Chemmani mass graves in Jaffna, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Cover-up of Chemmani Mass Graves

Thanjai Nalankilli

TAMIL TRIBUNE, February 2000 (ID. 2000-02-01)
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1. The Revelaion

2. Investigation Stalled

3. The Cover-up

4. Concluding Remarks

1. The Revelation

A teenage school girl, Ms. Krishanthi Kumaraswamy, from the minority Tamil community was taken to the army barracks, gang raped and then murdered by Sri Lankan soldiers in September 1996 in northern Sri Lanka. Not knowing the daughter's ordeal at the hands of the soldiers, her mother, brother and a neighbor went to the barracks to inquire about her. Soldiers murdered them also. First the Sri Lankan Government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga denied everything. Though it was just one of the dozens of rape murders and the hundreds of murders of minority Tamil civilians by Sri Lankan security forces, this incidence somehow got worldwide publicity and outcry from international human rights organizations. So some soldiers and police were charged with rape and murder. The judge gave 5 security personnel (4 soldiers and a police constable) death sentence. (We believe that this was the first incidence ever in Sri Lanka that a soldier or policeman was punished for raping or murdering a Tamil civilian.) After the sentence, the sentenced soldiers told the court in July 1998 that he was not the only one to murder Tamil civilians and that soldiers had buried 400 bodies of murdered Tamil civilians in mass graves in the village of Chemmani in Jaffna. Naturally, human rights organizations wanted the location excavated and investigated.

2. Investigation Stalled

Under a barrage of calls from international human rights organizations to investigate the mass graves allegation, the Sri Lankan Government had no other alternative; otherwise it may face curtailment of foreign fiscal and military aid. The government ordered an investigation. Ordering the investigation is one thing, conducting it expeditiously is another. The Sri Lankan government stalled the investigation again and again. Finally, a full 11 months after the revelation, in June 1999, the soldiers who revealed the existence of the mass graves were brought to Chemmani and they identified the alleged mass graves site to the assembled judge, Sri Lankan police investigators, Sri Lankan and foreign forensic experts and Sri Lankan and foreign reporters.

The Sri Lankan government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga had never allowed foreign reporters anywhere near other massacre sites in the past. In the past, her government had asked international human rights or relief agencies that reported incidences of large scale Tamil civilian killings to shut up or pack and leave. Reporters, foreign or local, were not allowed into Tamil areas under army control except during rare, well-choreographed tours conducted by the army. As you read this article further, you will understand why the Sri Lankan government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga was open to allow foreign reporters and observers to this excavation. The government knew beforehand that no mass grave would be found at this location.

The site was excavated, and investigators unearthed 15 bodies of murdered Tamil civilians, not 400 bodies as the soldiers told the court a year ago in July 1998. The Sri Lankan government announced to the world that there was no mass grave and the army's hands are clean.

3. The Cover-up

What is the cover-up? After all, foreign reporters and observers were present when the site was excavated. They found only 15 bodies, not 400 or anywhere near 400. So what is the cover-up?

Being a skeptic when it comes to the Sri Lankan government that I am, let me ask a question. Did they excavate the right location? I can go around and excavate so many places in Sri Lanka and find not a single body. Did they excavate the correct location? The Sri Lankan government may respond, "The soldiers who revealed the alleged mass graves identified the site right in front of foreign observers and reporters. What more do you want?"

The question is "Where were these soldiers from the time they revealed of the mass graves in July 1998 to the time they identified the site to foreign observers in June 1999?" They were in the custody of the Government of Sri Lanka. Here is the key to government cover-up. What do we know of what happened to these soldiers during these 11 months?

The points we make are: (1) The convicted soldiers were in the custody and control of the Sri Lankan government for 11 months (Once they were convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death by the judge, they were taken to a prison in Colombo), and (2) The Sri Lankan government had a vested interest in covering up the mass graves. The Sri Lankan government has every reason to "persuade" these soldiers to cooperate with it to cover up the mass graves issue. What can the government do to persuade them to cooperate? After all, these men were under death sentence. What further threat can they make?

We do not know much about the lives of those soldiers in prison but for one small glimpse from reports reaching the human rights group Amnesty International. One of the soldiers in prison was Lance Corporal Somaratne Rajapakse. The prison guards asked him to sign a statement that he was emotionally disturbed at the time he revealed the mass graves to the court and that those statements were false. When he refused, he was beaten up by prison guards.

In addition to beatings and torture of the soldiers to put pressure on them to help with the cover up, the government could also threaten the lives of the children, wives and parents of the soldiers if they do not cooperate. This could be a great persuasion on these soldiers to cooperate because they know very well how cold-blooded Sri Lankan security personnel could be with innocent civilians. After all, they raped and murdered an innocent teenager and then murdered her relatives and neighbor who came to inquire of her! So there is ample opportunity for the Sri Lankan government to persuade the soldiers to cover up the mass graves issue.

How can the soldiers help in a cover up? After all, they have already revealed to the entire world the existence of mass graves. There is one way they could help the Sri Lankan government come out smelling like roses in front of the entire world. The soldiers could identify a wrong site as the location of the mass graves. Yes, they had already told the court that the graves were located near Chemmani village but still they could point out a place near Chemmani but still away from the real site of the mass graves. We believe that this was what happened.

The Sri Lankan government went out with great fanfare with foreign observers and reporters to excavate this false site. Naturally they did not find 400 bodies there. They found 15 bodies. It must have been a peripheral location where some bodies were buried. Remember that a body was found at the stadium grounds in Jaffna (Chemmani is also in Jaffna). Sri Lankan soldiers did not bury all the murdered Tamil civilians in the Chemmani mass graves. Bodies are also buried here and there all over Tamil areas under Sri Lankan army control. A few skeletons have, in fact, been found here and there during the past few years. It would be impossible to locate every such burial place.

4. Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, the Chemmani mass graves investigation is a total white wash by the government of Sri Lanka. The truth may never be known. One fact remains. At least 600 Tamil civilians disappeared in the months after the Sri Lankan army took control of Jaffna. Where are they? We uncovered 15 bodies during the Chemmani excavation. One body was found by accident at the Jaffna Stadium grounds. A few more have been found by accident here and there. Where is the remainder of the 600? Are some 400 bodies of murdered Tamil civilians buried somewhere near Chemmani?

SUMMARY: Sri Lankan Government's human rights violations and cover up of Chemmani mass graves in Jaffna.

FT1: 070110    2000-a1d


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