contradicting the Sri Lankan government line. Right now, the government of Sri Lanka is effectively on trial before a jury of its peers at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Four dozen Sri Lankan ministers and officials are trying to fight off a resolution that questions the version of events produced by their government’s own inquiry. However it’s not just the government of Sri Lanka that’s on trial. It’s the credibility of a system of laws and covenants meant to restrain governments from doing whatever they like during wars.
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It’s now a given that the government’s denials have stretched all credibility to the point of farce. But let’s assume, as they argue, that any honest reckoning will torpedo alleged government efforts to reconcile Tamils with Sinhalese. In July 2011, former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who said that her own children were embarrassed to call themselves Sri Lankans after watching last year’s Channel 4 documentary, said that the current government’s “winner takes all” policy is driving minorities from Sri Lanka, a nation now “terribly divided”. The word ‘reconciliation’ tumbles too easily from the mouths of those officials now in Geneva.
The reason the events of 2008 and 2009 are poorly understood is because the battlefield was controlled entirely by the government of Sri Lanka. Just how dangerous it was to report from Sri Lanka’s war was evident from the eye patch of Marie Colvin, the American journalist recently killed in Syria. She lost an eye reporting from Sri Lanka. While foreign journalists were turned back at immigration or tightly controlled in the final war, courageous Sri Lankan journalists were intimidated, beaten or killed by government hit squads.
After last year’s Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lankans mobbed the UK’s media regulatory body with complaints of bias. So too in Australia, when the ABC TV program Foreign Correspondent, which questioned the Sri Lankan government’s squeaky clean version of the war, was bogged down by a year-long inquiry following complaints by Sri Lankans that the national broadcaster was biased. As in the UK, the complaints here were dismissed. The review system is meant to redress legitimate claims of bias, not create onerous conditions for fair reporting on issues of vital public interest.
I left the UN in December 2009 to write an account of the war which questioned the government’s claims of a “bloodless victory” and its compliance with the laws of war. Since February 2010, I have suggested in numerous interviews (including last year’s Channel 4 documentary and a number of ABC programs) that the international community, and Australian politicians, were being duped by the government’s blanket denial of any wrongdoing. What will they say now of the body of Balachandran?
I went to Sri Lanka as a supporter of the Sri Lankan state’s right to wrest back control of its territory and people from a guerrilla group that had sold its soul. The Tamil Tigers, under its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, had bombed, terrorized and assassinated all varieties of Sri Lankans, including huge numbers of Tamils. I left with that belief intact, but questioning the right of a government to do whatever it liked with its people. As we watch the US deal with its rogue uniformed murderer, and the international community deal with the rogue Syrian regime, watch how the UN deals with rogue Sri Lankan accountability.
Gordon Weiss took part in last year’s Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, and is the author of The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the last days of the Tamil Tigers. Gordon was also UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka for the final three years of the war.