[Viewpoint] Korea should shun Sri LankaIn the final months of the decades-long war in Sri Lanka in 2009, tens of thousands of civilians were killed as government forces closed in on the Tamil Tigers. The government’s strategy included repeated shelling of civilians, targeting hospitals and the total exclusion of independent monitors, including international aid agencies and foreign journalists.
Next week, the Sri Lankan army will hold a conference in Colombo to tout its view of counterinsurgency operations and encourage others to copy its methods. Many countries with professional armies have declined the invitation.
Inexplicably, Korea is expected to attend.
The conference looks good on paper: military officials and conference panelists will “share their knowledge on counterinsurgency and enumerate contributory factors in militarily defeating the [Tamil Tigers].” The participants will discuss operational and tactical issues such as intelligence, field engineering, medical support and operating behind enemy lines.
There are sessions on rehabilitating former combatants and accommodating minorities through political reform. Without a hint of irony, there is even a session on the role of human rights in counterinsurgency operations.
The conference agenda neatly parallels the government’s official version of the war’s final weeks. Government officials describe the final assault on the Tamil Tigers as a “humanitarian rescue operation” and claim that its forces followed a policy of “zero civilian casualties.”
The problem is that this version of events bears little resemblance to reality. Northeastern Sri Lanka in early 2009 was a scene of incredible cruelty and suffering, where more than 300,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were trapped in the rapidly shrinking battlefield.
While the Tigers prevented civilians from fleeing to government-held areas of safety, government forces ruthlessly stuck to their strategy of using indiscriminate firepower, hitting hospitals and killing civilians, including in the government’s declared “no-fire zone.” Both sides prevented adequate humanitarian aid from arriving.
During the final two years of the fighting, the government actively prevented journalists, human rights groups and aid workers from reporting on the situation. But the government has been unable to bury the story.
A report by a panel of experts issued in April by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, says that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the final months of fighting, most from government shelling.
The government knew that it was killing civilians, the report said; it received live pictures of its operations from advanced surveillance drones. A video that the UN concluded was genuine shows government soldiers executing prisoners in cold blood.
The report concluded that both government forces and the Tamil Tigers conducted military operations “with flagrant disregard for the protection, rights, welfare and lives of civilians and failed to respect the norms of international law.” It called on the Sri Lankan government to investigate the allegations and recommended that the UN set up an international investigation.
The government reacted with blanket denials and vicious attacks on Ban, the panel of experts and anybody who has called for investigations. It said the expert report is “illegal .?.?. biased, baseless and unilateral.”
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has repeated claims that, “There was no wrongdoing.” And when a member of parliament suggested investigations, the information minister replied that, “Only a traitor can resort to this type of betrayal.” In a country where government critics have been prosecuted, physically attacked and killed, this was an effective way to shut down public discussion.
What does Sri Lanka want to teach other countries? Sri Lanka is calling for a “re-evaluation of the rules of military engagement” in fighting terrorist groups, presumably to allow governments to ignore long-standing laws of war in counterinsurgency operations. The idea that other armies would attend a conference in Sri Lanka and then emulate the Sri Lankan “model” is a frightening proposition.
There are indeed important lessons to be learned from the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, a cruel and brutal insurgency. But lessons will not be learned as long as the Sri Lankan government distorts the truth and tries to keep its atrocities hidden.
The Sri Lankan conference is little more than a public relations exercise to legitimize unlawful military tactics. No professional, law-abiding military should take part in it. Several countries, such as the U.S, Canada, Australia, Japan and most EU countries, have already said that they won’t attend. Korea should follow suit.
Instead of attending the conference, Korea should support the call by the panel of experts for an international investigation into allegations of laws-of-war violations during Sri Lanka’s tragic conflict.
*The writer is Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
By Brad Adams