Return to Transcripts main page


Aftermath of End to Sri Lankan Civil War

Aired December 14, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, human rights in the spotlight. A major address by the U.S. secretary of state and we focus on Sri Lanka. After decades of civil war, will peace finally bring rights to all the people there?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to our program.

We've devoted a lot of time on this broadcast to the dilemma of balancing pragmatism and principle in foreign policy. It's a burning issue, particularly for the United States. U.S. President Barack Obama faces criticism that he's failed to make values and human rights a top priority in countries such as China, Burma, Sudan, and even Afghanistan.

His administration now faces a new challenge, Sri Lanka, which is emerging from 26 years of civil war. The government there defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in May, but it's now facing charges of massive human rights abuses, while governments from the U.S. to India are calling for a more pro-business approach.

But should that ignore human rights? CNN's Ram Ramgopal reports.


RAM RAMGOPAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When the guns fell silent in May, one of the world's longest-running civil wars came to an end, but that's only brought more questions than answers, including what really happened and what's happening now to members of the Tamil ethnic minority.

Independent journalists were allowed no access to the warzone, and reporting was censored.

We do know that one of the world's toughest rebel groups, the Tamil Tigers, who pioneered the modern use of suicide bombings, were finally crushed by the Sri Lankan military. The Tigers' leaders were all killed after the government said it had run out of patience with their harsh tactics and about-faces.

Seventy thousand people died during the 26-year civil war. In recent years, about 30,000 were displaced and moved to detention camps. Just in the war's final months, about 7,000 civilians were killed according to the United Nations.

The government denies the numbers were that high and claims rebel leaders bombed civilians. The truth will probably never be known.

Taking credit for ending the war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has called for an election in January, two years ahead of schedule. But he will be facing the very man who engineered that victory, General Sarath Fonseka, who says the president has abused his authority.

Both Rajapaksa and Fonseka are from the majority Sinhala community. They expected to split the vote. That could make the Tamil minority politically important, despite the Tigers' loss. That could mark a big change for Tamils. Many feel alienated by discrimination, alleged government abuses, and war.

Now, as many look to make Sri Lanka one of Asia's hot emerging economies, the question remains whether the ethnic conflict and civil war are fully behind it.


AMANPOUR: That was Ram Ramgopal reporting. And joining me now, Ahilan Kadirgamar, a Tamil from Sri Lanka who's working for reconciliation with the majority Sinhalese population, also, the Sri Lankan ambassador to the United Nations, Palitha Kohona, who's in Copenhagen for the climate change conference there, and here in our study, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, Sir John Holmes.

Welcome to you all. Thank you for being on this broadcast. Ambassador Kohona, can you tell us exactly what took so long and what is taking so long releasing all these tens of thousands of people from the internment camps?

PALITHA KOHONA, SRI LANKAN AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: For one thing, it's not been that long. It's only six months since the war ended. And in May, we had over 300,000 people pouring into these camps, which were run by the government in order to feed the people, provide them with shelter, and to provide them with health care. The children were -- were even provided educational facilities.

Now almost 60 percent or maybe even 70 percent of them have returned to their own homes. Last -- at the end of last week, there were only about 114,000 still remaining in the camps.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador?

KOHONA: And the government had told the rest that...

AMANPOUR: Ambassador? Ambassador?

KOHONA: ... 114,000...

AMANPOUR: Why was there -- why was there no independent access? Why weren't people allowed to come and monitor the conditions in the camp?

KOHONA: In fact, from the 1st of December, the inhabitants of these camps were told that they could go.


Most of them refused to go, instead decided to stay on, because they knew where the food was, they knew where the shelter was, and where the -- the medical facilities were. But we hope that eventually all of them will return to their homes.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me -- let me ask you, Sir John, in charge of humanitarian affairs, what is the status there? And is this something that troubles the U.N.?

JOHN HOLMES, U.N. UNDER SECRETARY GENERAL: Well, we were very frustrated for the first few months after the end of the hostilities because, although it was legitimate to have the people in camps because they needed assistance and there -- that's where they had to go in order to receive that assistance, they were not being allowed freedom of movement. They were kept in the camps. And also, the release process...


HOLMES: Well, because I think there were security concerns which the government had. We didn't accept that they had to that extent those security concerns. We have made some recent progress. People have been given more freedom of movement from the 1st of December, and the process of releases have started, but it was a very slow process and very frustrating for us.

AMANPOUR: And was there adequate access to those people? Did you have access while they were in the camps over the last seven months?

HOLMES: Yes, I -- I -- I visited the camps three times myself. There were times when the access wasn't quite as good as we would have wanted, but from the beginning, the U.N. and most of the NGOs did have that sort of access so we could keep a track, and we were, of course, part of the assistance program to the people.

AMANPOUR: Well, then, are you satisfied with the way the government treated all those people in the camps? And why is there allegations of human rights abuses?

HOLMES: Well, it wasn't perfect, but I think the main problem was a lack of freedom of movement. And we've seen some real improvements in the last few weeks. As I said, we were very critical for a while. We were very frustrated. Now there's been progress. Now people are going home. As the ambassador says, probably everybody should be out by the end of January, and they have freedom of movement, and that's the critical point, that we didn't want to be involved in helping internment camps as opposed to normal IDP camps.

AMANPOUR: OK. Ahilan Kadirgamar in London, you were trying to work for reconciliation and rights for all sides. How do you think this is going to happen now? It's now six or seven months since the Tamil Tigers were defeated. Is there any sense that you can move forward on the reconciliation front?

AHILAN KADIRGAMAR, SRI LANKAN DEMOCRACY FORUM: Yes. I think the -- the biggest issue all along, you know, despite the -- those people having suffered so much throughout the war, even the last six months is lost time. The process of reconciliation should have started long back. And it's not only the freedom of movement issue. That is -- that was the critical issue over the last six months.

But the political climate has to change in the country. The -- the north has remained very much militarized, and we can't move on reconciliation unless there is a credible political process, unless there is further resettlement of the people in their own homes. The political concerns, the economic concerns, all of them have to come together if that community is to feel they're a part of Sri Lanka and that they feel that they are being treated as equal citizens in the country.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador Kohona, do you accept that there needs to be political reconciliation? And if so, how do you answer Ahilan Kadirgamar?

KOHONA: That's the priority for the government. It is a critical goal for the government to engage in a process of reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation. This is now taking place. The government is talking to almost all the Tamil parties in the country, including the TNA, Tamil National Alliance, which was formerly the mouthpiece of the LTTE. The government has had elections in almost all the provinces where -- including the Tamil provinces, the east and the north. There will be a general election early next year.

The political process is already on train. And we hope that people like Mrs. Kadirgamar will recognize that and engage in the process, rather than be critical from a distance.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you this, since we're talking also about the last weeks of the fighting. Obviously, there was a lot of -- a lot of killing going on, particularly in the last weeks of the fighting. The official figure from your point of view, from the government point of view is 7,000 Tamils were killed during the -- during the fighting, but that doesn't take into account the last weeks. And there have been many, many accusations of heavy firepower directed at civilians in the Tamil areas. How do you answer that? And why was there a need to -- to train your guns on the civilians there?

KOHONA: The government denied that then, and it continues to deny that. The government had a policy of not attacking civilian concentrations, unlike the LTTE, which relied on bombing civilians at every opportunity it could. And so I -- I don't think this figure is accurate. In fact, the United Nations, which apparently compiled this figure later on, said that these figures were not very...


AMANPOUR: Well -- well, let me ask Sir John Holmes. Is...

KOHONA: In the circumstances...


AMANPOUR: Let me ask Sir John Holmes. There are, obviously, huge allegations about the -- the force that the government employed to crush the Tamil Tigers. What are you saying? The ambassador is denying that there were 7,000 or more deaths.

HOLMES: Well, we always said that we didn't know exactly how many people have been killed. Seven thousand was an internal estimate. The number may be lower; it may be higher. What is clear is the civilian casualties were unacceptably high.

AMANPOUR: And that's because?

HOLMES: The problem was -- well, the problem was the LTTE were holding the -- the civilian population that we're living with them effectively hostage. They were using them as human shields.

AMANPOUR: These are the Tamil rebels?

HOLMES: These are the Tamil -- the 300,000 Tamils who were with the Tamil -- with the LTTE, so the government had a real problem, which we need to accept, of actually dealing with the military side of the LTTE without causing civilian casualties.

Now, we don't think they did enough. They -- we encouraged them not to use heavy weapons, and we believe they still were using heavy weapons. But both sides, you know, were committing violations, and we suspect that. There needs to be some inquiry into that, some accountability about that, and that's what we've encouraged the government to do.

AMANPOUR: And there was shelling of hospitals and other such areas, church?

HOLMES: Well, what you had, especially in the last few weeks and months, was, as I say, a very, very heavy concentration of -- of the civilians, 300,000, being kept there against their will by the LTTE and a battle going on right in their midst, so it's not surprising there were civilian casualties, and that's why it was so important to respect the -- the humanitarian principles in dealing with this.

AMANPOUR: Now, can I ask you, Ambassador Kohona, because we're going to talk about the political process when we come back from a break, but first of all, there are obviously -- the fact is that the leaders of the Tamil Tigers were gunned down. They were trying to surrender. There's all sorts of accounts of how they were told to hoist the white flags, and they were machine-gunned to death as they came to surrender. Why? Why?

KOHONA: This is just an allegation which popped up very recently not at the time. And the government has categorically said that this scenario never occurred. In fact, General Fonseka, who's running for the presidency, has recently said that he would not believe that his own troops would have done anything of the sort.

AMANPOUR: How were they -- their bodies were found riddled with bullets, no?

KOHONA: When you're caught up in a firefight and you are the one engaged in the firefight, it's quite likely that you get shot.

AMANPOUR: Can I ask you, Sir John, there were reports of a journalist, a British journalist, Marie Colvin, being called by the Tamil Tigers and relaying messages to the U.N. about surrender conditions. Do you confirm that?

HOLMES: Yeah, there were definitely contacts with -- with the senior officials in the U.N. secretariat about some leaders coming out with white flags, and we relayed those messages on to the contacts we had.

What we don't know is what happened then. I mean, there are these allegations. We simply don't know whether they're true. Again, it's another good reason for actually going for some kind of accountability process to prove the truth of these allegations or not.

AMANPOUR: OK. And why did the U.N. official there at the time not go and -- and monitor the surrender?

HOLMES: Well, we would have liked to do that, and we offered to do that, but it wasn't possible in the -- in the very confused circumstance. This was the last 24 hours of the conflict, and it happened very fast. And before we -- before anything else could happen, the conflict had ended and they were dead.

AMANPOUR: Ah, because the written article suggests that the U.N. official, Mr. B.J. Nabiard (ph), has said that he didn't need to go there.

HOLMES: Well, it wasn't possible to go. The fighting was going on there, and we weren't being allowed in, so I don't think that could have happened in the circumstances. He was in New York at the time.

AMANPOUR: We will discuss the political aspect of this when we come back. Can there be reconciliation in Sri Lanka after the government's crushing victory and after everything you've just heard that took place there? And take a look at what the refugees are getting from the Sri Lankan government. Those who are now trying to leave and go back to their places of domicile get this package for resettlement.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): In the dreams, we see the enemy. When we shoot at them, the bullets don't come out. I don't know why, but in our dreams, the bullets never come. The soldiers don't die. The more we shoot, the more they keep coming. In reality, when we have no bullets left and can't do anything, we have our cyanide capsules. If we bite it in our sleep, we won't wake up!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): The cyanide capsule...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Once you put it in your mouth and bite it, the glass breaks and cuts your tongue. Then the poison seeps into your blood.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Otherwise, if we are injured and can't bite the capsule, we break it and pour the stuff into the wounds. When the poison mixes with your blood, that's it.


AMANPOUR: That was part of an incredible documentary showing two young women who trained to be suicide bombers for the Tamil Tigers. It's a clip from the documentary called "My Daughter the Terrorist" by a filmmaker who went deep into rebel-controlled territory. And one of things that defined the Tamil rebel groups was their use not only of female suicide bombers, but also child soldiers. They have had their share of atrocities. So it is very difficult at this time to sort of reconcile.

I want to turn now again to Ahilan Kadirgamar. Of course, we're still joined by Ambassador Palitha Kohona and also Sir John Holmes.

Ahilan, let me ask you, how does one reconcile when there has been so much, on the one hand, atrocities committed by both sides, really, in this -- in this whole 26 years of civil war?

KADIRGAMAR: Yeah. We talked -- you know, you were talking about the number of civilians killed during the end of the war, and it's true that the LTTE kept all those civilians as hostages and human shields. But the government also did not act responsibly in the best interests of the civilians. Just today, a very important report by a local human rights group, the University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna, has released a very extensive report about what happened during those last six months. And the title of their report is "Let Them Speak."

I think that's the most important thing, the first step in terms of reconciliation. All those war victims should be given the space to speak, to -- to say their stories of suffering, what they went through, and for them to say where they want to go. And in addition to that...

AMANPOUR: Do you mean victims on both sides or just on -- on the Tamil side?

KADIRGAMAR: It -- during the war, particularly the last six months, it was those 300,000 people trapped by the LTTE, held as hostages, and the government forces constantly shelling them and moving on. They are the victims, and it's mainly their stories. But there have been other communities that have been impacted by the war, as well. The -- the Sinhalese community in the border villages, the Muslim community was at the receiving side of both parties, and many of them were even ethnically cleansed by the LTTE. So those stories of all those victims have to come out.


KADIRGAMAR: That's important. But...

AMANPOUR: Let me just read something about reconciliation from Eric Schwartz, who's the U.S. assistant secretary for population and migration refugees, saying that reconciliation is not the victor's justice. Reconciliation is a process of engagement with the other side, where you recognize the legitimacy of the other side's concerns.

Can I ask you, Ambassador Kohona in Copenhagen, does that sound reasonable at this moment for the Sri Lankan government? Do you recognize the legitimacy of the Tamil minority?

KOHONA: The -- we have a Tamil minority, and the government has -- has always recognized the need to -- to accommodate this minority as best as it can, and it has. The Tamil language is an equal official language of the country. Tamil is now being taught extensively in schools. Tamils are -- are occupying some of the key positions in the government and -- excuse me -- and in business. Thirty-nine percent of Colombo is now Tamil. That's the capital city of Sri Lanka.


Fifty-four percent of the Tamils live amongst the Sinhalese in the south. I think this reconciliation process is going ahead. We don't need to put a label on it. We don't need to just shout from the rooftops about it, but it is going on.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask...

KOHONA: That is also consistent with the nature of our society.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask Sir John Holmes. What needs to happen? And do you agree with the ambassador that it's all going along fine? What needs to happen?

HOLMES: I think there is some progress. But, again, it's much slower than I think it needs to be, because there was some very severe wounds left by 30 years of civil war, effectively. I think there does need to be at some stage some kind of truth and reconciliation process where both sides can express their views and...

AMANPOUR: Like South Africa had.

HOLMES: ... express what they feel, like South Africa and other places have had. I think until you get that, it's going to be very difficult to -- to restore Sri Lankan democracy, the Sri Lankan polity to its full democratic process, if you like. So I think that does need to happen, and it needs to happen progressively, but quickly at the same time. And, of course, there's got to be a political process of reconciliation and some proper status given to the Tamil community within Sri Lanka, which makes them feel that they are an accepted part of the normal Sri Lankan life.

AMANPOUR: And -- and Ahilan Kadirgamar in London, do you -- what do you think of many people now who are -- who are really looking optimistically at Sri Lanka as a place to do business? People talk about the three t's, tea, textile and tourism. There's a whole sort of pro- business engagement starting. Is that something that will help Sri Lanka at this time?

KADIRGAMAR: Yeah, I think a lot of the focus so far has been on the humanitarian concerns. And I think the government's vision is also about economic development.

On the other hand, I don't see the country moving forward unless they can also address the human rights concerns and the political concerns that underlie the conflict. Before it became a civil war, there acts of discrimination by the state. There were political grievances which were not addressed. And I think a singular focus on the economic concerns without addressing the underlying political concerns -- and there -- and there has been a long debate in Sri Lanka about how to address the political concerns.

It's true. Some form of devolution of power to the regions, the regions where the minorities reside, but even the rural Sinhalese in the south can benefit from that kind of devolution, and then greater representation at the center.

The real problem in Sri Lanka has been too much centralization of power in the form of the executive presidency. And there needs to be much greater democratization that comes along with devolution of power if economically Sri Lanka is to move forward.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask -- let me ask -- let me ask the ambassador that. Obviously, Mr. Ambassador, economic development often goes hand in hand with political development. Are you as a government prepared for less centralization and more devolution of -- of -- of legitimate rights?

KOHONA: I think the devolution process is already taking place, but more importantly, the economic development of the country must go ahead so that every one of our citizens can enjoy the benefits of economic prosperity. The western province now of Sri Lanka is very well advanced, and we would like to see the same level of prosperity spread throughout the country.

And the government has a plan for that, and it is being put in place. Foreign investment is beginning to pour in, in significant quantities. The stock market has improved by over 100 percent over the last nine months.


KOHONA: And there are other factors...

AMANPOUR: OK. Let me just ask...

KOHONA: ... which suggests that Sri Lanka's economy is doing well.

AMANPOUR: Final question to you, Sir John Holmes. What about the elections? Is that going to be a real opportunity? Is that transparent? Is that something that we're looking forward to?

HOLMES: Well, these are genuine democratic elections, and that's what we want to see. I hope the -- the Tamil community and the other minority communities will be able to participate fully. They're not sure which candidate to vote for, I guess, in the circumstances, but I think that is an -- an important stage we have to go through. But then, once those elections are over, we need to go back to addressing these questions of reconciliation, political progress, and economic progress, because the people going back have got to rebuild their lives somehow, and they're mostly farmers and fisherman, and they will need that help and that investment to do that.

AMANPOUR: Sir John Holmes, thank you very much, indeed.

Ambassador Palitha Kohona, thank you for joining us.

And, Ahilan Kadirgamar from London, thank you very much, indeed, all of you, for joining us.

So you just saw at the top of this a clip from the documentary "My Daughter the Terrorist." To see a conversation with the filmmaker, Beate Arnestad, go to our Web site, And right now, we want to leave you with what Hillary Clinton said today about human rights and about the Obama administration's commitment to human rights. It has some -- some bearing on Sri Lanka.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We must be pragmatic and agile in pursuit of our human rights agenda, not compromising on our principles, but doing what is most likely to make them real, and we will use all the tools at our disposal.




AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script." Over the nearly three decades of civil war, the Sri Lankan government arrested dozens of Tamil journalists. One of them is J.S Tissainayagam, a columnist for the Sri Lankan Sunday Times, who was arrested in March last year. He's the only journalist still in custody there. And last month, I met his wife in New York when we at the Committee to Protect Journalists gave him a press freedom award in absentia.

He was charged with inciting, quote, "communal disharmony," an offense under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. His columns were mainly about Tamil issues, but he criticized atrocity by the Tamil Tigers at the same time as he criticized the government. Today, the U.S. State Department said it continues to stress the importance of ending media intimidation in Sri Lanka and everywhere.

That's it for now. We'll be back tomorrow with a focus on Iraq. Are there lessons for Afghanistan? For all of us here, goodbye from New York.