COLOMBO // Seven months after Sri Lanka ended nearly 40 years of bloody insurgency on the island, allegations of war crimes continue to haunt President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is seeking re-election next month. Last week, the UN special rapporteur for extra-judicial killings and arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, urged the government to clarify allegations that Tamil rebels and some leaders had been shot down while trying to surrender and carrying white flags.
The allegation was made by the former army commander, Gen Sarath Fonseka, who is contesting the January 26 presidential election against Mr Rajapaksa. In an interview with the Sunday Leader newspaper on December 13, Gen Fonseka was quoted as saying that the defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is also the president's brother, had ordered field commanders to kill senior rebel commanders including those who wished to surrender.
Among those who had tried to surrender at the last stage of the conflict was the head of the Tamil rebel's political wing, B Nadesan and the head of its peace secretariat, S Pulithevan, the report said. The government and the defence secretary vehemently denied the charge, saying there was no such surrender offer and accused Mr Fonseka of falsely discrediting the government. Gen Fonseka was the army commander who led the final assault against Tamil rebels until they were defeated in May 2009. Soon after that he was appointed to a new position of chief of defence staff but fell out with the president over differences relating to the war. He quit his post and became the presidential candidate of the main opposition parties in Sri Lanka.
"This [war crimes allegations] is not going to go away," said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council and a political commentator for the English language Daily Island newspaper. "We need to face up to it with a credible local investigation under a process that is acceptable and transparent," he said. DS Wijesinghe, chairperson of a committee appointed by the president to examine an earlier report by the US state department on alleged war crimes, said Gen Fonseka's claim of a Tamil rebel surrender is also contained in the state department report.
"That's part of the 300 incidents cited in the report," he said. The 68-page document presented to the US Congress in mid-October contains details of alleged "atrocities" by both the military and the guerrillas during the final stages of the war in May. The state department report said the information was based mostly on internal reports to Washington from the US Embassy in Colombo, satellite imagery, international relief organisations and media outlets.
Sri Lanka has been facing bloody conflicts since 1971 when a group of young Marxist revolutionaries tried to overthrow the government. The revolt was quelled within days and its leaders imprisoned. That was followed in 1980 by youngsters from the minority Tamil community taking to arms accusing the government of discriminating against their people. At the same time the Marxist revolutionaries (now represented in parliament as the People's Liberation Front or its Sinhalese acronym JVP) tried to oust the government in a second rebellion but failed, leaving President Rajapaksa and his troops to defeat the Tamil rebels.
But the last few months of the war drew accusations of large-scale civilian casualties and pressure from the international community for a ceasefire by government troops and the rebels. Mr Rajapaksa ignored all these calls and ordered his troops to finish the job. Since then UN, human rights agencies and western countries have been pressurising Sri Lanka to initiate a probe into civilian casualties and that rebel leaders and their families were not allowed to surrender under accepted rules of war.
Gen Fonseka's claim stirred criticism from all quarters that he was trying to discredit his own soldiers. The following week, he told reporters that he had been misquoted. He said he was informed by a journalist of such an order by defence secretary Rajapaksa but had not been told personally. Gen Fonseka had been abroad during the period that this alleged incident happened. However with the UN seeking an inquiry, president Rajapaksa on Monday extended the term of the Wijesinghe committee to April 30, 2010 to enable it to inquire into the latest claim by Gen Fonseka.
"The probe committee is a big bluff," said one Tamil journalist from the northern town of Jaffna where most of the Tamils live. He declined to be named for fear of reprisals. "It's just a mechanism to drag the issue and show the international community that the government is sincere in probing allegations of war crimes. Nothing will come out of it." The senior minister for international trade, Gamini Lakshman Peiris, said that although Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome Convention, which set up the International Criminal Court (ICC), it can still be dragged before the ICC on war crimes charges without its consent.
He told the Sunday Island newspaper on December 20 that the UN Security Council had the right to request the chief prosecuting officer of the ICC to investigate the complaints it had received with a view to prosecution. The political commentator Perera said international human-rights concerns are now pushing themselves into the centre stage of the country's affairs. "They are unlikely to go away, and this government or the one that follows, will have to deal with them by following a policy of openness to dialogue and to fact finding," he added.
The presidential probe committee headed by Mr Wijesinghe, a Sri Lankan senior lawyer like most of his colleagues on the five-member committee, said it had only begun work earlier this month. "The inquiry will be a long drawn-out process. At the moment the military is giving us a layout of the war and the ground scenario between January and May 2009 [when the alleged incidents happened]," he said, adding that the committee has met three or four times in Colombo.
He said the committee has been asked to inquire and report on the 300 incidents contained in the US state department report and make recommendations. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org