Gerald H Peiris
This brief comment is set against the backdrop of several media reports on Ambassador Stephan J. Rapp’s recent sojourn in Sri Lanka which appears to have achieved a measure of success in generating fresh “credible evidence” of war crimes allegedly committed during the final phase of the Eelam Wars, while instigating yet another wave of inter-group (and even intra-ethnic group) disharmony in the country. The reports I refer to contain references to a call by the bishops of Mannar and Jaffna whom Mr. Rapp is said to have interviewed for an international probe on whether cluster bombs and chemical weapons were used in attacks on civilians entrapped in the LTTE-controlled areas of the Vanni at that time. According to one of the press reports, the Information Officer of the US Embassy has claimed that Mr. Rapp had “the opportunity to listen to eyewitness accounts of serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including those that occurred at the end of the war”. The report is adorned with an embassy-released photograph captioned “St. Anthany’s Ground – site of January 2009 killing of hundreds of families by army shelling”. There have also been media reports of the Catholic Bishops Conference dissociating itself, in what is a sagacious damage-control move, from the position adopted within the “Mannar, Jaffna Bishops’ War Crimes Charge.”
Cluster Bombs and Chemical Weapons? Taking into account some angry mob responses to the substance of these reports (also given considerable prominence in TV news broadcasts), it seems to me that a clarification which ought to be publicized urgently is that the two bishops were not the first to initiate the suggestion that ‘cluster bombs’ and ‘chemical weapons’ were used by the Sri Lanka Army in the final stages of the war. There have been similar speculative suggestions earlier in several pro-LTTE websites that could be dismissed as the work of mischief-makers.
Deserving far more serious attention are the disclosures contained in the “The Special Report” No. 34, titled “Let Them Speak: Truth about Sri Lanka’s Victims of War”, released by the University Teachers for Human Rights – Jaffna (UTHR-J) on 13 December 2009 – the first formidable post-war document of that genre. It contains, for instance, the following passage intended to be read as a part of the tale narrated by ‘Komathy’ (pseudonym), one of innumerable civilian victims.
“By the 17th (May 2009) night the raging fires, aided by the Army’s firing of burn missiles (sic) had spread into the civilian shelters and caused pandemonium. Until this point the people who had remained had believed that the ‘boys’ would not allow the troops in. But once the fires were lit, many fled”.
According to this section of the report: “Survivors have related tragic stories such as a mother having to escape with her children through raging fires, without having the opportunity to look back at what became of her husband. The retired lady teacher Komathy remained because of her crippled niece, still hoping that when the troops come in, they could surrender to them. As the troops advanced, the Tigers also fired back from among the 30,000 or so people still remaining (by 17th May?). There was hardly enough space to distinguish between a civilian zone and a battleground, resulting in many deaths in the fierce cross fire. The LTTE seemed to be using their ammunition generously in what was their last battle. Komathy confirms the generous use of burn shells and cluster shells, the latter familiar to civilians by their drumming noise, and had seen many perish, having their bodies badly broken up. The burn shells, according to persons who were there, burns objects within a given radius. Typically, one would leave a charred circle if it fell on grass”.
As further evidence of civilians being attacked at this stage of the war with what might be construed as ‘chemical weapons’, the UTHR-J report cited the following account.
Muhunthan and Premila (pseudonyms) were in a bunker just south of Putumattalan Hospital, just 50 yards from the lagoon. From the first light of dawn, commandos who had taken up position in the lagoon, which was close to civilian bunkers, began throwing grenades, which included bombs that emitted a gas causing people to lose consciousness. Muhunthan began to feel faint, at which time several army grenades also fell into neighbouring bunkers, killing or injuring entire families.
It should be noted that the phrase “burn shells” used in these passages and elsewhere is probably intended to be understood as a reference to incendiary bombs the use of which in civilian-inhabited areas is regarded as a heinous crime against humanity. Cluster bombs are, of course, totally banned. The reference to “bombs that emit gas” might have been intended to evoke a response of revulsion and horror.
Bombing of St. Anthany’s (sic.) Ground? The basis of the alleged bombing of the church premises (which is also a ‘war crime’) is probably the section of the UTHR-J report which describes the venue as a place where “thousands” of civilians had found refuge and a narrative it contains of an unnamed heroic character who not only survived the army onslaught but, at great risk to himself, helped the others in peril. The narrative reads as follows:
“I had moved to the church in Iranapalai. During February the Kfirs came on a bombing raid. I got into a bunker. A little later a 1000 kg delay bomb fell about 15 feet from my bunker and penetrated the ground. I found myself rocked roughly like a baby in a cradle. Fortunately, this bomb failed to explode. Later the LTTE came and dismantled it to extract about 600 kg of explosive. A few days later I was with some friends in a house at Anandapuram. When Kfir bombers arrived, I wanted to join some others moving into an open field, where there was also a cemetery, between Iranapalai and Anandapuram. The reason for moving into the open field was a surmise that the pilots would see we are civilians and leave us alone. But a friend of mine restrained me. The bomber dropped ‘air bombs’ (bombs that explode above the surface) in the field, killing about 15 of those who had gone there for safety. About the same time a delay bomb (1 ton or 1000 kg) fell on a temple close by. I saw a goat, a man, a mat and some cooking utensils being thrown above the height of a coconut tree. During my stay at Iranapalai, there were huge casualties due to aerial bombing and shelling. When a settlement was bombed on 16th February, some of us got hold of vehicles and went to rescue the survivors. Because the bombing of an area is frequently followed by artillery shelling or a return of the bombers themselves, the vehicle drivers refused to go near the settlement and parked about 150 yards away. The victims were mainly women and children who had stayed at home when the men went out to earn their bread doing jobs like constructing bunkers. These bombs when exploding use the ambient oxygen for combustion creating a vacuum, resulting instantly in a powerful blast of wind. The blast wrenches at the clothes and renders them in tatters, leaving the injured women partially exposed. Several girls had stayed in a bunker to avoid conscription gangs. The blast covered the bunker killing all of them. In a bid to avoid the disrespect of touching the bodies of the women, we had to place them on sacks or sheets, rush them into the van staying at a distance and get back”.
There are many other sets of “credible evidence” claimed to have been elicited by the UTHR-J from persons given pseudonyms such as ‘Kailash’, ‘Gunam’, ‘Nick’, ‘Revathy’, ‘Rani’, ‘Kiruban’, ‘Kannan’, ‘Maniam’, etc. or referred to as “a survivor”, “a senior community leader”, “a church worker” etc. all of which converge on the theme of Vanni civilians in large numbers being annihilated in indiscriminate attacks by the armed forces of the government.
In fairness, it should be stressed that the UTHR-J, despite its inclination to rubbish the government’s version of specific events or episode, has (at least in its vituperations) been even handed towards both the Sri Lanka government as well as the LTTE.
It is not possible to incorporate an in-depth appraisal of the UTHR-J “evidence” within this comment. Although Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence has occasionally issued clarifications and denials of some of these charges, a more comprehensive investigation by the government is warranted by the possibility (if not the likelihood) that the “evidence” assembled by these gentlemen has been fed to various external agencies, including those of the United Nations and certain Colombo-based diplomatic missions that have been hostile towards Sri Lanka. As a researcher who has kept track of the reports released by UTRH-J since its inception in the 1980s, I emphasise here two general observations pertaining to their publications.
First, although it is distasteful to make critical comments on the harrowing tales of human suffering, it would be rank stupidity to discount the possibility that stories recounted by the UTHR-J could have been fabricated. One should also be conscious of the ease with which retrospective evidence could be manufactured in the prevailing ethos of the Vanni for the purpose of authenticating such tales so as to convince the gullible or strengthen those pursuing programmes of ‘regime change’ and ‘destabilisation of recalcitrant states’.
My other observation is that it is precisely the harshness of its exposures and criticisms of the crimes committed by the LTTE that provides a facade of impartiality to almost whatever the UTHR-J says about the government of Sri Lanka. Since it is common knowledge the world over that the LTTE has never hesitated to commit any heinous crime or any violation of civilized ethical norms, publicizing even its most outrageous brutalities could make hardly any impact on the status co of its external relations. To the governments of Sri Lanka, in contrast, the outcomes of UTHR-J’s “exposures” are, as recent experiences demonstrate, entirely different. This is probably why Prabhakaran who persisted with ruthless suppression of any dissent or challenge to his hegemony, administering capital punishment even on certain persons of his community for displays of minor deviations from the prescribed path, permitted the UTHR-J (since the murder of Dr. Rajini Thiranagama at the stage in which the LTTE still had formidable rivals) to persist with its good work unhindered.
A. Gerald Peiris has failed to take note of Citizen Silva’s essay in 2012 on “The Use of Cluster Bombs in Sri Lanka: Fiction rather than Fact” – an article that comprehensively denuded the allegations on this count presented in TamilNet and thereafter pressed in Groundviews.
B. See Citizen Silva: “The Use of Cluster Bombs in Sri Lanka: Fiction rather than Fact,” where a brief version is found at https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-use-of-cluster-bombs-in-sri-lanka-fiction-rather-than-fact/ ….. However it is advisable to consult this document available with better illustrations at http://www.scribd.com/doc/92760423/The-Use-of-Cluster-Bombs-in-Sri-Lanka-Fact-or-Fiction.
C. This essay shows us that the pictorial images deployed in TamilNet and other sites depicted a “Low Drag Blast Fragmentation” munition of Russian manufacture, and not a Russian Cluster Bomb.
D. The essay also quoted a cable from Ambassador Blake of USA (in Colombo) which had this to say: “both ICRC and the Indian Ambassador reported that their medical teams treating wounded have come across no evidence of CW or phosphorous use. ….. “
E. The latter is a clinching counterpoint. Between early February and 9th May 2009 over 6000 sick and injured patients were transported from the Last Redoubt of the LTTE by the ICRC and SL Navy working together. If there were people with marks of chemical weapons or cluster bombs the Tigers would have slipped a few into those they chose for these “medivac” evacuations; and the Indian doctors (several of them Tamil) at Pulmoddai would have spotted the evidence of this form of damage.
F. I recollect clearly that in early 2009 some intellectuals, such as Lionel Bopage, highlighted the use of “cluster bombs” by the government of Sri Lanka. I did not know what they were. I surmised quite confidently THEN that Bopage and others were simply not qualified to go down this track and were eagerly seizing on any wisps of skulduggery to thump the government. Gerald Peiris’s essay demonstrates that the earnest investigators of the UTHR collective have also stepped beyond their technical capacities and taken up a line of prosecution which they have no capacity to assess. Peiris too can learn from Citizen Silva’s aeronautical capacities.