Lifting A Veil On The Macabre Final Months Of Sri Lanka’s Civil War

Sri Lanka’s government likes to proclaim that the country has put its bloody civil war behind it. But a visit to the Tamil stronghold reveals open scars everywhere.

A woman displaced in Sri Lanka's civil war in 2008. (trokilinochchi)
A woman displaced in Sri Lanka's civil war in 2008. (trokilinochchi)
Vanessa Dougnac

KILINOCHCHI -- May 18, 2009 was a momentous day in Sri Lanka's civil war, but it did not – as many claim – completely turn the page on the country's drawn-out bloody conflict.

That day, the government's Sinhalese soldiers waved their flag on Mullivaikal beach to hail their victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had fought for three decades to create an independent territory for the Tamil ethic group. The rebel army was decimated. One man turned the victory into his own: President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the three-year military conquest of LITE-controlled territory in northern Sri Lanka.

But what the official story doesn't mention is the Kilinochchi district, the former center of the rebellion, where residents continue to live under strict military control. Nor does it include an honest assessment of the devastation that was rained down on residents in the Tamil territory.

Signs of massive destruction are everywhere in the district's villages: demolished houses, walls riddled with bullets, bombed-out buildings. Two years later, families still live in tents or shelters. "No house was spared," says K.D Saran, the Kilinochchi governor.

The army and government blame the LITE. "Before fleeing, the terrorists destroyed everything," says Ubaya Medawala, the division general and army spokesman. "It was a way to discredit us."

But many in Kilinochchi tell another story. "The army destroyed everything," says one resident named Prashan.

Inside the shelters, families bear the marks of the brutal conflict. Many of the women are widows. Children live with pieces of shrapnel buried in their skin. Many people are disabled or wounded. An old man has lost his mind. A little girl no longer speaks.

"I still have two bullets in my belly," says one wheelchair-bound Tamil man. "My wife and my two sons died while we were running during the bombings."

A woman named Meera, her newborn in tow, traveled in 2009 to Puthukkudiyiruppu, in the Mullaitivu District. "The LTTE fired, but the army fired back at us. The Tigers used us as human shields, but the strategy didn't stop the army," she recalls.

On Feb. 7, Meera crossed the front line with a small group of people. She managed to escape, but many of her companions did not. More than 200,000 civilians went on to join the Tigers. In the camps they dug trenches that for many would later become their graves. "I begged my husband to leave with our kids but he didn't want to," says Anandhi Sasitharan, the wife of Elilan, a LTTE political leader.

The rebels recruited young Tamil. A man named Amirdelingam recalls that he was powerless when the LITE seized his two teenage sons. He will never see them again.

"At the beginning of February, the army said on the radio there was a secure zone for the civilians where there wouldn't be any shooting. They pushed us to go there. But once we arrived, the massacres continued," says Prashan.

Fifty corpses a day

At the time, the international community was aware of what was happening to the civilians. But the United Nations kept the number of casualties secret: thousands died between January and May. It was only this past April that the UN finally published a report detailing the human rights violations committed on both sides.

An employee from the Vavuniya hospital, located in a free zone, testifies to the scale of the bloodshed. "Fifty corpses came in plastic bags every day," he says. Many people accuse the army of using bombs forbidden by international law. "I saw five bodies burnt by a phosphorus bomb," says a nurse, who also accused the military of using banned "fragmentation bombs."

The coastal village of Putumattalan is mentioned in almost every story about the war. A local resident named Thuvaraka cries as she recalls what happened. "On Feb. 18, we were in the trench. The day before there had been casualties. We wanted to dig more but we didn't have time," she recalls. "Fifteen rockets were fired at 3 a.m. My son had a piece of shrapnel in his neck. My daughter looked unscathed. I tried to wake her up, but she was dead. I've never understood what happened." Nineteen other people died in the same attack.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the only organization that managed to save some injured people, evacuating them by boat. "There were 150,000 civilians on the coast," says a witness for the Red Cross. "They were starving. Some of them had horrible wounds. But then the army, which was behind the Nanthi Kadal lagoon, started to open fire again."

On May 18, the army made a breach through the lagoon, and the Tigers surrendered. Anandhi, the wife of the rebel Elilan, recalls what happened: "I saw my husband at about 7 a.m. The day before he had spoken with foreign politicians on satellite phones in an effort to surrender. But it was in vain. Father Francis Joseph, who spoke English, tried to serve as an intermediary for the imprisoned Tigers: my husband, Thangan, Iniviyan, Theepan, Kutty, Babu, and Raja with her three kids. We never saw them again, neither the priest nor the kids."

Detained by the military, Anandhi was taken on a bus with civilians to the city of Omanthai, where "blood puddles were splashing her feet."

Some 230,000 Tamil were stuffed into the Menik Farm camps. The displaced Tamil stayed there for several months in appalling conditions. As for the former Tigers (12,000 according to authorities), they are isolated in detention centers. Estimates suggest some 4,000 remain locked up, though detailed information is scarce. There is no official list identifying the detention centers, which are off-limits to visitors. A British documentary made by Channel 4 showed images of prisoners being executed by Sinhala soldiers. The government denies the accusations.

Today in Kilinochchi, the army has dotted the recovered territory with Buddha statues and monuments honoring the heroes who died during the conflict. But the Tamil cannot mourn their dead – or even properly count them. Since 2008, more than 100,000 Tamil have gone missing in the Wanni region.

Today, peace and reconciliation depend on justice, and on admitting the truth about what took place. So far, the Tamil have neither truth nor justice, which is why Sri Lanka did not turn the page on its civil war, as the government claims, on May 18, 2009.

Read the original article in French

photo - trokilinochchi

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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