Kumaratunga toasting as she receives France’s highest national honour, 1998.
Sri Lanka’s former president who oversaw the bombing of a church in Jaffna, has reportedly said the attack was a “mistake” made by the Sri Lankan air force, backtracking from comments she made at the time of the massacre 25 years ago.
According to comments in this week’s Sudar Oli, Chandrika Kumaratunga claimed the “air force bombed the church by mistake”.
“The church was not the target of the Air Force,” she was quoted to have said. “When I heard that the incident took place, I denounced the Air Force”.
More than 140 sheltering Tamils, who were encouraged by the military to seek refuge at the church, were massacred at St Peter’s Church in Navaly, when the Sri Lankan air force dropped at least 13 bombs on it.
Though Kumaratunga claims to have denounced the air force, at the time she told reporters that the bombing “was probably the work of the LTTE who were firing mortar shells in that direction.”
The ICRC had criticised the massacre, stating that “thirteen babies” were among the dead and collected witness testimonies of the aerial bombardment.
“The ICRC says all kinds of things," Reuters quoted Kumaratunga as saying at the time. “There was fighting three kilometers northwest of Navali, so it was unlikely any action by the security forces would have affected the church or its environs.”
The Sri Lankan government initially denied any knowledge of the bombing, before attempting to blame the LTTE for the killings.
As the scale of the massacre became clear, then Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar lashed out at the ICRC for releasing information on the attack. Members of the ICRC who attempted to protest the attack were reportedly summoned to Sri Lanka’s foreign office.
The bombing took place on the first day of the Sri Lankan military’s ‘Operation Leap Forward’, a large-scale military offensive against the positions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) north of the city of Jaffna to retake the Jaffna peninsula. Weeks before the attack, Kumaratunga told an Indian newspaper that if the Jaffna peninsula was to be captured, “you have to launch an all-out attack and the place will be wiped out”.
A history of denial
In 2015, she told an audience, "I have not done anything wrong… I don’t have blood on our hands”. Earlier that year, she had boasted of having won “75%” of the war during her tenure by going to war with the LTTE. And despite her tenure in office marred by the bombing of churches, schools and the massive military invasion of Jaffna, killing countless Tamil civilians.
Kumaratunga has repeatedly denied the need for an independent international investigation into war crimes. In 2017, she told a gathering in Jaffna, “We have no intention to drag the soldiers before courts and send them to gallows”.
In 2018 she was awarded France’s highest national honour, the Medal of “Commandeur de la Légion D’Honneur”.
As Tamils attempted to commemorate the massacre yesterday, Sri Lankan police officers pushed back mourners and threatened them with arrest.