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Response to further excesses by Gordon Weiss in the Australian media

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 16. ABC then interviewed me on May 17, 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 Weiss’ comments, I believe the following annotations might be useful to your readers -


Businesses have opened new opportunities for IDPs. Picture by Chaminda Hittatiya

“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.”

No Fire Zones

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.

Human shield

“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.

Suicide attacks

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 Vanni, 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.

To be continued

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