Did Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election Bring Back A Polarizing Wartime Figure?

December 13, 2019 IDN



The Economist proclaimed
recently that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the man who, as secretary of defense,
presided over this horrifying episode (the final phase of Sri Lanka’s
terrorist inspired internal conflict), has just been elected president
of Sri Lanka. To Sinhalese Buddhists, about 70% of the population, he is
a hero. After all, the militia he destroyed was appallingly cruel and
bloodthirsty and had tormented Tamils as much as, if not more than,
other Sri Lankans.

By Dr Palitha Kohona*

It never ceases to amaze how ‘liberal’ the liberal and free press
gets when describing events that it has not witnessed and individuals of
whom it does not approve for reasons that cannot be explained readily
or logically. This approach is not limited to one country or one person.

On November 16, Sri Lanka’s electors (almost 84% of them exercised
their franchise freely, according to all observers. A turnout which is
difficult to obtain in the “mature” democracies) democratically elected
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as president confounding many foreign analysts. His
lead was almost 12 percentage points. His victory was greeted with
widespread and raucous jubilation across the country, with fire crackers
being lit and free milk rice being distributed.

But, disappointingly, no Western media outlet highlighted this clear
victory of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa or his forward looking policy
platform for which the majority voted. The jubilation with which his
election was received was somehow missed in most of the reporting.
Instead a narrative based on allegations and conjecture continues to be
spewed out, conveniently backed by negative western NGOs.

Almost all media outlets in the West continue to brand Rajapaksa as
the “Strong man, the alleged war criminal and human rights violator.”
The minorities apparently live in fear of the incoming administration.

The Economist, which is reputed for its “trustworthy” reporting of
facts for over a century, referring to the end of the terrorist inspired
conflict in May 2009, proclaimed grandly that “the army surrounded
100,000 civilians on a tiny sliver of beach, barely three square
kilometers in size. Mixed in among them were a small number of
separatist guerrillas, the remnants of a once-formidable force that had
been battling for an independent state for the country’s Tamil minority
for 26 years. The insurgents had no compunction about using innocent
villagers as human shields. The army claimed to have more scruples: it
had designated the area a ‘no-fire zone’, where civilians could safely
gather. Nonetheless, it continued to shell the beach mercilessly. The UN
warned that a humanitarian disaster was unfolding and urged the
government to declare a ceasefire, to no avail. In the end, resistance
crumbled and the army took control. But the beach was left piled with
bodies, with more floating in the adjacent lagoon. The number of
civilians who died in the final phase of the war, the UN concluded years
later after a long investigation, was probably in the “tens of

Obviously, facts were not allowed to interfere with this grand and
heart wrenching narrative. The so called spit of land, to which the LTTE
had forced the civilians to flee, was about 26 square kilometers in
extent. The LTTE had forced the civilians to flee to this area to be
used as a human shield. Obviously, it had been planned with devilish
cunning that this civilian shield would force the government forces to
slow down their advance or, better still, goaded the international
community to intervene.

The bonus was that dead civilians would later provide the convenient
grounds for alleging that war crimes had been committed, quite ignoring
that the civilians had been forced in to that situation by the LTTE
itself. The number of civilians who were later to cross the lagoon and
escape to the government side was around 297,000 – not 100,000. It was
not a handful of fighters who held the “eight mile stretch of land” but
over 12,000, who later surrendered to the security forces.

To this day, no one has located, despite desperate efforts of
international agencies, the graves of the tens of thousands of bodies
that were apparently piled up on the beach or floating in the lagoon. No
burial pits have been found and the burials would have required a large
force of grave diggers who were not available as most able bodied
Tamils were manning the LTTE defenses, either voluntarily or under

The Reuters correspondent, Bryson from the U.S., who was embedded
with the 58th Division, apparently missed the thousands of dead bodies
as his reports did not mention them. But he did notice the dozens of
injured soldiers who had stopped LTTE bullets as they were using only
hand held weapons. The Al Jazeera TV crew which filmed the exodus of
civilians from the beach, recorded footage of soldiers dropping their
guns to help civilians to cross the lagoon but no dead bodies. Surely
fact does not tally with the tale of woe described by the Economist. A
vast armory of heavy and light weapons were recovered by the security

Rt. Hon. the Lord Naseby’s revelations in the House of Lords on
February 5, 2019, based on the reports of  the UK Military Attaché in
Colombo, Antony Gash, are available in the public domain. Gash had
recorded in a dispatch dated February 16, 2009 concerning 400 IDPs being
transferred from the fighting area to Trincomalee, “The operation was
efficient and effective, but most importantly was carried out with
compassion, respect and concern. I am entirely certain that this was
genuine — my presence was not planned and was based on a sudden

Lord Naseby goes on to say, “There are many more references in the
dispatches to the fact that it was never a policy of the Sri Lankan
Government to kill civilians.”

He adds, “I have one other reference that I think is useful. It comes
from the University Teachers for Human Rights, which is essentially a
Tamil organization. It says: “From what has happened we cannot say that
the purpose of bombing or shelling by the government forces was to kill
civilians … ground troops took care not to harm civilians”.

He quotes another passage, “Soldiers who entered the No Fire Zone on
19th April 2009 and again on the 9th and 15th May acted with
considerable credit when they reached … civilians. They took risks to
protect civilians and helped … the elderly who could not walk. Those who
escaped have readily acknowledged this”.

Lord Naseby estimated that the maximum number of civilians killed was
probably around 6000. Not tens of thousands as proclaimed by the

There has been no military conflict in history where no civilians
have suffered. This number killed in the last days of the Sri Lankan
conflict may have included combatants fighting  in civvies. The figure
quoted by Lord Naseby broadly confirms the internal figure compiled by
the UN office in Colombo and the census figure compiled later. But what
is important is Lord Naseby’s conclusion that civilians were not the
target of the military operation.

Oh shucks. Why let published facts get in the way of a heart
wrenching story if it serves to vilify someone who has been slated to be

Over 55% of the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the overwhelming
preponderance of Muslims live in and among the majority Sinhala
population. Surprisingly, no one seems to have noticed anyone in these
communities living in fear as claimed by the Economist or making any
effort, with bag and baggage, to move to the safety of the North or the

Of course, some in these communities, remembering the disturbances in
Kandy during the last regime and the those in Aluthgama during the
previous regime, may express reservations that please the ears of
foreign journalists to juice up their stories. But by and large, the
children of the minority communities go to school every day as before,
their businesses continue to flourish and their temples and mosques
remain crowded.

General Sarath Fonseka (now Field Marshal) who commanded the army
during the final phase of the conflict and contested the country’s
presidency in 2010, in spite of being routed in the South, comfortably
won all the Tamil-speaking majority electoral districts in the North and
the East. Obviously, the electorate did not consider him, the commander
of the Army, to be a killer of Tamil civilians.

*The writer is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, and former Foreign Secretary.

Source: South Asia Journal
Click to read article at Source Did Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election Bring Back A Polarizing Wartime Figure?

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