Remembering Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields

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Gareth Evans in Project Syndicate (illustration by Dean Rohrer):

Three years ago, in the bloody endgame of the Sri Lankan government’s war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, some 300,000 civilians became trapped between the advancing army and the last LTTE fighters in what has been called “the cage” – a tiny strip of land, not much larger than New York City’s Central Park, between sea and lagoon in the northeast of the country.

With both sides showing neither restraint nor compassion, at least 10,000 civilians – possibly as many as 40,000 – died in the carnage that followed, as a result of indiscriminate army shelling, rebel gunfire, and denial of food and medical supplies.

The lack of outrage mainly reflects the Sri Lankan government’s success in embedding in the minds of policymakers and publics an alternative narrative that had extraordinary worldwide resonance in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. What occurred in the cage, according to this narrative, was the long-overdue defeat, by wholly necessary and defensible means, of a murderous terrorist insurrection that had threatened the country’s very existence.

The other key reason behind the world’s silence is that the Sri Lankan government was relentless in banning independent observers – media, NGOs, or diplomats – from witnessing or reporting on its actions. And this problem was compounded by the timidity of in-country United Nations officials in communicating such information as they had.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government claimed throughout, and still does, that it maintained a “zero civilian casualties” policy. Officials argued that no heavy artillery fire was ever directed at civilians or hospitals, that any collateral injury to civilians was minimal, and that they fully respected international law, including the proscription against execution of captured prisoners.

But that narrative is now being picked apart in a series of recent publications, notably the report last year of a UN Panel of Experts, and in two new books: UN official Gordon Weiss’s relentlessly analytical The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, and BBC journalist Frances Harrison’s harrowingly anecdotal Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War.

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