‘You cannot humiliate people forever and expect them to be quiet’

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Sri Lanka had a chance to heal itself, but that opportunity was not seized, says Frances Harrison in an interview
Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War | Frances Harrison | Portobello | 259 pages | Rs 399

Frances Harrison’s Still Counting the Dead is a shocking account of how tens of thousands of Sri Lanka’s Tamil civilians were killed in cold blood over five months in 2009 during its army’s final battle with the LTTE. As Sri Lankan forces pounded its bastions in the northeast, the world looked away, allowing the Sri Lankan Government to use brutal military force. While a UN panel later found that at least 40,000 people had perished in that war, the world’s attention, as Harrison mentions in the book, was focused on Israel’s incursion into Gaza, where the final death toll was about 1,500. Harrison was the BBC’s correspondent in Sri Lanka till 2004, and has travelled across the world to speak to survivors and workers of humanitarian agencies to gather material for her book.

Q You were not present in person during the five months of the brutal final war in Sri Lanka. How difficult was it then to piece this story together?

A If I hadn’t lived for four years in Sri Lanka and travelled a lot to the Vanni, it would have been impossible to write this book. Luckily I was there at a time when the LTTE areas opened up and as a BBC correspondent I had more access to rebel areas than my predecessors or successors. Of course I watched the final phase of the war from afar, but I knew people who were there and afterwards discovered some of them alive again. I did a lot of desk research going through all the statements and media reports first and then started tracking survivors down. I also watched all the videos I could find—and there are hundreds on YouTube, many of them extremely distressing—to get a sense of the look of the places I was describing while they were under bombardment.

Q From your book, I got the impression that the United Nations had become a silent party to the Tamilian genocide, the way it let the Sri Lankan Government bully it into silence. Do you agree with the assessment that the UN did not do enough to save lives?

A Clearly, the UN was not the one with its finger on the trigger, but it did not shout loud enough about the information it had at the time. Charles Petrie’s report documents how senior UN Staff suppressed vital casualty information and firsthand war crimes testimonies gathered from its own employees. In my opinion, that is unforgivable. Had that knowledge been made public— or even shared privately with diplomats— perhaps, just perhaps, the outcome would have been different. Of course, in Syria we have a pretty good idea what is going on and there is still no intervention, but in Sri Lanka the UN skewed the information flow from a war zone that was off limits to outsiders. Long term, the UN’s wilful bias set the tone for all reporting on the war by assuming the ‘terrorists’ must be doing all the bad things—even though information from the ground showed the majority of killings were perpetrated by the government side.

Q Do you think it has the potential of becoming a dangerous trend, the way some countries with ethnic problems are looking at the ‘Sri Lankan model’?

A Yes, if there is no visible price to pay for slaughtering tens of thousands of your own people, other governments might want to follow suit. The UN Panel of Experts report says this final battle poses a grave threat to the entire regime of international law on war. That’s a pretty serious charge from some very credible people.

Q The way the Sri Lankan Government has been changing the entire landscape of the northern and eastern territories, do you see any future for the Tamilian population in that country?

A It looks bleak. If there is no Tamil- dominated geographic area left, then the concept of a Tamil homeland obviously becomes more complicated in practice.

Q Do you think India failed to respond adequately to the brutality unleashed upon Sri Lanka’s Tamils?

A When you talk to Mullivaikkal survivors, they don’t specifically blame only India for not intervening. I think they knew Delhi was backing the Colombo government because of the rift with the LTTE, caused primarily by the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. What everyone says is that they thought the international community would come to save them. Today, they are bitterly disappointed that they were left to die in the thousands on those beaches. What’s surprising to me is Indian Tamils aren’t more concerned and better informed about what happened. I get messages from Indian Tamils thanking me and saying they simply didn’t realise how dreadful it was in 2009. A Sri Lankan Tamil in the UK wrote to me this week saying he’s going to buy 50 copies of the Tamil edition of Still Counting the Dead and donate them to libraries in Tamil Nadu so people can read it and understand. There are so many Mullivaikkal survivors living in Tamil Nadu, but I don’t see many stories about them in the local press even though each and every one has an incredible tale of war and escape. Instead, they tell me they are questioned and watched and live in fear of being returned home, unable to travel easily outside the state or regularise their status once their visas or passports expire, to restart their broken lives. Changing Central government policy is one thing, but at a state level and an individual level, these people could do with a bit more compassion and help.

Many in India believe that the biggest mistake the LTTE’s Prabhakaran ever committed was to order the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Otherwise, they say, India would have never allowed Sri Lanka to do what it did during the war.

Alienating the Indian Government by assassinating a Prime Minister is widely recognised as a major blunder on the part of the LTTE. If this hadn’t happened, it is hard to speculate what the relationship between the LTTE and the Government of India would have been—there may have been other reasons to fall out. And, of course, the need to counter Chinese backing for Colombo is also a factor, as is proscription of the LTTE as a terrorist group internationally. The whole outcome of the war could have been different, but there are so many variables that it’s hard to say. But now [that] there is no LTTE, there is no reason for India not to play a greater role in protecting the rights of Tamil civilians. Pushing for accountability and justice is essential for a sustainable future and India could take the lead, but it doesn’t. Any country could table the 2011 UN Panel of Experts report for discussion at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Q Do you see any chances of any kind of resurgence of Tamil sub-nationalism or revival of the LTTE?

A You cannot humiliate and intimidate people forever— even if they are militarily defeated—and expect them to be quiet. There is no physical security for Tamil civilians, no recognition of their unprecedented suffering in 2009, not even any space to mourn the dead. I just talked to someone I know who told me how his aunt and cousin were raped by soldiers in Kilinochchi this year— that was after his parents had disappeared in 2009. I couldn’t imagine a second tragedy could be visited upon his family again so soon. Priests tell me about persistent sexual abuse by soldiers in the villages of the Vanni of former LTTE female cadres. You know very well the huge stigma in Tamil society surrounding rape—but the stories are still trickling out and I am hearing more and more of them. They are probably the tip of the iceberg.

Nearly four years on, all those countries who supported or turned a blind eye to the elimination of the LTTE are also embarrassed by the lack of political progress and the nepotism, corruption and concentration of power in the hands of one family. There appears to be no interest among the ruling clique in addressing the root causes of the conflict. That is very shortsighted. The problem has not been resolved and will surely resurface in some shape or form in future. There was perhaps a window of opportunity in 2009 to address the root causes of decades of suffering, but it is now firmly shut.