Open Letter To The British Prime Minister From A Sri Lankan
Published: 19 Nov 2013
6, Longdon Place
Tel: +94 77 7637876
18th November 2013
Rt Hon David Cameron MP
Prime Minister of Britain
10, Downing Street
London SW1A 2AA
Rt Hon Prime Minister,
While thanking you sincerely for attending the CHOGM summit in Colombo last week, I am bewildered by your hostility and arrogance towards the Sri Lankan State. I have to assume that you have taken the stand that you have, based on what you genuinely believe and not with malicious intent and a hidden agenda. With that assumption, as an average citizen of Sri Lanka who has lived in this Island Nation for all of my 48 years, and one who has no affiliation whatsoever with the Government, I would like to share with you what I know to be fact.
I will deal with 2 main issues that appear to irritate you (and many other international personalities).
(A) The atrocities that are said to have been committed by Government Forces during the last stages of the military campaign against the Tamil Tigers and the demand to investigate such incidents.
(B) Allegations of human rights violations against the Sri Lankan Government in the post war period.
Investigating the last stages of the war
Let’s not kid ourselves. War is brutal. This one was extremely vicious. We were fighting a group who took no prisoners, who deliberately targeted civilians (not only Sinhalese and Muslims but Tamils too) and whose strategic objective was to destroy as much life and property as possible. Though the enemy was cruel and evil, all Sri Lankans accept that Government Forces could not resort to the same tactics. And they didn’t. If the SL Forces didn’t take care to minimize civilian casualties, they could have finished off the Tigers many months before they eventually did. If so, thousands of soldiers who were killed during the last stages of the conflict would have been alive today and many thousands who were maimed would have their limbs intact today. We Sri Lankans know to what lengths the SL Forces had to go to save the lives of non-combatants and we know how many soldiers perished because
they were forced to get in to close combat rather than use the extensive fire power at their disposal. Having taken so many casualties to save Tamil civilians, it is exceedingly sad when people like yourself cannot comprehend the context and get misled after watching adulterated sensationalist material dished out by the likes of Channel 4.
So were there civilian casualties due to attacks by Government Forces? Of course there was. It is impossible to avoid collateral damage in the conditions that the SL Forces were forced to fight in. Any military man worth his salt would tell you that. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was not a conventional army. They were in uniform for their propaganda videos but would shed their battle fatigues and get in to civilian clothes in the battle field. It was to their advantage to claim that every combatant they lost was a civilian. The LTTE never disclosed what their actual numbers of armed and trained fighters were. There was no minimum or maximum age to be in their combat ranks. As long as a child was able to hold a gun and pull the trigger, he or she was a potential combatant.
When the LTTE was being encircled by the SL Army in the Killinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts, they withdrew towards the Eastern Coast and gradually got trapped in a small strip of land in an area called Vellamullivaikal. As they withdrew, willingly or unwillingly the civilian population moved with the LTTE. Even the Government didn’t really know how many people were actually there. It was in the LTTE’s interest to keep the civilians in their midst as they were their lifeline. Had the civilians not been with them to shield them, they would have been decimated with ease. But suddenly around 15th May 2009, a large human stream began pouring out of the area that they were caged in. The SL Army did not fire on these unarmed civilians who were crossing over to the area controlled by the Army. On the contrary, they were taken in to temporary shelters and provided food, water, clothing and medical treatment. There were several suicide bomb attacks even on fleeing civilians and their Army rescuers killing many from both groups making it a very dangerous task for the Army to help those who were crossing over to Government controlled areas to escape the fighting. It is a fact that the Army treated these civilians with care and compassion while risking their own lives in the process. Again, it is a travesty of justice that the army that saved these people from the iron grip of the LTTE and gave them a future, are now being accused of crimes that they did not commit.
What then was the actual number of civilian casualties among the Tamil population that stuck it out with the LTTE in the last months of the military offensive? We will never know the actual number. For one thing, as I explained before it was rather difficult to distinguish between a civilian and a hard core combatant. If I was to hazard a guess, the number is likely to be about 5,000. That is still a lot of people. But during the 28 years or so that the LTTE reined, there would be that many civilian deaths every year. It is now 4 years since the LTTE was obliterated and there have been zero deaths since May 19, 2009. Did the end justify the means? Absolutely. Do the math. At least 20,000 lives saved within this 4 year period.
A number as high as 40,000 civilian deaths in the last months of the conflict is being bandied about. This number has been picked up probably from the Darusman report. Darusman and his 2 colleagues compiled their report from submissions and claims made by various elements of the Tamil Diaspora and people who claimed to be survivors from the war zone. They never set foot in Sri Lanka. They did their inquiry without any input from the SL Government, which chose not to recognize the exercise which was done without their agreement. The so called panel of experts have assumed that the submissions that they received were true even though they had no means to verify them and they have gone further by doing a weird extrapolation to arrive at the ridiculous figure of 40,000 civilian casualties in the last few months of the conflict. This is a highly inflated number which has no credibility whatsoever. But the anti Sri Lanka lobby has eagerly picked up this shocking figure and is using it with vigor. Any lie, when repeated often enough and when accepted by people of repute, then begins to sound like the truth.
Were there excesses by the SL Army? Probably. This is an unfortunate aspect of war. These soldiers are only human. They were facing a ruthless enemy who were killing and maiming their colleagues on a daily basis. Would they have read them their rights, shared their rations and protected them if they captured enemy combatants in a mud hole in the middle of nowhere, with gun fire and shell fire all around them? Probably not. But one thing is for certain. Unlike some other brutal conflicts around the world, both of the past and the present, SL Forces never resorted to summary execution, rape, torture or such gruesome tactics as a strategy/policy when engaging with the LTTE. SL Forces were well trained and disciplined with a conventional chain of command. I dare say they matched the ferocity of the LTTE in close combat but for the most part, they played by the rules. They are our heroes, the men and women who risked their lives to give us a future, and we will stand by them.
Time will heal the wounds of war. I interact very closely with a group of people who were trapped in Vellamulivaikkal during the last stages of the battle. Having experienced 4 years of a peaceful existence free from violence, the bitter memories are beginning to fade away. They are now more concerned about building their lives and improving their lot rather than reflecting on the agony of the war and reopening old wounds.
Then of course we have the agenda of those elements of the Tamil Diaspora which funded and backed the LTTE, hoping they will carve out a separate state for themselves at great cost to life and limb. They don’t want this issue to go away. Having lost the ground war, they want to keep the propaganda war alive and are hoping they can set up some kind of kangaroo court that will try the architects of the military victory over the LTTE. This is where people like yourself must rise above the rhetoric and the sensationalism and understand the real facts, not what the media and those with vested interests, feed you. Talk to Hon Tony Abbot, your counterpart in Australia. He is really smart and is able to filter out the distortion.
Is the SL Administration doing enough in the former conflict affected areas to heal the wounds of war? They are doing a remarkable amount of work. The reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation program of the Government in the North and East of Sri Lanka is extensive, all inclusive and sincere. I can vouch for this as the company I work for was convinced to undertake a USD 15 million investment which creates 2,300 direct jobs in the North. The Government should take due credit for this as they offered attractive tax incentives and facilitated the whole process with the sole objective of developing the area and providing jobs.
But are they doing enough? We need to understand that the Tamil community who lived under the fascist rule of the LTTE for almost three decades, have sacrificed a great deal. Borrowing a line attributed to former US President Franklin D Roosevelt, they knew Prabakaran was a bastard but he was their bastard. Through all the suffering and misery, there was a hope of a promised land, a nation of their own, as the end game. A fiercely nationalistic community, they too probably believed ‘the end justified the means’. But with the military defeat of their ‘boys’ the dream came to an abrupt end. There is a generation of Tamil youth who grew up believing that they should be willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause. The endless stream of suicide bombers that Prabakaran was able to activate gives some indication of how powerful his influence was. To this brainwashed community, it will take another generation or two to forgive and forget. Perhaps they never will forgive and forget. Only time will tell. So the simple answer is that this community will be hard to satisfy, no matter how much effort goes in to the healing process.
Let us also not forget that the SL Government is not a ‘Sinhalese’ Government. It is a pluralistic government with no ethnic identity. There are many Tamils and Muslims within the Government ranks. By proportional representation, the Sinhalese which consist of 75% of the population have greater numbers in Government. But the minorities are well represented in Government. I believe the minorities are treated equally in Sri Lanka. Not preferentially, but equally. It is also a fact that more than 50% of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka live in the Southern part of the Island, perfectly integrated with the other communities that call Sri Lanka their home. It is grossly untrue that the Tamils are discriminated in any way in post war Sri Lanka. The problem is that a section of the Tamil community believes they are better off by having their own piece of real estate within this small island. That is very different to being discriminated against, within a united Sri Lanka.
Allegations of Human Rights Violations against the Sri Lankan Government in the post war period
Let us not confuse this issue with the first. The Rajapaksa Government has overwhelming support in Sri Lanka. They have their critics but they win elections, fair and square. If they go to the polls tomorrow, they will get over 60% of the popular vote. Since gaining independence from the British in 1948, Sri Lanka has always had democratically elected governments which have respected and abided by the constitution. In spite of the 28 year ethnic conflict and two leftist insurgencies in 1971 and 1988/89, governments have been elected only through the ballot. This is a proud record for this island nation of 20 million people.
So how does this government remain popular if there is widespread abuse of power and violation of people’s rights? Ironically, they derive their power from their popularity. They appeal to the common man. People respect this government for defeating terrorism, a feat which was seen to be impossible due to the bungling by previous administrations. Sri Lanka is now one of the safest places on earth. People see the rapid development that is taking place after the end of the war and the benefits that accrue to the larger population from the robust economic growth. The development is not limited to urban areas, they are taking it to rural areas where the majority of our people live. There is political stability because the Government is strong and backed by the people they represent.
I do have my reservations about the way the Government has dealt with certain issues. But these reservations pale in to insignificance compared to all the good work that is being done. I see the cup as half full as opposed to half empty and I believe the majority of Sri Lankans share this view.
So Mr Prime Minister, average people in Sri Lanka like myself, find your almost savage attack on the Sri Lankan administration quite astonishing. I won’t even get in to the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion and the misery that has been caused to the people of Iraq by the actions of the US and British Governments. Going back in time, the colonial belligerence of Britain all over the world is well documented and Sri Lanka itself is a victim of it. We should be questioning you Sir, about centuries of war crimes right up to the present day, but we don’t. Please be decent enough to extend the same courtesy to us.
The LTTE was able to launch suicide attacks on soft targets in Colombo at will. I have lost several family and friends in terror attacks and in battle. Almost every person in Sri Lanka has been touched by the conflict. I don’t know what the actual statistics are but almost as many Sinhalese would have died and been disabled as Tamils. This was a senseless war that achieved nothing but caused untold misery and suffering. The whole world should be applauding the SL Government for ending this bitter chapter in Sri Lanka’s history. Instead we have people like yourself going on a witch hunt. This is the dichotomy that we lesser mortals cannot comprehend.
But Sir, you can help. Not by trying to rake the painful memories of a past we all want to forget. We are a country rising from the ashes of war and we need the support of the developed world to get back on our feet. As the colonial power which occupied our country for almost 150 years, and as many believe that the seeds of ethnic discord were sown by the British through their ‘divide and rule’ policies, Britain has a moral obligation to support Sri Lanka, not undermine it. There were real economic benefits that accrued to the lower income groups in the country through the GSP Plus preferential access to European markets, which was withdrawn by the EU in 2011. If you are genuine in your intent to help the country recover, you should try to restore the GSP Plus scheme for Sri Lanka which would directly help create jobs through export led growth. You can encourage British companies to invest in Sri Lanka. There are many who already have invested here of their own volition and are very pleased with their decision. Thankfully, we are no longer dependent on foreign aid to pay our bills but Britain can participate in rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure of the North as other genuine friends of Sri Lanka have done.
A note about the writer
My name is Damitha Dharmasena. I am Sinhalese by birth but have been brought up in a very pluralistic environment where ethnicity did not matter. Some of my closest friends are from the Tamil and Muslim communities. I have been educated and brought up in Sri Lanka. I hold a senior position in a leading private sector organization in Sri Lanka. I have two kids, now aged 18 and 14. During almost 3 decades of LTTE terrorism, I seriously considered emigrating from Sri Lanka for the sake of my kids. I somehow couldn’t get myself to make the move even though the safety of my family was always a concern.
This is an open letter.