Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

“Generating Calamity” by Michael Roberts

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 23 2014


Colman's Column3

Michael Roberts posted an article on Groundviews entitled: Generating Calamity, 2008-2014: An Overview of Tamil Nationalist Operations and Their Marvels.

I am dealing with the matter here because I have been banned from commenting on Groundviews. Sanjana Hattotuwa told me on a previous occasion: “The web’s an open place – and you can follow the example of so many others over 7 years and choose to raise your concerns in other web fora and channels. Good night and good luck”.

The main thrust of Professor Roberts’s piece is that, in the final days of Eelam War IV, the LTTE used some 320,000 of their own people to manufacture a picture of an “impending humanitarian disaster” so that concerned international forces would intervene and impose a ceasefire or effect a rescue operation.

I am not saying that Professor Roberts is correct. It would be quite legitimate to argue against this thesis. Unfortunately, reasoned argument is not guaranteed on fora such as Groundviews. In this case, at an early stage in the discussion, a moderator steps in and says: “Rather than attack the author, can you please provide counter factual analysis and/or a detailed breakdown of how and where you differ with the author’s submission? Please help to further the debate by focussing on the content, not the person.” That sounds encouraging but the moderator is soon convinced by the commenter and says “Point taken” and steps back from the fray.

A later ad hominem attack is allowed by the moderator: “Look closely at the writings of the author and you will find, sinhala supremacist agenda peeping through”. A bizarre comment considering that Roberts is not Sinhalese. Another commenter calling himself Sri Lanka Campaign (SLC) is allowed to attack the author without addressing the substance of the author’s arguments.

Roberts divides his article up into sections labelled A to M. SLC writes something about each of these sections. I will not bore Ceylon Today readers by dealing with every section myself but I will try to give a flavour.

SLC tries to convict Roberts of taking the humanitarian crisis lightly: “Regardless of how the LTTE chose to portray the situation it is undeniable that the situation in Vanni in 2009 was a humanitarian catastrophe… The idea that the catastrophe was overstated does not sit at all well with what most of us remember of that time.”



Surely, the point is not that the LTTE “portrayed” the situation or “overstated” it but that they created it?

SLC concedes this much: “The LTTE certainly share the blame for the ‘situation of entrapment’ but the idea that they were solely to blame does not stand up to any scrutiny”. He continues: “Regardless it is a complete non sequitur, and callous reasoning, that moral concerns around a humanitarian catastrophe should be put to one side because one of the parties involved shares responsibility for the situation.”



That is slippery in the extreme.

It is an LTTE leader whom Roberts quotes. KP said: “[we] had to magnify the humanitarian crisis.” Roberts himself is not saying the humanitarian crisis was imaginary or of no account. SLC says :“The LTTE certainly share the blame for the ‘situation of entrapment’”. Of course, moral concerns should not be put to one side by GOSL simply because the LTTE had no moral concerns about shooting their own people and using them as human shields. The GOSL continued to supply medicines and food to the north and rescued a great number of those held hostage by the LTTE.

Colombo Telegraph published a leaked cable from the WikiLeaks database. Jacques de Maio, ICRC Head of Operations for South Asia, said the LTTE had tried to keep civilians in the middle of a permanent state of violence. It saw the civilian population as a “protective asset” and kept its fighters embedded amongst them. De Maio said that the LTTE commanders’ objective was to keep the distinction between civilian and military assets blurred. He also said, “the Army actually could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths.” Robert O Blake, noted in a confidential embassy cable: “The Army has a generally good track record of taking care to minimize civilian casualties during its advances…”.

Even Gordon Weiss, in his book The Cage, praised the conduct of the Sri Lanka Army: “Dozens of Tamils described the Sinhalese as inherently kind and gentle people. The front-line soldiers who received the first civilians as they escaped to government lines, those who guarded them in the camps and the civilian and military doctors who provided vital treatment distinguished themselves most commonly through their mercy and care.”



Did the government not provide Prabhakaran’s parents with pensions and medical care? Did the government not airlift Daya Master to hospital for heart surgery and then give him transport back to the war?

At many points, SLC seems content to go along with a particular brand of received wisdom in a manner that is far too trusting. For example at one point, he says: “Every serious history of the conflict…suggests … that civilian casualty figures were significantly under-estimated…”



He does not provide any citations to support this assertion. SLC sneers about “All those inconvenient verified facts in multiple independent and UN reports.” He does not acknowledge that those reports have been challenged. “I would not consider it wise to go toe-to-toe with a UN panel containing three of the world’s pre-eminent specialists on questions of credibility. Actually subsequent work on the area from the Petrie report, World Bank figures etc… suggests 40,000 is on the lower end of the probable figures.”

Oh no, it doesn’t. You are too trusting, SLC. Is it because you used to work for the UN? Roberts deals with this point but SLC ignores his argument: “The slipshod methodology of the UNSG Panel (also known as the Darusman Panel) consolidated this process. Worse still, the Panel’s concluding statement that ‘a number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths’ has been widely turned into a definitive figure by leading Western politicians as well as leading media personnel”.

Roberts backs up his own argument with references to a number of studies which cast doubt on casualty figures which have gathered “credibility” from constant repetition. All of those studies explain how they arrived at their estimates of civilian casualty figures. After careful consideration, the IDAG-S concluded that the civilian death toll was probably between 15,000 and 18,000. This itself has been challenged by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who points out that “only 6000 injured were taken off by the ICRC ships over four months, along with bystanders, suggesting that the figure of the dead would have been less.” The 18,000 figure includes civilians killed by the LTTE, the IDAG-S says, although “it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small”.

The IDAG-S estimate is somewhat higher than some other calculations made by Tamils, who are by no means supporters of the government. Dr Rajasingham Narendran talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere. His estimate of deaths – “including LTTE cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”. Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute said “[approximately] 12,000 [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “. Dr. Noel Nadesan: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”. Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying “as many as 2,800 civilians may have been killed”.

SLC’s treatment of Section E is bizarre. He snarks: “I scarcely know where to begin with this train wreck of a paragraph.” I myself am not a great fan of counter-factual history and do not see much point in discussing what might have been. I would not have written the paragraph myself, but SLC’s response is over-the-top. Likening what Roberts says to “something from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is infantile as well as being an unpleasant smear. SLC asks: “Does anyone really believe Prabhakaran could care less?”
That is why the war had to be fought to the bitter end.

SLC excuses himself: “This was written in haste and apologies if my irritation sometimes shone through. No doubt others could do a better and more comprehensive job of debunking, but the material scarcely merits it”. Certainly the following sneer strikes this reader as mean spirited: “This is essentially a lengthy moan at IGEP for not taking his work, or that of various shadowy and anonymous groups, seriously”. That is going for the man rather than the ball. SLC sneers at the anonymity of the IDAG_S report.


SLC, you should use your own name when dishing out stuff like that. You seem “shadowy and anonymous” yourself.


Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot


hulot poster

I was a ‘cinephile’ from a very early age.

My Auntie Evelyn was the youngest sibling in my mother’s large family and my mother was the eldest. Evelyn said she was an ‘afterthought’ or a ‘mistake’. When I was an infant, Evelyn was carried away with teenage enthusiasms for pop music and films. With her sister, Auntie Rose, she took me the length and breadth of the land to see such pop idols of the day as Ruby Murray and David Whitfield. I saw Dusty Springfield twice, once when she was a member of the Lana Sisters, and once when she was part of a pop folk trio called The Springfields.
Evelyn took me often to the cinema, or rather ‘the pictures’. In those days, Gloucester had the Picturedrome (later to become the Ritz), the Plaza (later to become the Odeon) and the Regal (later to become the ABC). There was also the Empire but that only showed old films. I would love that today but the cinema became a chapel of the Elim church.

One found out from the Gloucester Citizen what was showing but did not bother about what time the film started. You just went along when you were ready and were shown to a seat in the dark by an usherette with a torch. You stumbled to a seat, tripping over the feet of people who were already in the middle of watching a film. You would pick up the thread of the story from somewhere in the middle. When it was over you would then have an ice cream, watch the ads, Pathé or Movietone News and the B feature before starting the main feature from the beginning. When you got to the point at which you had arrived you would get up and tread on people as you stumbled out in the dark. Hence the expression, ‘this is where I came in’.
When I was around five or six, I saw Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, A Star is Born (the Judy Garland and James Mason one) and countless Esther Williams musicals. With my father, I saw war films like Reach for the Sky, The Colditz Story, Above us the Waves and the Dam Busters or westerns like The Man from Laramie.
When I graduated to going to the pictures with my contemporaries, it was Abbot and Costello and Norman Wisdom or the Boulting Brothers. At one time we all had a crush on Hayley Mills. (There is a special place in my heart for a B movie actress called Gloria Talbot).
In pre-teen years, I was a member of the ABC Minors, a Saturday morning cinema club which featured ancient Flash Gordon (including the villain Ming the Merciless) and Buck Rogers serials starring Buster Crabbe. I recall winning a competition and getting a free ticket to see Forbidden Planet starring a young Leslie Nielsen.

In mid teens, I would go to see a film every Sunday afternoon with my girl friend whatever film was showing. The first one was The Waltz of the Toreadors with Peter Sellers. There were many of those romantic comedies with Doris Day and Rock Hudson or James Garner.
I went to Manchester University at a time before the multiplex (or DVD or internet streaming), when every suburb had several small cinemas, many of which changed their programme every few days. Near Oxford Road station The Classic showed old Hollywood movies. My hall of residence showed a free film every Sunday evening. I remember having a migraine during The Ipcress File and joining in howls of laughter at the ludicrous pretensions of The Sandpiper. In the centre of Manchester there was The Cinephone, which showed mainly French films, where I struggled to appreciate Jean-Luc Godard. The University Film Society showed Bergman, which I liked from the start and Antonioni whom I found hard going.


There was a Manchester Film Theatre which did art house films in repertory along the lines of the British Film Institute. When that failed and it became a porn movie house, the proprietor, Dr Jackson, set up another repertory cinema called the Aaben in the urban wasteland that was Hulme.
In later years, BBC2 and Channel 4 showed excellent programmes of world cinema on a regular basis.
When I moved to London I was a regular at the National Film Theatre with particularly fond memories of a Cary Grant season. London also had a wealth of repertory cinema clubs.

These days we tend to watch a movie every evening up in our mountain retreat thanks to the miracle of DVD and Amazon and to the fact that one gets the very latest movies on DVD in Sri Lanka very cheap. One would never dream of visiting a cinema here because all they show are Hindi musicals and porn.
I have seen many movies in my time. I have constructed a personal pantheon that includes, Marcel Carné, Ingmar Bergman, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawkes, Billy Wilder, Cary Grant, Terry-Thomas and many others.



It would be very difficult to compile a top ten of my favorite films.
However, I would have no difficulty in naming my number one favourite. That would be Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.



I first saw it before I went to university, when visiting a friend who had gone to college in London. I laughed so much. When I was at university and it was on at the Film Society I insisted that my new friends watch it. They sat through it in irritated silence and thought I was mad.



I had the film on VHS and tended to put it on when the weather or my own spirits were gloomy. After coming to Sri Lanka the VHS tape deteriorated because of climate conditions and mildew made it impossible to watch. Have no fear; I now have it on DVD along with other Tati films Jour de Fete, Mon Oncle and Playtime. Everyone seems to have forgotten about the other one, Traffic. None of the others quite has the charm of M Hulot’s Holiday.



jacques tati 2
Jacques Tati came from a family of exiled Russian nobles called Tatischev. He had a career as a professional rugby player before taking to show business as a mime in the 1930s. He played a few small roles in films and then made a few shorts himself including L’École Des Facteurs (The School for Postmen) which was later developed into his first feature Jour de Fete.
M Hulot’s Holiday was made in 1953. The Hulot character has an iconic appearance and has even been used in the cover art for a New York Review of Books edition of a Simenon novel, M Monde Disappears.


m monde


With his trademark raincoat, small hat, his trousers just a little bit too short, umbrella and pipe, Hulot is among the most memorable comic characters in cinema. Bosley Crowther described him as “a long-legged, slightly pop-eyed gent whose talent for caricaturing the manners of human beings is robust and intense”.


To me M Hulot’s Holiday is the ultimate ‘feel good movie’. The atmosphere is tranquil and sunny. The movie was filmed in the town of Saint-marc-sur-Mer in the Loire-Atlantique region. A bronze statue of M. Hulot was later erected overlooking the beach where the film was made. The sea breaks gently on the beach in Brittany. People stroll around doing very little. There is no dialogue, no intrusive soundtrack, just melodic jazz on a clarinet. Alain Romans wrote the score.




M Hulot is benign and ineffectual. At the beginning of the film, a flea-bitten, decrepit dog is sleeping in the middle of the road but gets up and moves when cars come along. When M Hulot comes chuggling along in his antique vehicle (a 1924 Amilcar), the dog starts to get up but when he sees M Hulot he settles back down again and Hulot has to back up and drive around him.
The Hulot character is almost invisible to other people but his politeness is unassailable. When the announcer on the hotel’s radio says ‘Good night, everybody!’’ he bows and raises his hat.


The comedy lies in the fact that his benign ineffectuality constantly causes mayhem all around him. He is usually unaware of what he has wrought. Tati conveys Hulot’s clumsiness with balletic grace. Tati began his career as a mime and Hulot never speaks except to introduce himself to people who are not really taking much notice of him: “Hulot. Hulot.”


jacking car
Hulot goes out to sea in a minuscule kayak which clearly too small for his lanky frame. It capsizes and folds up in such a way as to resemble a shark. There is a major panic on the beach, which is completely lost on Hulot who goes on his sublime way.


kayak shark
All of Tati’s movies are meticulously put together rather in the manner of Buster Keaton. This works well in a small-scale setting like M Hulot’s Holiday. Tati’s aim is to focus attention on the comical nature of humanity when interacting as a group, through carefully planned visual gags. Tati’s themes include Western society’s obsession with material goods, particularly American-style consumerism, the superficiality of contemporary relationships, and the cold and often impractical nature of space-age technology and design.



Even in M Hulot’s Holiday there is a workaholic staying at the hotel who would today have a Smartphone and an i-pad. Inanimate objects are malign. The film gently mocks the confidence of post-war Western society that work is more important than pleasure. In his epic satire on modern life, Playtime, the sheer size of the ambitious design rather overwhelms. A whole city called Tativille was constructed for that film.





Roger Ebert wrote: “Sight gags are set up with such patience that they seem to expose hidden functions in the clockwork of the universe. Consider the scene where Hulot is painting his kayak, and the tide carries the paint can out to sea and then floats it in again, perfectly timed, when his brush is ready for it again. How was this scene done? Is it a trick, or did Tati actually experiment with tides and cans until he got it right? Is it ‘funny’? No, it is miraculous. The sea is indifferent to painters, but nevertheless provides the can when it is needed, and life goes on, and the boat gets painted.”





Some people have been disappointed with Tati after seeing Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther and The Party. Although Inspector Clouseau struggles against his own lust and over-reaching ambition rather than a cruel world, Sellers borrowed much of his timing and physical business from Tati. I hope you will not be disappointed and hate me for recommending it. As I said, my university friends were not impressed. It is black and white with no dialogue, no loud music, no sex, no car chases, no special effects. Some cretinous critic who had better remain nameless wrote: “It’s not as funny as what it inspired – which would include Jerry Lewis and Mr. Bean – but it’s better than passable.”


pirate dance

This is so crass. I am all for freedom of opinion but this is taking the First Amendment too far. For all their undoubted talents, Rowan Atkinson and Jerry Lewis do not inhabit the same universe as Tati. The Lewis and Bean personas are malicious retards. Hulot is a decent man struggling against the complexities of the material world and his own incompetence and retaining through it all an indestructible optimism, civility and lovability.




Leaving that unpleasantness aside, I will let Roger Ebert have the last word.
“As well as laughter the film gives us something rarer, an amused affection for human nature–so odd, so valuable, and so particular. When has a film so subtly and yet so completely captured nostalgia for past happiness? The movie is about the simplest of human pleasures: The desire to get away for a few days, to play instead of work, to breathe in the sea air, and maybe meet someone nice. It is about the hope that underlies all vacations, and the sadness that ends them. And it is amused, too, that we go about our days so intently, while the sea and the sky go about theirs.”


beach hut
Wise words.


EPSON scanner image

On the set of One Eyed Jacks with Brando

Venice and Death

A city born to die – by drowning.



Algonquin Round Table wit Robert Benchley visited Venice and sent a telegram to David Niven: “Streets full of water. Advise”. The city is certainly flooded these days – with tourists.






Writers and Venice



death in venice

In his novella, Death in Venice, Thomas Mann describes the fetid atmosphere of the city and the cholera outbreak that kills his protagonist. Other writers apart from Mann have been inspired by Venice. Shakespeare set Othello and The Merchant of Venice in the city. Venice inspired the poetry of Ezra Pound, who wrote his first literary work in the city. Pound died in 1972 and his remains are buried in Venice’s cemetery island of San Michele. The city features prominently in Henry James’ The Aspern Papers and The Wings of the Dove and is also visited in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The English writer, artist, photographer and eccentric, Frederick William Rolfe, better known as Baron Corvo, author of Hadrian VII, died in Venice in 1913. Mark Twain wrote about Venice in The Innocents Abroad:”The Venetian gondola is as free and graceful, in its gliding movement, as a serpent.”

Henry James visited Venice 15 times and used the city to explore themes of  the contrast between the new world and the old.






At the  Hotel Danieli, the famous affair between the French novelist and playwright George Sand and poet Alfred de Musset was consummated. At different times Goethe, Byron and Dickens also stayed there.



Geoff Dyer was born not far from me in Cheltenham. He now lives in Venice Beach California where he was reminded of his mortality recently when he had a stroke.





Venetian Empire


The Venetian Empire thrived between 1206 and 1450. In its heyday, it stretched down the Adriatic, along the Peloponnesian coast, across to Crete and Corfu and Cyprus, up the Adriatic and into Asia Minor, with its eastern outpost at Tana on the far end of the Sea of Azov beyond the Crimea.


Centre of Commerce


In the Middle Ages Venice was a major centre for commerce and trade, a leader in political and economic affairs. Venice created an institutional basis for commercial capitalism, creating political and legal institutions that guaranteed property rights and the enforceability of contracts. It was a pioneer in developing foreign exchange and credit markets, banking and accountancy. It created a government bond market, starting with compulsory loans with regular interest payments. Its fiscal system was efficient and favourable to mercantile profits and the accumulation of capital.


The biggest enterprise in imperial Venice was the Arsenale, a public shipyard created in 1104. It was operative for centuries, and employed thousands of workers. Some small boat building is till carried out there and the rope factory is today one of the venues of the Venice Biennale.





Wealth and Art
The wealth of the Venetian Empire attracted great artists such as Giorgione, Tintoretto and Titian. Glassworkers, woodworkers, lace makers and sculptors made satisfactory livings. Venetian Gothic architecture, as seen in Doge’s Palace and the Ca’ d’Oro, has attracted visitors for centuries. During the 16th century, Venice became one of the most important musical centers of Europe, marked by a characteristic style of composition and the development of the Venetian polychoral style. Venice was famous for the splendour of its music, as exemplified in the “colossal style” of Gabrieli, which used multiple choruses. Venice was also the home of many famous composers during the baroque period, such as Vivaldi and Albinoni. Opera was born in Venice through the works of Monteverdi.





Demographic Decline



In 1171, the city had about 66 000 inhabitants, and was one of the three biggest cities in Western Europe until the sixteenth century. In 1557, the population of Venetian territories was about 1.5 million. Venice experienced three demographic catastrophes. A final one may be underway now. The other three were plagues. The modern plague is tourism. The numbers of the native population have been falling for centuries, but the pace of decline has quickened. The population fell from 174,000 in 1951 to 70,000 in 1996, prompting fears that the city’s days as a sustainable community are numbered. The danger point was thought to be 60,000 and the population has now dipped below that.


la salute
Venice has been trying to find a role. Should it aim to be a creative, living city, or to be a kind of museum? Real people cannot afford to live there but the tourist trade needs workers.




The city of Mestre, on the mainland connected by rail and road over the lagoon, supplies what Venice’s tourist industry needs most: people. Since the end of World War II, Mestre grew quickly and chaotically into a vast human settlement, which now includes migrant workers from Romania and Africa. Unlike Venice, Mestre has normal shops with normal prices.


Italian street



Built on Sewage



It might seem like a crazy idea to build a city at the centre of an empire in a waterlogged space. Water gave Venice life and water will be the death of Venice. The current city administration is ignoring the rise in sea level that global warming will bring. On November 4, 1966, an abnormal occurrence of high tides, rain-swollen rivers and a severe Sirocco wind caused a flood that left thousands of residents without homes and caused over six million dollars worth of damage. Climate change will bring regular flooding twice a day, because of tidal oscillation.


Many visitors comment on the smell of Venice. The current sewage disposal system is a patchwork of old and new and does not fully meet the needs of a modern city catering to thousands of tourists. Some houses and apartments still discharge untreated sewage directly into the canals. Significant levels of hepatitis A and enteroviruses have been detected.


The 12th edition of the Baedeker guide to Venice published in 1903 noted that the vaporetti were introduced in 1888. These new steamboats churned the water below the surface and increased erosion. Today motor boats have a worse effect.








Worse still are the huge cruise ships, most of them three times the length of an American football field, with gross tonnage of 100,000 or more (the Titanic was only 46,000 tons). In 1997, 206 cruise ships came to Venice, in 2011, 655. In 1990, 200,000 cruise tourists disembarked in Venice; in 2011, it was 1.8 million. On just one day in July 2011, six of these ships tied up in port and 35,000 tourists disembarked at once.




The cruise business provides 1,600 direct jobs in services for the ships and passengers, 2,600 jobs in supplies, maintenance, repairs, bunker sales, etc., and 1,270 direct jobs created by tourist spending in Venice (at least €363 million a year).
St Mark’s Square has hundreds of people milling around. You cannot enjoy a quiet coffee at Quadri or Florian’s. A huge queue obscures the façade of St Mark’s. The acceptable maximum number of tourists for Venice is 33,000. In 2011, the average number of visitors to the city daily is 60,000. Tourism destroys that which gives it existence.


Much of Venice’s appeal lies in its air of unreality. Canaletto and Turner captured the dream-like quality of ancient buildings reflected in water in the constantly changing light. Proust said his dream had become his address. The film Don’t Look Now captured the sinister aspect of Venice, the fog from the canals drifting down the maze-like alleyways hiding who knows what dangers.


dont look


Venice is a good example of anicca, impermanence. It was born to die and this gives it its beauty. Venice’s death warrant was signed at its birth by its very location. The city has always been sinking, frayed by the salty air, the thrusting marine current, the sirocco and the oscillation of the Adriatic Sea. Now it has a plague of tourists with which to contend.


How much longer can it live?


Rwanda- Twenty Years after Genocide

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 16 2016


Colman's Column3

Twenty years have passed since the genocide in Rwanda. The true numbers of dead will never be known – some estimates go as high as five million but the figure generally used is 800,000. In 1994, during 100 days, vast numbers of Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu were killed in well-planned attacks ordered by the interim government that took power when President Habyarimana was assassinated on 6 April.


Divide and Rule

One cannot help but note that in the colonial project it was not uncommon for the imperial power to take advantage of, or even create, ethnic conflicts in pursuit of a divide and rule strategy. Britain did this with Jews and Arabs in Iraq, Tamils and Sinhalese in Ceylon, and in Kenya, Kikuyu and Luo.
Both the Germans and the Belgians promoted Tutsi supremacy in Rwanda, considering the Hutu and Tutsi different races. In 1933, the Belgians made the fateful decision to issue identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. In 1994, these cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them.


One can view the subsequent ethnic cleansing and genocide as horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s. As the decolonization of Africa was approaching, the Belgians changed their Rwanda policy. They had favoured the Tutsi but they reversed themselves and made the Hutu masters of Rwanda just before granting the country independence in 1962. Hutu activists began killing Tutsi, forcing more than 100,000 to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, including Uganda. In 1962, the now pro-Hutu Belgians held a referendum and elections in which the country voted to abolish the monarchy. Cycles of violence followed, with exiled Tutsi attacking from neighbouring countries and the Hutu retaliating with large-scale slaughter and repression of the Tutsi.

After independence, government-sponsored Hutu gangs carried out periodic massacres of Tutsi. Many Tutsi fled the country. Those who remained became second-class citizens and were denied full rights to education, employment, and travel. Whenever extremist or corrupt Hutu politicians needed a scapegoat, or wished to divert attention away from their own misdeeds, they attacked the Tutsi minority.


In 1973, Juvénal Habyarimana seized power in a military coup. Pro-Hutu discrimination continued, but there was greater economic prosperity and violence against Tutsi diminished.

Aftermath of Genocide

When Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front took over the country, the new government had the daunting logistical problem of dealing with the vast number of people accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The government carried out more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand arrests by 1997. By 2001, Rwanda’s prisons and communal jails were bursting at the seams with 120,000 alleged genocidaires. Rwanda’s courts were shut down for more than two years after the genocide. Amnesty International estimated that after the genocide there were only ten lawyers left in the country. The government calculated that it would take another 110 years to prosecute all the prisoners.



Philip Gourevitch wrote: “Nobody ever talked seriously about conducting tens of thousands of murder trials in Rwanda. Western legal experts liked to say that even the lawyer-crowded United States could not have handled Rwanda’s caseload fairly and expeditiously”.




Gacaca court system


To speed things up, Rwanda implemented the Gacaca court system, often translated as “justice on the grass”. This is a method of transitional justice designed to promote healing and a new start, with justice to some extent being placed in the hands of the victims.


International justice


Gacaca was Rwanda’s own approach to the aftermath of genocide. There was also international intervention. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was set up in November 1994 by the UN Security Council in order to judge people responsible for the genocide and other serious violations of international law in Rwanda or by Rwandan citizens in nearby states, between 1 January and 31 December 1994. The new Rwandan government came to view the tribunal as an assault on both its legitimacy and sovereignty.

There has been much animosity within Rwanda against the ICTR for its slowness, incompetence and alleged rampant corruption. The UN has a bad name in Rwanda because of its failure to intervene during the genocide.

What is Rwanda Like Today?


Rwanda is a small country with 8.8 million people packed into a land area about the size of Maryland. The population is young and predominantly rural, with a density among the highest in Africa. The climate is moderate, there are few jungles, and slave traders never penetrated into Rwandan territory. Rwanda is landlocked, and for much of its history it was isolated from the world; the first European did not arrive until 1892. It has neither great mineral wealth nor space for large-scale agriculture.


Many observers consider the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, to be the safest city in Africa today, and Rwanda one of the safest countries in the world. An international school opened for the children of foreign investors and entrepreneurs flocking to the country. Rwanda has low corruption compared with neighbouring countries. Many outsiders believe that no other poor country is embarked on such a promising campaign to improve itself, and are thrilled with what President Kagame is doing.


During the 2000s,  Rwanda’s economy, tourist numbers and Human Development Index improved rapidly. Between 2006 and 2011, the poverty rate reduced from 57% to 45%, and child mortality rates dropped from 180 per 1000 live births in 2000 to 111 per 1000 in 2009.


Human Rights


Not everyone sees Paul Kagame as a knight in shining armour. Not everyone buys the story of genocide. Barrie Collins, author of Obedience in Rwanda: A Critical Question, argues that Kagame rose to power because NGOs and the UN convinced the world that what was, in reality, a brutal civil conflict in the early 1990s, was a genocidal act on the part of the Rwandan Hutus, led by then president Juvénal Habyarimana, against Rwandan Tutsis. US Ambassador at Large for War Crime Issues, Stephen Rapp, declared that Rwanda’s leaders could be tried by the International Criminal Court for aiding and abetting war crimes in neighbouring countries such as , the Congo and Central African Republic. Journalists criticising the government can be prosecuted for defamation. Political parties are prohibited from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. The authorities have used these limitations to imprison critics.


Kagame argued that some Westerners define “human rights” too narrowly, defending rights of personal expression but underestimating the importance of stability and economic progress. Kagame’s defenders argue that too much democracy too soon will split Rwanda apart again. Texan agronomist Tim Schilling said: “It’s necessary to have a little repression here to keep the lid on” while Kagame’s economic development programme takes hold. Many have argued that poverty fed the violence. Kagame is addressing the problem of poverty.




Whatever the concerns about human rights, there is no denying that Rwanda has transformed from a country devastated by genocide, to a peaceful nation striving for peace and prosperity. An important part of Rwanda’s ongoing recovery process has been the promotion of cultural industries that have clear social benefits. Rwanda’s government worked closely with international partners to establish a platform for promoting the creative industries. Rwanda is focusing on restoring relationships between people through mandatory community service, called umuganda, which means, “coming together in common purpose”. Umuganda contributes greatly to the process of developing a conciliatory accommodation between former antagonists. NAR (Never Again Rwanda) focuses on the role of young people in learning and reflecting on the genocide.


Kubwimana Venuste, Secretary General of the International Foundation for Transformation, wrote, “One needs to remember that there is something in the past to be forgiven. It is probably not possible to attain complete justice or reconciliation, but Rwandans created conditions that favour accountability so that they could move from reconciliation to conciliation.



Instead of moving back to a previous relationship, we built on the possibilities and forged new bonds. Each one of us, Hutu and Tutsi, has the moral duty and responsibility to ensure that never again shall there be the senseless shedding of blood in our country. Remembering can also act as deterrence.”



Disturbing Images, Disturbing Views

This article was published in the Nation on Sunday, 18 March 2012


On March 9, 2012, the Colombo Telegraph published ten photographs of three young women who appeared to have died violently. Their clothing was in disarray, indicating brutal sexual assault.

There was no text accompanying the photographs but context was provided by the title of the post: Disturbing Images of War Crimes: Rape And Killings and the tags: “Photographic evidence of sexual abuse – SL army, Rape and Killings By Sri Lankan army, War Crimes Sri Lanka”.
The pictures have been in circulation for some time. Some bear the imprint and can be found on their website and Facebook page. All have a May 2009 date.


More Heat than Light in the Blogosphere

At the time of writing the post had generated 204 comments. The comments can be categorised as follows:


Plain crass – Some macho males find the subject of rape a source of infantile humour.
The victims had no human rights -Some commenters seem to feel that one should not be concerned about what happened to the women because they were terrorists. Chaminda Tilakumara (of Human Rights for Victims of Terrorism) writes: “To have human rights, first you have to be HUMAN. Therefore, LTTE Terrorists do not have human rights.”
The deniers - Enid Wirekoon argued that the pictures were faked because Wanni girls would not be wearing such underwear and their skin would have been darker and the blood does not look real. One of the men in the pictures is wearing a Hindu wristband rather than a pirith nool that a Sinhalese soldier would be wearing. David Blacker argues that pictures do not prove rape and finds it odd that photos circulated so far do not show “a living victim or of the crime being perpetrated?”



All Sinhalese are to blame – Some commenters take the issue beyond what these particular pictures prove and condemn the entire Sinhalese Buddhist culture. “Absolutely disgusting photos. BUT It is the 2500 year accomplishment of Sinhala-Buddhism. God forbid what the next 2500 years will bring.” First to comment was Donald Gnanakone, supporting the LTTE from California as President of Tamils for Justice (there are some choice abusive comments from Sinhalese on his Facebook posts): “Taste of Paradise by the paradisians and what the British and Russian tourist experienced in Hambantota recently by the Sinhala civilians….”



The world is watching – Clearly the timing of this publication and further Channel 4 material is related to the UNHCR in Geneva. As well as the usual suspects from the diaspora some foreign nationals have been weighing in. Cynthia Wise scolded: “It disturbs me that so many of you seem to be missing the point. No wonder the world is in the shape it is. May God rest their souls and may we all pray for peace. Please see the underlying issue here; so the next pictures are not your mothers, sisters, girlfriends and wives, etc. If not please at least find something better to do with your time.”
Journalistic ethics – A commenter called Sach asks, ”Isn’t posting photos of raped women naked against the standards of journalism? This looks like journalists rape her again.” Another wrote: “Colombo Telegraph , I’m shocked and ashamed of your decision to publish these pictures and I find it disturbing. Please do not stoop too low in your journalism. I thought you are one of the modern civilised websites not like gutter journalism like certain other websites who only lives in the world of threats and threats and threats but nothing else. Very empty I would say.”





The Murdoch empire often used the ‘public interest’ as a defence for their prurient invasions of privacy. What they really meant was the public was interested in the salacious stuff the Sun and the News of the Screws printed. Many well-intentioned people are resisting any press censorship that might come out of the Leveson Inquiry into News International’s misdeeds. Therefore, some would justify publication of these distasteful pictures by Colombo Telegraph as being in the public interest.


Susan Sontag wrote, in Regarding the Pain of Others, about the representation of atrocity. Are viewers inured – or incited – to violence by the depiction of cruelty? Is the viewer’s perception of reality eroded by familiarity? Sontag writes we should ask why have we been presented with this picture, who allowed it to be published? What am I expected to feel? “There is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it … or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”


The evidence from the Colombo Telegraph comments is that incitement rather than sympathy is the predominant result of the publication of these photographs.



Some Hope of Sanity?


Not all of the comments on the Colombo Telegraph were depressing. A Rivendra commented: “No point in arguing who landed first in the Island or the mistakes of the past. There were discrimination from both sides, Tamils and Singhalese alike. For the sake of our future generations, let us learn from our mistakes and not repeat them…As we all know, humans when they are faced with danger/death, will react differently.” He added: “We should not try to absolve those personnel who would have conducted executions and rape….”



“Mango” commented: “That GoSL have still not managed to prosecute a few low-ranking soldiers for crimes committed during Eelam War 4 or even say ‘sorry’ is indicative of their head-in-the-sand attitude. It allows Sri Lanka’s detractors to paint its entire armed forces as criminals.”


Although I am described in the thread as “GOSL apologist Padraig Colman”, I will repeat what I have said elsewhere: “Rape is a terrible crime. Rape as a systematic policy and weapon of war is even more appalling. Tho

Reconciliation in Peru

This article was published in the Nation on Sunday, 13 May 2012


In October 1983, I attended a ceremony at Huancavelica Cathedral in the Peruvian Andes, my heart fluttering at an altitude of 12,000 feet. Huancavelica was founded in 1572 for the purpose of mining mercury, which was essential to extract silver from the ore from the fabulous mine at Potosi. In 1648 the Viceroy of Peru declared that Potosí and Huancavelica were “the two pillars that support this kingdom and that of Spain.”



Outside the cathedral, a local Quechua man questioned me about Mrs. Thatcher and the Malvinas. He seemed to approve of Thatcher. Argentineans are generally unpopular in Peru.



The Huancavelica police station at which we had registered was blown up by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) the day after we had been there.



Sendero Luminoso was a Maoist group of quite outstanding brutality. Defenders of these “freedom fighters” would no doubt cite “state terrorism”, but the national government was somewhat slow to react to provocation. A state of emergency was declared in 1981 and the army was given the job of fighting the guerrillas. The Armed Forces created the Ayacucho Emergency Zone, in which military power was superior to civilian power, and many constitutional rights were suspended. The military committed many human rights violations in the area where it had political control. A specimen was the Accomarca massacre on August 14, 1985 in Ayacucho where 69 unarmed men, women and children were killed. Twenty-seven years later, Telmo Hurtado, who led the massacre, is finally in custody in Peru after being extradited from the US. Hundreds more former military and police officers have yet to be put on trial.



Scores of peasants were massacred by the armed forces. A specialist counter-terror police battalion known as the “Sinchis” were particularly notorious. They were US-trained. The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC)- formerly named School of the Americas -, is a US Department of Defense Institute located at Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia. WHINSEC trained many military personnel before and during the years ‘dirty wars’ in Latin America. WHINSEC graduates continue to surface in news reports regarding human rights cases.



Shining Path opted to fight their war in the style taught by Mao. A major Sendero tactic was the mass slaughter of the indigenous people it claimed to be fighting for, to goad the authorities into matching savagery. Its original goal was to overthrow the government and social structure of Peru and neighboring countries and replace them with a socialist system controlled by the indigenous peoples of the region. Shining Path also adhered to Mao’s teaching that guerrilla war should be fought primarily in the countryside and gradually choke off the cities.


The peasants resist their liberators



The peasants did not always appreciate what the brave revolutionaries were doing for them. The Shining Path filled its ranks by forced conscription and forced kidnapped children to fight as child soldiers. In some areas, peasants formed anti-Shining Path patrols, called rondas. I was in Peru in October 1983. In January 1983, near Huata, rondas killed 13 senderistas; in February in Sacsamarca, rondas stabbed and killed the Shining Path commanders of that area. In March 1983, rondas captured Olegario Curitomay, one of the commanders of the town of Lucanamarca, took him to the town square, stoned him, stabbed him, set him on fire, and finally shot him. The Shining Path retaliated by killing 69 people including a six-month-old child and several pregnant women. Most were hacked to death with machetes and some were shot at close range in the head.



Alberto Fujimori


President Alberto Fujimori adopted an ‘iron fist’ approach to the rebels. He dissolved Congress and abolished the Constitution. Military courts were set up to try captured rebels. Fujimori also announced that Peru would no longer accept the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Between 1990 and 1994, Grupo Colina , a paramilitary anti-communist death squad carried out several massacres. The Grupo Colina, believed to be mandated by Fujimori, victimized trade unions and activists that spoke out against the Peruvian government, by intimidation or sometimes murder.



Fujimori signed a law that granted amnesty to anyone accused of, tried for, convicted of, or sentenced for human rights violations that were committed by the armed forces or police. Since the collapse of the Fujimori government, several people have been tried for Grupo Colina’s crimes, including Fujimori. Trials have established that Grupo Colina was not an informal group of renegade officers but an organic part of the Peruvian state. Julio Salazar, former chief of the National Intelligence Service (SIN), was sentenced to thirty-five years for his role in the La Cantuta massacre. During Salazar’s tenure at the SIN, Vladimiro Montesinos was the de facto chief and national security advisor. Montesinos is currently imprisoned and faces over seventy trials for various human rights abuses, as well as charges of drug trafficking and political corruption.



On September 12, 1992, Peruvian police captured Guzmán and several Shining Path leaders. Shortly after, most of the remaining leadership fell and Shining Path suffered embarrassing military defeats to rondas, supposedly its social base — and the organization fractured into splinter groups. The then leader of the Shining Path, Artemio, was shot and captured in the jungle in February 2012.



In September 2010, President Alan Garcia succumbed to pressure to pass a thinly veiled amnesty law to benefit indicted army officers. He quickly retracted it as Peru’s Nobel laureate author Mario Vargas Llosa (and one-time presidential candidate) attacked the measure in a stinging open letter.



Truth and Reconciliation Commission



Alberto Fujimori resigned the Presidency in 2000. Congress installed Valentin Paniagua in his place. He rescinded Fujimori’s announcement that Peru would leave the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which found in its 2003 Final Report that 69,280 people died or disappeared between 1980 and 2000 as a result of the armed conflict. A statistical analysis led the Commission to estimate that the Shining Path was responsible for the death or disappearance of 31,331 people, 46% of the total deaths and disappearances. According to its final report, 75% of the people of the victims spoke Quechua as their native language, despite the fact that the 1993 census found that only 20% of Peruvians speak Quechua or another indigenous language as their native language.



The final report was criticized by almost all political parties and former Presidents Fujimori, Garcia and Paniagua, the military and the Catholic Church, which claimed that many of the Commission members were former members of extreme leftist movements and that the final report wrongfully portrayed rebel groups as “political parties” rather than as terrorist organizations.



Only last August, remains of Grupo Colina victims were unearthed only 20 minutes away from their homes. Gloria Cano of the Peruvian human rights organisation APRODEH said that until the discovery of the remains, several mothers were convinced that their sons were still being held prisoner in the jungle or even in another continent. “Until the bodies are found, the parents keep on hoping they will find their children alive”.

Fujimori escaped to Japan but returned to South America in 2006. He spent almost two years under house arrest in Chile before being extradited to stand trial in Peru. In April 2009, he was jailed for 25 years for authorising 25 death squad killings.



Reconciliation Today?



Daniel Mora, Peru’s defence minister, told a Lima radio station last September: “There has to be a cut-off point for the reconciliation of the country,” adding that judicial proceedings against members of the military and police for human rights crimes could not go on forever. The Washington Office on Latin America said Mora’s remarks suggested a state policy of impunity.


Peru has not signed the 2006 international convention for the protection of all persons from disappearances. Peruvian society is still deeply divided about the Sendero years. It is difficult to believe that national reconciliation will be served by impunity talk of an amnesty.

On August 16, 2006 prosecutors in Peru filed charges against Ollanta Humala for alleged human rights abuses including forced disappearance, torture, and murder against guerrillas during his army service in San Martin. Humala is now president of Peru. Opponents suggest Humala bribed judges and bought witnesses to have his case dismissed.

Nuclear Bunkum

This article was published in The Nation on Sunday, 11 March 2012




Delusions are particularly scary when they take over whole nations. Growing up in the 1950s, I often heard the phrase “living under the shadow of the bomb”. It was used to excuse all kinds of irresponsible individual behaviour, hedonism and mass hooliganism.

Much satirical fun was had with the British government’s ludicrous public information campaigns. In the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe in 1960, Dudley Moore, from the audience, asks a panel, “Following the nuclear holocaust, could you tell me when normal public services would be restored?” Another question casts doubt upon the value of the four-minute warning. Peter Cook responds: “Let me tell you that in this great country of ours, some people can run a mile in four minutes”. Cook advises, in the event of a nuclear attack, to crawl under the kitchen table and place a brown-paper bag over the head.

Alan Bennett fields another question thus: “Now I can see one or two of you are thinking, now look here, what if one of our American friends makes a boo-boo, presses the wrong button, and sends up one of their missiles by mistake? It could not happen. You see, before they press that button they’ve got to get on the telephone to number 10 Downing Street, and say, ‘Now look, Mr. Macmillan, Sir, can I press this button?’ And Mr. Macmillan will say ‘yes’ — or ‘no’ — as the mood takes him.”

Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent

In Beyond the Fringe, Peter Cook announced: “That is not to say that we do not have our own Nuclear Striking Force — we do, we have the Blue Steel; a very effective missile, as it has a range of 150 miles, which means that we can just about get Paris — and, by God, we will.”

Today, 52 years later, British governments are still wasting taxpayers’ money on that kind of delusion. During the Cold War, we had MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Because Britain and the USA had the bomb, the USSR would not dare to use theirs. Who will be deterred today, now that the Soviet Union is no more?

A secret review into the future of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent is underway. Trident is British in the sense that it cost the taxpayer in 1994 £14.9 billion and costs another £2 billion a year to run. The submarines carrying the missiles were only designed to last 25 years and so will have to be replaced by 2020 at a probable cost of £25 billion. One critic of Trident has called it the UK’s “stick-on hairy chest”. What folly in these belt-tightening times!

The 58 Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles are operated by the Royal Navy (from four Vanguard-class submarines) but the Americans make them, maintain them and provide the satellite intelligence to target them. According to a US diplomatic telegram released by WikiLeaks last year, President Obama handed over the unique serial numbers of the UK’s missiles to the Russians as part of an arms-reduction deal.

One wonders what kind of ally the US would be for Britain in a nuclear war. In April 1982, they even refused their poodle permission to use the US operated airfield on Ascension Island (a British Crown Colony) to refuel RAF aircraft. In 2012, the US does not recognise Britain’s claim to the Falkland Islands, which Hillary insolently refer to as ‘Las Malvinas’.
NGO mafia

A vast collection of think-tanks, charitable foundations, academic courses and government departments are supposedly dedicated to the noble aim of non-proliferation. In reality, this means objecting to the likes of Iran and North Korea having nuclear weapons, but not the USA, the UK, France and Israel.

One of the reasons Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 was “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”. The committee highlighted his efforts to promote nuclear disarmament. When the New Start Treaty between Russia and the US was ratified in 2010, William Perry, a defence secretary under President Clinton and one of the chief advocates of non-proliferation, remarked that even though the treaty was “small, it was vital, because … we are serious about bringing our own nuclear stockpiles down.” Perry must have known that the Obama administration had recently announced that it was committing $85 billion to the modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal over the next ten years.

Perry was silent and, there was no protest from the non-proliferation mafia. Their main business is not actually working towards abolition, but managing junkets associated with the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Every five years, delegates from member states meet to discuss ‘progress’. The reality is that there is merely much fractious debate over minor rewordings to produce ‘final documents’, which everyone ignores.


Nuclear Alarmism


The task of discouraging states like South Africa, Brazil and Argentina from going nuclear, felt worthy, but was irrelevant. In Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to al-Qaida, John Mueller argues that the non-proliferation regime was responsible for the disaster that is Iraq. The non-proliferation mafia kept quiet about the invasion of Iraq but continue to put together costly but unthreatening programmes to keep themselves in work – programmes like the Global Zero project, which consists of “300 political, military, business, faith and civic leaders, and 400,000 citizens worldwide working for the phased, verified elimination of all nuclear weapons”. The mafia has institutionalised a bogus solution, which allows leaders to avoid reality and has cultivated the false belief that nuclear peace can be accomplished without the need for political action, and without any sacrifice.

Sri Lankans have to make sacrifices because the US wants to prevent us buying Iranian oil until Iran stops its nuclear programme.


There is no forgetting in the Blogosphere

This article was published in The Nation on Sunday, 04 March 2012


Post-modernist theory suggests the past is unknowable. There is no objective fact that we can call ‘history’. There is no way of deciding whether one representation of the past or another is true. Up to a point. Much of what we know is a garbled version of what historians have written. We might make mistakes in our search for the truth about the past, and new discoveries are always being made. That does not mean that the concept of truth itself is relative.


The narrative of what ‘happened’ can attract layers of interpretation and develop into nationalist myths, which are exploited by demagogues. This happened in my own country where the true story of oppression gained accretions of myth, leading to further suffering and violence.


Fortunately, Irish historians are questioning the foundation myths of Irish nationalism. For example, Roy Foster: “The construction of ‘advanced’ Irish nationalism at home relied on buttressing from abroad, and so did the creation of Irish identity.” The Irish diaspora kept alive the fairy tales. Sinister men rattled collection boxes in north London pubs ‘for the boys’.


Nationalists in Ceylon such as AE Goonesinha were stimulated by accounts of Parnell, Davitt and the Irish freedom movement and closely followed Irish events in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sinhalese Buddhist thinkers such as Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama Thero and the Tamil disciple of William Morris, Ananda Coomaraswamy, wrote of an ancient, highly developed Lankan civilisation. Another Sinhalese, Anagarika Dharmapala, wistfully dreamed of a dazzling past: “We must wake from our slumber… We were a great people”. The Tamil political leader, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, wrote in his diary: “Thought much of the unhappy conditions of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”



When I was still living in Ireland, I was relentlessly spammed by Sihala Urumaya. Some of the terminology carried disturbing echoes of Nazi propaganda. Phrases like ‘race extinction’ ‘dark conspiracy’; words like ‘motherland’; calls for public executions.


Someone calling himself Thanga wrote this recently on the Colombo Telegraph: “The question whether Prabhakaran is alive or dead is immaterial. Prabhakaran is part of Tamil history and part of Tamil psyche. He will be remembered by generations and generations to come. And liberation movements never die with their founders… Prabhakaran was a brave, self-less and dedicated leader who lived by example. A leader who never slept on a mat or used a pillow!”


Another blogger wrote: “While you are at the praying mood also pray that the Transnational Tamils will be merciful on the Sinhalese when they are done with the ground work for a bigger and more deadlier struggle against you, your racist Sinhalese sisters and brothers led by your majesty the King Mahinda”.

From the Sinhalese side, someone made this comment about one of my articles for Le Monde diplomatique: “Tamils have not faced any ‘discrimination’ in Sri Lanka. Wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them, in the home of the Sinhalese into which they were brought like slaves, which they achieved through unwavering servitude and sucking up to their colonial white masters, is UNACCEPTABLE! Do some research before regurgitating terrorist propaganda.”


Is the politics of memory a good thing? We are warned that we will repeat past mistakes if we ignore history. Forgetfulness brings impunity, which is both morally outrageous and politically dangerous. Recollections that are shaped from the trauma of war and suffering, may be remembered in radically different ways by people who experienced similar events. The selectivity may also serve a political purpose, for example to justify the claims of one group over a competing group.



“Revenge doesn’t know how to choose between the guilty and the innocent”. Slavko Goldstein wrote that in his book, 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning. Goldstein is a Croatian Jew and describes the ethnic tensions during the Second World War in former Yugoslavia. Reviewing the book, the Serbo-American poet, Charles Simic relates it to the insane fight for a Greater Serbia in the 1990s: “Once more, the culprit was nationalism, that madness of identifying with a single ethnic group to a point where one recognises no other duty other than furthering its interests even if it means placing its actions beyond good and evil.”.


There comes a time when reconciliation has to take the place of endlessly rehearsing grievances from centuries back, as the Irish were prone to do. In Sri Lanka, the grievances are still present and sharp and will take skilful and sensitive action to manage.


Kamaya Jayatissa wrote recently in The Island about the need to: “define a common identity, one that will incorporate our socio-economic differences but also our religious, political, cultural and geographical similarities and differences, one that will ultimately give us a stronger sense of solidarity and tolerance through multi-ethnicity… to build an inclusive and homogenous identity, one that will include our diversity – both as individuals and as a nation.”



That will be difficult if the deafening and soul-numbing volume of hate-speak is not turned down.

They Work for You

This article was published in The Nation on Sunday, 26 February 2012


Sanjana Hattotuwa wrote in The Nation about the need for oversight of parliament by civil society in Sri Lanka. I covered a similar theme a few weeks back in an article on monitory democracy, a theme developed by Professor John Keane of Westminster University. Keane has written: “The new institutions of monitory democracy are further defined by their overall commitment to strengthening the diversity and influence of citizens’ voices and choices in decisions that affect their lives – regardless of the outcome of elections.”


A good example of the way the internet can be used to monitor politicians is a website called They Work for You, which gives detailed information about the doings and not-doings of Westminster MPs.

Check it out at



They Work For You lets you find out what your MP…is doing in your name, read debates, written answers, see what’s coming up in Parliament, and sign up for email alerts when there’s past or future activity on someone or something you’re interested in.”

As a test of what They Work for You could deliver, I checked out Siobhain McDonagh MP, who represents the constituency of Mitcham and Morden, and set up an alert.


Recent alerts show that Ms. McDonagh instigated an adjournment debate on government policy on football governance and the case of AFC Wimbledon. McDonagh’s constituency covers part of the London Borough of Merton, which includes Wimbledon. She waxed nostalgic about The Crazy Gang, Wimbledon football club, a team whose violent image was epitomised by a picture of Vinny Jones squeezing Paul Gascoigne’s testicles. Vinny moved on, not to squeeze testicles in the Sri Lankan parliament, but to Hollywood, where he made a fortune out of pretend thuggery. Just as one wonders why McDonagh is interfering in Sri Lanka , one wonders why she is interfering in that football club now. AFC Wimbledon moved to Croydon in 1991, when I was still living in Wimbledon and socialising with Ron Wood in the Leather Bottle pub. The Dons have played in Milton Keynes since 2003.



On March 24, 2009, McDonagh said in the House of Commons: “As the Sri Lankan Government have not been willing to end the conflict, I would like my Government to call for their suspension from the Commonwealth.” She referred to the president of Sri Lanka as “a probable war crimes suspect”. She has referred to Sri Lanka as a “failing dictatorship”. She boasted: “the leadership of my right hon. friend Mr. Brown brought an end to GSP Plus…voted against the IMF’s $2.5 billion deal with Sri Lanka, and prevented it from hosting a Commonwealth summit. Britain must not lose that lead.”



McDonagh started out as clerical officer in Balham in the Department of Health and Social Security. She was first elected to parliament in 1997, after being selected through an all-woman short-list. This method of selection was declared illegal in January 1996, as it breached sex discrimination laws, but she did not withdraw. McDonagh attracted criticism in April 2000 for spending an average of £32,000 per year of public money to send out what Tory John Redwood described as “self-promotion”.



After the 2005 election, she served as PPS to Defence Secretary John Reid. From May 2006 to June 2007 she was PPS to the Home Secretary. Gordon Brown made her Assistant Whip in 2007 but she was sacked (while being interviewed on Channel 4) for plotting to overthrow Brown.



She made a speech in Parliament saying she makes “no apology for concentrating on local issues”. Local issues include Sri Lanka because of the large number of Tamils in her constituency. On 16 June 2011, she made representations against “the deportation by the UK Border Agency of my constituent Jenach Gopinath back to Sri Lanka, whose Government are suspected of war crimes against Tamils, including the killing of 40,000 Tamil citizens”.



Siobhain McDonagh’s libertarianism and concern for human rights seems very selective. She voted very strongly against a fully-elected House of Lords. In spite of her campaign to stop Tamil constituents from being deported, she had voted very strongly for a stricter asylum system. Strangely, too, she voted for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws and for introducing ID cards. Even stranger, she voted very strongly for the Iraq invasion, and against an investigation into the Iraq war.



During a Commons debate on October 21, 2005, she said: “Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do. I know that some people disagree.”‘



And yet, she claimed, ‘We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, “You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later”.



Could They Work for You be a model for monitoring Sri Lankan politicians, I wonder?


Curse of the conflict junkies

This article was published in The Nation on February 19 2012





Throughout Sri Lanka, many heart-strings will have been tugged; many a tear will have welled in many an eye, at the pictures of the wedding of EMD Sandaruwan and Chandrasekaran Sharmila at Kilinochchi on January 27, 2012. For my foreign readers, I should explain, that this particular wedding attracted attention because the groom was a former member of the Gajaba Regiment of the Sri Lankan Army. He had participated in the defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) which, in May 2009, ended a brutal 30-year war.


The bride was an ex-LTTE child soldier, who had since been a participant in a government rehabilitation programme. There are many such stories to tell. It is not easy to get the western media to listen to them. It has long been a cliché that bad news sells more papers than good news. My own experience has been that such positive stories are just too boring for western editors. They associate Sri Lanka with blood and guts and oppression of minorities. I have managed to get some positive stories under the net but at the cost of the editor inserting, to reflect the ‘editorial line’, ‘balancing’ material about Sri Lanka’s shortcomings.


Racist comments


The reluctance of western editors to deviate from the usual line on Sri Lanka is depressing enough. While not wishing to hide the difficulties still facing the country, it would be good to build on positive steps towards reconciliation. It is even more depressing to read through the comments from Sri Lankans on blogsites. Even on the newspaper report of that fairy-tale wedding, it was possible to encounter some curmudgeons. Some of the comments had a racist tinge.


I blogged for three years on a US-based site called Open Salon (OS). There was a good deal of civilised and erudite discussion, but there were also crazy trolls who grew courage behind a keyboard, probably fuelled by alcohol. One troll will stand as a specimen for the rest. When one woman disagreed with him, he said she had venereal disease. When the troll got into a dispute with a black, shaven-headed ex-marine, he accused his interlocutor of raping his own mother and said his head would make a good bowling ball.


The poor level of comments on Sri Lankan sites such as the Daily Mirror has drawn comparisons from one Sri Lankan journalist with the quality of comments on foreign websites. The Daily Beast can get infantile. Even the Internet Movie Database gets blood on its walls when a couple of nerds disagree about some obscure horror movie. One generally gets a decent level of debate on the Independent, the Guardian, the New Statesman in the UK and Slate, Salon, Huffington Post from the US. There is also much silly invective, but the sites do have a comments policy and are moderated. In Sri Lanka, the exchanges on Groundviews and the Colombo Telegraph can be lengthy, thoughtful and helpful. They can also be crass, in spite of the good intentions expressed in the comments policies of the two websites.


Infantile humour


Crassness tends to be carried over into foreign websites when the subject of Sri Lanka comes up. On one hand, one might get Sinhalese triumphalism, on the other, threats of Tamil revenge. Too often commenters employ the scourge of anonymity to indulge in personal abuse and infantile ‘humour’.
Emanuel Croake wrote an article in the New Statesman titled Why Has the Left Neglected the Tamils of Sri Lanka?






This brought out the Sri Lanka diaspora in full force. Out of 79 comments we have, on one side Tamil commenters dredging up spurious history from many centuries ago. On the other side, Sinhalese commenters write about the horrors inflicted by the Tigers and dismiss Tamil grievances. I have long been an avid reader of the writings of DBS Jeyaraj. I was shocked to see the tone of the comments on a series of articles he wrote to counter the accusations of Michael Roberts  that the book purporting to be a memoir of ‘Niromi de Soyza’s time as a Tiger was a hoax. While it is interesting to read different views on such a topic, it is depressing in the extreme to read so much sentimentality about the Tigers and so much nostalgic reminiscing about the ‘good old days of the armed struggle’.


I am not advocating censorship. Another, more civilised, OS blogger tried to tease out some ideas about blogging etiquette. “One way to think of etiquette is that it’s not a set of arbitrary rules about which fork to use and about who gets introduced to whom in which order; rather, the rules of etiquette are intended to facilitate social interaction, to reduce our uncertainty about inadvertently giving offense. (Or, alternatively, to know how to give offense if you want to.)” This drew a response from another blogger: “this is the wild west and each blogger sets the rules on their own page”.


Here, I am merely pointing out the ugliness of exchanges which seem to revel in the fostering of hatred. While genuine efforts at reconciliation are being made and being welcomed in Sri Lanka itself, conflict junkies living abroad wish to continue the battle from the safety of their keyboard barricades. What hope of reconciliation with such entrenched attitudes?

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