‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’

Recent Features

Features | Security | South Asia

‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’

The Diplomat speaks with Callum Macrae, director of ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,’ about his documentary film and the controversy surrounding it.

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.


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.

Footage originated from a variety of sources; civilians, LTTE cameramen and footage shot by soldiers as ‘trophy footage’ as they committed war crimes such as summary executions and the abuse of bodies. One of the reasons I believe this footage has emerged is that there are many people of conscience within the Sri Lanka military and they are extremely unhappy and deeply ashamed by some of the actions documented by the footage. The footage has been extensively analysed by a number of independent experts both for the United Nations and Channel 4, and they all agree that there is no reason to believe it’s anything other than genuine footage depicting genuine executions.

The film acknowledges that the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) also bear a measure of responsibility for some of the violations we see in the documentary – can you expand on that?

The LTTE bears serious responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity and we make that absolutely clear in the film. The surviving LTTE leadership should be brought to justice in the same way that those responsible on the Sri Lankan government side should.

The footage shot by LTTE cameramen was clearly originally intended to show the ‘heroic exploits’ of the Tamil Tigers, but in reality they succeeded in filming the misery of their own people – which was compounded by the LTTE themselves using the civilian population as a human shield.

The US and EU countries have responded to the UN Panel of Experts report by putting the ball into Sri Lanka’s court and calling on them to hold credible investigations and trials, where appropriate. Do you see any evidence that the Sri Lankan government will respond?

The Sri Lankan government has had two years to investigate allegations and has shown absolutely zero evidence of a desire to genuinely attempt a thorough investigation. The Sri Lankan government is dominated by the Rajapaksa family, who control most aspects of military and political policy, have refused to work with the UN investigations, and have maintained that there were zero civilian casualties in the final military campaign. So it doesn’t surprise me that domestic investigations so far have been so inadequate – there is always a huge structural problem when a government investigates itself.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), set up by the Sri Lankan government, is deeply flawed and hasn’t conducted anything like an impartial investigation. They haven’t done so over the last two years and I see no suggestion that will change in the coming months. What’s disturbing is that it seems to have been left to a British TV station to investigate and produce evidence related to these crimes. It’s quite clear that government forces were shooting the footage, therefore if the Sri Lankan government genuinely wanted to investigate these crimes, they would have recovered this footage a long, long time ago and submitted it to open, transparent and objective scrutiny.

Now, clearly the United States and United Kingdom appear to have put the Sri Lankan government on notice that if they don’t deliver a convincing, genuine, impartial investigation, then certainly the UK has said that it will look to alternative international measures. I believe the Sri Lankan government has to take that prospect seriously.

A number of former UN staff based in Sri Lanka during the conflict appear in the documentary and seem troubled by their experiences. How do you view the role of the UN both during and post-conflict?

There are in effect three actors in the dock here: the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE and the United Nations. The UN failed considerably during this war; it failed to prevent the slaughter of civilians, it failed to maintain an adequate presence and to put sufficient pressure on the Sri Lankan government to make a difference.

The Panel of Experts’ report has called on Ban Ki Moon to set up an international mechanism to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ban Ki Moon has said that he doesn’t have the authority to set up such a mechanism, which some people dispute, but if that’s true, then clearly it falls to member states to do so via the Security Council, Human Rights Council or the General Assembly. If justice is to be done, as the Panel of Experts calls for, then it’s incumbent on the international community to ensure that is the outcome.

In the past weeks you have shown the film to UN and national diplomatic staff in both Geneva and New York – how did that come about and what has the response been?

Well this came about in cooperation with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and I suppose our report has come to have some role in the discussions around the Panel of Experts’ report and the debate around the UN’s next steps, and I think that’s why there was such interest in seeing the film both in Geneva and New York. We know that Ban Ki Moon has a copy of the film, and I’d be surprised and more than a little shocked if he hasn’t watched it.

China is Sri Lanka’s largest aid donor and is seen to be protecting Sri Lanka at the UN. Some analysts looking at the region say that the West should tread carefully in pursuing the Sri Lankan government over war crimes. They cite the example of Burma, which has ended up isolated, alienated from the West and under the influence of China. What do you make of that view?

Well this isn’t just an issue for the West, however you define it. This is a problem for the international community, whether that is India, China, the United States, Russia or any other actor. They need to ensure that justice is done. If they fail to do so, one certain lesson of history is that the tragedy will repeat itself. It is really in no-one’s long term interest, including China’s, to prevent the kind of justice that would enable long-term stability and economic growth in Sri Lanka.


Callum Macrae is a journalist and filmmaker who has worked extensively in the UK and other countries – most recently in Japan, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Sudan, Congo, Iraq and the US. He has reported, filmed and directed many award-winning television documentaries for Channel 4, the BBC, PBS in America and Al Jazeera English.  He writes regularly for a number of papers and journals including the Observer, the Guardian and The Times.