Page last updated at 14:53 GMT, Thursday, 30 September 2010 15:53 UK

Seeking the truth in Sri Lanka

Hundreds of thousands were displaced at the last stages of the war (photo courtesy Human Rights Watch; January 2009)
Tens of thousands people were confined to a small area at the last stages of war

What really happened in the closing stages of Sri Lanka's civil war? The island's victorious government has defiantly rejected calls for an international investigation into alleged war crimes by troops and the Tamil Tigers. Instead it has launched its own inquiry which it says will establish important facts and promote reconciliation. Some witnesses have testified in private, but BBC correspondent Charles Haviland has been attending its public hearings.

In a green and beautiful part of Colombo stands an old white timber-framed house. Its verandas look out onto a garden which this season is wet with rain.

This oasis is home to a think tank named after Lakshman Kadirgamar, a foreign minister assassinated by a Tamil Tiger sniper in 2005.

The panel consists of Sri Lankan lawyers and diplomats
Citizens are finding the courage to talk openly to the commission

And, since early August, it's been hosting what is known as the Commission on Lessons Learned and Reconciliation. A host of people have come into the chamber where the eight-member panel sits, looking down on the desk where witnesses speak.

Testifying the other day was a multi-faith group of clergy. There have been ministers; ambassadors; the top military. True to the panel's broad remit, they have talked about many things, from the need to rectify the bias against the Tamil language, to controversial issues of war tactics.

This is a government-appointed panel of Sri Lankan lawyers and diplomats, not the international commission that the UN's human rights chief has called for. Yet if sceptics had predicted the witnesses would give the government an easy ride, that has not been the case so far.

Of course, there has been strong condemnation of the defeated Tigers. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said the now vanquished rebels shot at civilians as they tried to flee their territory. Other witnesses spoke of how they used Tamil men and women as human shields as the military closed in on them.

There is also been scathing criticism of Western nations, which nationalistic Sri Lankans portray as Tiger-huggers. Some have poured scorn on a favourite whipping boy, Norway, which facilitated a failed 2002 ceasefire - an episode now denounced here as a time of appeasement.

War apology

Yet many more testimonies will have caused discomfiture to the government itself.

Manik de Silva
Journalists say that it was wrong to bar reporters from the war zone

A prominent businessman has urged the authorities to make a public apology for years of war and suffering.

A Muslim woman, until recently a government minister, said that enforced "disappearances" were still a huge problem in the former war zone, a place now dominated by the army.

A retired Sri Lankan diplomat condemned the government for holding 2,000 young Tamils in prisons - many detained for years, merely on suspicion, under draconian anti-terrorist laws.

People in Sri Lanka generally do not venture to air these subjects. Yet they are now being raised in this public forum.

And not only by the powerful.

At a hearing in northern Sri Lanka, ordinary Tamils boldly came forward. In the town of Vavuniya I watched as an elderly tailor said his son was picked up by the army in 2008, released the next day, but immediately abducted.

A woman said her son disappeared from an army-run camp. There were many more. And they are still missing.

Tough words for the government also came out last week in the former rebel-controlled zone.

'Self-censorship'

The defence ministry blocked me, as the BBC correspondent, from attending these public hearings. But we now know that people said their family members, formerly conscripts with the Tigers, disappeared after surrendering to the army - or that the military's bombing of rebel territory led to many civilian deaths.

The Tamil Tigers faced equally serious allegations - that they killed, purloined food aid and gave their families priority over the wounded for evacuation.

It seems that citizens are finding the courage to talk openly to this commission, feeling they have little left to lose.

The war panel's work is being bedevilled, however, by the government's allergy to free information.

Not only was the BBC kept away from the latest northern hearings. Many of the Sri Lankan media, fearing reprisals by the state, have covered the commission sessions in a heavily one-sided way, largely ignoring the more controversial testimony.

And how much does the public really know about this commission, before which almost anyone can - theoretically - testify? As far as I can tell, not much.

It has an extraordinarily low profile. It seems that when the panel came to the north, most locals had no idea it was visiting and had difficulty getting the information they needed to come and testify.

A website commentator said it even appeared that witnesses were being photographed by plainclothes police, raising serious questions on witness protection.

This commission has many weeks still to go.

The government has set a lofty yardstick, saying it is comparable to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although the military has swiftly denied some ordinary people's testimony, there has been little official reaction to the proceedings.

Sri Lankans wait to see what other testimony will emerge from the hearings around the country and from that white house in Colombo - and what the panel will then write in its report... should it ever be made public.

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