Caught in the Crossfire

Sri Lanka: War Crimes and Genocide

“It’s being dead. It’s still being alive. 

It’s No Frills finally has Dilmah
It’s buying four packages to take home in your carry-on because you live in the Bay Area now.
It’s the Scar and the new Goa.

It’s enormous fights on the internet on every page that purports to be about Sri Lanka from a multicultural perspective

It’s being on a raft that takes you from Jaffna to Malaysia to Christmas Island, Australia to immigration jail in Australia, then somehow you bust out
then to Fruitvale because someone on the raft Googlemapped it and it looked pretty

how we have always known how to pilot
small boats in big water

It’s fake Buddhist temples constructed by the government in Jaffna
It’s going home and seeing bullet holes in your grandmother’s empty house
It’s lighting 23 candles in her window
one for everyone who’s died since you and everyone
have not been able to return.
It’s going home to Jaffna if you’re young, Tamil and male and not automatically being snatched by either army. Maybe. For a moment.
It’s white vans.

It’s creepy child molesting uncle,
drunkass uncle at the wedding singing baila with sexually inappropriate lyrics It’s all your aunties wanting to change the subject

It’s an empty, broken heart hoping that the tears/the rivers/ the ocean/ all that wet
will fertilize the seeds
hidden/deep/ in darkness
still to be born

It’s wanting to talk about something else It’s still being alive.”

(what it’s like to be sri lankan in 2012 for those of you who aren’t, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna­Samarasinha) 


Question: Why does the United Nations need to address the war crimes that took place during the Sri Lankan civil war?

By understanding the historical framework of the Sri Lankan government, as well as the UN’s presence in Sri Lanka and the extensive documentation of war crimes, the United Nations should recognize that the supposed civil war in Sri Lanka was rather an act of ethnic cleansing and genocide of Tamil civilians.

The historical framework of Sri Lanka and its government plays an important role in understanding the Sri Lankan civil war, as it is vast and diverse in terms of race, landscape, language, and religion. The majority ethnic groups in Sri Lanka are the Sinhalese who comprise 74% of Sri Lanka’s population and inhabit the South, Central and Western parts of the country. The minority ethnic group is the Tamils who inhabit the Northern and Eastern portions of the Island. The ancient history of Sri Lanka is vast, as Sri Lanka was a major trade center as the thoroughfare of the Maritime Silk Road. There were five major kingdoms of Sri Lanka who became one of the most pivotal, technologically advanced civilizations of its time.

The ancient history of the beautiful island came to an end during the three colonial control of the island. The first European nation to land on the shores of Sri Lanka were the Portuguese in 1505 who gained control of the island and used it as a port. The Dutch, whose time in Sri Lanka was short, were not able to gain control of portions of the Island. Both the Portuguese and the Dutch were interested in the spice trade as well as spreading Christianity. The third European country to colonize Sri Lanka were the British, who were able to establish a central government in the capital city Colombo by 1833. During this period, the first formations of divide and conquer were established as the British were said to have given special treatment to the Tamil population. “British colonialism was invariably a cause as many Sinhalese felt that the Tamil were given preferential treatment by the British invaders as part of the “divide and conquer” strategy in Sri Lanka”[i] It must be understood that the two ethnic communities were disengaged doctrinally, first by religious differences and perpetuated by differences in language.

When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the Donoghmore Commission, a British establishment that once worked to draft a new constitution to satisfy the needs of white plantation owners as well as the islanders, endowed suffrage to all Sri Lankan citizens.[ii] Upon leaving, however, the British failed to universalize the two ethnic groups, and resulted in creating more conflict, discrimination, and representative discrepancy. The newly established government of Sri Lanka was found, and allowed for the Sinhalese population to take advantage of their majority status and strength in numbers:
“This change made it of paramount importance that the Tamils be united to ensure that their liberties would not be infringed upon. A new cohesiveness was founded in the Tamil population as it became quickly apparent that the Sinhalese would be unwilling to recognize their basic rights. A group consciousness was formed through Tamil national conferences, associations and a growing professional class.”[iii]

The newly established Sinhalese government realized that they were freed from colonial law and now had unlimited power. Tamils had an advantage of proficiency in English, which was once restricted from the Sinhalese during colonial rule. As a result came the Sinhalese Only Bill, which made Sinhalese the official language of the country. This bill was one of the first discriminatory actions taken by the Sinhalese Sri Lankan Government, along with programs to destruct and displaced Tamil people. These newfound regulations prefaced societal racism of “letting loose the Sinhalese mobs in Sinhalese dominated areas on previously disarmed Tamils. In addition, the army was also dispatched to the Tamil dominated areas with full license to conduct themselves as they please – to kill, rape and pillage” (Jegapragasan.) The discriminatory actions taken by the Sri Lankan government were very much so aligned with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. As a way of nationalizing the majority population the Khmer Rouge found a common enemy. As Donald W. Beachler writes in Arguing about Cambodia: Genocide and Political Interest, “The Khmer Rouge recipe for a return to greatness was predicated on the liquidation of all elements... tainted by such foreign, colonial or imperial legacies.” The Sri Lankan government used their hatred of colonialism and British favoritism towards Tamils as a way to justify the hatred and discrimination of Tamil people. Aside from blatant legal racism against Tamils, Sri Lanka became a socialist government in order to “resist the depredations of First World capitalism by finding a way to cut themselves off from the world economy (Beachler.)

Although there were several community leaders, such as S.J.V. Chelvanaykam who attempted to work within the parliamentary structure, the Tamil population grew to mistrust corrupt leaders. Chelvanaykam, himself, abandoned the fifty­fifty representation of Tamils and Sinhalese, and decided to join the majority Sinhalese party. Tamil youth began to fully mistrust the government and decided to take matters into their own hands. By militarizing and creating their own hospitals, banks, television stations and political parties, the illegitimate formation of their own sovereign state. Balasingham describes the situation of the Tamil youth as:

“Plunged into the despair of unemployed existence, frustrated without the possibility of higher education, angered by the imposition of an alien language, the Tamil youth realized that the redemption to their plight lay in revolutionary politics, a politics that should pave the way for a radical and fundamental transformation of their miserable conditions of existence. The only alternative left to the Tamils under the conditions of mounting nation oppression, the youth rightly perceived, was none other than a revolutionary armed struggle for the total independence of their nations.” [iv]

The creation of the Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) posed an immediate threat to the Sinhalese government. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Sri Lankan government designed a massive offensive to finally defeat the LTTE. The government began by plotting an attack on Kilinochchi, the capital town first claimed and established by the LTTE in 1990 for Tamil civilians to live. In an interview for Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields Benjamin Dix, the Former UN staffer at Kilinochchi, said “There were a number of air raids every day, quite often at night”[v] The Sri Lankan government wanted to instill fear within the international communities present in Sri Lanka, so that they would have reason to leave the island. The Sri Lankan government told the United Nations they could no longer guarantee their safety. They must leave Kilinochchi and the Tiger held areas. The UN official spokesperson in Sri Lanka, Gordon Vice, stated “The government regarded the UN as impediments to their conquest of the Tamil Tigers. By removing those organizations there were no longer international witnesses to what was coming.” The United Nations presence and subsequent absence in Sri Lanka is crucial in understanding the ethnic cleansing of Tamil people during the Sri Lankan civil war.

With the international eye at bay, the Sri Lankan government was free to attack the Tamil Tigers and relocate Tamil civilians whenever and wherever they pleased. In January 2009, the Government moved into the Northern Tamil held areas and launched major attacks on Kilinochchi, managing to capture the LTTE capitol. A major trend in ethnic warfare is relocation of resettlement of the ethnic minority. Moving hundreds of thousands of bodies isn’t an easy task; this was the case in Sri Lanka. “These were civilians who were driven from their homes by government. [A government] who seemed to view all Tamil civilians as indistinguishable from the fighters of the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers too showed little respect for civilians who were increasingly prepared to use them as pawns and human shields in this battle till the end” ( Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. ) The Sri Lankan government was on a plot to relocate 80% of Tamil civilians by the end of 2009. In his 180 day plan to relocate Tamil civilians, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa partnered with the Government of India to relocate 280,000 Tamil civilians to Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps against their will. As noted in the Forced Migration review’s account of Sri Lanka, “It is estimated that there are over 600,000 IDPs in Sri Lanka, of whom 270,000 have been displaced in the recent military campaign between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Northern Province.”[vi] The Sri Lankan government restricted aid from any international organizations who “have pleaded for relief workers to have better access to the tightly controlled camps ­ which the government calls "welfare villages", but which the Tamil Tigers deem "concentration camps"”[vii]

Recognition of natural disasters in Sri Lanka that directly hit the Internally Displaced Persons camps is a critical in the United Nations recognition that the civil war in Sri Lanka was a genocide of Tamil civilians. I n 2004, a major Tsunami hit the South and Eastern coasts of Sri Lanka. One and a half million people were displaced from their homes, and for the hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians captive in IDP camps, life became exponentially more difficult. “In the East, and after the Indian Ocean tsunami, many families were left with no documented assurance that they would receive a house, or be able to remain on land for which they had no official documentation” (Wassel, 7.) In understanding the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka, it is also important to look at natural disasters in other countries that were largely affected by the humanitarian aid system and were subsequently unable to understand the legal framework of human rights. In Haiti, where 25% of the entire population was displaced, countries around the world poured immense humanitarian aid relief. However, although there were aid services provided to hundred of thousands of Haitian people, “the result of the more limited version of the rights­based approach is that opportunities for participation may exist within self­contained spaces, but the wider right of participation in response and recovery is neglected or inaccessible to those most affected by the disaster.”[viii] In Sri Lanka, while aid workers were supporting the victims of the Tsunami, the national disaster organizations intentionally ignored the concentration camps and the intergovernmental conflicts with the LTTE. “A humanitarian response that does not engage with legal framework of human rights may not properly define relationships between rights­holders and duty­bearer, may bypass the state, and may not fully enhance the ability of disaster­affected persons to benefit from two of the fundamental principles of human rights” (Klasing, 355.)

The outstanding factor of the war in Sri Lanka that should sway the decision of the United Nations, are the hundreds of cell phone videos taken by Tamil civilians and Sri Lankan governmental soldiers of the horrific war crimes that took place. Unlike prior genocides, which used the stories, interviews, and written accounts of war crimes to gain international recognition of the atrocities, the video footage in Sri Lanka provides the United Nations with legitimate accounts of government forces mass murdering civilians, government bombing of hospitals, and the rape of Tamil women. “The standard practice with the Red Cross, throughout the world, in battlefield situations like this, is that they provide the coordinates of medical faculties, which is protected under international humanitarian law, to the opposing party so that both can avoid attacking these spaces.”[v] An hour after the Red Cross worker visited the hospital facilities in the Tamil refugee camps, a shell bomb directly hit the hospital ward. There were approximately 65 attacks on Tamil hospitals thereafter. Civilians were literally pushed to the edge of the water as the LTTE shot at the ground to prevent civilians from escaping. 130,000 Tamil civilians were trapped in the “No Fire Zone” which continued to get smaller as the government moved in. In the final days of the war, the government claimed that government forces rescued Tamil civilians in the “No Fire Zone”. “The United Nations panel has now concluded that 40,000 people have died in the final weeks of the war. Others say the total was much greater.”[v] However, even after the end of the war on May 16, 2009, and after the loss of the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran as he was escaping a “No Fire Zone” on May 18, 2009, war crimes continued to take place. Video footage has also been released of Sri Lankan soldiers handcuffing, blindfolding, and executing LTTE prisoners of war. The Sri Lankan government denounces these videos as “fake.” The most horrendous video documentation is of Isaipriya, a famous LTTE television presenter, who was raped, murdered, and mocked by soldiers. As elaborated upon by Daniela Nadj on how gender and ethnicity are intertwined in sexual violence, she concludes that, “Gender as well as ethnic identity combine to seemingly deny [...] women any sense of agency or choice in their interactions with [...] soldiers,”[ix] this is exactly the case with Tamil women during and after the war in Sri Lanka.

“Genocide is ignored, rationalized, or excused, as people ­whether consciously or unconsciously­ see only what conforms to their ideological predispositions. The history of the Holocaust is repeated with examples of indifference to the victims due to political interest. One might have hoped after that experience for a new, world moral standard that would make genocide intolerable irrespective of strategic and rhetorical interests. Unfortunately, such a standard [has not been met]”[x] Understanding the history of Sri Lanka, its regal past and plight through colonialism, as well as the UN stance and inaction in Sri Lanka is consequential in understanding the war in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the documentation of war crimes, ranging from rape to the mass murdering of civilians, is ample proof that the civil war in Sri Lanka was an act of ethnic cleansing and genocide of Tamil civilians. 

[i] "Pre-Colonial Sri Lanka." Untitled Document. Mt.Holyoke, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.

[iii] J. Russell, Communal Politics Under the Donoughmore Constitution, Tisara Prakasakayo, Colombo 1982

[iii] Jegapragasan, Mithulan. "The Division of Sri Lankan Nationalism and Its Economic Consequences." Thesis. 2004. Print.

[iv] Balasingham, A.S. Liberation Tigers and Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle Madras,              1983.

[v] Sri Lanka's Killing Fields. Dir. Callum Macrae. Perf. Jon Snow. Channel 4, 2011. Youtube. 30 Mar. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

[vi] Wassel, Todd. "Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka." Race & Class 26.1 (1984): 111-29. Forced Migration Review. University of Oxford- Refugee Studies Center. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

[vii] "Sri Lanka Vows to Resettle Tamils." BBC News. N.p., 21 May 2009. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

[viii] Amanda M. Klasing, P. Scott Moses, and Margaret L. Satterthwaite, “Measuring the Way Forward in Haiti: Grounding Disaster Relief in the Legal Framework of Human Rights,” Health and Human Rights 13/1 (2011), 15-35 [reader]

[ix] Sergey Y. Marochkin and Galina A. Nelaeva, “Rape and Sexual Violence as Torture and Genocide in the Decisions of International Tribunals: Transjudicial Networks and the Development of International Criminal Law,” Human Rights Review 15/3 (2014), 473-488  [reader]

[x] Donald W. Beachler, “Arguing about Cambodia: Genocide and Political Interest,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 23/2 (Fall 2009), 214-238 [reader]