“Generating Calamity” by Michael Roberts
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 23 2014
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.