Sri Lanka: I remember
Sri Lanka: I remember
For Lanka, A Long Road to Democratic Reform Awaits
For Lanka, A Long Road to Democratic Reform Awaits
Speech / Asia 7 minutes

Sri Lanka: I remember

Speech by Alan Keenan, International Crisis Group's South Asia Senior Analyst, to The Human Rights Action Centre, London.

As we come together to commemorate the anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s long and bloody civil war, these are some of the things I remember:

I remember hearing reports in late January 2009 of UN workers and their families being shelled by government forces in the Vanni while hiding in bunkers and under UN trucks. I remember not quite believing these stories.

I remember the hospitals and medical centres shelled, and the patients and medical staff killed and wounded in what the Sri Lankan government was calling “no fire zones”.  I remember later on meeting some of those who survived and hearing their terrifying stories.

I remember the extraordinary bravery and generosity of all the doctors, medical workers, and staff members of the International Committee of the Red Cross who served under terrifying conditions. I remember that some of them gave their lives saving others.

I remember seeing Gotabaya Rajapaksa on TV in February 2009 telling an interviewer that “there shouldn’t be a hospital or anything [in Puthukudiyiruppu] because we withdrew that. We got all the patients to Vavuniya, out of there. So nothing should exist beyond the no fire zone. …No hospital should operate in the area, nothing should operate. That is why we clearly gave these no fire zones.”

I remember seeing Palitha Kohona on TV claim “There was only one hospital that anybody had ever marked on a map in that whole area and we have got pictures to show that hospital was never targeted. … If a hospital had to be shelled … I know the way we took out LTTE officers, their camps, with such clinical precision – if we wanted to do that to a hospital we could have done that also. Why do a half-hearted job if you wanted to really finish it off?”

I remember Gotabaya Rajapaksa telling the BBC on 23 April 2009, “we are going very slowly towards the south of the no-fire zone to rescue the remaining civilians. Our troops are not using heavy fire power, they are using only guns and personal weapons.”

I remember Mahinda Samarasinghe announcing on 18 May 2009 that “All Tamil civilians have been rescued without shedding a drop of blood”.

I remember Rajiva Wijesinha claiming in the middle of March that there were only 70-100,000 people still traped in the fighting and criticising UN agencies for using inflated numbers in their appeals for aid.

I remember reading the reports and seeing the pictures of the more than two hundred thousand battered, scared, starved, and thirsty people, most of them children, women, or elderly, streaming into the military’s hastily built camps in April and May. There they would remain for months, unable to  leave.

I remember the government chopping down thousands of trees and bulldozing hundreds of acres of land in Vavuniya to construct camps that were still too small to hold all the survivors humanely.

I remember all those the LTTE shot and killed as they tried to flee the fighting in 2009.

I remember all those killed and injured after being forced to dig bunkers and defend Tigers positions.

I remember all the children forced by the LTTE to fight to their death in the final battles.

I remember meeting young people recruited by the LTTE and now in government “rehabilitation” centres in Jaffna in 2002. I remember their hopes that some day they might find a normal and safe life.

I remember the scores of suicide bombers, convinced by their leaders to transform their own loss and rage and bodies into weapons to continue the cycle of pain and vengeance.

I remember watching artists – Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim, foreign – paint beautiful flowers and doves on the streets of Colombo in remembrance of those killed in political violence and to call for the preservation of the sanctity of life.

I remember the nearly one hundred Sri Lankans of all ethnicities killed and the more than thirteen hundred injured in the LTTE’s bombing of the Central bank i.n 1998

I remember all the Sinhalese farmers and their families killed, terrorised and forced from their lands by Tiger attacks in the eastern province.

I remember the Tamil and Muslim farmers forced from their lands in the north and east by the violence and threats from Sri Lankan security forces and homeguards and by the LTTE.

I remember the murder of Joseph Pararajasingham in St. Michaels church in Batticaloa on Christmas Eve 2005 – and all the Tamil MPs killed over the years.

I remember the murders of A.Armithalingam, Neelan Thiruchelvam, Rajini Thiranagama,  Kandiah ‘Robert’ Subathiran and all the free-thinkingTamils killed by LTTE for betraying the Tamil nation. I remember all the Tamil militants killed by other Tamil militants in the name of liberation.

I remember all the Sri Lankan journalists beaten, killed, disappeared or forced into exile for their betrayal of the Sinhala nation and their commitment to the truth.

I remember Kethesh Loganathan, for his generosity and support to me, and for his courage to speak his mind to all the warring parties.

I remember the 80,000 or more Muslims expelled from northern province by the LTTE in October 1990. I remember their continuing struggles to return home and begin their lives again in the land where they were born.

I remember the seventeen workers for Action contre la faim killed in Mutur in August 2006.

I rember the five students gunned down in Trincomalee in January 2006.

I remember the ten workers massacred in Potuvil in September 2006.

I  remember the government’s promises to investigate and the silence from the Commission of Inquiry and from the President’s office.

I remember families of the ACF workers pleading with me to help them leave Sri Lanka and find some peace from government harassment.

I remember the physical attacks on Sufi Muslims in Kattankudy who refused to accept the ideological rigidity of their Wahabi brothers.

I remember seeing the charred beds, chairs, bicycles and destroyed dormitories on a beautiful hill in the village of Bindunuwewa. I remember meeting Tamil families at the funeral of their sons whose bodies were so badly mutilitated that they remained unidentified, unburied and without death certificates for years.

I remember speaking to Sinhalese in Bindunuwewa whose families had been torn apart by the trauma, shame and financial cost of their loved ones being accused of murder.

I remember the  pictures of SJV Chelvanayagam and other Tamil politicians beaten and bloodied after a peaceful protest in Colombo in 1956.

I remember the photographs of the Jaffna Public Library after it was burned by thugs sent by a Sri Lankan cabinet minister in 1981.

I remember visiting the restored Jaffna Public Library in 2002, beautiful in its gleaming white paint but still scarred by the absence of books and manuscripts that will never return.

I remember the thousands of Tamils killed in the pogrom of July 1983 and the hundreds of thousands forced to live in refugee camps and abandon their country of birth.

I remember the many brave and generous Sinhalese and Muslims who helped save Tamils from July’s crazed mobs.

I remember the tens of thousands of Sinahala youth murdered and disappeared by the government and the JVP in 1971 and in the late 1980s.

I remember the words from the Dhammapada: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is an eternal law.”

I remember hearing the news that the UN was withdrawing its international staff from their headquarters in Kilnochchi in September 2008. I remember seeing the photos of desperate civilians appealing for them to stay and protect them.

I remember the promise by the UN Security Council “to respond to situations of armed conflict where civilians are being targeted or humanitarian assistance to civilians is being deliberately obstructed”. I remember the failure of the Security Council to act in Sri Lanka.

I remember the visit to Sri Lanka in late April by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreigin Minister Bernard Kouchner and their call for a ceasefire and for the Tigers to lay down their weapons and allow the civilians to leave.

I remember the words of President Obama on 13 May 2009 calling on the Tigers to surrender and the Sri Lankan government to stop its indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas and to allow the UN access to the tens of thousands still trapped. “The United States”, Obama says, “stands ready to work with the international community to support the people of Sri Lanka in this time of suffering. I don’t believe that we can delay. Now is the time for all of us to work together to avert further humanitarian suffering.”

I remember the government’s announcement of the killing of Vellupilai Prabhakaran just days later.

I remember all those detained and brutalized at Guantanamo Bay and Bhagram Airbase in the name of the war on terror. I remember all those kidnapped and “extraordinarily rendered” by the US government with the assistance of the British and other european governments, in defiance of international law and human decency. I remember the madness that took over my own country after September 11th, 2001. I remember all those killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I remember the words of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ban ki-Moon on 24 May 2009, whereby “Sri Lanka reiterated its strongest commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights in keeping with international human rights standards and Sri Lanka’s international obligations.” I remember that “The Secretary General underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law” and that the Government promised to “take measures to address those grievances.”

I remember Gotabaya Rajapaksa telling a BBC correspondent earlier this year: “Whether it is the United Nations or any other country, we are not – I am not – allowing any investigations in this country. There is no reason. Nothing wrong happened in this country. Take it from me. There will be no investigations for anything in this country”.

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