A set of three photographs splashed recently across the front pages of Indian newspapers recall in chilling detail the horrific side of the ethnic war in Sri Lanka that ended in 2009. They are of Balachandran, the 12-year-old son of slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. The first two photos show the bare-bodied young boy forlornly sitting in a bunker munching on biscuits. In the third, he is lying dead on the ground, with bullet wounds on his chest. The photos, part of footage from a controversial documentary, No Fire Zone: Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields by British filmmaker Callum Macrae, suggest cold-blooded execution.
The Sri Lankan government claims the photographs are “doctored”. But Macrae told Outlook that he and his team have carefully “analysed and authenticated” the footage and are sure that the boy was killed not in a crossfire, as claimed by Colombo, but in cold blood.
Irrespective of whether they are doctored or not, the publication of the photographs has outraged most Indians, particularly those in Tamil Nadu, where there has been traditional support for the ‘Tamil cause’ as espoused by the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. But if the LTTE’s ruthless tactics—leading to the death of many innocent people—had led to its marginalisation in Tamil Nadu politics in the past, the alleged execution of the young boy has successfully brought Tamil politicians of all hues together to rally against Sri Lanka.
“The expose by the British filmmaker triggered the anti-Sri Lankan sentiments in Tamil Nadu,” says Chennai-based political commentator M.R. Venkatesh. The past weeks have witnessed a series of protests against Sri Lankan companies and assets in Tamil Nadu. The rising anger, which even led to attacks on Sri Lankan banks and airlines offices, forced CM J. Jayalalitha to take heed and announce that her state will not host the forthcoming Asian Athletics Meet to keep out participants from Sri Lanka.
Tamil businessmen have close trade links with Sri Lanka. Many admit rising tensions would harm their interests.
To be sure, much of this—the expose by Macrae and the subsequent protests—are being orchestrated to have a strong impact on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC)meet in Geneva in March. The Americans have started circulating a resolution to garner support among the 47 members of the council to force Sri Lanka to take action against those guilty of human rights violations against LTTE personnel and non-combatants in the war-torn north, especially during the ferocious bloodletting in the final stages of the war. “We continue to be deeply concerned by allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights in Sri Lanka. At the end of this conflict, we support a full accounting for all who are engaged in acts of violated international humanitarian law,” says a US official. The Americans and others have been disappointed at the lack of progress made by the Sri Lankan government to address these issues.
The US-based Human Rights Watch has also published a report alleging rape and sexual assault on captured LTTE men and women in Sri Lankan army camps. The voting on the Sri Lanka-centric resolution is scheduled to be taken up on March 22. Attempts are being made by various parties, including Europe-based Tamil diaspora, to drum up support against Sri Lanka.
This has caused some chagrin. “The proposed resolution is uncalled for,” says Sri Lankan high commissioner in Delhi, Prasada Kariyawasam. “The Sri Lankan situation is not a matter for the UNHRC to discuss,” he says. He points out that Sri Lanka has taken steps towards reconciliation among different sections of society. “The wounds of the war will be healed gradually and it cannot be imposed from outside,” Kariyawasam says, adding that “any attempt to force the pace on Sri Lanka will only be counter-productive”.
On its part, Colombo has been consulting “like-minded” countries in the UNHRC to help them understand and appreciate steps it has taken to address the human rights issue. It claims much of the criticism has come from people who have not visited the country and are not aware of the ground reality.
A fair bit of that criticism is being generated from Tamil Nadu. The two main political parties—the opposition DMK and the ruling AIADMK—are in sync with the dominant mood. With elections a year away, no party can go soft on this emotive issue. Tamil MPs have met PM Manmohan Singh to ensure that India, like last year, votes against Sri Lanka to deliver a strong message against its human rights record.
Faced with irate Tamil Nadu MPs in Parliament, foreign minister Salman Khurshid tried to strike a balance between the popular mood and India’s strategic interests in Sri Lanka. “We may have anguish, we may have anger but we should not be saying that Sri Lanka is an enemy country,” Khurshid told members in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday. But the walkout by most members from Tamil Nadu showed they won’t relent on the pressure to take a tougher line against Colombo. Sections in Tamil Nadu even want an economic embargo on Sri Lanka.
But such a possibility also scares the business community in Tamil Nadu, which enjoys close trade links with Sri Lanka and has a substantial share of the $5-billion Indo-Lankan trade pie. “India’s Sri Lankan policy is going to harm Indian interests. Sri Lanka wants close ties with India but we are trying to push it away,” Somi Hazari, former president of the India-asean Chamber of Commerce and Industries, said.
Over the years Tamil Nadu, more than any other state, has benefited the most from close ties between the two countries. The 100-odd weekly flights from Tamil Nadu to the island nation are mostly full as the hour-long journey works in the interest of businessmen in both countries. Most Tamil Nadu businessmen admit that rising bilateral tensions would only harm their interest. “If we stop doing business there, the space will not remain vacant. It will be filled by Chinese and Pakistani businessmen,” says one of them.
But what does all this mean to the Indian vote on Sri Lanka in the coming days?
“I don’t think India will do anything different from what it did last year. We will vote yet again against Sri Lanka,” says former external affairs ministry secretary N. Ravi.
India’s vote last year had naturally caused major disappointment in Colombo, but the two countries have too much at stake and have invested heavily in the relationship. India is aware of the growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, but Sri Lanka too is aware that it cannot antagonise a close and powerful neighbour like India.
Therefore, a possible Indian vote against Sri Lanka in Geneva may be a continuing irritant in the bilateral relationship. But it is going to be one which both countries can live with.