Channel 4 News and Sri Lankan War Crimes.
The Fog of War Stuff
“You are hearing it through the crackling radio and it’s the fog of war stuff and it is difficult to make crystal-clear perfect decisions all the time.”
The Lambeth Borough Commander, Nick Ephgrave, said he “bitterly regretted” not containing the Brixton riot before stores were smashed, burned and looted along the south London borough’s high street.
The same words were used to excuse the slaying of Jean Charles de Menezes an innocent Brazilian gunned down by police at Stockwell tube station.
Reports are coming in of British soldiers mutilating Taliban corpses. The fog of war?
The British government are considering bringing in emergency regulations to deal with rioting. The Sri Lankan government is considering repealing the emergency regulations brought in to deal with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) the worst terrorist organisation known to man. Nevertheless, the British government continues to criticise the way Sri Lanka conducted the “war on terror” within its own borders.
Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields
Channel 4 News has made a considerable impact with a documentary entitled The Sri Lankan Killing Fields directed by Callum Macrae and presented by Jon Snow. [i] The company made vigorous efforts to promote the programme, including fly-posting and house-to-house leafleting in major British cities. The programme has been shown in many countries and there was a special screening for the US Congress after which US aid to Sri Lanka was stopped.
The Sri Lankan government made a decision in 2006 to push for a military victory over the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who had been fighting for nearly 30 years for a separate state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. In May 2009, the Tamil Tigers were comprehensively defeated. There have been no acts of terrorism in Sri Lanka since then, which is a great relief after the horrors suffered over decades. Leaving aside the behaviour of Sri Lankan bus drivers, Sri Lanka today is safer than the UK according to the MTRI (Maplecroft Terrorism Risk Index). [ii]All of the Tamil political parties who had fought for a separate state have now agreed to enter the democratic political process and many of them have joined the government in the reconciliation and reconstruction programme. Several prominent former Tigers now hold government office.
However, the country has not been able to enjoy peace to the full because there have been persistent allegations that war crimes were perpetrated towards the end of the war.
The main charges covered in the programme are:
- The Sri Lanka army and air force targeted hospitals and civilians in the NFZs (no-fire zones) leading to 40,000 civilian deaths (there is a great deal of ambiguity about figures but 40,000 is frequently quoted).
- Withholding of food and medical supplies from the north
- Summary execution of prisoners
- Rape of female combatants and civilians
- Imprisoning of Tamil civilians in concentration camps.
Factoids and Churnalism
In Lakbima News June 26 2011, Namini Wijedasa interviewed Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. She put it to him that the Channel 4 video called on viewers to make many inferences from the footage used. “It suggests, for instance, that women were raped, although it is not possible to determine from the bodies whether sexual abuse had, in fact, occurred.”
Heyns’s response: “I think the video has to be seen in the context of all the available evidence, which includes what has been investigated and published by NGOs and the panel of the Secretary General. [A report commissioned by Ban Ki-Moon, referred to in Sri Lanka as the Darusman Report.] The cumulative effect of the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern about what both sides did during the war, and in particular what happened in the final stages, when the government gained the upper hand, and that there were no outside witnesses”.
“In the context of all the available evidence” seems to mean that if enough dodgy allegations are gathered together they gain some credibility purely from their critical mass. This is something akin to those urban myths that gather moss on the internet. If a rumour appears on a lot of websites or blogs it gets quoted again and again and the mere accumulation is seen as proof.
BBC journalist Waseem Zakir coined the neologism ‘churnalism’. An editorial in the British Journalism Review noted that if churnalism was “a harbinger of the end of news journalism as we know it, the coroner’s verdict can be nothing other than suicide”. In his book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies, the award-winning Guardian reporter who has a distinguished record in investigative journalism and has recently been the scourge of Murdoch, presented an overwhelming weight of evidence that the British press lies, distorts facts and breaks the law. His research revealed that 60 per cent of stories consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material; a further 20 per cent contained clear wire-PR elements with little added on; and eight per cent could not be sourced. In only 12 per cent was the material generated entirely by the reporters themselves. In The Times, 69 per cent of news stories were wholly or mainly wire copy and/or PR and in 70 per cent, a claimed fact passed into print without any corroboration at all. Only 12 per cent of these stories offered any evidence that the central statement had been thoroughly checked. It is interesting to note that Britain has only 45,000 journalists to 47,800 PR people.
Heyns is not a British journalist but he does seem to share the same culture. He says “there were no outside witnesses” but is confident “the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern”. This evidence includes allegations made in the report of the Moon advisory panel. The reliability of the evidence presented by the panel has been strongly challenged. A summary of the panel’s report can be found at:
Most of the panel’s material came from the NGOs that Heyns also mentions. The NGOs have also been challenged. So, Heyns is making a case which seems to be strengthened by the fact that allegations are being made by Channel 4, several NGOs and Moon’s advisory panel. In actuality, they are all drawing on the same unreliable source material and churning it up.
The Channel 4 programme Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields also uses the churnalism technique of cumulative unsubstantiated allegations. Jon Snow introduces the programme by saying that at the war’s end “as many as 40,000, and possibly far more, civilians were killed”. As English goes, as logic goes that is meaningless. How can one say “as many as” and “possibly far more” in the same sentence? Figures are presented, not in the interest of enlightenment, but to make a shock effect. Jon Snow cites the report commissioned by Ban Ki-Moon.
Callum Macrae, director of Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields said: “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’ (Darusman) 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.” It would not be surprising that they reached similar conclusions if they were both using the same tainted evidence. “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”.
The Channel 4 programme draws heavily upon a report commissioned by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon. The report is often loosely referred to as a UN report on war crimes in Sri Lanka but its status has been strongly challenged in Sri Lanka. Because the Sri Lankan government does not recognise this as an official UN document it refers to it as the Darusman Report. [iii]
The main evidence in the Channel 4 programme comes from mobile phone footage which the producers claim was shot as trophy memories by Sri Lanka Army soldiers. Further revelations are coming from Channel 4. Someone who is said to be a Sri Lankan soldier called “Fernando” says: “They shot people at random. Stabbed people. Raped them. Cut out their tongues, cut women’s breasts off. I saw people soaked in blood”.
Even though I began watching the Channel 4 programme as a sceptic, the power of the images and the way they were assembled had a powerful effect. How could one not be moved to tears at the sight of bloodied, mangled children?
I also watched the Channel 4 programme ready to engage in critical analysis of language. The title, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, is a distortion from the start. There is no comparison between Pol Pot’s ambition to send Cambodia to Year Zero and the efforts of a democratically elected government to deal with terrorism within its own sovereign borders.
I also found an opportunity to study semiotics, to see how emotions can be manipulated by images and music, as well as voice-over commentary. I found a great number of factoids (a term coined by Norman Mailer and defined by the OED as “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact” – something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but, in fact, is not a fact. Stephen Colbert calls it Veritasiness – “truthiness”, common sense, received wisdom, truths that are self-evident in the gut regardless of reality. “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”. Stephen Sacker was full of truthiness in his Hard Talk haranguing of Rajiva Wijesinha. Everybody knows the SLA was shelling hospitals so why are you denying it? Experts have deemed the Channel 4 footage genuine, so who are you to deny it?
Authenticity of Channel 4 Footage
I am not in a position to judge the provenance of the footage used by Channel 4. The original clip showing armed men shooting bound and blindfolded naked men was condemned as a fake by the Sri Lanka government. The government claims to have found the original which has a soundtrack with the killers speaking in Tamil. Some have questioned whether it was SLA men doing the shooting or Tamil Tigers. Military spokesman Major General Ubhaya Madawela told the BBC: “We know many of our soldiers were taken captive by the LTTE during the war. Only a very few of them were handed over via the ICRC (Red Cross).” Madawela said.”Now we can think that those who are shown being shot and killed are those soldiers who to date remain missing,”
Many, including government spokesman Rajiva Wijesinha, [iv] and Asian Tribune Tamil correspondent KT Rajasingham[v] have gone into the technicalities of the video. The government produced experts who attested it was a fake but these experts were not expert enough for the critics. UN Rapporteur Philip Alston said three independent experts (Peter Diaczuk, an “expert in firearms evidence”, Daniel Spitz, a “forensic pathologist”, and Jeff Spivack, an “expert in forensic video analysis”) believe it is authentic. Alston conceded that there were “a small number of characteristics of the video which the experts were unable to explain” but asserted that “each of these characteristics can, however, be explained in a manner entirely consistent with the conclusion that the videotape appears to be authentic.”
Whatever about the technicalities of video recording that is a very strange statement in relation to the English language. There is a lot of fudging there! The unexplainable characteristics can be explained in a manner consistent with the conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Alston is not saying the experts have said the video is authentic. The unexplainable can be explained to fit a conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Even if they came out and said directly that the video was genuine and had not been tampered with, this is not proof that it shows Sri Lankan soldiers killing Tamils.
Fredericks, Spitz and Spivack
Who are these experts? Daniel Spitz is the current Medical Examiner for Macomb County, Michigan. Spitz was appointed Medical Examiner by his father who was the county medical examiner before him. He achieved notoriety by ruling a an execution-style death as suicide while failing to notice a bullet hole in the victim’s neck and the bullet lodged in his jaw.
Grant Fredericks has a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Gonzaga University, a Catholic Jesuit university in Spokane, Washington and has had no training in photogrammetry and no more expertise in the science of making measurements by use of photographs than the average layperson. A Commission found fault with his methodology in a particular case: “In the absence of such expertise, his opinion deserves no greater weight than the opinion of any other careful observer.” He was caught lying on the stand about his company’s ties to Taser, and was obviously trying to support a police cover-up.
The UN Special Rapporteur describes Mr Spivack as “formerly a Forensic Multimedia Analyst with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD), and a calibration laboratory specialist for the US Air Force. He is a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute, is a Certified Forensic Consultant, and has been qualified as an expert witness on forensic video analysis in courts throughout the US.” Spivack only worked with LVMPD for just eight months during 2008-2009. The ACFE has a membership of 20,000 and anyone can become a member by simply paying a membership fee. Spivack appears to be a not very successful self-employed private investigator (he filed bankruptcy in 2003),with little verifiable work experience, and flaky credentials.
The Camera Can Lie
At the beginning of the Channel 4 programme, there is a sequence purporting to show Tamil civilians in the Tamil Tiger capital of Killinochchi protesting outside the UN compound. The SLA (Sri Lanka Army) had warned the UN staff to leave for their own safety as troops were moving in to capture the town from the rebels. The purpose of the citizens’ protest is said on the soundtrack to be to beg the UN not to leave because the civilians wanted the UN staffers to witness what the Sri Lanka government forces are about to do to them. A UN staffer called Benjamin Dix has tears in his eyes as he describes the quietness of a little girl outside the gate, a quietness redolent of despair over her coming fate. Dix chokes on the word “compassion”.
At first, there were tears in my own eyes. Then, I paused for a moment as I watched on the screen images which matched up exactly to Dix’s spoken words. This struck a false note. How could this be? Was the scene staged to demonstrate the point?
The demonstration was arranged by the LTTE. A number of people have come forward to explain that the LTTE told them to go and kick up a fuss outside the UN or their businesses would be destroyed and their families harmed. There were 26 trade associations in the town, which were all controlled, Mafia-style, by the LTTE. Interviews with representatives of organisations such as the Killinochchi Laundrymens’ Association and the Barbers’ Association can be seen in a Sri Lankan TV documentary, produced for the Ministry of Defence, called Lies Agreed Upon.
One of the prominent interviewees in the Channel 4 programme was a young woman with a London Asian accent. She was not identified. At first I assumed she was a doctor but the commentary does not make this clear. Channel 4’s witness was Damilvany Gnanakumar. The Guardian ran a story in May 2009 about her being held by the Sri Lankan government. The report by Gethin Chamberlain describes her as a “British medic”. At one point in the article Chamberlain says she had “a background in biomedical science”.
In the Channel 4 programme, Gnanakumar described how she worked with Dr Shanmugarajah – “a great person”- at Mullivaykkal hospital while it was being shelled by the Sri Lankan Army. She describes helping Dr Shanmugarajah to amputate, without anaesthetic, an arm and a leg of a six-year-old boy, using what appeared to be a kitchen knife.
This was shocking. However, Dr Shanmugarajah has been interviewed[i] and he says he never performed a single amputation, or indeed any surgical procedure, without anaesthetic. He also said that the government kept the hospital well supplied with drugs and food. He said his hospital was never shelled by the Sri Lankan army.
Gnanakumar was not a humanitarian trying to do her bit in a hospital. She was ordered to work in the hospital by the senior LTTE officer known as Castro. In London, she was women’s co-ordinator for the Tamil Youth Organisation an LTTE front. In Killinochchi she was assigned to work with foreign media and was described by a former colleague called Prabakaran as a “news correspondent”. He said she had been trained to use firearms and wore the cyanide capsule obligatory for LTTE cadres around her neck. Gnanakumar was fully-fledged Tamil Tiger. As long ago as September 2009, Gnanakumar was discredited. Why is Channel 4 still treating her as an independent witness?
Another of Channel 4’s main witnesses is Gordon Weiss, an Australian who used to work for the UN in Colombo. He confidently states the hospital doctors requested the ICRC to stop using GPS because the government forces were using it to target the hospitals in the shelling attacks. Weiss says he has reliable information that there were 65 attacks on the hospitals. Dr Shanmugarajah says this is “an absurd lie”. Dr Varatharajah of Mullaithivu hospital also says Weiss is mistaken.
When Gordon Weiss was UN representative in Sri Lanka he went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. This became the official figure quoted by The UN General Secretary’s New York spokesperson, Michelle Monas, who told Inner City Press reporter Matthew Lee, “We have no way of knowing the exact count”. When Weiss left the UN and returned to Australia he increased the figure to 40,000. Journalists have confused the issue by failing to make clear whether information came from “an employee of the UN” rather than “the UN”. Weiss has been promoting his book titled The Cage and making his case in support of allegations of war crimes committed in the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Weiss has implied that what happened in Sri Lanka was similar to the genocide in Sudan.
Sri Lankan Government’s Response
In the documentary Lies Agreed Upon, produced by Adaderana TV for the Ministry of Defence and presented by Sri Lankan editor and publisher Minoli Ratnayake, it is argued that 40,000 deaths would be physically impossible. Gordon Weiss claims to have reliable sources but these can only be the Voice of the Tigers and those doctors who were held hostage and forced to do the Tigers’ bidding. The population of the Wanni is estimated as a maximum of 300,000. This figure is based on LTTE records which were probably inflated and many would have left the area. 293,800 people were registered at the receiving centres. That leaves a maximum of 6,200 to be accounted for. Around 5,000 SLA soldiers were killed.
The Channel 4 programme includes a solemn sequence about the brutality of life in the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. The emotions are manipulated by sinister soundtrack music. B Lynn Pascoe, Under Secretary of the United Nations for Political Affairs, visited the IDP camps in September 2009 and said “You have a better story than is getting out today.” Mr. Pascoe stated that he was “impressed by the work done by the Army, the demining teams, the UN staff and the civil society” and that the team also witnessed the rehabilitation work that was underway. He also stated that in Jaffna, they were able to feel that the people were looking forward to getting more opportunities and that there was a feeling that a “whole era was waiting for them”. Things have greatly improved since then. Even then there were banks with ATMs, shops and schools with children studying for and passing exams. [i]
Channel 4 interviews a couple of women in the IDP camps who claimed to have been raped by soldiers. They are filmed in darkness and their names are not given. The Adaderana TV film includes numerous interviews with women in IDP camps who say that they are shamed by allegations of rape and vehemently deny that they have heard about anyone being raped. Even former LTTE female combatants praise the SLA for always behaving like gentlemen.
Rape is a terrible crime. Rape as a systematic policy and weapon of war is even more appalling. The Darusman report cites pictures of naked LTTE female cadres as evidence that they “may have been raped or sexually assaulted”. Hillary Clinton made a similar charge against the Sri Lankan armed forces some time ago but withdrew it. If rapes did take place they should be investigated and the culprits severely punished. Neither the Channel 4 programme nor the Darusman report supplies evidence of individual crimes and certainly no evidence that rape was government policy. The language used in the report is strangely vague.
Para 152 of the Darusman report says: ”Rape and sexual violence against Tamil women during the final stages of the conflict and in the immediate aftermath are greatly under-reported. Cultural sensitivities and associated stigma prevented victims from reporting such crimes even to their relatives”. One might ask how the panel can be confident that such crimes occurred if they were unreported. One might say that rape is bound to happen in war but such assumptions cannot be offered as “evidence”. The report continues: “There are many indirect accounts reported by women of sexual violence and rape by members of Government Forces”. There is a double distancing here which makes it difficult to understand what actually happened or what is being alleged. What does “indirect accounts” mean? Can it mean anything other than hearsay? It seems to be saying women who had not been raped themselves heard stories from other people who also had not been raped that some other women had said someone had been raped.
The Ministry of Defence has issued its own report on the conduct of the war. It includes a section on the institutional structures designed to deal with infringements of discipline. There is a summary of major offenses committed by Sri Lanka Army personnel between 2005 and 2010 in the North and East and the resultant actions taken by the Army and the civil courts. There are only five cases of sexual abuse.
I am well aware of the propensities of the licentious soldiery. Only this week I read about British soldiers cutting off Taliban fingers and sexually abusing under-age Iraqi children. It is messy thinking to arrive at the conclusion that rapes must have occurred from the generalisation that rapes could have occurred. We do not have to choose between “every soldier is a gentleman” and “every soldier is a potential rapist”.
Tisaranee Gunasekera of the Sunday Leader is a tireless, impassioned and trenchant critic of the Rajapaksas. She wrote:
“A point repeatedly made by the UTHR is that most Lankan soldiers treated the fleeing civilian Tamils with kindness. Though there are allegations of rape and torture, these are being made not against a majority of the soldiers but against a very small minority. Therefore, carrying out a credible investigation of these charges is important not only in the name of justice but also to save the honour of the Lankan army. A few murderous sociopaths should not be allowed to dishonour an entire force.”
According to the Sri Lanka Sunday Times, the Darusman Report is: “replete with factual inaccuracies, contradictions, speculation, downright clumsiness and allegations presented as facts – unworthy of such an exalted organisation”. There are, indeed, some silly and avoidable mistakes in the report. On Page 48, the Defence Secretary is referred to as Basil Rajapaksa – wrong brother, the Defence Secretary was and is Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. On Page 50, it says LTTE cadres were taken to separate camps and held “for years”. It is two years since the war ended and most cadres have been rehabilitated and released. Over 8,000 former Tigers have been released and rehabilitated at a cost to the government of 2.5 billion rupees.
Channel 4 conveys the idea of this being a war without witnesses. There were a great many people in the Wanni even though they were not white. They have given testimony. If there were no international observers in the LTTE-held areas after February 10 2009, where did the Darusman panel get the information on which they based their allegations? It seems that they got their “credible allegations” from some NGOs, but mainly LTTE organisations in the west. The report uses information provided by unnamed sources which are not sourced in the footnotes. The word “credible” is used often but there is no substance behind the currency. The report uses a lot of fudging words like “if proven” and reiterates many charges that have been presented without substantiation for over two years. These are more like internet rumours than hard fact. Allegations become “credible allegations” and morph into “credible evidence”.
The UN left the Wanni at the end of September 2008, but continued to send food convoys deep into LTTE territory, returning to base at Vavuniya after each trip. On January 21 2009, a convoy delivering food to Puthukudiruppu (PTK) returned to Vavuniya after being stuck for four days because of fighting. Two UN staffers stayed back and set up an unauthorised “UN hub” in Susantirapuram. This was in direct contravention of UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/46/182 of 1991. The UN hub was deliberately located between two hostile military forces and the two UN personnel did not follow basic UN rules for humanitarian workers in conflict zones. The panel report says that a heavy assault on Puthukudiruppu was clearly imminent. The LTTE was firing on the army from the vicinity of the UN hub, thereby inviting the army to fire back. Civilians were encouraged to move into the danger zone by the presence of the UN handing out food. If it had not been for the UN presence the civilians could have been dispersed out of harm’s way. UN members cannot ignore the fact that two junior UN officials took it upon themselves to set up a UN hub in the middle of a war zone, with no authorization from the government.
The LTTE had long used the tactic of firing from zones in which they were using civilians as a shield. They used it against the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) in the 1980s. Sometimes they would provoke actual attacks to sucker the IPKF or they would concoct false stories of attacks.
In the final stages in 2009 they did similar things. The US State Department first started getting reports of PTK hospital being shelled when the army was 30 kilometres away from it and in no position to shell. An unspecified number of civilians were said to have been killed at PTK hospital on January 2 2009. On January 12, two patients were said to have been killed in further shelling. On January 29 at least 21 people were said to have been killed in heavy shelling. PTK was not a large hospital and would be unlikely to remain standing after such sustained heavy shelling. In fact, US observers were surprised to find that satellite pictures taken on 28 January showed that the hospital “did not show visible signs of damage and was still functioning”.
On January 29, the ICRC and the UN evacuated the PTK hospital taking 226 civilian patients and family members in an ambulance and bus convoy to Vavuniya. The hospital should then have been closed. The SL Army was on the verge of taking PTK town. However, wounded LTTE cadres remained in the hospital and PTK became, in effect, an LTTE hospital from January 29. This is confirmed on Page 26 of the panel’s report.
According to a US State Department report, on February 1, the LTTE fired on the army from near the hospital.
On February 4, the remaining LTTE patients and captive staff went to Puthumathalan, on the coast in another no fire zone. The ICRC evacuated 14,000 civilian patients by ship between February 10 and May 18. The panel’s report does not mention any backlog of civilians left behind . The report says the three hospitals were shelled but does not give any proof. The report does concede that the LTTE positioned artillery among civilians. Retaliatory fire is permitted in such situations under Protocol II of the Geneva conventions.
There is no space here to examine all the claims made by the panel. The purpose of the above is to show that all the information in the report about shelling of hospitals and civilians has been drawn from tainted LTTE sources.
The government is reluctant to accept any wrongdoing by the military. This was a volunteer army drawn mainly from the rural masses which provide the regime’s main support. A majority of Sri Lankans would see these men as heroes. Many were killed. Many others lost limbs. International criticism strengthens the regime at home even if it weakens it internationally. The Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence has just published its own version of events. The government has always maintained that far from targeting civilians with shells its main objective was to rescue civilians who were being held as hostages by the LTTE and used as human shields. Hence the report is titled Humanitarian Operation- Factual Analysis July 2006 – May 2009. [ii]
Tisaranee Gunasekera, writing in the Sunday Leader, is not impressed by the government documentary and report. “The issue is not whether the victims were innocent or not; the issue is whether some Lankan soldiers engaged in torture, abuse and murder. If they did, as Channel 4 alleges and its searing footage convincingly indicates, such acts are moral outrages which shame every one of us; they also violate both national and international law and thus merit immediate and credible investigation…Though there are allegations of rape and torture, these are being made not against a majority of the soldiers but against a very small minority. Therefore, carrying out a credible investigation of these charges is important not only in the name of justice but also to save the honour of the Lankan army. A few murderous sociopaths should not be allowed to dishonour an entire force.”
Noel Nadesan, a Tamil editor based in Australia, says: “Any Tamil who was in Prabhakaran’s human shield will tell you that the Sri Lankan force treated them more humanely than the LTTE cadres” The report supplies some of the context lacking in the Channel 4 programme. Channel 4 stresses the brutality of the SLA through the testimony of witnesses sympathetic to the LTTE. I am not going down the tu quoque road here to claim that the SLA was justified in committing war crimes because the LTTE were beastly.
Government’s Reasons for Military Action
Part One of the report “ provides a detailed background of the LTTE, including its historical record of atrocities, its scale and sophistication, and its repeated rejection of options for a peaceful solution. At the end of Part One, it is clear why the Government of Sri Lanka had no resort but to pursue a military strategy against the LTTE.” “For three decades, the LTTE unleashed a brutal campaign of terror and violence in Sri Lanka that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Sri Lankans of all ethnicities. Using a combination of terrorist tactics and conventional forces, the LTTE carried out massacres of innocent civilians, attacked economic targets and vital infrastructure and created a fear psychosis that crippled everyday life for several generations of Sri Lankans. The LTTE also assassinated over one hundred democratically elected political leaders and government officials from all ethnicities in Sri Lanka as well as the head of state of Sri Lanka and a former Prime Minister of India.”
The Channel 4 programme suggests that the senior LTTE commander Colonel Ramesh was killed in cold blood while a prisoner. The programme does not mention that Ramesh took part in the massacre of 147 unarmed Muslim men and boys while at prayer. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa denied that Ramesh was in custody: “he is responsible for the killing of 650 policemen who had surrendered. He was responsible for the killing of monks. He was responsible for the killing of innocent civilians, so I do not want to talk about this man. He is a terrorist, he is a man who has killed so many people. ”
The interminable gory record of the LTTE’s infamy brings home the fact that it was not the army or the Sinhalese alone who were the victims of the LTTE. There was some international publicity for countless suicide attacks in Colombo, but it was the remote villages bordering the conflict zones that actually bore the brunt of the LTTE’s wrath, with Tamils as well as Sinhalese women, children and elders being hacked to death in their beds. The LTTE was an internationally designated terrorist organisation credited with pioneering suicide attacks. Civilians were targeted in the way that terrorist organisations tend to do. Look at the Sendero Luminoso in Peru, who killed peasants en masse in order to blame the army or to goad the army into reprisals.
Army Approach to Civilians
The Ministry of Defence report states: “In advance of the Humanitarian Operation, Security Forces underwent extensive training and preparation tailored to achieve a high standard of protection for civilians and to minimise civilian casualties”. “the Humanitarian Operation was carried out with utmost care to safeguard civilian lives. Several measures were also in place to ensure that civilian rights were also well protected…. Security Forces have several institutional mechanisms in place to safeguard human rights.”
The report explains how the army’s efforts to protect civilians were thwarted by the deliberate tactics of the LTTE. “Security Forces, in moving nearer to the NFZ, aimed to facilitate the escape of people from the zone. By the first week of February, over 20,000 civilians had crossed to Government controlled areas, at which point the LTTE reacted by sending a suicide bomber who intermingled with the civilians and detonated herself at a reception centre in Vishvamadu on 9 February 2009, causing many civilian and military casualties. This had the effect of discouraging civilians crossing, though many still continued to try. As a result, the LTTE moved people from this relatively large and accessible NFZ, into increasingly smaller and less accessible areas of land. These are the areas that became the subsequent NFZ. The carriage of people was the act of the LTTE. It became obvious that the people wanted to escape from the clutches of the LTTE; at every available opportunity civilians crossed to the sanctuary offered by Security Forces and many made desperate attempts to come over. Many such civilians were killed by the LTTE.”
The Ministry of Defence’s report is useful in many ways. It would have been helpful if had been published a long time ago. It is disappointing that nowhere does the report address the contentious issue of how many civilians were killed. On the BBC’s Hard Talk, Stephen Sacker pressed Rajiva Wijesinha for an answer on this and Professor Wijesinha estimate 5,000. Is this the official government estimate? Professor Francis A Boyle of Illinois University estimates 50,000 civilian deaths.
Namini Wijedasa writes in Lakbima News: “The report also sees a shift in the government stand on civilian deaths. However slight this change might be, it allows for a future accounting of civilian deaths and is far more acceptable than the intransigent position so far adopted of ‘zero civilian casualties’. It would be a mistake to backtrack, not to venture cautiously forward along the same lines. The government must offer an accurate figure of the deaths that occurred, if only to dispel vastly unsubstantiated claims that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians had perished. Two years after the war, we still don’t know how many died. The report demonstrates an eagerness to place on record that there was no deliberate, systematic targeting of civilians and that all possible measures were taken to minimise loss. But it also illustrates the government’s dilemma of having to defend its military-and military strategy-while providing a convincing description of the final stages of the war. This regime continues to grapple with the justifiable question of how the war ended so rapidly during those last weeks without the use of heavy weapons.”
Gamini Weerakoon, writing in the Sunday Leader, speaks for those who believe the government’s response will be ineffective: “This is an example of ‘preaching to the convinced’. Sri Lankans, even those opposed to the Rajapaksa government, went along with the Defence Ministry report even though they had not read it. (Only those in the charmed kitchen cabinet would have had access to it).Western audiences and even media personnel agreed it was ‘eye wash’ even though they too had not read the report nor will they bother to read it! Of course the people in those countries who are supposed to influence their political representatives would not have even heard of the Defence Ministry analysis.”
Why is Sri Lanka such a Villain to the West?
Namini Wijedasa: :”The call for a credible investigation would be infinitely more effective if the global human rights industry were to show some fairness in its campaign -something it consistently fails to do. If the argument is that the vanquished are dead, leaving only the victors to be hounded, this is not so. Representatives of the LTTE are still active abroad and could be prosecuted.”
Many in Sri Lanka would argue that even if the allegations about these incidents were proved these are small crimes given the context of a long and difficult war which resulted in a peace unknown for thirty years. The incidents do not seem to fit the Nuremberg criteria. They do not compare in magnitude to the war crimes perpetrated by the USA and UK over the decades and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. The USA supports Israel which persistently assassinates Palestinian leaders wherever they can find them. The CIA tried many bizarre methods of assassinating Fidel Castro. Navy Seals succeeded in killing Bin Laden and dumped his body in the sea. The USA blatantly ignored the Geneva Conventions and abducted innocents to torture them in foreign countries. Rather than being punished those responsible are still free to sign lucrative book deals for advocating and practising torture.
Writing on Groundviews,[iii] Harendra Alwis says: “images from the final battles have found a fleeting time slot in the 24-hour news cycle. They have confronted and mildly traumatised ordinary people who would struggle to find us on the world map even now. Perhaps the terrible images they are being exposed to, will even cause a minor stir in them before slipping out of their collective memory to be replaced by concerns about rising fuel prices and a weekend’s football scores.”
Noel Nadesan addressed Channel 4: “The sensationalism certainly may help the ratings of Channel 4 and ABC but how will it help our people? Our people who lived through the horrors of the futile war know that this is only one side of the story. Our Tamil leaders have informed the world that the LTTE has killed more Tamils than all the other forces – Indian, Sri Lankan and rival Tamil parties – put together. The moralizing of the media lacks credibility because our people who lived through the horrors of the war know who killed whom in what manner. Leaving aside the die-hard partisans, our people know that the LTTE was a cruel and beastly outfit they had never encountered in living memory – and do not want to encounter in all their lives to come.“
As Harendra Alwis says: “Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka do not have the luxury of being able to pass judgement on each other and prosecute each other because their destinies are tightly intertwined.” In this context Channel 4’s intervention seems mischievous and malicious. Alwis is worried that “any threat of international investigations could actually be a catalyst for reigniting the fires of violence in a population whose majority is already feeling insecure and under attack … Though well-meaning proponents of such an investigation may seek to achieve justice and reconciliation, it would achieve exactly the opposite with dreadful consequences for the people of Sri Lanka.”
Namini Wijedasa concludes:“With the launch of this report, [the Ministry of Defence publication] the world now has two sides to the story-the LTTE’s and the government’s. The most vital and authentic side, that of civilians who were affected in the war, is still missing. These victims can’t produce reports. They have no avenue to document their experiences, to vent, to explain and to grieve. In the political battle that is fought in local and international arena, the real victims continue to be sidelined.”