Vision & Mission

Vision: A peaceful and just country in which freedom, human and democratic rights of all people are assured.

Mission:To work in partnership with different target groups to educate, mobilize and advocate to build a society of rights conscious citizens and a political culture that enables a political solution to the ethnic conflict and equal opportunities to all.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Monday, 20 June 2011

The video footage of the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war by the British television broadcaster Channel 4 has been taken on by other international media channels such as Al Jazeera, giving it a global dimension.  It has also been shown at the margins of international forums such as the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, at the British Parliament and now also at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.  This is being denounced by members of the government as an ill-motivated and fabricated propaganda blitz by enemies of Sri Lanka.  Whether the deeds depicted in the video were committed by soldiers or by the LTTE or by a third party, they are awful, cruel and tragic

The only way to remain unmoved is to believe that these video images are not real, but have been acted out to discredit the government. The first part of the video focuses on the plight of the civilian population that was trapped along with and by the LTTE in an ever shrinking territory.  .  There is vivid imagery of artillery shells falling on the civilians.  There are the sounds of wailing children as their parents lie on top of them seeking to shield them with their bodies, and of people screaming in terror as the artillery fire rains on them. There are puddles of rain mixed with blood in the makeshift hospitals that were set up in abandoned schools and the bodies of victims who were being treated. 

However, as this clear video footage comes from the territory that the LTTE was controlling it does not show how the LTTE forcibly kept the people in.  Perhaps no one dared to take video images or photographs of what the LTTE was doing in the areas they were in charge of.  There is some limited satellite imagery that shows in a blurred manner how LTTE cadre shot at the ground in front of civilians to prevent them from fleeing.  This is one of the accusations leveled against the producers of the video, that they were biased, and produced a documentary that is weighted against the government.  The one or two incidents in which an LTTE atrocity is shown emphasizes the fact that the rest are by the government forces.

The second and shorter part of the video shows the very end of the war, after the fighting was over.  It shows bound and trussed prisoners, nearly naked, being shot at by military personnel.  It shows dozens of bodies lying in rows which persons said to be experts and interviewed by Channel 4 say were shot in the head, and so unlikely to be battlefield casualties.  There is also footage of bodies of women with their undergarments almost removed being dragged about and crude language in the background.  Unless these images were fakes, as argued by the government, they would have had to come from the cameras of soldiers on the ground at that time. 


In order to permit viewers throughout the world to watch the programme Channel 4 removed its geo-blocking devices for a week.  This meant that the video could be watched on internet in any part of the world instead of only in the UK as normal for Channel 4 news.  I watched the video the day after it was broadcast in the UK along with several of my colleagues, who were of all ethnic groups.  We wanted to see if we had different reactions so that we could come up with a more objective view, as this video is bound to be a very controversial and sensitive issue.  Our common thought after watching the video together was that the government needed to have an independent investigation into the video in order to substantiate its position that it was a fake, if that is the position those in the government wish to continue with.

It is common knowledge that in any war, atrocities occur and civilians die.  Over 60,000 are said to have died in Kashmir over the course of the past decades of anti government terrorism and counter terrorism.  Over 500,000 are said to have died in Iraq when the US invaded that country to get rid of President Saddam Hussein.  Much of Chechnya was flattened and large numbers of civilians were killed when the Russian army finally moved in to defeat the rebel forces. Many Sri Lankans are indignant and infuriated why the Sri Lankan government is being singled out for international censure and the Sri Lankan killing fields are being subjected to investigation when the killing fields elsewhere are not.

Perhaps a key reason is in the government’s consistent stance regardless of the mounting evidence, that it conducted a humanitarian operation to save the Tamil people from the LTTE, and had a policy of zero civilian casualties.  The denial of large scale civilian casualties involved in fighting the LTTE which had a civilian shield of more than 300,000 civilians is not one that the international community appears prepared to accept.  The video adds to the charges already leveled against the government by the Expert Panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon which argued for an independent international mechanism to probe the last phase of the war. 


So long as the government is adamant in holding to its position of a humanitarian operation in which there were zero civilian casualties, there will be mounting international pressure on it to investigate the past.  In addition, in the absence of an inclusive and participatory investigation, the space for further allegations is to be expected from different pressure groups that will polarize the Sri Lankan society and hinder the process of reconciliation for sustainable peace for years to come. A credible mechanism involving the domestic legal apparatus in which there is multi partisan political consensus, including participation from opposition Tamil parties is now the best option for the government.  This was suggested by several Sri Lankan civil society organizations as their response to the UN Expert Panel report that called for an independent international mechanism.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has announced that it will investigate the video.  Although the appointment of this commission was done unilaterally by the President, and not in consultation with other stakeholders, the LLRC has a plural composition.  Its commissioners are also distinguished and respected within the country.  They have already obtained the services of a university academic in Sri Lanka who is an expert in video technology to make his assessment of the authenticity of the video, which he has done in camera and not in public due to the controversial nature of the issue. The finding of the LLRC can do much to convince the international community that Sri Lanka will deal with the issue in a responsible and legitimate manner that can quell international concerns.

The government is also having the advantage of political support from powerful countries such as Russia and China, whose presidents have assured their Sri Lankan counterpart that they will not permit Sri Lankan sovereignty to be infringed and an international inquiry being imposed upon Sri Lanka.  The Indian government too does not appear to be keen on imposing an international inquiry on Sri Lanka and is seeking other forms of accommodation with the government. On the other hand, there are Western countries such as the UK which have stated that they will re-visit all options unless the Sri Lankan government comes up with a satisfactory response to the questions opened by the Channel 4 video in the aftermath of the UN Expert Panel report.  It is still possible for the government to develop an internal mechanism with credibility, if it ensures there is multi-partisan political backing for it, including from Tamil political parties.


                           The forthcoming local government elections on July 23 will be a critically important testing time for the government.  When the date for local government elections came earlier this year in March, the government postponed several of them especially those in the urban areas such as Colombo, Kandy and Matara. At that time there were anxieties about erosion in the government’s support base.   The inability of the government to even fulfill its promises of a salary increase in the face of an inflationary rise in the cost of living was believed to have shaken the confidence of the people in the government.  These doubts motivated the government to take maximum precautions to ensure victory with measures that included postponing elections in the urban areas most affected by cost of living issues.

Another set of elections where elections got postponed were in the north of the country.  Due to a slight inaccuracy in the translation of the name of the ruling alliance into the Tamil language, most of its candidate lists were rejected by the Election Commissioner.  The postponement of the local government elections has enabled the government to deal with this situation.  However, the challenge to the government still remains.  While the government virtually swept the board in electorates where the Sinhalese majority was dominant at the March elections, it failed to win in the north of the country where the Tamil minority is dominant.   The Tamil National Alliance, which has traditionally stood for the political rights of the Tamil people in relation to the devolution of power was the most successful.

At the forthcoming elections the government will face a major challenge to win the elections in the urban areas, whether in the north or south of the country due to its continuing inability to deliver an economic peace dividend to the middle and working classes. The stark reality is that the high rates of economic growth produced by the Central Bank have failed to cushion the adverse impact that inflation has had on the urban people.  The recent labour agitation that has been taking different forms, such as the protests by the workers of the Free Trade Zone and the protracted strike by university teachers is an indicator of urban discontent that the government will be hard put to overcome. 


The north of the country poses an especially complex challenge for the government to obtain electoral success.  The last phase of the war was fought almost entirely in the north and was a no-holds barred effort that led to the massive destruction of economic and social infrastructure and to consequent loss of life.  The report submitted by the Expert Panel appointed by the UN Secretary General and the UK-based Channel 4 video have both especially highlighted the human costs of the war.  Although the government has made some effort to address the problems in the north they have fallen well short of meeting the expectations of the people living there.

When the war ended there was a general expectation in the north, as there was in the south of the country, that there would be a peace dividend in the form of a comprehensive resettlement and reconstruction effort.  The pathetic conditions under which the war-affected people continue to live would be a scandal to those who have been personally witness to this reality.  However, the government has been insisting that its programmes, such as Northern Spring are much appreciated by the people.  The forthcoming elections in the north would offer the government an opportunity to disprove its critics, and demonstrate that it enjoys substantial popular support from the people of the north. 

Indeed, a convincing victory at the local government elections especially in the north can assist the government to strengthen its case that the allegations contained in the UN panel report and the Channel 4 video are exaggerated.  One element of the government strategy has to engage in infrastructure development that is visible to all people, even if it does not immediately provide them with livelihood opportunities.  The opening of the communication tower in Kokavil was described by the government as providing for job opportunities and economic development in the near future.  On the other hand, economic and infrastructure development are not the only requirements when it comes to winning the political allegiance of the people.  There are also issues of governance that will weigh heavily in the voting decisions of the northern electorate.


The physical attack of those attending a TNA election meeting in Jaffna a fortnight ago by army personnel in uniform needs to be viewed in the context of the forthcoming local government elections.  Government spokespersons have argued that the meeting was unauthorized apparently to justify the storming of the meeting.  On the other hand, the TNA has pointed out that it was not a public meeting and hence did not require the approval of the Police.  The use of force against citizens engaging in lawful political activity is unacceptable.  It violates the Sri Lankan constitution and contradicts the claims of the government that it is doing its best for the people of the North without any discrimination. It is also detrimental to restoring normalcy in the North, whose people would wish for peace and reconciliation, as would right-thinking people anywhere, based on a mutual recognition of human dignity and equal human rights.  

Recently on a visit to the north, people there including schoolteachers reported that they believed that any meeting, including a school meeting, had to be authorized by the military.  They said that they also feel obliged to invite military officers to their functions for fear of offending the military authorities, as occurred in the case of the TNA meeting, which included several Parliamentarians.  At the same time the government affirms that it has restored normalcy and peace throughout the country. A strong military presence in the north following the war may be deemed to be a necessary security precaution by those who view national security through traditional modes of thinking.   However, the intervention of the armed force in daily civil life cannot foster reconciliation or give a sense of security to the people. 

Indeed, the threat of interference in civic meetings will tend to increase fear and sense of alienation, hindering the government’s vision of a reunited and peaceful land. This is not the way to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people for reconciliation with the rest of the people. This incident in which elected representatives of the Tamil people were not permitted to conduct a peaceful private political meeting reinforces the political marginalization of the country’s minority groups and erodes their democratic rights, a practice that has had dangerous consequences in the past. Electoral success in the north would require the government to provide the people of the north with the same political rights available in the rest of the country.  It is such uniformity of political rights without discrimination that can generate the electoral support that the government is looking to confound its critics.