It’s now well over a week since the BBC’s Channel 4 broadcast the chilling documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. The documentary returns to the final stages of a war which ended over two years ago on a narrow sand spit between ocean and lagoon at the very edges of the Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka.
On this rapidly shrinking patch of ground, fighters of the separatist LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, accompanied both by their last ditch supporters and the human shields they had terrorised into compliance, were relentlessly pounded and shelled into surrender by a Sri Lankan army that, supplied with weapons from China and Israel, had successfully adopted the tactics of guerrilla warfare while at the same time skilfully deploying the rhetoric of the West’s global war on terror.
The BBC documentary draws on eyewitness accounts of survivors and witnesses, on footage filmed within the civilian camps and hospitals in official no-fire zones, and finally and most graphically, on the trophy photographs and celebratory mobile phone videos of the victors. These show heaped bodies of civilian dead, and executions of presumed LTTE soldiers at close range. This footage is similar to the widely circulated execution video, authenticated by UN experts, that emerged over a year ago.
Other images are even more disturbing. In one a naked man is being tortured, tied to the trunk of a coconut tree. His eyes bulge, unseeing; his teeth are bared in agony, a brilliant white gash against his dark brown, sweat-drenched skin. Later, the same man’s head appears in close up, blood-spattered and bruised, his lips blue; obviously dead. Another mobile video shows a soldier being encouraged to shoot prisoners by a voice off-camera. "They’re the property of the state," the voice, probably a commanding officer, impatiently urges. "Show some balls."
Then there are the images of dozens of bodies of naked young women, bloodied and bruised around their thighs, being thrown onto the back of a truck. Some may be soldiers. At least one is identifiable as the young woman who announced the news on the LTTE’s TV station. "Still moaning," a man’s voice mocks a corpse in Sinhala, as a young naked female body lands on the heap. A man wearing the blue uniform of the government remarks as he flings another naked body onto the truck, "If no one was looking, I’d cut her tits off."
The cumulative impact of the images compiled by the winning soldiers is nothing short of horrific. They combine the staged dehumanisation of the Abu Ghraib photographs with the evidence of something more: the type of systematic carnage and sexual violence directed at an imagined ethnic enemy that first became familiar during the Bosnian war. These images don’t exist in isolation, but work hand in hand with a program of atrocity.
The documentary indicates, for instance, that the shelling by government forces of hospitals where wounded civilians were treated was not a coincidence. The attacks invariably followed visits by Red Cross officials who, in keeping with their charter to protect non-combatants, would provide government officials with GPS coordinates for the hospitals they visited. In order to prevent repeated shelling of their hospitals, doctors on the ground eventually requested that the ICRC did not provide these coordinates, because they had exactly the opposite effect to what was intended — they turned hospitals into military targets.
Coinciding with the BBC’s broadcast of The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, the ABC’s 7.30 also aired a brief extract of the same torture video, followed by an interview with a spokesperson of the Sri Lankan government who dismissed its authenticity. (This is the same official who, on a previous occasion, notoriously explained that the barbed wire surrounding the camps for displaced people was intended to provide them with ocean views.)
Neither the BBC nor the ABC footage has, as far as I can tell, yet drawn comment from the Australian government.
The British Foreign Secretary and other international figures have expressed shock at the evidence presented in the documentary, joining human rights organisations in the call for an official investigation. Why the silence of the Australian government?
The issue is not an abstract matter of human rights, but directly relates to Australia’s domestic and foreign policy. Sri Lankans fleeing the end of this war made up the second largest group of boat arrivals — after those fleeing the Afghanistan war — seeking asylum in Australia in 2009-10.
Writing before the release of the BBC video, but following the release of a UN Report that found "credible allegations of war crimes" by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, Fairfax journalist Cynthia Banham noted earlier this month that Foreign Minister Rudd "has not uttered a word about the UN report since its release. One wonders if the sole interest of the Rudd and now Gillard governments in Sri Lanka has been asylum seekers. Basically, we do not want them".
While Rudd tirelessly advocated for intervention in Libya, the violence directed against civilians in Sri Lanka both before and after the end of the war has barely rated an official mention, despite Sri Lanka’s proximity to Australia, its strategic Indian location and shared historical ties to the Commonwealth.
As I write this column, Australians everywhere are discussing the impact of the compelling SBS documentary, Go Back To Where You Came From. From past experience I expect that this article I write will elicit, along with denunciations from LTTE supporters and vituperative attacks from chauvinist Sinhala supporters of the state, responses similar to those of Raquel in the first two episodes of the series: I’m an Australian. It’s not my problem.
Raquel’s defiant avowal of her own racism, her utter failure of empathy in the face of the human suffering she witnesses during a raid on asylum seekers in Malaysia and in a refugee camp in Kenya — where she whinges about muddying her white shoes — have provoked scores of disgusted responses on the SBS website. Yet how much does Raquel, in her sullen insularity, reflect Australians back to ourselves? The indifference of the Australian government to these images from the Sri Lankan killing grounds shames us all.
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