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Old wounds

Kai Küstner / gbMarch 22, 2013

Sri Lanka continues to block moves to investigate alleged crimes against Tamil civilians during the country's war against Tamil Tiger rebels, despite calls to revisit the issue.

P. Sunjada, 6, a Tamil war refugee boy, look through the window at a temporary shelter in a refugee camp in Jaffna, 300 kilometers (188 miles) north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, (ddp images/AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Image: AP

For the second time in as many years, the UN's top human rights body on Thursday, March 21, approved a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to more thoroughly investigate alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the country's quarter-century civil war with Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels.

In a move of support, thousands of students took to the streets in India; in particular in the southern city of Chennai, where many ethnic Tamils live, to add their voice to this call.

Sri Lankans wave their national flag during a victory rally to celebrate the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, May 22, 2009. (AP Photo)
Sri Lankans waved flags and celebrated after defeating Tamil Tiger rebelsImage: AP

The protesters held up placards with grotesque photographs of people allegedly tortured at the hands of the Sri Lankan military in 2009 during the last weeks of the country's brutal war against Tamil Tiger rebels.

Thousands of Tamils lived through the final weeks of the war trapped in a small strip of jungle along the northwestern coast surrounded by government troops.

Devastating war

Everything appeared to suggest that Tamil civilians were prevented from leaving the region by Tamil insurgents who used them as human shields in a last gasp effort to save their independence struggle from the advancing troops who were bent on crushing every last remnant of resistance at any cost.

"By May 2009, there had been 65 attacks on the medical points treating civilians," said Gordon Weiss, an analyst and author on international affairs and consultant to the International Crimes Evidence Project, a group which investigates war crimes.

Sri Lanka is working to restore its old image as a tourist paradise +++ picture-alliance / Bildagentur Huber
Sri Lanka is working to restore its old image as a tourist paradiseImage: picture alliance/Bildagentur Huber

According to accounts, government forces did not shy away from large scale bombardments of the area, attacking refugee convoys and hospitals that were clearly marked as such by the Red Cross.

The United Nations estimates that some 40,000 people died in the last weeks of the war alone and that in the last months of the conflict the number of Sri Lankan civilians killed far exceeded all the civilian deaths in Afghanistan in all of 2009.

Obstruction or healing?

"The Sri Lankan government has been very obstructive in even acknowledging that there could have been any kind of human rights violations, even saying that there were no civilian casualties. This kind of thing requires the Sri Lankan government to feel some pressure and at least acknowledge the truth and then take steps to address some of the violations that took place," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in an interview with German broadcaster ARD in New Delhi.

Currently, there are no indications that the government is prepared to go down that path. As tourists return to Sri Lanka's beaches, President Rajapaksa and his two brothers, who are also ministers in the government, are basking in the warm glow of success for having won the war.

President Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka attending a Commonwealth Luncheon at Marlborough House, London, UK. 06/06/2012.
You 'cannot punish a person for defeating terrorism:' President RajapaksaImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

"We cannot punish a person for defeating terrorism," the president said. But human rights activists claim democracy in Sri Lanka has suffered as a result. Journalists fear for their lives if they report on the subject. But without an examination of the alleged abuses, they argue, the wounds of the civil war will never heal and will someday re-emerge.