Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

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?

Deadly accountancy – Accountability for death

This article was published in The Nation on February12 2012

Timothy J. McVeigh, a decorated US army veteran, was executed on June 11, 2001. Although ‘only’ 168 were killed, the Oklahoma bombing was a great shock to the American people because terrorism on American soil was unusual. Although the perpetrator was not a foreigner, the reaction set in train a series of encroachments of freedom which led to the Bush regime’s use of torture.

Provisional IRA

One might say that ‘only’ 3,000 people were killed during 33 years of the Provisional IRA’s campaign. Each of those deaths was a matter of pain, of grief, loss and bereavement.
Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles is a 1,696 page volume in which three Northern Irish journalists and an academic list 3,638 deaths, directly attributable to ‘The Troubles’, from 1966 to 2000. It depicts the dead as individual human beings, blood and bone and nerve ends, with families and emotions.
League table of death

Neil Tweedie in the Daily Telegraph: “In proportional terms Norway has lost more people than America did on 9/11, and most of them are young, between 13 and 19”. In 2006, Slate contributor Jordan Ellenberg questioned the logic of such comparisons.

“It’s hard for Americans to comprehend what’s happening in the Middle East…What crime in America is morally equal to the killing of eight Israelis?…What event would have the impact on America that the killing of eight Israelis does on Israel? …Unless you truly think Israeli lives are worth more or less than our own, the crime that’s equivalent to the murder of eight Israelis is the murder of eight Americans.”
WTC attack

The fact that 3,000 died at once on 9/11 will always be shocking. The reaction caused more deaths in Iraq (1,033,000 according to Opinion Research Business survey, 601,027 according to The Lancet, 114,731 according to Iraq Body Count Project) and Afghanistan (the US does not release figures; a Brown University study says 14,000 but admits this is a conservative estimate). One of my editors, Nikki Stern, lost her husband on 9/11.

Nikki believes that the US response was disproportionate and says the overriding legacy for most Americans is either anger or apathy. She contends that this is a poor tribute to those killed in the attacks and prefers to remember the days of late 2001, when she observed people reaching out to support one another, despite political and religious differences.
How many dead Sri Lankans?

In Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, Jon Snow doomily intoned that ”As many as 40,000, probably more” civilians had died. Rohan Gunaratna contends that ‘only’ 1,400 civilians were killed in the north east Vanni pocket in the first five months of 2009. He said that this estimate was based on interviews with Tamil coroners.

Professor Michael Roberts considers this ‘astounding and misleading’. Rajasingham Narendran asked: “How many coroners were available during the war in the area for recording deaths? “ Narendran talked to IDPs and estimates deaths “were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”.

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute told Roberts “(approximately) 12,000 (without counting armed Tiger personnel)”.

Dr. Noel Nadesan estimated around 16,000, including fighters and natural deaths.
In the documentary Lies Agreed Upon, it is argued that 40,000 deaths would be physically impossible. The population of the Wanni is estimated at 300,000. 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.
No civilian casualties

The Banyan column in the Economist: “It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.”

The government’s position on ‘zero civilian casualties’ has modified over time to a claim that everything possible was done to avoid civilian casualties. However, by failing to come up with its own numbers the government has allowed western critics to take sole possession of the numbers game.

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