For eight years now, western nations and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva have slammed the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) and the former Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa for brutal human rights violations during Sri Lanka’s three-decade long civil war against the separatist terror group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Of special focus for the West has been the last phase of the war that took place around the Nanthikadal lagoon in North Eastern Sri Lanka.
Repeated resolutions have been introduced against the past and present governments in Colombo for failing to acknowledge that their armed forces killed 40,000 civilians caught in the cross-fire and continued with a three-pronged assault on the last of the fleeing Tiger leadership, instead of calling a ceasefire.
Colombo, the SLAF and various independent war monitors present on the ground during that last phase of war, have repeatedly argued that the figures didn’t match up. It has been pointed out in vain that the small country’s administration and the SLAF have records of all births and deaths, that Colombo has always had administrative control even over Tiger-held areas in the main battlegrounds of North and East Sri Lanka, that the United Nations itself had initially estimated around 7000 deaths and inexplicably upped that figure in later months – and finally, that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – the only outside agency present in the war zone during the last phase – itself had used various statistical evidence and arrived at the conclusion that a total of 7000 people lost their lives.
But all logic fell on deaf ears. A UN body commissioned for the task came out with the so-called Darusman Report claiming the inflated figure of 40,000 as the last word on the matter and all western governments accepted it unquestioningly.
Last week, there was a sensational presentation in the House of Lords in London. Lord Naseby, a UK parliamentarian who heads a British parliamentarian group supportive of Sri Lanka presented damning evidence to his government. UK governments are used to Lord Naseby, the “Old Sri Lanka Hand” springing frequently to the defence of the country he has been involved with for 45 years. But this was a presentation that made them sit up and – cringe. And WION’s follow-up interview with Lord Naseby, conducted by correspondent Mandy Clark in London just days after his presentation, is currently making waves in Sri Lanka with leading Colombo commentators calling the WION report a ‘media coup of sorts’.
Lord Naseby told WION’s Mandy Clark how he went about the onerous task of accessing confidential reports compiled by none other than London’s own Defence Attache present in Sri Lanka during the infamous last phase of war in 2009. And came up with some startling discoveries.
“I’ve tracked the war carefully because I just couldn’t believe these official figures – they didn’t stack up to the information I was getting,” Lord Naseby told WION. “So I then invoked our freedom of information inquiry”. (Equivalent to India’s RTI).
“I asked for the dispatches sent by our Defence Attache to our foreign office during the last days of the war. The application was refused twice by our foreign office. I then applied directly to the information commissioner – which is my right – and got 26 pages of redacted dispatches. Missing were the last six weeks of them. So I appealed again. And lo and behold, another 12 arrived. I went through them very carefully.
And in there, there was more than enough evidence that no one in the Sri Lankan government had said anything about killing any civilians at all. That was not the objective of the exercise. And from our Defence attache’s dispatches, I thus gleaned that about 7000 were probably killed. And even (the Attache) says that about a quarter of those killed were possibly Tamil Tigers (LTTE), because they’d thrown away their uniforms.”
Classified documents were not Lord Naseby’s only source. He asked university experts who are “traditionally left-wing.” They, too, told him that 7000 casualties was their estimate. There was other evidence too, like what US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert Blake, had named a tentative casualty figure: about 5000, a few days before the end of the war.
The reasons for western nations targeting Sri Lankan governments and its armed forces and threatening them with dire – usually economic – consequences – are not hard to understand. Sri Lanka is reeling under external debt and thus has an arm that is particularly easy to twist at this time. About 9,50,000 Sri Lankan Tamils fled their country to settle overseas during the 30 years of war. Many rose to positions powerful enough to dictate to local members of parliament in their overseas constituencies. Add to that the huge attractiveness of the island-nation of Sri Lanka, its bounty of natural resources and its highly strategic location at the crossroads of oil shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean.
The LTTE were the inventors of the fidayeen attack – the suicide bomb – and of the horrendous practice of forcibly recruiting child soldiers. And yet, the UK and EU countries gave shelter to many LTTE cadres and some LTTE top brass who fled the last stage of war. The Tamil Tigers are proscribed by most countries including the UK, the US, and the EU. And yet, the UK allows Tamils to celebrate LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday and hoist the flag of the banned organization in public every year.
Lord Naseby says that he keeps telling the Metropolitan Police of London that it is wrong to allow such demonstrations. But that the police claim that the demonstrators cleverly change tiny details on the flag each year, in order to escape the ban on the original design.
The MP, who has lived and worked in India for many years before he was transferred to Sri Lanka, also reminds Indian readers and viewers of WION that is was the LTTE who killed former PM Rajiv Gandhi. But while he has appealed to the UK government to amend the erroneous casualty count from 40000 down to 7000, he is all for an investigation into some controversial deaths during the last phase of war, such as the killing of three top Tigers despite their attempt to surrender carrying a white flag.
“Of course, those really guilty of war crimes must be investigated. But to decry the entire leadership of Sri Lanka as war criminals – it’s not done,” Lord Naseby told WION.
The British parliamentarian also acknowledges that Sri Lanka’s current government under President Maithripala Sirisena is making sincere attempts to resettle and address the concerns of the Tamils of the North and East of Sri Lanka, whose lives were shattered by the war. But Lord Naseby is keen that the world finally sees the Tamil Tigers in the right perspective: as a proscribed organization that systematically killed the most influential and educated Tamil leaders to ensure the solitary supremacy of its own tyrannical chief: Velupillai Prabhakaran.
(With inputs from Mandy Clark, London)