The Fog of War


It rained this morning in Colombo. But the rain didn’t wash away fears that civil war is closer today than it has been in the past. I get the sense that the people in power especially military power are hungry for war. A war from which no winners will emerge and which will take attention away from many of the domestic concerns dogging the Sri Lankan Government.

Last Thursday morning, a claymore mine was detonated at near a crowded civilian bus, killing 64 and injuring over 80 people. The Sri Lankan Government blamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for the attack. But the Tigers have strongly denied the act, claiming elements of the Sri Lankan military carried it out as a ‘propaganda tactic.’ The LTTE Peace Secretariat called it ‘a reprehensible act of murder with the sole aim of blaming the LTTE.’

This attack has resulted in the largest civilian death toll since the ceasefire agreement between the Government and the LTTE came into effect in early 2002. Peace negotiations also commenced then, but after about 12 months of optimism and hope, the relationship between the LTTE and the Government began to break down, and since December last year, it has rapidly deteriorated.

LTTE fighters in Sri Lanka

The attack on the civilian bus happened within 24 hours of the LTTE delegation returning from failed peace talks in Oslo. A few hours later, the Sri Lankan Air Force started bombing Tamil Tiger-controlled areas, presumably in retaliation.

During the past few weeks, many civilians have been killed. One of the most brutal murders was that of a family of four during the night of Thursday 8 June, in a town called Vankalai in Mannar district. Veteran journalist DBS Jeyaraj describes the scene:

The father, daughter and son were hanging dead in one room while the mother was dead on the floor in another room. The intestines of the seven year-old boy are seen protruding. The vaginal area of the 27 year-old mother and nine year-old daughter were extremely bloody. It appears that the killers have sadistically tortured their victims, including the 38 year-old father.

The Government blamed the LTTE for the murders, claiming the family had an association with the security forces and had therefore been executed by the Tigers.

Jeyaraj’s comprehensive article about the murders and the town’s back-story is worth reading. He paints a picture of a gradual increase in tensions between the security forces and the LTTE since late last year. On 1 June, a claymore mine planted near the border of the town killed one soldier and injured two. A few days later, another soldier was killed. Jeyaraj writes that increasing conflict with the LTTE resulted in the security forces taking revenge on civilians in the area.

Whether this resulted in soldiers, or their proxies, brutally killing a family would need to be determined by independent investigators and an impartial justice system. However, Jeyaraj says most of the town suspects military involvement in the murder and claims there are witnesses who can identify the perpetrators. He also casts doubt on the likelihood of an independent investigation.

Those who are convinced by the version of events given by the Sri Lankan Government will immediately point out that Jeyaraj is a Tamil and would therefore want to blame the security forces instead of the LTTE for the murders.

But it is important to at least consider alternative versions of what happened. That is, we should not assume the Government is always telling the truth and that the LTTE is simply a terrorist organisation led by a megalomaniac despot.

The recent listing of the LTTE as a terrorist group by Canada and the European Union would have had an impact on the rebel group, which does seek international credibility as a liberation organisation. In this context, it is important to ask why the Tigers would conduct high-profile civilian murders.

An LTTE fighter

It should be remembered that the military campaigns waged by both sides have been dirty and ugly. It is highly likely that the Sri Lankan military is making use of anti-LTTE Tamil paramilitaries to conduct offensives. And it is also likely the LTTE has a network of proxies who gather information and carry out operations.

Unfortunately, there are few spaces in Sri Lanka to discuss and debate such alternative narratives, and voices like Jeyaraj’s are rare. Sri Lanka has a track record of human rights investigators and journalists being killed for doing their job. Attempting to conduct an in-depth independent investigation into these events will be extremely dangerous.

The phrase ‘fog of war’ which was popularised by Errol Morris’s documentary about Robert S McNamara, United States Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, refers to the cloud of uncertainty that descends over a battlefield once fighting begins.

Although war has not yet officially been declared in Sri Lanka, the fog is already heavy. Because of the long history of brutality by both sides in this conflict, neither side’s claims can be taken at face value.

But the fog also obscures the ordinary people the civilians like the murdered family of four and the passengers on the ill-fated bus. War may not have officially resumed in Sri Lanka, but innocent people are already being killed and disappeared.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.