Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished

Review: Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, Channel 4

In her 1977 collection of essays On Photography, writer and political activist Susan Sontag draws on a likeness between the vocabulary of hunting and photographing.

Lock. Load. Stalk. Aim. Shoot. Capture. Snapshot!

Decades later we find these words colouring the spoils of war; camera phones locked and guns fired. Photographs and footage of captured human prey are turned into visual plunder; ideological trophies that recall the blood that stains dismembered limbs, mourners that shroud maimed, anonymous bodies and the greed that flushes victors’ faces. Their staccato recordings and vilifying commentary quote incoherent moments from an all-too complex reality, actions cruel but intentions and contexts unknown.

Channel 4’s new documentary on the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished aired last night in the United Kingdom. It provokes sensitivities with its vigilante promises of disturbing and distressing descriptions and footage of the shelling of civilians, executions, evidence of sexual assault and atrocities that occurred during April-May 2009.

Who was responsible? The investigation points to the highest levels of the Sri Lankan government, Jon Snow declares. A demand for justice that is ironically based on the incriminating audio-visual spoils of Sri Lankan soldiers whose trophy footage, alongside accounts from escapees, no doubt qualify as credible evidence.

Fifty-four minutes of graphic footage and damning testimonials from the humanitarian and diplomatic apparatus ensues, pointing virtuous fingers towards the likes of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa  (who the documentary incorrectly dubbed the Minister of Defence) and several high-ranking military officials who led Sri Lanka to its merciless victory in May 2009. The documentary is far from modest, sensational in its claims and frequently repeating the successes of its award-winning prequel, Sri Lanka: Killing Fields (aired on Channel 4, June 2011) as validation for its indubitable reliability.

What determines the success of this documentary?

I recall the devastating footage of naked prisoners being shot in the head, mutilated corpses of men and women, and the horrific aftermath of the infamous hospital shelling used to narrate the brutal tale of Sri Lanka’s last days at war.

A familiar sickness rises in my throat as I watch last night’s sequel. A father carrying his dead son wrapped in a polythene bag, a mother wailing over the cold bodies of her dead children, and a boy of no more than 11-12, allegedly LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s youngest son, shot five times in the torso at close-range. An old rage lingers towards the cowardice of the LTTE and their crimes towards a people whose rights they claimed to fight for, the arrogance of a government which continues to deny the human cost of the war, and the apathy of a people who did not care to speak out against it either. Yet ultimately, I am unmoved by this wanton visual bombardment of violence and death.

The documentary’s success lies in shocking, of pushing the watershed of polite television. In a desensitised age where offence and scandal sells awareness, I cannot help but wonder what War Crimes Unpunished hopes to accomplish? A success that bases its bold claims on the audio-visual spoils of war as proof of crimes against humanity? A success populated with nameless carcasses who cannot know justice nor dignity?

Nearly three years later, thousands of Sri Lanka’s displaced remain entrapped within the glossy promise of rapidly progressing infrastructure development, subjugated by unequal social, political and economic practices, and consequently unable to access rights and services. As far as reconciliation is concerned, idealistic policies are being plotted in the hallowed halls of ministries with long names and formless goals. Civil society remains complacent in its apathy, perhaps stirred by the fear of an overbearing Big Brother state.  Killing Fields, they chortle, no doubt part of a great western conspiracy. They are certain because the government says it is so.

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