Two eyewitnesses have come forward for the first time to describe one of the most notorious war crimes of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. It’s known as “the white flag incident” – the killing of a group of about forty Tamil Tiger political leaders who surrendered on the final day of the war.
The Sri Lankan government has always maintained that the Tamil leaders carrying the white flag were shot in the back by their own people. But this latest evidence seems to put paid to that theory.
The two witnesses, who’ve now separately reached the safety of London, say they saw the Tamil Tiger leaders accepted into the custody of the Sri Lankan military and escorted away from the frontline alive.
One witness, Kumaran [all names have been changed to protect the identity of the witnesses], was a former bodyguard to the Tiger political leaders. Badly injured in the last month of the war, Kumaran surrendered to the Sri Lankan military to save his life and became a reluctant informer, identifying other rebels mingling among the thousands of civilians.
On the eve of the surrender, Kumaran was driven by the Sri Lankan military to near the battlefield and then positioned behind an earthen embankment. His task was to confirm the identity of the surrendering leaders for the military; as their former bodyguard he was in a unique position to do this. To him it looked like a well-organized surrender – there were soldiers everywhere preparing for the event.
In the same area was Sharmilan, a former math teacher who’d been pressganged into service by the rebels to dig bunkers and bury the dead in the last year of the war. Sharmilan and a group of fighters and civilians had surrendered in the dark hours of the night, knowing the war was over and it was their only chance of survival. After being searched they were held in a derelict building. From this vantage point Sharmilan also watched several groups of Tiger leaders walk out of the war zone towards the Sri Lankan army. He was surprised to see the political wing leader, Nadesan, his Sinhalese wife and the head of the Peace Secretariat, Pulidevan, in the first group. Surprised because the Tigers were a group that preached martyrdom, issuing all recruits with cyanide capsules to use in case of capture. The Tiger leaders were carrying a makeshift white flag and Nadesan’s wife was shouting something urgently in the language of the soldiers – probably telling them not to shoot.
Both witnesses say Sri Lankan soldiers went out to greet several groups of surrendering rebels and escorted them over a bridge across the lagoon to waiting vehicles on the other side. Sharmilan adds that he saw military vehicles and the white jeeps typically used by international aid agencies.
Kumaran waited about an hour and then the military put him in the back of a pick up truck and drove him away. Along the road he saw a group of soldiers taking photos of corpses lying on the ground on their mobile phones. As they drove past, Kumaran recognized Pulidevan and Nadesan’s bodies.
“I thought if they can do this to them, what can they do to me,” he recalls, adding that the hardest thing in the months ahead was not to breathe a word to anyone of what he’d seen.
It wasn’t long before the Sri Lankan defence ministry website listed Pulidevan and Nadesan as among the dead. Months later a photograph appeared on websites abroad of their half naked corpses, revealing bullet wounds and burn marks on the front of the bodies. There has never been any official explanation for the injuries in these pictures which don’t match the government’s story that the men were shot in the back by their own people while trying to escape.
What the accounts of these two new witnesses indicate is that the surrender arrangements were an elaborate charade to lure the Tiger leaders to a squalid and undignified death. The Sri Lankan government didn’t want to take prisoners – especially those who spoke English and could mobilize international attention around the world. This was a government that had just flouted almost every law on war – a United Nations report later detailed how it had committed not just war crimes but crimes against humanity. Politically it also made no sense to leave senior Tiger leaders alive ready to lead another phase of the Tamil struggle in future. The intention was to crush Tamil nationalism.
Of course when the Tiger political leaders set out that dawn to surrender they knew the risk they ran. In their final hours they sent desperate messages out to say they were coming – through the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin, a Tamil member of the Sri Lankan parliament, Norwegian diplomats, UN Staff, the International Red Cross and a European intermediary. As a result many top Sri Lankan politicians and officials in the capital Colombo, including the country’s President, knew the surrender was about to happen.
It’s time Sri Lanka came up with a better explanation for the white flag incident. Blaming it on the Tigers themselves doesn’t wash. For one thing, we now knowthat in the last three days of the war the rebel leader authorized his fighters to take off their uniforms and mix with civilians to escape. The “white flag incident” was the most publicized surrender plan of the war – hardly a secret – so if the rebel chief objected he could have easily stopped it. It’s unlikely a junior fighter would just take it into his head to mow down forty top leaders and their family members walking out in several clusters. Then there’s the destruction of the corpses which were evidence and later the photographs that raise many questions about how these men actually died. Sceptics will say any witness who was a rebel is inherently unreliable but there are increasing numbers now surfacing. By coming forward to speak publicly about what they saw, these men who’ve been through traumatic events are putting themselves – and their extended families – in danger once again.