In May 2009, Sri Lanka’s civil war came to an end. On 14 March 2012, Channel 4 broadcast Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, a follow-up to an earlier documentary. This focused on the last few months of the armed conflict, when large numbers of civilians were killed or injured.
Both government forces and the fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a hardline separatist group, committed grave atrocities, failing to respect the laws which protect non-combatants. The Channel 4 film included video footage, interviews and documents which added to the already extensive evidence of war crimes.
No-fire zones were shelled, civilians deprived of food and medicine, captives killed. While acknowledging Tiger brutality – including terrorist bombings and use of child soldiers – the focus was mainly on criminal acts by the Sri Lankan authorities. President Mahinda Rajapakse and defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, his brother, were largely responsible for the carnage at the end of the war.
A broader scope might have been preferable, given the government’s tendency to try to make out that any criticism of its decisions is partisan. Though many Tiger leaders are now dead, including the dictatorial commander Velupillai Prabhakaran, their victims’ suffering still deserves recognition.
Nevertheless, the two Channel 4 documentaries have been valuable reminders of the horrific reality behind much modern warfare, even if this is sometimes cloaked by propagandist rhetoric and talk of the “war on terror”. And in Sri Lanka, chances of genuine reconciliation and lasting national unity must be founded on truth, and equality for people of different ethnic backgrounds. This will not be easy to achieve.
(c) Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator on politics, society and religion. An Ekklesia associate, she was born in Sri Lanka.