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World Agenda: ‘Confessions’ by Sri Lankan doctors raise doubts over lasting peace – Times Online

[Times Online UK, Friday, 10 July 2009 07:02 No Comment]

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Five Sri Lankan doctors who witnessed the bloody climax of the country’s civil war in May and made claims of mass civilian deaths as a result of government shelling of Tamil Tiger positions recanted much of their testimony this week.

Their U-turn raises fresh fears that Sri Lanka, known as a holiday paradise to millions of Western tourists, has quietly become a quasi-Stalinist state.

The doctors, who appeared physically well but extremely nervous at a press conference on Wednesday, claimed that they had deliberately overestimated the civilian casualties suffered as the war reached its bloody endgame.

The Tigers had forced them to lie, they said as government officials looked on from the sidelines, adding that only up to 750 civilians were killed between January and mid-May in the final battles of the war.

The five men were taken back to prison, where they have been held for the past two months for allegedly spreading Tiger propaganda. The doctors added that they now hoped they would be released.

The number was far below the 7,000 fatalities estimated by the United Nations. An investigation by The Times uncovered evidence that more than 20,000 civilians were killed, mostly by the Army, which has claimed, incredibly, that it did not harm a single civilian.

As occupants of the tragically misnamed “no-fire zone” — a strip of coconut grove and beach in the northeast which was the last redoubt of the Tigers and where government guns directed a vast amount of ordinance — the doctors would have come under the control of the rebels.

It would be surprising if the Tigers, who were no slouches when it came to the manipulation of the media, had not attempted to modify the doctors’ testimonies.

The tragic thing is that having been picked up by the Sri Lankan Army and kept in custody for the past two months, the doctors find themselves in a terrible mirror image of their previous predicament — under pressure from the Government to deliver a story that fits its own agenda.

The doctors now deny former testimony — such as the government shelling of a hospital in the conflict zone on February 2 — for which there are also witnesses from the UN and the Red Cross. “I have serious doubts over the latest statements,” one senior Sri Lankan journalist said. “What we’re seeing is that the LTTE (the Tigers) and the Government are in some respects mirror images of each other.”

There is little to surprise those familiar with Sri Lankan politics. Dissent is not tolerated by President Rajapaksa, who enjoys a massive amount of support from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.

Journalists who have disagreed with his policies have regularly been abducted or killed. “The discourse used by the Government is of traitors and patriots,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuthu, of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Sri Lankan analyst who himself has received threats. “There is no indication yet that this mode of thinking is slipping.”

Sam Zarifi, the Asia-pacific director for Amnesty International, said that the statements from the doctors were “expected and predicted”.

“There are very significant grounds to question whether these statements were voluntary, and they raise serious concerns whether the doctors were subjected to ill-treatment during weeks of detention,” he said. “From the time the doctors were detained, the fear was that they would be used exactly this way.”

The methods used by the President’s regime have raised doubts over the sincerity of his pledge to forge a lasting peace by reaching out to Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils.

A slew of poisonous proposals from prominent Sinhalese figures — such as the suggestion that Tamil villages could be renamed after Sinhalese generals — have done little to soothe those fears.

Suggestions that the internment camps set up in recent months to house an estimated 300,000 displaced Tamils will be made permanent have also stoked concerns. The International Committee of the Red Cross revealed today that it had been ordered to scale down its operations in Sri Lanka — more worrying news for those who feel that there should be more, not less, neutral witnesses to conditions inside the country.

Provincial elections due to be held in Tamil areas in the north early next month may give an indication of the community’s mood. It is not guaranteed, however, that these will be free and fair.

[Full Coverage]

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