In May, the UN Panel of Experts set up to investigate allegations of war crimes during the final weeks of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 reported ‘credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international rights law was committed both by the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE.’
Last month, British TV station Channel 4, aired the documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’, which included graphic footage of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. The British Foreign Office Minister expressed shock at the film’s content, but the Sri Lankan High Commission in London stated that the film was ‘driven by a political agenda against Sri Lanka.’ The Diplomat’s Stewart Watters speaks with the documentary’s director, Callum Macrae, to hear his take on the controversy.
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What was your personal motivation to direct this film? Why Sri Lanka, and why now?
Channel 4 has been reporting on this throughout the past two years and the documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields represents the culmination of all that. Although the release comes not long after the Panel of Experts’ report was published, that was a coincidence and we were clearly researching at the same time. However, I think it’s significant that we both reached virtually identical conclusions.
Interestingly enough this does tie directly into one of the complaints that have been made against the film. It’s been portrayed in Sri Lanka as a kind of strange Western agenda against this developing country. The reality is that I’ve made quite a few films which relate to extrajudicial executions and torture and in fact the last two major films I made dealt with allegations against British troops in Iraq. So the idea that this film is pursuing a Western agenda is wrong. My job is to investigate the facts and get to the truth of what happened and tell the story, whether or not those crimes were committed by the Sri Lankan government, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) or the United Kingdom.
Mobile phone footage by soldiers, LTTE guerrillas and civilians forms a critical element of the film. What is the significance of this ability to visually document the final chaotic days of a conflict?
Well the irony of this war is that the Sri Lankan government went to such efforts to ensure no-one from outside witnessed or was able to report on the final part of the conflict. The United Nations and international observers were left with little option but to get out when the Sri Lankan government claimed they could no longer guarantee their safety.
International media was forbidden entry, and in Sri Lanka itself the domestic media was brutally suppressed. Sri Lanka is, by some measures, the fourth most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist and it’s certainly true that anti-government critics have found themselves expelled, forced into exile or murdered by forces unknown. So I believe the hope was that this war could be fought in secret and it has effectively taken two years for this information to come out.