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The Fog of an Uncivil War in Sri Lanka

[NYTimes, Wednesday, 1 February 2012 10:01 No Comment]

President Mahinda Rajapaksa said the Sri Lankan government would not show a report on alleged civil war atrocities to the United Nations Human Rights Council. It has been nearly three years since Sri Lankan government troops crushed the separatist Tamil Tigers in a gory, scorched-earth campaign that brought an end to three decades of civil war. The final battles — with some 300,000 civilians caught in the crossfire — were fought on the northern beaches and in the impoverished hamlets of the island nation.

But the fog of war still has not lifted in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka said Tuesday that it would not be sending a review of alleged war crimes to the United Nations for discussion. There’s no need, a senior government official said, because its international critics in New York won’t be persuaded anyway.

A United Nations report has already called for an international inquiry into likely atrocities. Investigators found credible claims that a lot of hands had a lot of blood on them. The Tigers, after all, pretty much invented suicide bombing and the use of female suicide bombers. And Sri Lankan artillery batteries unleashed hell, even if civilians were in the way.

Here’s one representative sentence from the U.N. findings: “The Government systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines.’’ And this sentence, which found that the Tigers “started point-blank shooting of civilians who attempted to escape the conflict zone.’’

It was that kind of war. More like murder.

In December, after the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission had taken testimonies from hundreds of battlefield witnesses, the government completed its review of the war.

Suresh Premachandran of the Tamil National Alliance, the leading political party of the minority Tamils, told The Associated Press that the government’s submersion of the report was meant to deflect a likely storm of criticism over its end-game prosecution of the war.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry secretary told the Daily News in Colombo that government critics could not be persuaded by any explanation or defense. “We know that we can’t make them happy no matter what we do,’’ said Karunatilaka Amunugama.

In a recent commentary in The New York Times, the journalist Namini Wijedasa said the government report was “a valuable document, but regarding the war’s final weeks, it is largely an apologia for the army.’’

Sri Lanka’s Independence Day falls on Saturday, marking the former colony’s break from Britain in 1948. The timing would seem propitious for a reversal of the government’s stance on its refusal to make a break with its more recent past.

Forwarding its report to the U.N. might also elicit some assistance from Washington if the United States and the European Union place further sanctions on Iran. Sri Lanka gets 93 percent of its oil from Iran.

A senior U.S. Treasury official, Luke Bronin, is scheduled to have talks in Sri Lanka on Thursday. Iranian sanctions will certainly be on the agenda.

“We need an alternative. We’ll tell them to give us an alternative,” President Mahinda Rajapaksa told reporters on Tuesday, noting that in the end, U.S. and E.U. sanctions “are not punishing Iran — they are punishing us, small countries.’’

He was asked if he would ask for a waiver of the sanctions, for a way to escape the Washington-Tehran crossfire.

[Full Coverage]

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