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White vans and war crimes - Yohani’s Sri Lankan military connection 

As Sri Lankan singer Yohani Diloka de Silva continues to feature in news across the Sinhala press for her music, for many Tamils it is her Sri Lankan military connection that has drawn controversy. 

The singer, who went viral with her cover version of the Sinhala song "Manike Mage Hithe", is the daughter of former Sri Lankan army Major General Prasanna De Silva, a military commander who is credibly accused of overseeing war crimes and an officer who Yohani has repeatedly praised as a "hero".

The Major General headed the Sri Lankan army’s 55th Division during the final stages of the armed conflict in 2009, in which tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed, largely by military shelling. 

File photograph of Silva in the Vanni, 2009.

The division that Silva headed in particular was notorious. Amongst the crimes it is accused of, a United Nations report detailed how one hospital in the Vanni was shelled every day from January 29th to February 4th 2009 - most likely by the 55th Division.

Though Silva would later speak of how Sri Lanka’s use of drones “had provided real time battle ground pictures to him, thereby helping him with decision making”, he continued to vehemently deny that war crimes had taken place.

File photograph of Silva in the Vanni, 2009. He is speaking to Shavendra Silva and Kamal Gunaratne, both of whom also stand accused of war crimes.

Defence attaché post in London

The following year, just months after the massacres had taken place, Silva was promoted to the post of defence attaché at the Sri Lankan High Commission in London as part of a series of promotions for military officers accused of crimes to diplomatic postings around the world – a perk which also granted them diplomatic immunity.

Despite being thousands of miles away from had since been dubbed ‘Sri Lanka’s killing fields’, reports of the crimes committed continued to follow Silva.

Soon after he took up his posting, Tamil diaspora groups, alongside the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and TRIAL (Track Impunity Always) called on the British government to declare the commander persona non grata.

Scotland Yard was handed a dossier on Silva’s crimes, whilst the organisations sought a judicial review on the matter. The British government however dragged its feet on the issue – with one British parliamentarian labelling the foreign office’s lack of action "unfathomable".

"It does seem extraordinary [for the FCO] to take no action and just rely upon the Sri Lankan government to withdraw him," said Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden. "Given the evidence and that the government saw the dossier from the NGOs, why on earth did they take no action?... “Do we want people who have those allegations against them here? Do we want people to think that we're an easy or a soft option?"

Fred Carver, then campaign director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, said “any intern equipped with Google and a working mouse could have determined that there were credible allegations against Silva”.

"Now they know what they should have previously suspected and investigated, they should not hesitate to revoke it before it is too late,” he added. “If they do nothing then Silva's unhindered return will be rightly interpreted as signifying that Britain is soft on war crimes suspects."

The Global Tamil Forum told the Guardian that "every alleged war criminal of Sri Lanka must know that the Tamils will not rest until justice is served for the terrible crimes they are alleged to have committed”.

"This along with other legal proceedings must send a message to the regime that they are not welcome on the international scene,” said a spokesperson. “There remain other alleged war criminals in Australia and in New York where we will start proceedings soon."

As legal proceedings and talks of prosecution for war crimes rumbled on, Silva was rushed back to Colombo.

A white van and Silva’s pistol

It would not be long before Silva was once more at the centre of another controversial incident. In July 2015, a white van, the vehicle infamously used by Sri Lankan security forces to carry out abductions and forcible disappearances, was travelling through Mirihana with altered license plates. Inside were three Sri Lankan soldiers, dressed in civilian clothing and armed.

The van was stopped by police who interrogated the occupants and eventually arrested the three soldiers. It later emerged that the three men were part of Major General Silva’s personal security detail and the vehicle had been assigned to him from the army. The weapon the soldiers were carrying was his personal service pistol.

The United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) initially claimed that the soldiers may have been part of an assassination attempt on the Rajapaksa family. But following a three-hour long questioning of Silva, he was released without charge. Soon the Major General was transferred out of the Commando Regiment that he had been leading.

‘You were fighting terrorists’

Having been born to a senior Sri Lankan commander, Yohani herself was never far from military circles. She even studied Logistics Management and Professional Accounting from the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University prior to pursuing her career in music.

It is her proud and unequivocal support of her father though that has raised the most concern. Last year, she released the Sinhala song Rawwath Dasin, which she called her “tribute” to her father.

“You are the decorated soldier who united north and south of the country,” sings Yohani as she is surrounded by flaming wreckage.

“You were fighting terrorists,” she adds. “You are my hero and I worship you with both of my hands on my head.”

“Her father is no hero,” reacted one Tamil activist this week.

“Instead of Sri Lankan artists using music to whitewash the horrors of the crimes committed, more in the South should be exploring art as a way to confront the truth of the genocide,” they continued. “There are war criminals across the whole island who remain unpunished. They should be on trial – not being praised in songs.”

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