Sri Lanka transforms its killing fields into a tourist attraction

A Sri Lankan activist wails during a candlelight vigil in Colombo on August 30, 2013, held to mark the International Day of the Disappeared. The vigil at Colombo's Independence Square came as UN human rights chief Navi Pillay visited the island to probe alleged war crimes. Some of the alleged sites have been transformed into tourist attractions for the victors.
Lakruwan Wanniarachchi

KARAIMULLIVAIKAL, Sri Lanka — Five years ago on this narrow strip of land along the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka’s military waged some of the most controversial but decisive assaults on its Tamil adversaries.

The terrain here bears the scars of intense battle. A moonscape of bomb craters lies amid shallow, closely-packed, hand-dug shelters. Bits of corrugated metal sprinkle the sand like macabre confetti where shells scored direct hits on the few reinforced bunkers.

This contentious battlefield was part of a no-fire zone declared by the Sri Lankan government in 2009, in the final months of its civil war with separatist militants, the Tamil Tigers.

In other words, the government demarcated the area as safe for civilians to flee to, but those who went were nonetheless attacked. Tens of thousands were trapped here in the final months of the war.

An increasingly solid body of evidence points to numerous war crimes committed by government troops at this site — including mass rape and summary executions of surrendered fighters, in addition to intentional shelling of civilians.

Next month, the United States is expected to call for a formal war crimes inquiry into the events here. UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay also backs an inquiry. Sri Lanka's government rejects the idea, saying it gives scant or no regard to the domestic processes ongoing in Sri Lanka.

If you visit the site today, you wouldn't get the impression that there was ever a war crime scene.

Instead, Sri Lanka's government has transformed it into a tourist attraction.

Ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists arrive here by the busload to snap photos of victory monuments and gawk at the site of the final decisive defeat of the Tigers.

At each stop along the way, the army operates cafes selling ice cream and snacks. One has a sign for beer. Many have playgrounds set up with swings and slides.

On crowded days, the atmosphere is jovial.

From 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka's Sinhalese-dominated government was locked in an on-again, off-again civil war with the Tigers, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The rebels were trying to establish an independent state on this Indian Ocean island for the Tamils, a mainly Hindu ethnic group with its own language. Representing around 10 percent of Sri Lanka's population, the community has long suffered from official and informal discrimination.

The Tigers primarily relied on guerrilla tactics, but they also used suicide bombers and attacked civilian targets. Toward the end of the conflict, citing such attacks, the government began presenting its war to the international community as part of the global "war on terror."

In 2009, the government launched a major offensive against the Tigers with seemingly little regard for civilian casualties. In less than half a year the Tigers were crushed, in what the government dubbed the Humanitarian Operation. Up to 40,000 civilians were killed, according to the UN.

At the time — the darkest days of the global financial crisis — there was paltry international outcry.

When the war ended, the government razed Tamil Tiger monuments and cemeteries. Former militants were ushered into "rehabilitation" programs. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were forced into camps for internally displaced people. The victors showed little tolerance for dissent.

The government built towering victory monuments and opened captured sites to the public.

This move, carried out in what many Tamils consider Sri Lanka's killing fields, has agitated them.

When the sites were completed and began receiving visitors, nearby villages were still war-shattered and littered with unexploded ordnance. Displaced civilians and survivors were left wondering about the fate of their friends and families.

"The government is building victory monuments, but the people are unable even to cry for the dead, their relatives," said Ananthi Sasitharan, a prominent Tamil politician. Her husband, a former Tiger political leader, disappeared during the final days of the war after a surrender to government forces had been arranged. She assumes he is being held in secret government detention or was summarily executed.

One notable stop on the tourist trail is the bunker complex of Tiger leader Vellupilai Prabhakaran. The bunker is currently closed, officially so that unexploded ordnance can be cleared, but it’s rumored to have been shut down to prevent sympathetic Tamils from making pilgrimages. There is also a museum displaying Tiger materiel, a pool once used to train Tiger divers, and a Jordanian ship seized by the Tigers in 2006 that was then run aground and scrapped.

The language used at the sites tells a history many would dispute.

A placard on the bridge leading across the lagoon where the war ended describes how “the brave soldiers of the great army" were able to end the war "without harming the innocent civilians.” The deep swimming pool is a "terrorist swimming pool" and the flimsy fiberglass dinghies at the Puthukkudiyiruppu War Museum are labeled "terrorist suicide boats.”

Since the end of the war, Western tourists have flocked back to Sri Lanka's lush jungles, ancient cities and laid-back beaches. It is a friendly country to travel, but the former conflict zone remains a place where foreigners might feel unwelcome.

As GlobalPost was leaving the "terrorist swimming pool," a patrol of Sri Lankan troops on bicycles, their Kalashinakovs slung over their shoulders, intercepted this reporter's vehicle on an empty stretch of road to inquire about the visit and check documents. They informed my driver that our suspicious arrival in the area had been radioed to them by their colleagues.

This is not exactly a place Sri Lanka’s government wants outsiders to see.

Five years after the initial muted international reaction, there are increasing calls for investigations into alleged war crimes committed by government forces.

Just last month, the Obama administration announced it would sponsor a resolution seeking an investigation at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in March.

In response to the administration's announcement, Sri Lanka's government has charged that the US is trying to "polarize" the country.

But on the ground in Tamil areas, the situation already feels polarized. The war and its aftermath are talked about in whispers, away from the eyes and ears of the heavy deployments of security services and informants, referred to as occupiers by many. Those who speak out continue to live under threat of intimidation and disappearance. The basic Tamil grievances that led to war have still not been addressed.

“The root causes of the war are still there. There is still a huge amount of mistrust of the government, there is still amount of anger and capacity for violence,” said Fred Carver, the campaign director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. “The relative lack of violence” at the moment is only a result of “the abject defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the rather large political vacuum they left in their wake.”

Editor's note: The author requested anonymity to prevent government restrictions on future travel and coverage.