Bad news for Sri Lankan Tamils and, indeed, anyone who thinks rewarding war criminals is basically bad. On January 10th Major General Shavendra Silva was appointed Chief of Staff of the Sri Lankan army. President Sirisena said Silva’s “experience and leadership will bring strength and courage.” His army bio says he is an instructor on the army international humanitarian law course, who ‘made a name for himself as one of the few battle-hardened Army warriors who was at the front of the battlefield and defended the country’s territorial integrity, together with his troops before May 2009.’ Highly decorated by the President, in 2010 he was even sent to the UN as Sri Lanka’s deputy permanent representative.
Silva’s particular strength, courage and humanitarian knowledge makes grim reading. In 2009 he commanded the Sri Lankan Army’s 58 Division, which stands accused of mass atrocities against LTTE cadres and Tamil civilians in the closing days of the war. Allegations include mass execution and corpse mutilation, raping the dead and murdering their children. One series of photographs that surfaced in 2013 show the 12 year old son of the LTTE leader, first unharmed in Army custody, then dead of multiple bullet wounds.
In 2009 the UN was beyond hopeless, ignoring allegations of war crimes and calling the conflict a “domestic matter that doesn’t warrant outside interference.” However as overwhelming evidence emerged they woke up, and their 2014 report found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by 58 division. Witnesses place Silva there, greeting surrendering LTTE who were later seen dead. Photographs show Silva standing before multiple bodies of dead Tamils.
The UN want Sri Lanka to face its past, but Sri Lanka has proved deeply unwilling, despite wanting the trade concessions on offer if they did. In September 2016 President Sirisena told the UN that his government was “totally committed’ to investigating war crimes by both sides. By May 2017 he had the trade deal he sought from the EU.
Sadly, though, he hasn’t investigated the war crimes. Instead he has repeatedly vowed to protect ‘war heroes’ from prosecution, whilst those suspected of Tamil separatist sympathies have no human rights. They continue to face detention and torture under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, including beatings, asphyxiation, fingernail ripping, burning, electrocution, suspension, and sexual violence. Ben Emmerson, the UN rapporteur on torture, visited Sri Lanka last summer and linked this to “the pervasive climate of impunity and the lack of accountability for the serious human rights violations that occurred both during the conflict and in the aftermath.” But trade talks louder than human rights. In March 2018 Greg Hands, then UK trade minister, told the commons that ‘when the UK has left the EU, we can look to our trading agreements with Sri Lanka.’ One sadly concludes that the Sri Lankan government is free to regard the mass slaughter of Tamils in the immediate aftermath of the civil war as heroic, justice the prerogative of the victor, and Western nations too greedy to care.