Recently released photographs of Balachandran Prabhakaran – the son of deceased LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran – before his death have raised questions about the Sri Lankan government’s role in his execution and brought to attention the nature of wartime atrocities during its war against the LTTE. The images, which are part of Channel 4’s new documentary No Fire Zone, challenge the Sri Lankan government’s claim that Balachandran, 12 years old at the time, died from being caught in crossfire. The photographs, taken in May 2009 during the final stages of operations against the LTTE, provide clear evidence that Balachandran did not die accidentally, and have sparked discussions in the international community. Given that the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is expected to pass a new resolution regarding the human rights situation in Sri Lanka at the end of its ongoing session (25 February to 22 March 2013), the photographs are particularly timely.
On 18 February 2013, following the release of Balachandran’s photographs, The Independent published a report showing a picture of him sitting in a bunker, slightly anxious, and a subsequent picture of his dead body lying on the ground. Almost a year ago, the London-based newspaper had also published a report with a picture of Balachandran after being shot. At the time, a video and some pictures showing the aftermath of the tragedy had been released. The new images, in contrast, show Balachandran unharmed and eating a snack, indicating that he had been captured and subsequently killed.
A forensic pathologist who analysed the pictures released last year assessed that Balachandran was shot from a very close range. Now, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) is saying that the analysis of the metadata from the new photographs prove that the pictures from before and after the tragedy, taken a few hours apart, are from the same camera.
Hundreds of newspaper reports have appeared since the release of the new photographs. But while the story has received a lot of attention in India, especially in Tamil Nadu, there has been little coverage in the Sri Lankan media. On 21 February, The Hindu reported that the “Sri Lankan media largely ignored the sensation created in India and elsewhere in the world”.
Gossip9.com, a popular website managed from Colombo, was an exception in its coverage of the story. But in a few days time, the site became inaccessible and the owners issued a statement saying that the website had been shut down, even after changing the URL several times. Accepting the government’s ban, the site-owners also closed their Facebook page and SMS services.
The Sri Lankan government did not stop there. On the first day of the ongoing UN Human Rights Council session, Ravinatha Aryasinha, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN filed a letter of protest against the screening of No Fire Zone in the Council’s premises in Geneva. Human Rights Watch intends to show the film today – 1 March – on the sidelines of the Council’s meeting. The reason behind the Sri Lankan government’s protest is clear: the Balachandran photographs are part of the documentary. According to The Associated Press, the 90-minute documentary “alleges government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels engaged in war crimes during the final stages of the conflict in 2009”. This unprecedented call by the Sri Lankan government for censorship within the Council’s premises reveals its authoritarian mindset.
In March of last year, the Human Rights Council had passed a modest resolution calling for democratic reforms – envisaged by the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, LLRC – and accountability for actions during the last phase of the Sri Lankan government’s war against the LTTE. The government opposed the resolution and continued to ignore it throughout the year.
The government also rejected the LLRC’s recommendations for demilitarisation, separation of the police from the defence ministry, creation of a special mechanism for investigating disappearances, and a declaration of a day for remembrance. Instead of establishing a credible and independent inquiry mechanism as envisaged by the Council’s resolution, the Sri Lankan government appointed a military board of inquiry to look into the alleged human rights violations by the security forces. In its first report, the board not only absolved the military of any wrongdoing, but also rejected the applicability of International Human Rights Law in regards to the war against the LTTE.
The current government’s apathy towards the Council’s resolution was accompanied by the politically motivated impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake last year and her dismissal earlier this year. The impeachment has been a major turning point in the sense that it showed the Rajapaksa regime’s apathetic attitude towards international concerns on re-establishing democratic governance in Sri Lanka.
A follow-up resolution, sponsored by the US, will be voted on towards the end of the current UNHRC session. The balance within the 47-member UN Council is clearly favourable towards a follow-up resolution and it is probable that it will be passed with an improved majority. Weeks before the Balachandran photographs were released, the US representatives to the Council were already confident in increased support for their resolution, which was put together long before the recent controversy. The issue of human rights in Sri Lanka has broken the block-voting pattern in the Council. Previously, there was only one block that supported the Sri Lankan government – the group of Islamic countries. But recent anti-Muslim agitations in Sri Lanka and attacks on Islamic places of worship may have caused many of these countries to reassess their stances.
The Sri Lankan government’s position regarding Council’s interventions has been two-fold: First of all, accountability in the last phase of the war is an internal matter and any outside interference on this matter is a violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Secondly, Sri Lanka is rebuilding itself after a 30-year-long devastating war caused by LTTE ‘terrorism’; therefore, it needs more time for proper accountability measures. But in 2012, the majority of countries in the Council did not accept these arguments.
The biggest blow for the Sri Lankan government has been losing India’s support. Last year, India voted in favour of the US sponsored resolution that criticised the Sri Lankan government. India’s vote is crucial as it carries considerable weight among the Council members. In May 2009, one week after the war came to an end, India’s support for Sri Lanka was critical in overturning the EU sponsored resolution, calling for transparency and accountability, in favour of the Sri Lankan government sponsored counter-resolution.
The Sri Lankan government’s resolution from 2009 had declared that the president “does not regard a military solution as a final solution”, in addition to “his commitment to a political solution with implementation of the thirteenth amendment to bring about lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka”. The resolution further talked about “acknowledging the continued engagement of the Government of Sri Lanka in regularly and transparently briefing and updating the Council on the human rights situation on the ground and the measures taken in that regard”.
Dayan Jayatilleka, then Sri Lankan Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN, had welcomed the vote in favour of the Sri Lankan government sponsored resolution and told the Council that it was “not a blank check”. The government, however, took the support it received for granted and did not initiate any process for reconciliation and accountability. To this day, the government has not been able to formulate a consistent policy to address these concerns.
It seems that the Sri Lankan government believes that its domestic policy approach, which works on principles of political privilege coupled with intimidation, might also work at the international level. After its 2012 defeat at the UNHRC, the government has opened diplomatic missions in a number of developing countries and invited various heads of states for official visits. Meanwhile, the government continues to use the ‘China card’ to intimidate its longstanding partners in economic development. China has become the biggest donor and a source of political backing for the Sri Lankan government although, currently, only a tiny fraction of its exports go to China. On economic matters, it is the West and India that have a greater leverage on Sri Lanka. But with the support of China and Russia, the government has been hoping to get decisions in its favour in Geneva.
There is, however, one more factor to consider in this scenario. The Rajapaksa government enjoys the support of the Sinhalese population when it comes to withstanding war-related international pressure. But when Gossip9 posted the photo feature of Balachandran’s death, around 30 percent of the comments were against the cold-blooded killing of the young boy. Usually, comments on war-related stories are anti-LTTE and full of praise for military action. The innocence of the young boy seems to have made the difference.
The influence of Balachadran’s photographs will be much stronger in India, Sri Lanka and among the Tamil Diaspora, than in Geneva. The response to the pictures from Tamil politician Douglas Devananda from the current Sri Lankan government is noteworthy. Unlike the government’s position that the photos are “morphed and diabolical”, Devananda remarked that, “It was unfortunate. We will inquire into it. The truth would emerge only after an inquiry. Nothing more could be said now”.
Passing a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council is important for making the current Sri Lankan government accountable. But international efforts need to be complemented by a grassroots understanding of the situation and local campaigns. Otherwise, the international pressures will merely remain as resolutions. Perhaps, this is where the story of Balchandran Prabhakaran can make its impact.
~ Sunanda Deshapriya is a defender of human rights, campaigner for press freedom and a journalist from Sri Lanka.