I read with some disappointment the account of your interview with Gordon Weiss regarding the situation in Sri Lanka in 2009. I believe it was published on May 16th. ABC then interviewed me on May 17th, but I have not been informed as yet as to when that interview will be broadcast. I am also disappointed that, contrary to assurances given, ABC will not be supplying us with a copy or a transcript of the full interview. I believe the principle of Freedom of Information requires this, and it is sad to see a media outfit not prepared to ensure a fair playing field.
With regard to Mr Weiss’s comments, I believe the following annotations might be useful to your readers –
“MARK COLVIN: It’s two years this week since the Sri Lankan Army finally defeated the Tamil Tigers to end a war that had lasted three decades.
But the passage of time has not answered the questions that were being asked even then.
In fact three weeks ago a UN expert panel said allegations of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers were credible and could lead to formal charges.”
The Panel was charged to advise the Secretary General on action to be taken with regard to accountability. It was not required to investigate, and it has not done so. Repeating allegations made by others is of course acceptable if it wished to advise the Secretary General that these should be investigated, but to judge these ‘credible’ is strange, since hardly any evidence is provided for these claims. Where there is purported evidence, it is shoddy and shaky, as when an earlier report of the Secretary General is cited, whereas the particular paragraphs mentioned referred to actions of the LTTE.
“The report said the Government carried out large scale shelling of no fire zones and also systematically shelled hospitals and food distribution lines.”
There is no evidence provided of systematic shelling, and indeed the claim of the Panel that all hospitals in the Vanni were shelled is obviously false, perhaps arising from ignorance on the part of the Panel as to what the Vanni includes. As head of the Peace Secretariat I monitored all reports on Tamilnet, and found that there were no allegations at all with regard to hospitals during the operations that took control of the Western part of the Vanni, extending to the LTTE capital of Kilinochchi. There were just two or three allegations with regard even to the hospital in Kilinochchi – which the government paid for and supplied throughout – and these referred to shells falling in the vicinity with just one in the courtyard.
With regard to the no fire zones, the first allegations of government shelling occurred in late January, and we were advised about this by the UN. Later that day, the UN Resident Coordinator reported that their information was that most of the shelling had come from the LTTE, and the Bishop of Jaffna requested the LTTE to move its heavy weaponry out of the No Fire Zone, to which it seemed to have transferred it soon after the NFZ was declared.
“It also condemned the Tamil Tigers for stopping civilians from fleeing and shooting some to keep them from escaping.”
It is a great pity that such condemnation was not more forthright and unequivocal in 2009, when this might have actually helped the victims.
“Gordon Weiss was an Australian UN worker in Sri Lanka and now he’s written a book about what happened called The Cage.
Our conversation began with events back in the early months of 2009.
GORDON WEISS: The army of Sri Lanka had bottled up the Tamil Tiger rebels in a small patch of land on the north-eastern coast of Sri Lanka and they were closing in on them relentlessly.
Along with the Tamil Tigers they had also snared some 330,000 civilians whom the Tamil Tigers were essentially keeping as a buffer against the full-on assault of the Government.
MARK COLVIN: So really the Tamil Tigers were using the civilians as a human shield?
GORDON WEISS: Mmm, absolutely. They were using them as a human shield. In fact there are now well documented cases of the Tamil Tigers shooting people who tried to escape the siege zone.”
Gordon Weiss did not unequivocally condemn this use of human shields by the Tigers at the time, and indeed I complained about him on several occasions to the UN head, who sometimes said he had been misquoted, and once just said, ‘Oh, Gordon,’ in a tone of infinite weariness.
“MARK COLVIN: And there’s no point gilding the lily with the Tamil Tigers is there? I mean they were a pretty vicious group.
GORDON WEISS: Not at all. They were brutal. They had a long history of carrying out suicide attacks that directly targeted civilians. They had chosen to use terrorist tactics for a homeland in northern Sri Lanka.
MARK COLVIN: So then what happens? They’re all trapped, not just the Tamil Tigers but as you say more than 300,000 civilians on this neck of land. What happens then?
GORDON WEISS: Well the assaults went on. Tens of thousands of people were released in batches or at least managed to escape until eventually the Tamil Tigers were surrounded, those who remained including the leader of the Tamil Tigers Velupillai Prabhakaran, on a small patch of land, along with still tens of thousands of civilians inside this small patch of land.”
This is misleading. No one was released by the Tigers. About 50,000 had managed to get away in the eight months before April 2009, both to the West and the South and the North of the Wanni, but it was only after a careful operation by our forces – following several ceasefires to allow people out, which was not permitted – that over 100,000 streamed out.
“And he was eventually killed and the senior leadership captured or executed depending on which story you believe, the Tamil Tigers…
MARK COLVIN: Which do you believe?
GORDON WEISS: I believe that the senior leadership was executed. I believe that Prabhakaran himself probably died in battle. “
It is only with regard to three senior leaders that there have been allegations of execution. Earlier it was also alleged that Mr Prabhakaran and others close to him had been executed – while it was also being claimed by other extremists that he was still alive, with a doctored video of him watching what was claimed to be his purported execution – but that canard is no longer floated.
“I think the evidence is fairly strong at the moment for, to indicate that there was an execution of people who surrendered at the end of the war. And I suspect that happened and that large numbers of civilians were killed along the way.”
Evidence if presented will be looked at, but we have only rumours at present, and even hostile reports – such as that in the New Yorker in January – report on how for instance 40 children taken by a pastor into the midst of bunkers occupied by LTTE fighters and suicide cadres (called Black Tigers) were taken to safety by soldiers, in fear of attacks by those cadres.
“MARK COLVIN: Where do the war crimes begin?
GORDON WEISS: I believe that the war crimes begin essentially about January when civilians were being pressed back into such a short, such a small area of land that it was inevitable that any bombardment as such conducted by the army of Sri Lanka was going to hit civilians in large numbers.”
See the comment of the UN Head on the first day on which TamilNet alleged large numbers of civilians casualties.
“And indeed as I detail in my book there happened to be a couple of international UN officers trapped for a short period of time behind the lines, trapped on a food convoy. And indeed they witnessed bombardment of civilian areas by the Government and the killing of civilians.”
The two UN officials, who belonged to the security branch, had been given permission to go in with the humanitarian convoy to try to negotiated permission for the local workers of UN agencies to leave the area along with their families. Though we had been assured this would be permitted, it was not allowed and, contrary to the assurances given to us, the two UN officials stayed behind for several days to try to persuade the LTTE to let their people go.
This meant that for several days we had to observe Ceasefires when we were told release was imminent, but that release never took place, and finally the two individuals came back with none of their workers. There is little doubt the LTTE used these Ceasefires to redeploy their heavy weaponry.
“MARK COLVIN: What exactly did they see?
GORDON WEISS: They were sheltering in a bunker there. They had built a bunker because they knew they were in a dangerous, dangerously close to the front line that was moving towards them.
They were actually in a no fire zone that had been declared by the Government of Sri Lanka and this no fire zone had drawn large numbers of civilians.
And throughout the night in late January in fact for two nights there was very heavy bombardment. They huddled in their shelters. When they came out in the morning they saw strewn about them the bodies of large numbers of civilians, most of them self evidently non-combatants – women, children, babies, old people who had been torn apart by the previous night’s shelling.”
Weiss omits that, after this incident, we carefully questioned the Chief UN Security Officer, Chris du Toit, about what had happened. He came with maps to show us the craters of shells, and said that there could be no certainty about the direction from which shells had come, except in one case, which he said had come from the direction of the LTTE lines.
I do not know whether the story has changed since then, but the Human Rights Adviser of the Ministry was with me at the time, and can confirm the story, and I would be happy to be interviewed with Mr du Toit at any time if he now claims something different.
“MARK COLVIN: Now you say there should be an international outcry, there should be an international investigation into all this. Why do you say that there hasn’t been?
GORDON WEISS: Well it’s essentially fallen between the cracks as it were of a geo-political moment.
I mean at the same time you had a very large outcry against Israel’s invasion at the same time in the Gaza in which some 400 or 500 civilians were killed. And you had a rather hidden war in Sri Lanka. “
Human Rights Watch also tried to divert attention from what was happening in Gaza at the time. It did not sign the petition of several other agencies against the activities there, and raised questions about Sri Lanka. Essentially, as our President told the Americans, our terrorists were not Islamic, and we are aware that some countries and individuals believe that Muslims can be accused of being terrorists with less evidence than in other cases, and dealt with accordingly. Unfortunately, though even Mr Weiss does not attempt to defend the LTTE now – as opposed to earlier, when it was still active and destructive – we are judged by different standards in our efforts to stop them killing so many of our people, more Tamils in fact that Sinhalese or Muslims.
“Whereas the Israeli incursion was really done in the full view of the world, Sri Lanka was known, well known by foreign correspondents as one of the untold stories of Asia. And that was principally because foreign correspondents were unable to reach the front line areas.
And indeed that was precisely the case in 2009. It was very difficult to tell the story of what happened in Sri Lanka. It was out of sight and out of mind.”
The UN was in and out constantly, and two agencies had indeed been asked to stay on, but this was refused. The ICRC continued to operate in the area. Sri Lanka had nothing to hide, but we did not want journalists to get into danger and then turn against us, as had happened with Marie Colvin, who claims that Sri Lankan forces shot at her deliberately, after she had slipped in to LTTE territory and was then coming out surreptitiously at night-time. When they stumbled across a patrol which started to fire, she declares that she raised her hands and shouted, ‘Journalist, journalist,’ and then thought that further shooting was deliberate. It may not have occurred to her that the average soldier would not have known what ‘Journalist’ meant.
“MARK COLVIN: Well indeed our own Sally Sara was trying to piece it together but constantly being held back in Colombo or only taken on chaperoned trips to anywhere near the front line.
GORDON WEISS: Yeah that’s right. I met Sally at the time in Colombo and it was clear the frustration of many of the journalists there that they knew that something was going on but they were unable to tell the story properly. They could only cobble together versions of what they thought might be happening from reports that were coming out from Tamil Tiger sources or from what little the UN was able to pull together.”
Such frustration may have led to some of the problems we now have. But it is a pity that these journalists did not try to talk to government too, to discuss possible alternative versions of what they had been told. Sadly, when I pointed out to journalists who had reported falsely, in some cases claiming that the UN had told them what in fact the senior UN officials contradicted, their defence was that some people in the UN system thought their seniors were too pally with the government. Gordon may have been one of them. I have often wondered if he was the source of the story in the Guardian that 13 women had been found with their throats cut, which was completely false. The journalist told me later that he now realized that source was unreliable, and he would not use it again, but he failed to correct his story or to investigate why what seemed a UN source had told him such a whopper.
“But I think in hindsight there was enough evidence of what was going on for more to have been done at the time in order to try to arrest the full-on assault of the Government and to try and find a different resolution to that which actually unfolded.
MARK COLVIN: Gordon Weiss a former Australian UN worker in Sri Lanka and author of a book called The Cage about those events.
You can hear a longer version of that interview on our website from this evening, including his thoughts about the refugee problem arising from all of that.