Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Sri Lanka

Ten Years After

 

This article was written in December 2014 to mark the tenth anniversary of  the tsunami.

 

Did the children and I come to you when the waves came?

Were the kids there with you when death came?

In eternity, do you want to be mine again?

Will you come back at least in my dreams?

Those words were written by a grieving husband on the side of a rusting railway carriage at Peraliya in southern Sri Lanka. On 26 December 2014, it will be ten years since 36,000 to 50,000 people (the numbers of dead vary depending on the source) died in Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami. Between 1,700 passengers 2500 on the holiday train, Queen of the South, perished as the wave engulfed it at Peraliya, between Colombo and Galle. Rescuers recovered only 824 bodies, as many were swept out to sea or taken away by relatives without informing the authorities. The village itself also suffered heavy losses: hundreds of inhabitants died and out of 420 houses, the great wave spared only ten.

At 0.58 UTC, 6.58 Sri Lanka time, December 26 2004, there was a seismic subduction on the sea bed off the west coast of Sumatra. Scientists called it the great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake. The earthquake moved a 1,200-km section of the sea floor, releasing energy equivalent to 550 million Hiroshimas. The earthquake was the second largest ever recorded – between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale. Lasting up to ten minutes, the earthquake had the longest duration ever recorded. The entire planet vibrated about 1cm and there were shocks as far away as Alaska.

On Christmas Eve, 2004, we were having dinner with our 95-year-old friend and her son at his plantation bungalow. We were discussing the possibility of a trip to Galle on the south coast or Trincomalee in the north east, in a brief hiatus in a thirty-year conflict because of a cease-fire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Luckily, we decided to stay put in our home up in the Namunukula Mountains.

On Christmas Day 2004, we had heard news that our local government veterinarian, whom we knew well, was looking forward to going on a trip to Galle with a party of about 20 people. He and 16 others died. His wife and one child survived because they went back to the hotel for a newspaper.

Everyone in Sri Lanka knows someone who lost someone. The wave took away a friend of my wife’s family and her brother in Galle. She was Sri Lankan but lived mainly in London and was here on a short holiday. Her husband was inconsolable and sorry to have survived. Ten years on, he is still suffering.

A strange phenomenon occurred in Yala National Park. Few of the animals seemed to have perished because they moved to higher ground before the wave hit. Was this because they sensed the tremors?

At Batticaloa, in the Eastern province, there were 1,200 dead and the naval base at Trincomalee was submerged with about 800 reported dead in that district. In Amparai district in the north east, the death toll was 5,000. One thousand dead were counted in Mullaithivu, in the Northern Province, which was controlled by the Tamil Tigers. Many of the dead throughout the country were children and elderly people. One and a half million were displaced from their homes.

Agriculture was badly affected. Vehicles and equipment were ruined. Drains and canals were blocked and water supplies contaminated. 259 square km of paddy land was destroyed or damaged by salinization or deposits of garbage. 23,449 acres of cultivated arable land was affected by salinity

Thousands of houses and other buildings, railways, bridges, communication networks, and other infrastructure and capital assets suffered massive damage. Assets valued at US$900 million were lost. 150,000 people lost their livelihoods – 75% of the total fishing fleet was destroyed. 89,000 houses were destroyed. 183 schools were destroyed or damaged, affecting 200,000 children. 102 health facilities were destroyed or damaged. 53 out of 242 large hotels were damaged along with 248 small hotels. A total length of approximately 800 kilometres of national road network and 1,500 kilometres of provincial and local government roads were damaged. The railway infrastructure on a 160- kilometre-long stretch along the tsunami-affected coastline was also severely damaged.

One month after the tsunami, my wife and I visited Hambantota. We visited again, to take some supplies for the three months dhane, the alms-giving.

Back in 2005, just outside the town of Hambantota, plastic chairs were stranded on the banks above the stained salt in the lagoons of the Lanka Salt Company. Fishing suffered because of fear that fish were contaminated by corpses. Apparently, there was a greater danger of corpses contaminating the salt.

We saw the first derelict house, then another. A graveyard was littered with broken trees. Whole villages along the shore were obliterated. Young men in masks carried spades; soldiers and police carried boxes of food and water; girls distributed tea and biscuits. Cargill’s supermarket was boarded up on our first visit and gone completely on our second. The sign outside the Jade Green Restaurant dangled and clanged above holes in the walls. A large dead bat hung from telephone wires near a mosque.

Many houses had been illegally built, so records did not exist to account for the missing. Walls of empty houses were tattooed with telephone numbers and photos of the missing were stuck to trees and telegraph poles.

A canal was clogged with orphaned furniture. A child’s dress swayed from the ceiling in the shell of a house. Saris hung like strange fruit high in the trees. Small slippers sat in the middle of the back lanes. Crushed three-wheelers littered the verges. There was mud everywhere and it seemed as if the earth had halitosis. There were odd reversals – a bus nose-down in the sea; boats marooned in the main street and stacked against a mosque. A mangled telecoms tower jutted from the sea.

Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories in the press about thousands of desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service courageously resisted panic calls for mass slaughter of stray dogs and carried out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilisation.

Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari (village official) at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.

On our next visit, there weren’t as many people at the temple. This did not mean that problems were solved. There was a meeting going on elsewhere. The people who were at the temple insisted that we should hand out the supplies ourselves. Those receiving feel better if they “receive from the hand”, that they have a direct relationship with the giver. The giver can look into the eyes of the receiver.

 

We distributed rice, lentils, sugar, coconuts, books and pens from the car. The first arrivals were calm and slow; gradually new arrivals became more hurried, breathless, their lateness a sign of having travelled a greater distance than the first-comers. Soon our supplies were gone. The late-comers did have a certain look of panic on their faces. They did show disappointment, but with resignation rather than anger.

We were at a Buddhist temple but it was an ecumenical event. Many were Muslims. Some were Christians. Some were Hindus. People seemed to be united in adversity. Nature had not discriminated, although some middle class Christians told us that the disaster was their god’s punishment on heathen Buddhists.

One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone to market with their child. They did not return. A woman could not control her tears as she told about losing her husband in the flood. One woman claimed to have lost 30 of her family. All behaved with dignity but said they had lost their dignity. “We were not rich but we were comfortable. We had a good life. Now we have nothing. We are just like beggars.”

By this visit, the miasmic odor had gone. Some tents belonged to house-owners camping outside their own houses. A neat sign in magic-marker, in an empty plot at the junction, said “Ayub Khan 348 Tissa Road, Hambantota” to stake a claim against squatters. A gathering of orange-robed priests sat under a battered sign: “Baby’s Dream Pre-school”. Some broken houses were festooned with washing and had goats and chickens in the yard.

There are complaints in Sri Lanka today about militarisation. Ten years ago, 20,000 soldiers were deployed to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences.

When we travelled to Galle via Hambantota, four years after the tsunami, there was a wide new bypass allowing travelers to avoid the town centre. Along the sides of the highway are neat little housing developments reminiscent of suburban homes in the west.

Ten years on Hambantota is unrecognisable. Hambantota has a natural harbour close to international shipping routes. Construction of the Port of Hambantota (also known as the Magampura Port) by the China Harbour Engineering Company and the Sinohydro Corporation, has given the town  the largest  port in South Asia, covering 4,000 acres and able to accommodate 33 vessels at any given time. There has been resistance from Colombo enterprises. A plan to import all vehicles through Hambantota has upset Colombo port authorities and some in the motor trade. “The port in Hambantota will be the catalyst to make Hambantota the new commercial capital of Sri Lanka in the next three years,” said Dr Bandu Wickrama, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

A new international airport has been opened near Hambantota. The airport at Mattala has one of the biggest runways in the world, slightly wider than Singapore Changi Airport, one of the busiest in the world. Will Mattala airport ever be as busy as Changi? There are still concerns about the environment and the unique wild life in Yala and Bundala National Parks. Peacocks have endangered flights.

 

There are also concerns that these projects are wasteful and designed to enrich the ruling family.

Critics see the port, the airport, sports stadiums and convention centres as white elephants that serve no useful purpose except to boost the egos and bank balances of politicians at the same as getting Sri Lanka in hock to the Chinese.

Soon after the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be running for his third term, after using his two-thirds majority in parliament to introduce the 18th amendment to the constitution to allow him to do so.

The Hambantota area has long suffered extreme poverty. Today the outlook is promising. Hambantota is the fiefdom of President Rajapaksa. He and his brothers currently dominate Sri Lankan politics, and he is grooming his son Namal, who represents a Hambantota constituency, future greatness. It should also be noted that Sajith Premadasa, who is (somewhat ineffectually) challenging for leadership of the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), also represents a Hambantota constituency.

Prosperity and development in Sri Lanka have long been concentrated on Western province and the financial hub of Colombo. The government’s stated aim is to establish a gateway for investment in the south and to stimulate development and infrastructure in the area, raising living standards of the people, not only in Hambantota, but also in Moneragala (the poorest town in the poorest district of the poorest province) and Matara. As a foreigner, albeit one who lived in countries where the capitals, London and Dublin, dominated the regions, I was shocked to hear in Sri Lanka that anything that was not Colombo was described as “outstation”. The Western province exerts far too much dominance over the rest of the country. Some might argue that it produces most of the nation’s wealth. Nonetheless, although some might question the massive investment in an area “devoid of people”, it will be interesting to see if the Hambantota developments spread the creation and enjoyment of wealth.

 

 

Ten Years after the Tsunami

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on December 27 2014.

Colman's Column3

It is ten years since the tsunami hit Sri Lanka. In her book, Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala describes what happened to her at Yala: “I thought nothing of it at first. The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual”.

At 0.58 UTC, 6.58 Sri Lanka time, December 26 2004, there was a seismic subduction on the seabed off the west coast of Sumatra. Scientists called it the great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake. A 1,200-km section of the sea floor moved. The earthquake was the second largest ever recorded – between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale, lasting up to ten minutes. The entire planet vibrated about 1cm and there were shocks as far away as Alaska.

On Christmas Eve, 2004, we were having dinner with a 95-year-old friend and her son at his plantation bungalow. We were discussing the possibility of a trip to Galle on the south coast or Trincomalee in the north east, in a brief hiatus in the thirty-year conflict. Luckily, we decided to stay put in our home up in the Namunukula Mountains.

On Christmas Day 2004, we had heard news that our local government veterinarian, whom we knew well, was looking forward to going on a trip to Galle with a party of about 20 people. He and 16 others died. His wife and one child survived because they went back to the hotel for a newspaper.

A strange phenomenon occurred in Yala National Park. Few of the animals seemed to have perished because they moved to higher ground before the wave hit. Was this because they sensed the tremors?

One month after the tsunami, my wife and I visited Hambantota. We visited again, to take some supplies for the three months dhane, the alms giving.

Back in 2005, just outside Hambantota, plastic chairs were stranded on the banks above the stained salt in the lagoons of the Lanka Salt Company. Fishing suffered because of fear that corpses had contaminated the catch. Apparently, there was a greater danger of corpses contaminating the salt.

We saw the first derelict house, then another. Broken trees littered a graveyard. Whole villages along the shore were obliterated. Young men in masks carried spades; soldiers and police carried boxes of food and water; girls distributed tea and biscuits. Cargill’s supermarket was boarded up on our first visit and gone completely on our second. The sign outside the Jade Green Restaurant dangled and clanged above holes in the walls. A large dead bat hung from telephone wires near a mosque.

Many houses had been illegally built, so records did not exist to account for the missing. Walls of empty houses were tattooed with telephone numbers and photos of the missing were stuck to trees and telegraph poles.

Orphaned furniture clogged a canal. A child’s dress swayed from the ceiling in the shell of a house. Saris hung like strange fruit high in the trees. Small slippers sat in the middle of the back lanes. Crushed three-wheelers littered the verges. There was mud everywhere and it seemed as if the earth had halitosis. There were odd reversals – a bus nose-down in the sea; boats marooned in the main street and stacked against a mosque. A mangled telecoms tower jutted from the sea.

Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories about thousands of desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service courageously resisted panic calls for slaughter of stray dogs and carried out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilisation.

Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.

On our next visit, there were fewer people at the temple. There was a meeting going on elsewhere. The people who were at the temple insisted that we should hand out the supplies ourselves. Those receiving feel better if they “receive from the hand”, that they have a direct relationship with the giver. The giver can look into the eyes of the receiver.

We distributed rice, lentils, sugar, coconuts, books and pens from our car. The first arrivals were calm and slow; gradually new arrivals became more hurried, breathless, their lateness a sign of having travelled a greater distance than the first-comers. Soon our supplies were gone. The latecomers did have a certain look of panic on their faces. They did show disappointment, but with resignation rather than anger.

We were at a Buddhist temple but it was an ecumenical event. Many were Muslims. Some were Christians. Some were Hindus. Adversity seemed to unite people. Nature had not discriminated, although some middle class Christians told us that the disaster was their god’s punishment on heathen Buddhists.

One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone to market with their child. They did not return. A woman could not control her tears as she told about losing her husband in the flood. Another woman claimed to have lost 30 of her family. All were dignified but said they had lost their dignity. “We were not rich, but we were comfortable. We had a good life. Now we have nothing. We are just like beggars.”

By this visit, the miasmic odor had gone. Some tents belonged to house-owners camping outside their own houses. A neat sign in magic-marker, in an empty plot at the junction, said “Ayub Khan 348 Tissa Road, Hambantota” to stake a claim against squatters. A gathering of orange-robed priests sat under a battered sign: “Baby’s Dream Pre-school”. Some broken houses were festooned with washing and had goats and chickens in the yard.

Ten years ago, 20,000 soldiers assisted in relief operations. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. This was in sharp contrast to the response to Hurricane Katrina. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences.

When we travelled to Galle via Hambantota, four years after the tsunami, there was a wide new bypass allowing travellers to avoid the town centre. Along the sides of the highway were neat little housing developments reminiscent of suburban homes in the west.

Ten years on Hambantota is unrecognisable. Construction of the Port of Hambantota has given the town the largest port in South Asia, covering 4,000 acres and able to accommodate 33 vessels at any given time. A plan to import all vehicles through Hambantota has upset Colombo port authorities and some in the motor trade..

A new international airport at Mattala has one of the biggest runways in the world, slightly wider than Singapore Changi Airport, one of the busiest in the world. Will Mattala airport ever be as busy as Changi? There are still concerns about the environment and the unique wild life in Yala and Bundala National Parks. Peacocks have endangered flights.

Soon after the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, President Rajapaksa will be running for his third term. Critics see the port, the airport, sports stadiums and convention centres as white elephants that serve no useful purpose except to boost the egos and bank balances of politicians at the same as getting Sri Lanka in hock to the Chinese.

The Hambantota area has long suffered extreme poverty. Prosperity and development in Sri Lanka have long been concentrated on Western province and the financial hub of Colombo. The government has stated that the aim is to establish a gateway for investment in the south and to stimulate development and infrastructure in the area, raising living standards of the people, not only in Hambantota, but also in Moneragala (the poorest town in the poorest district of the poorest province) and Matara.

As a foreigner, albeit one who lived in countries where the capitals, London and Dublin, dominated the regions, I was shocked to hear in Sri Lanka that anything that was not Colombo described as “outstation”. The Western province exerts far too much dominance over the rest of the country. Some might argue that it produces most of the nation’s wealth. Nonetheless, although some might question the massive investment in an area “devoid of people”, it will be interesting to see if the Hambantota developments spread the creation and enjoyment of wealth.

Everyone in Sri Lanka knows someone who lost someone to the tsunami. In Galle, the wave took away a friend of my wife’s family. She was Sri Lankan but lived mainly in London and was here on a short holiday. Her husband was inconsolable and sorry to have survived. Ten years on, he is still suffering.

Everyone can empathise with loss of a loved one – either through death, separation, rejection. Everyone knows the agony of revisiting scenes that one once shared with someone who is no longer there. Sonali Deraniyagala is still suffering. Her book is a poetic account of the bleakness of loss – she lost her parents, her husband and her two sons. She has tried to rebuild a life in Sri Lanka, London, New York – but how to live with such pain?

She also feels guilty for being alive. “Although we were only doing what we always did, and although it was those tectonic plates that slipped, I can’t rid myself of the feeling that I led them to harm when they relied on me”.

 

 

 

 

Buddhism and Politics

This was originally posted on the website Does this Make Sense?

 

 

Militant atheists have been too easy on the way Buddhism works out in real life. Buddhism is acceptable to atheists because there is no supreme being, no soul, no afterlife. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris finds the differences between the Eastern and Western canons “startling”. In comparison with Eastern philosophical mystics “we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs”.

 
Buddhism – like any other philosophy, religion, or way of life – risks becoming an instrument of the state or a party. There are many examples of moral values being used to justify tyranny. Connections with the state, the military, political parties have in the past morally compromised Buddhism and can do so again in the future. Despite its peaceful message, Buddhism can be turned to political purposes. Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka have not been notably peaceful over recent decades. The Laotian communists of the Pathet Lao use Buddhism to justify socialism. The ultra-right-wing Thai priest Kittiwutto can say that “killing communists is not a sin”.

 
Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2000 about his visit to the military dictatorship of Myanmar, which reminded him of the East German communist regime: “But instead of Marxism as the official ideology, we have Buddhism”.

 
Brian Daizen Victoria shows how Zen Buddhists were complicit with the totalitarian imperial Japanese military who used the monastic model to make their killing machine more efficient; Buddhists helped Japanese war criminals evade capture.

 
Tessa J Bartholomeusz explores the arguments in the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition, for and against war. Her thesis is that, in spite of a rigorous tradition of non-violence, the precept against killing can be trumped by other considerations, such as utilitarian considerations of sacrificing one life in order to save multiple lives.

 
Damien Keown argues that killing can sometimes be a legitimate response to suffering (dukkha); Rupert Gethin, rejects Keown’s argument since it does not address dukkha as a reality to be understood and worked through, rather than suppressed. Eric Sean Nelson writes: “It is difficult if not impossible to demand the saintliness according to which it is illegitimate to defend one’s parents, family, friends or community under any circumstances. The problem is when and how this reasoning can go wrong and become an ideological excuse for morally illegitimate violence and war.”

 
Elaine Scarry wrote in The Body in Pain: “It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation.”

 
According to Amartya Sen, early Indian Buddhists were committed to discussion as a means of social progress and this led to the establishment of councils which considered the demands of social and civic duties and helped to “consolidate and promote the tradition of open discussion on contentious issues”. The third of these councils took place under the patronage of emperor Ashoka who converted to Buddhism after witnessing the mass deaths in a war he himself waged. Buddhism became his state religion around 260 BC and under his model of ‘Buddhist kingship’, a ruler legitimized his rule, not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha (priesthood).

 

 
In 2011, Sri Lanka is celebrating 2,600 years of Buddhism, the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any nation, with the sangha having existed in an unbroken lineage since its introduction by Ashoka’s representative Arahant Mahinda Thero. There are Sri Lankans today who see that history of protection of Buddhism as integral to their concept of Sinhala identity and nationhood. This can be problematic in a country with so many different ethnic groups. Buddhism is given a special place in the Constitution.

 
In Ceylon in 1956, Sinhalese-Buddhist activists helped Solomon Bandaranaike win the general election. They wanted as their reward the elevation of Sinhala to the status of sole national language. Many Sinhala students only had unemployment to look forward to and resented the fact that coveted government jobs required a fluency in English and went disproportionately to Tamils. Bandaranaike was strong in Sinhalese Buddhist rural areas; it made sense to please Sinhalese Buddhists rather than Tamils who would not vote for him anyway.

 
Protests against Sinhala-only legislation led to Tamil deaths. Bandaranaike tried to extricate himself by compromise, which aroused anew the wrath of Sinhala activists. On September 25 1959, Bandaranaike was assassinated by Venerable Talduwe Somarama a Buddhist priest and Ayurvedic practitioner.

 
Somarama was recruited to do the killing by Mapitigama Buddharakkitha, chief priest of the temple at Kelaniya. Buddharakkitha’s real motive was the Prime Minister’s refusal to award business deals to a company he had floated. Bandaranaike had referred to Buddharakkitha as ‘that buddy Racketeer”. Buddharakkitha was very rich and had a sexual relationship with Wimala Wijewardene (then Minister of Health and promoter of Ayurvedic medicine; she was the aunt of current opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe).

 
Robert Kaplan, who has been wrong about many things concerning Sri Lanka, (see http://agonist.org/padraig_colman/20090728/fantasies_of_virtue) writing in Atlantic Monthly, says: Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism “can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.” There seemed to be a lot of blood and soil in their rhetoric of a party called Sihala Uramaya. After zero electoral success, they transformed themselves into the JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya – National Heritage Party). In the 2004 election, all JHU candidates were Buddhist monks. The party won six per cent of the vote and nine out of 225 seats. Party member Venerable Medhananda Thera said, “Our sole intention is to establish a righteous Buddhist state with Buddhist values. Though there are invitations for us to join parties we will remain independent. No one can buy us with portfolios and perks.”

 
The party maintained a Sinhala Nationalist stance in its politics and advocated wiping out the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) by force. This struck a chord with the general Sinhalese population, tired of Tiger atrocities and broken promises. Nevertheless, it was shocking to many to see robed figures calling for blood. According to Rajpal Abeynayake, now editor of Lakbima News: “The JHU vote bank mainly comprises urban, English-educated, upper-middle-class Sinhala Buddhists from high castes.” The JHU was instrumental in preventing Chandrika Kumaratunga extending her presidential; the JHU joined the governing coalition of new president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Tigers were, indeed, defeated, to the great relief of most people including Tamils. The JHU were instrumental in implementing a ban on smoking in public places and achieved the mandatory closing of liquor stores and a ban on slaughtering and selling meat on Buddhist festivals.

 
There was soon infighting within the JHU parliamentary group which had been cobbled together just before the polls and lacked unity about relating to government. The monks were involved in a brawl in parliament at the time of the vote for a Speaker. One monk MP, Kolonnawe Siri Sumangala, was hospitalized after a government minister, Mervyn Silva, squeezed his testicles very hard.

 
By 2005, monk Uduwe Dhammaloka was saying: “The climate is not conducive for monks to enter politics. It is corrupt.” He said the lay people connected to the Sihala Urumaya were opportunist self-seekers. In 2007 the monks of the JHU came under criticism for selling their parliamentary vehicle permits. One of the former monk MPs is accused of molesting five underage novice monks. The JHU now fields only lay candidates.

 
Liverpool University’s Colin Irwin’s Peace Polls contributed to the Northern Ireland peace process. One of the findings of Irwin’s survey throughout Sri Lanka was: “Although all communities strongly support language and fundamental rights, Tamil concerns about the special status of Buddhism has increased after the war as a political issue”.

 
President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a speech in which he saw the special status of Buddhism as a positive thing. “The establishment of Buddha Sasana in the country ensures the protection of all living beings and the message by Arahant Mahinda Thero stresses the importance of treating all races and religion equally”.

 
Without arguing for relativism against absolutism, one can recognise that ethics are context-sensitive. Context-based ethics means an existential involvement between self and others and self and world. One must navigate moral challenges appropriately. When a principle becomes uncertain, it can only be interpreted rather than mechanically applied. Codes, precepts, and rules demand the ability to distinguish between the hypocrisy of breaking them for one’s own advantage and the moral insight to adapt them to circumstances. Nelson asks: “Is the Buddhist notion of skilfulness too open or ambiguous”.

 

 

Are the precepts descriptive rather than prescriptive? There is no Jehovah to rule that killing is absolutely sinful and to threaten punishment for murder. Dependent origination, khamma, means if you engage in violence there are likely to be unpleasant consequences – cause and effect, one thing leads to another, shit happens. As Nelson puts it: “The Buddha does not claim that violence is only sometimes wrong but that violence, no matter how righteous, always produces more violence; and warriors, no matter how virtuous, always suffer the consequences of war.” One has to operate skilfully and appropriately.

 

 

Bartholomeusz contends that it is paradoxically because some Buddhists believe that they are more fair, tolerant, and peaceful – that leads them to set themselves apart and turn to violence to protect the ideal of pacifism. Violence, once it is justified as an exception, becomes the norm from which there seems no escape.

 

 

Nelson looks at the Sri Lankan situation. “Buddhist lands do not only involve traditions of nonviolence and loving kindness. They also have had a long history of thinking about and engaging in internal and external physical conflict. … Buddhism privileges non-violence while at the same time self-described Buddhists have justified and engaged in war under certain conditions…. As Mahinda Deegalle argues, this position is not so much Buddhist as it is Sinhalese nationalist, which appropriates Buddhism as a symbol of Sinhalese heritage; Sri Lanka dhammadvipa , the whole island is a sacred relic and the loss of its integrity would destroy this legacy. Deegalle concludes: “The challenge for a modern Buddhist is to meditate on the Saddharmaratnãvaliya’s message that “the rage of one who vows vengeance cannot be quelled except by the waters of compassion.”

 

 

Why does Everybody Hate Sri Lanka?

A Facebook friend asked me to explain why the Sri Lankan government has come under such criticism. A recent example was David Cameron’s November 2013 visit to Sri Lanka for CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of government Meeting). “Can you tell me why you think the country is coming in for criticism? Did the Tamil Tigers manage to get favourable international media coverage? Can you fill me in a little on how they were defeated and why Sri Lanka gets criticised for that?”

I have written about this in the past and, after receiving that question, canvassed the views of my Sri Lankan contacts.

“No one likes us, we don’t care”

In the late 70s, Millwall football fans in the Cold Blow Lane stand  used to sing this to the tune of Rod Stewart’s (We Are) Sailing (written by the Sutherland Brothers). This was in response to sustained criticism of their behaviour and the media assumption that Millwall fans were the worst kind of hooligans. Various commentators, including Rod Liddle, have questioned why the name of Millwall became synonymous with hooliganism, creating a siege mentality amongst ordinary, law-abiding Millwall fans.

South London writer Michael Collins wrote: “At the end of the 19th century around the time Millwall FC was formed, middle-class journalists used to descend on the area like Baudelaireian flaneurs, to report on the urban working class as though they were discovering natives from the remote islands of the Empire.”

It is interesting that Rod Liddle is one of the few English journalists to have criticised David Cameron’s flaneurist behaviour in Colombo recently. Liddle wrote in The Spectator back in 2005 about a riot at a game between Liverpool and Millwall after which three Liverpool supporters were jailed. The FA exonerated Liverpool and fined Millwall. Liddle commented: “the FA wished to make a political point and saw Millwall – a small club, unfashionable and not especially popular as an ideal target.”

Here is the title of Liddle’s recent article on the London Sunday Times blog about Cameron’s behaviour in Sri Lanka: “That s the president of Sri Lanka, PM, not one of your fags”. American readers should note that “fag” refers in this instance to the system of servitude in English schools for toffs like Cameron. A fag at Eton would be bullied by the Bullingdon Club.

Genuine Concern

I will have a look at the simplest answer first. What if criticisms of Sri Lanka are fair? What if Cameron, William Hague and Alistair Burt are acting from a genuine concern for human rights? What if Stephen Harper and Barack Obama genuinely want to see justice done in Sri Lanka?

There are certainly many things that could be improved in Sri Lanka.

  • The 18th amendment to the constitution was a bad idea.
  • The impeachment of the Chief Justice showed the government in a bad light.
  • It is not good for the army to shoot dead unarmed protesters.
  • For ordinary people the never-ending grind of rising prices is debilitating.

One of my respondents said: “I think, perhaps the UK is concerned that more civilians have been killed than they were assured would be, and they feel some guilt for not having intervened in 2009”.

Unfortunately, Cameron, Harper and Obama invite the charge of hypocrisy by focusing on what happened in the final months of the military action that defeated the Tamil Tigers. People in Sri Lanka are likely to say what about Iraq, Kenya, Guantanamo, drone strikes?

Cameron’s thinking seems to be directed by simplistic sound bites that totally discount the realities of war.

Jealousy

The Sri Lankan government was proud of its victory and keen to share its experience with the world. The Ministry of Defence organised seminars to which it invited foreign observers. The third of these was held in September 2013. There were many calls from human rights organisations to boycott the seminars. US Defense Attaché to Sri Lanka, LTC Lawrence Smith, attended the 2011 seminar and questioned the credibility of surrender offers made by senior LTTE leaders. He got in trouble because of it. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “My understanding is that the defense attaché was there as an observer and a note taker. His comments reflected his personal opinions. There’s no change in the policy of the United States, and his remarks do not reflect any change in our policy.”

In his article in The Atlantic dated 1 July 2009 entitled To Catch a Tiger, Robert D Kaplan acknowledged the success of the Sri Lankan government in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Kaplan admitted that tiny, cash-strapped Sri Lanka, generally thought of as ”third world” or ”developing”, has succeeded where the mighty USA has failed. The man who dominated Sri Lankan life for the worse for thirty years, Vellupillai Prabakharan, leader of the Tamil Tigers, was dead, while Osama Bin Laden was, at the time, still living, a free man.

Kaplan asks if the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s success but answers:

”These are methods the U.S. should never use.”

My detailed critique of Kaplan is here: https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/fantasies-of-virtue/

The gist of my critique is that the US has, indeed, used methods far worse.

A respondent in Colombo says: “as you know, the Sri Lankan side refused  to carry out the wishes of the UK and US embassies during those last hours of the ending of the war. They now think that we should be taught a lesson for being naughty. It’s stupid and shows a total misreading of the realities on the ground of that time.”

Domestic Electoral Considerations

Many of the Sri Lankans that I canvassed for this article made the point that western politicians were motivated by electoral concerns.

A respondent who lives in Toronto, a hot-bed of pro-LTTE activity, told me: “The only answer that I can give would be the ‘local politics’ in any country…It is a fact that the elite and the influential and the rich, English-speaking Tamils live either in Colombo or in England /Canada…“All these English politicians have figured out that the diaspora is a deciding factor in winning elections.  … They need the diaspora which has money to spend on them and get them to power. The Tamil diaspora is pretty much active in Toronto, unlike the Lazy/divided/ Sinhala Buddhist diaspora”.

A Sri Lanka resident echoed that view: “LTTE supporters among the Diaspora are part of the electoral constituencies of some of the political leadership in the UK, Canada and the US and are exerting pressure on them.”

The release by WikiLeaks of a batch of diplomatic cables endorsed this view.  Then UK foreign secretary, David Miliband visited Sri Lanka towards the end of the war against the LTTE, pressing for a ceasefire and negotiations. Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa scolded him and reminded him that Sri Lanka was no longer a British colony. The cables reveal that Miliband exerted his influence to get Sri Lanka’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games rejected: the UK did not want Sri Lanka to be given legitimacy for its actions in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Another cable revealed that Miliband supported US efforts to delay an IMF loan to Sri Lanka.

In a cable dated 7 May 2009, the British Foreign Office “Sri Lanka team leader”, Tim Waite, wrote that, with UK elections soon due, and with many Tamils living in marginal UK constituencies, the UK government was calling for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka and would later pay close attention to the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. Miliband said that he was spending 60% of his time on Sri Lanka. Miliband and his aides wrote about “ratcheting up” the case for humanitarian relief efforts: “[That] cable,” said one Sri Lankan writer, “exposes how a matter of a few thousand British votes took priority over the fate of a small state battling against a ruthless terrorist enemy”

Before the November 2013 CHOGM, Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh had warned Cameron that UK participation in Colombo would be nothing but endorsement of the massacre of civilians. McDonagh represents Mitcham and Morden in the  south London Borough of Merton (an area in which I lived for ten years). She likes to present an image of left-wing libertarianism and sell herself as a champion of human rights. However, her voting record in the House of Commons tells a different story. Siobhain McDonagh voted very strongly FOR the Iraq invasion, very strongly AGAINST an investigation into the Iraq war, very strongly FOR Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, very strongly FOR introducing ID cards, very strongly FOR a stricter asylum system. Her libertarianism and concern for human rights seems very selective.

The Wimbledon Guardian, which I fondly remember as being full of rapes and perverts (how unlike the Wimbledon I knew and loved) reported that McDonagh was given a petition signed by 196 residents at Morden’s Civic Centre on October 10 2008. “Representatives from the British Tamil Forum met Siobhain McDonagh to ask for support in tackling human rights abuses. They asked her to join the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, a group of MPs campaigning to highlight the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka.”

The subtext is that McDonagh recognised that the support of pro-LTTE campaigners might be useful to her in her constituency. Hers is by no means a safe Labour seat. She won it from Conservative Dame Angela Rumbold on her third attempt. It would require a 16.4% swing for her to lose it. McDonagh had a majority of 13,666 in 2010. A Tamil with Muslim support, Rathy Alagaratnam, was an independent who ran against her in 2010 and 2005. McDonagh’s parliamentary work-rate is not impressive. She is below average for the number of times she has spoken in debates, and for her written questions. She is well below average for the number of times she has voted in the Commons.

Geopolitics

Robert O Blake was US ambassador in Colombo at war’s end. Later, he moved to the State Department. Blake caused some alarm in Sri Lanka when he made a statement before the Senate subcommittee on the Middle East (West Asia) and South Asia. His address included a telling phrase. This was the first time he had  gone on record to publicly state, “Positioned directly on the shipping routes that carry petroleum products and other trade from the Gulf to East Asia, Sri Lanka remains of strategic interest to the US.”

Once in Sri Lanka, he tried to soft-pedal. ”In my official meetings today, I assured the Sri Lankan government that the US is committed to a strong long-term partnership with Sri Lanka and that reports of our alleged support for ‘regime change’ have no basis whatsoever. I expressed support for the government’s efforts to recover from its devastating civil war, and encouraged further steps towards reconciliation, and a peaceful, united, democratic Sri Lanka. I think the government has made some positive progress. It is very important that this progress be sustained. ”

One of my respondents noted “a certain amount of concern with regard to SL’s lean towards China, and away from India, the latter being ‘one of us, as it were”.

Profit and Globalisation

A respondent who had migrated to Australia but is now back in Colombo told me: “UK is hell-bent on criticizing us to make the LTTE rump in UK happy. Their dream was to see the creation of an Eelam here. Many Western nations are angry with us because they profited from this war by being able to sell arms but today it is not possible thanks to peace. No matter what we do, UK will think that we are still their colony!”

Another respondent who lives in Sri Lanka told me: “The neo-colonial powers want to push through globalisation, which reduces national sovereignty, and hence the power of governments to interfere with global corporations. Weak governments are made weaker by separatism. Western criticism of the GoSL was muted while JR (President Jayewardene) was in power, although it began to get shriller after Sri Lanka strayed into India’s ambit. However, the real escalation of criticism took place after Sri Lanka became part of China’s zone of influence.”

Arrogance and Hypocrisy

When David Miliband became foreign secretary in June 2007, there were already allegations about possible British involvement in overseas torture by other countries’ intelligence services. Ironically, the UK’s involvement in the revolution in Libya brought to light evidence of its dirty dealings with Quadaffi. Libyan Islamist Sami al-Saadi, also known as Abu Munthir, claims that in 2004, he and his family were detained by MI6 and handed over to authorities in Libya, who tortured him. Documents show that MI5 gave Tripoli reports on Libyan dissidents living in Britain and identified at least one organisation using UK telephone numbers.

In the London Review of Books, Gareth Pierce wrote about Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian given leave to reside in the UK. “British intelligence and the Americans and Moroccans for 18 months slashed the most intimate parts of his body with razors, burned him with boiling liquids, stretched his limbs causing unimaginable agony, and bombarded him with ferocious sound.” Binyam Mohamed claimed Moroccan interrogators tortured him by using scalpels or razor blades to repeatedly cut his penis and chest.

As David Miliband was personal advisor to Tony Blair while Labour was in opposition and played a major role in the election victory of 1997, it seems unlikely that he was unaware of what was happening before he became foreign secretary.

Philippe Sands was Binyam Mohamed’s lawyer. He wrote that Miliband cannot avoid charges of complicity demonstrated by his actions as foreign secretary: “he could have announced that he wanted to establish a proper inquiry. He didn’t do that – and was a senior member of a government that later actively resisted calls for an inquiry. That is not to say he was idle throughout this period; he seems to have put considerable energy into defending a number of claims in the English courts relating to torture against his department.”

A special investigation, published in the 29 August issue of the New Statesman, showed how British troops regularly handed over suspected insurgents to the Afghan authorities with little guarantee that they would not be tortured.

Miliband personally approved some interrogations involving countries with poor human rights records. While campaigning for the Labour leadership Miliband was forced to confront claims that he allowed the interrogation of three terror suspects who allege they were tortured in Bangladesh and Egypt. Faisal Mostafa, a chemistry lecturer from Manchester, who has twice been cleared of terrorism offences in court, was detained in Bangladesh. He claims he was hung upside down and electrocuted while interrogators interrogated him about two Islamist groups.

Sands wrote: “Many would not be surprised if all roads led to Tony Blair (who described Guantánamo as ‘understandable’ in his memoir)…It is not unusual to hear the suggestion that Miliband’s actions may have been motivated in part by a desire to protect the reputation of his colleagues… His attitude to the Iraq war is equally unhappy, invoking the refrain that ‘if I knew then what I know now I would have voted against’. This recognises that the war was the wrong decision but falls well short of an expression of regret”.

The British adopted a rather superior tone about the Americans in Iraq. They claimed that British  experience in Northern Ireland made them experts at counter-insurgency in urban areas. News reports now coming out suggest that their methods included under-cover agents shooting unarmed civilians.

Gareth Pierce on the UK’s hypocrisy: “We inhabit the most secretive of democracies, which has developed the most comprehensive of structures for hiding its misdeeds, shielding them always from view behind the curtain of ‘national security’. From here on in we should be aware of the game of hide and seek in which the government hopes to ensure that we should never find out its true culpability.”

The Press

Professor Michael Roberts makes the point that western journalists felt a sense of solidarity with beleaguered Sri Lankan journalists and were unlikely to give the Rajapaksa government the benefit of any doubt. I have dealt in detail elsewhere with the distorted churnalism that emerged as a result of this.

Professor Roberts cites the example of an article in the London Times in early July 2009, by Jeremy Page. Page told the world that 1,400 people were dying every week at the Menik Farm IDP camp. No evidence was provided to support this. No evidence could be provided because it was just not true. Page quickly moved on to deal with the Eastern province where there were no camps and the war had ended two years previously. The government had asked the Red Cross to scale down its operations in the east because the situation was under control. Page elided this with the canard about deaths at Menik Farm to give the impression that the government was callously booting out the Red Cross while people were dying.

The LTTE propaganda machine took global advantage of this.The western media were and are prone to see the Tamils (and thus the LTTE) as underdogs. My Toronto respondent said this: “ The LTTE collected millions during their tenure so that money still can be used to fight a different kind of war…. Many media organizations have been bought by the diaspora to work from them for example CP24 here in Toronto has connections , and the money can buy publicity easily while the truth takes a long time to emerge of its own.”

Displacement and Diversion

My Toronto respondent continued: “The US/UK  are getting hit for their own human rights blunders so they need something to hold on to. Even at the UN, while Syria was burning, they paid attention to Sri Lanka where there is peace now. They will make a big issue next time to play the cover up game of their own for sure. This will not stop for another generation until such time our kids grow up as they are the only diaspora that was not affected by war. They get the education they deserve and will one day work against it.”

Siobhan McDonagh tried to explain her support for the invasion of Iraq and her opposition to an inquiry: “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.” That seems to distance herself from any direct personal responsibility. McDonagh declared: “We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs.” How about deposing that murderous tyrant Prabakharan? What about the Sri Lankan soldiers who fought in good faith?

Confirmation of the hypocrisy of the US, UK and EU always plays well in Sri Lanka; and the WikiLeaks cables revealed what everyone already knew about the use of cluster bombs and abuse of civilians by the US and UK. Freedom of speech is an important issue for the West when it deals with Sri Lanka, and there was much legitimate concern about the murder of the Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. Yet western politicians have called for Julian Assange to be assassinated and the whistleblower Chelsea (Bradley) Manning has not been  treated kindly.

Rod Liddle

I will leave the last word with Rod Liddle:  “Ah, off you go, Dave. The reason that you can go to Jaffna at all is that this Rajapaksa-wallah, over the course of three years, eliminated the terrorist threat of the Tamil Tigers. The country is now at peace, not merely economically stable but with a rate of economic growth that would inflame the loins of George Osborne. I dare say Rajapaksa has been a ruthless authoritarian, that not everything he has accomplished would earn the approval of the European Court of Human Rights. But for 26 years the murderous, maniacal Tamil Tigers waged war in Sri Lanka  -assassinations, suicide attacks, using children as hostages, planting bombs. And they were able to do so thanks to the money that flooded in largely from the UK via the Tamil diaspora in, mostly, London.

For decades we turned a blind eye to the relentless fundraising for these terrorists and the Tamil Tigers were themselves only proscribed as a terrorist organisation (rather than lauded as freedom fighters) in 2001, a year, incidentally, when we all opened our eyes to terrorism. So maybe after ticking off this gentleman for the way he runs his country, a short apology from Cameron might not go amiss.”

Numbers from Thin Air

The hosting of CHOGM (the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) by Sri Lanka in Colombo from November 15 to 17 has given an opportunity for Sri Lanka’s human rights record to be condemned yet again. As part of this, Amnesty International has raised the issue of war crimes towards the end of the war against the LTTE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

I have noticed some discussion of this on Facebook. As I have done a special study of the topic, I was particularly interested in what was said about  the number of civilians killed at war’s end.

As a specimen comment, I will take this one by one Nick Gilbert. Nick says:

“My understanding was…” “Forty thousand I picked out of thin air…”

It is always difficult to get a definitive figure in these situations.

See: https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/deadly-accountancy-part-1/

Well Nick, you don’t need to just make figures up to suit your argument. Read the IDAG-S report.

http://groundviews.org/2013/05/28/sri-lankas-numbers-game/

I have had a very long telephone conversation with the author of the report and I am convinced that he is not a government shill. If you don’t want to take the trouble to read it, I will help you by mentioning a few salient points from the report:

Although Eelam War IV has been described as a war without witnesses, the authors of this report had managed, through thorough research, to assemble a logical and well-argued package, with convincing substantiating evidence, which casts doubt on some of the calculations being peddled.

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, despite the ire of some critics, 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”.

There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils.  Bludgeoning them with inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.

In Sri Lanka’s case, controversial estimates of civilian deaths were introduced not as irrefutable facts, but as circumstantial evidence to lay the foundation for an international investigation and ultimately regime change. For all its faults, which are legion, the regime was democratically elected, and, according to a Gallup poll, is supported by over 90% of the population (including Tamils).

Long War, Long Book

 

Reflections on Long War, Cold Peace by Dayan Jayatilleka.

This review appeared in the Sunday Island on June 30 2013.

As the paper’s website does not allow comments, I am posting it again here.

Varied Career

As well as being a diplomat, Dr Jayatilleka has been an urban guerrilla, political activist, active politician and academic political scientist. His book on the political thought of Fidel Castro was published by Pluto Press in London. His latest book  brings much inside knowledge to  a detailed narrative of Sri Lanka’s war and links it to issues of global significance.

Realism – Justification of War

Other reviewers  have drawn out a particular emphasis on the ethics of violence and the concept of a just war. Jayatilleka  argues that violence is common in the real world and it is  often necessary for the state to sanction  violence to protect itself and its people. This does not justify ‘‘terrorism targeting unarmed, non-combatant civilians; torture and arbitrary execution of prisoners; executions within the organization; and lethal violence against political prisoners’’.

When he was Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva he was able to fend off international criticism of the way Sri Lanka had won its war. In the book he rehearses the argument he made in Geneva.

“Sri Lanka was fighting a war within its internationally recognised and uncontested borders. Sri Lanka was not founded on occupation, dispossession and disenfranchisement of the indigenous. Both major Sri Lankan communities had been present on the soil for millennia. Sri Lanka had not economically embargoed the Tamil people and had not merely sent food but run schools, hospitals and paid the salaries of public servants in separatist terrorist occupied areas.”

Hearts and Minds- Myths about Insurgency.

Many repeated the old mantra that a guerrilla insurgency arising out of genuine grievances and nationalist aspirations could not be defeated by military action. This view was reinforced by vague memories of Michael Collins in Ireland and Collins’s ‘pupil’ General Giap in Vietnam.

General Westmoreland did not share this view – “Grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”. His notable lack of success has somewhat discredited the military option.  The Vietnam War was not ended by negotiation. It was ended by the USA being defeated militarily by the Viet Cong. The LTTE had gone beyond guerrilla warfare and possessed an effective navy and a rudimentary air force. It was no longer relying on small-scale attacks and suicide bombers but (and this is one of the factors contributing to its defeat) was fighting large-scale conventional battles.

Why Not Negotiate a Peaceful Settlement?

Jayatilleka supports my own Irishman’s view that, despite well-intentioned visits to Sri Lanka by John Hume and Martin McGuinness, there was no useful parallel to be drawn between Northern Ireland and the fight for Tamil Eelam.  The Provisional IRA had Sinn Fein as a parliamentary proxy but successful candidates did not take up their seats at Westminster.  TNA MPs did take their seats and served as a parliamentary proxy for the LTTE. They  did not  emulate Sinn Fein and negotiate with the Sri Lankan government. Dr Jayatilleka notes that in the 2004 election, EU observers were highly critical that  TNA members had  the protection of the LTTE under the slogan that the LTTE was the sole representative of the Tamil people

The LTTE left no room for negotiation. “Tamil Eelam was an axiom, thus non-negotiable. His [Prabhakaran’s] commitment was absolute, fundamental. No alternatives were admitted as possibilities. Philosophical and psychological closure had been effected from the outset. The mindset was hermetically sealed…Only the modalities of secession were up for genuine discussion. The talks , the negotiations, the third party mediation, the path of peace that Prabhakaran mentioned … was just the small change- to buy time, to neutralise opinion, to divide and deceive the enemy, to secure the withdrawal of troops…”

Consequences of concessions

When the CFA was signed on February 22 2002, there were no pictures of a shared signing ceremony. “Mr Prabhakaran treated himself to a separate table, a separate office, a separate signing ceremony, and as conspicuous wall decor, a separate map showing his projected separate state on it in a shade of colour separate from that of the shrunken Sri Lanka depicted there…”

The CFA was lopsided because it disarmed those Tamil groups that accepted the unitary state but did not even entertain the issue of phased, internationally supervised demilitarisation of the Tigers. Unlike Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka was not to have its General de Chastelaine.

Under the CFA, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe conferred legitimacy on the LTTE, as did President Kumaratunga, and allowed them to operate a de facto state in the aftermath of the tsunami. The Tigers continued to kill SLA soldiers after an accord was signed but were allowed a preponderance in the regional committee set up to deal with the tsunami. “No state could afford not to monopolise the means of significant armed violence, and therefore the Tigers had to be disarmed as well as rendered bereft of the capacity to re-arm.”

Why Not Allow Secession?

Jayatilleka argues that allowing the LTTE a separate state was never an option. “Colombo could not trade Tamil Eelam, i.e. the North and East, for peace, because, even if such a Faustian bargain were struck, peace would not be the result. The Sri Lankan state would not have been able to withdraw into its southern cocoon and lived in tranquil prosperity.”

He continues: “An independent state of Tamil Eelam could legitimately secure any kind of weaponry it wished to and build up one of the strongest fighting forces in the region, thus upsetting the entire power balance and strategic environment. The geo-strategic salience of Trincomalee, which would have fallen within Eelam, would have endowed a Tamil Sparta with a military and economic value of extra-regional significance, again a seriously destabilising prospect”.

Sri Lanka’s Strengths

Dr Jayatilleka writes that Sri Lanka was not powerful or influential, but it had strengths: “One of these was the resiliency of its multiparty democracy under conditions of extreme duress, its eschewal of military rule and totalitarianism of the Right or Left. Another was the maintenance of comparatively decent labour standards and social indicators. Yet another was the synergy of civil society and state that made its recovery from the tsunami more impressive than those in Indonesia (Aceh) or post-Katrina Louisiana (according to Joel Schumacher of Refugee International).”

Devolution

The story goes that, although Jayatilleka was a success in Geneva, he was rewarded with removal because he was too vocal in his support for the 13th amendment and devolution. He still maintains that it is necessary to have a Sri Lanka “which remains unitary but contains an irreducible autonomous political space for the Tamil people of the North and East”.  This continues to draw fire from some critics who choose to regard him as a puppet of India. In this book, he does not hide India’s complicity in the growth of the LTTE but recognises India’s difficulty in coping with Tamil Nadu.

Human Rights

Jayatilleka argues: “Human rights are not a Western invention or booby-trap, to be decried and shunned like the devil. Though there is a constant attempt to use human rights as an instrument to undermine national sovereignty, the answer is not to shun human rights or to pretend that these are intrinsically inscribed in our culture and therefore automatically observed, but to protect them ourselves and to maintain verifiably high standards of human rights observance nationally”.

The Future

Towards the end of the book, Jayatilleka declares that Sri Lanka’s future is “best defended by a Sri Lankan state which represents all its peoples, acts as neutral umpire guaranteeing adequate space for all ethnicities on the island. Sovereignty is secured by a Sri Lankan identity which accommodates all the country’s communities, paving the way for a broadly shared sense of a multiethnic yet single Sri Lankan nationhood.”

Conclusion

Other reviewers have taken issue with the author’s gratuitous tagging on of profundities from Marxist writers. I did not find the Marxism too much of a distraction. Indeed, the author comes across as protean and pragmatic. His brand of realism stresses the world as it is rather than the world as it ought to be.

In this book Jayatilleka claims that his position has been consistent, even though to an outsider it looks as though he has  changed direction a number of times. After being associated with revolutionary politics, the SLMP, the NEPC, the Premadasa government, he served with distinction as ambassador for President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is now writing articles critical of aspects of the Rajapaksa government and seeing virtues in Premadasa’s son. It will be interesting to see where the author goes from here. Quo Vadis, Dr Jayatilleka?

 

Who Speaks for Sri Lanka’s Tamils?

An article I posted on  Groundviews  on May 28 elicited many responses.

http://groundviews.org/2013/05/28/sri-lankas-numbers-game/

On May 16, a seminar was held at the Marga Institute to launch  a publication by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka (IDAG-S) – The Numbers Game: Politics of Restorative Justice.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-Justice

 

Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, Chairman Emeritus of the Marga Institute, opened  the proceedings by answering the question: “Do numbers matter”. He acknowledged that, while even a low number of civilian casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures could only inhibit the healing process.

 

Counting the Dead

 

After careful consideration, the IDAG-S concluded that the civilian death toll in the final months of Eelam War IV was probably between 15,000 and 18,000. This estimate itself has been challenged by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who points out that “only 6,000 injured were taken off by the ICRC (Red Cross) 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, despite the ire of some critics, somewhat higher than some calculations by Tamils.   

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.  He said : “My estimate is that the deaths — cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”. 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”. Note that Nadesan includes fighters and natural deaths. In any population, a number would die from natural causes of ill health or medical misadventure at child birth or surgery. On 13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner  Navi Pillay issued a press release saying that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. 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.

IADG-S consider that Frances Harrison and Alan Keenan, by claiming 147,000 civilian deaths, have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity/ morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”

Response from TGTE

 

The first response to my Groundviews article came from Usha S Sri-Skanda-Rajah. Dr  Sri-Skanda-Rajah has long lived  in Toronto but claims to speak for those Tamils who lived in Sri Lanka under the brutal rule of Prabhakaran.  She  continues to campaign for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. She describes herself as “Senator Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam”. Her Groundviews comment was highly critical of my article and of the IDAG-S report, although she later admitted that she had not actually read it. In her first comment she said: “Numbers don’t matter, it is the truth that matters”.

Conciliation

In a conciliatory spirit, Amar Gunatilleke of the Marga Institute responded to the senator: “I accept the fact that terrorism in Sri Lanka was born because of grievances of the Tamil people. There is no debate on that. I don’t want to debate on what became of the LTTE later and how it ended. We all have to accept our faults if we are interested in reconciliation…. My personal view on this whole matter is that one cannot have lasting peace and reconciliation unless there is collective atonement, admission of guilt, confession, repentance, forgiveness. Forget the state, the Rajapaksas. Can you and I do this together? Are you interested?”

The senator’s response was: “there are gaping holes in your offer”. Amar responded: “Even if a small group of civil society, private sector organizations and NGOs involved in humanitarian work can make a difference in the lives of some of the people who were affected by the war, I will find peace and joy in my life by being involved with such group.”

Does the Diaspora Speak for Tamils in Sri Lanka?

In an exchange with me Amar said: “It will be interesting for the Tamil diaspora to hear what some Tamils in the North actually have to say. I can arrange that if they are interested. I will leave it at that. As a starting point maybe we should arrange that.” Throughout the comment thread, Dr Sri-Skanda-Rajah’s position was challenged. It was particularly telling when she was challenged by Tamils who had lived in Sri Lanka throughout the war.

Here is one: “I am really fed up, as a Tamil, to be told by those of you who live in the west in your comfy postcodes that you represent me. None of you do, because during the war when you all left, it was the poor Tamils without exit options who died…and it was their sons and daughters, who were either conscripted by force or went willingly, who died. During the final days of the war, in the west, it was quite the rage to walk around with wrist bands and banners saying ‘free Tamil Eelam’ …but no one among them sent their children back to fight…oh no, it was all OK  for some poor mother’s son to die, but not their precious offspring…. Let us turn away from calls for separation, but instead look for ways to ensure equal rights for Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers and please help us celebrate our diversity instead of going behind pipe dreams.”

The TGTE Case According to the Senator

The senator frequently resorted to the clarion call of those with entrenched positions who are not prepared to do the work required to present a logical argument. “Do your homework”. I have had similar calls from committed Catholics, dedicated Muslims, convinced Zionists, militant atheists. It means that the truths of which they are convinced are so obvious that it is up to their opponents to do the heavy lifting.

The senator persistently refused to answer direct questions. She did provide long list of links which she claimed supported her argument that large numbers of civilians were deliberately killed by government forces in pursuit of a policy of planned extermination of the Tamil race. David Blacker tirelessly checked out these links and found them to be spurious or irrelevant. One link leads to a collection of videos with titles varying from Vampire Weekend to Trampoline Fails. Another redirects to a page advertising a mobile ringtone and game called Chicken 2. Another says “Oops page not found”. The “evidence” she presents consistently and disingenuously confuses dead Tigers with dead civilians.

David Blacker: “Usha, you say that the GoSL has killed all dissent on the Tamil side; but isn’t it true that it was the Tigers that destroyed all other Tamil voices? Isn’t it a fact that this action ensured that once the Tigers were destroyed that there was no other Tamil voices? Isn’t it also true that by destroying all other representatives of the Tamils and usurping the role of sole representation the Tigers ensured that any voice of Tamil dissent in the foreseeable future would be bound to the Tigers by association? Also, do you not see the TNA as a voice of Tamil dissent? Or do you believe that your unelected so-called government in exile is the sole representative of the Tamils now?”

The Future?

David Blacker further commented: “the Tamils need to take a good look at what has led them to the place they are in and stop repeating the mistakes that got them there and disassociate themselves from people who got them there; people who do not have their best interests in mind. The waving of Tiger flags in international capitals was directly instrumental in preventing foreign governments from interfering. So why do the very same damaging things and think that now it’ll be different? That self-examination is not happening.”

Amar Gunatilleke commented: “After going through 142 comments I could see only a handful of suggestions regarding the way forward posted by those who were not present at the Seminar.”

David Blacker replied to Usha: “I would expect a far higher quality of debate from a self-declared representative of the Tamils.” He continued: “This is symbolic of the Tamil Diaspora’s total lack of commitment to the cause that their SL brethren died for; you threw some money at the problem and got on with your lives over there in the west. Now, you are bitter at the defeat, but still are unwilling to actually do what is necessary.”

I will let the Tamil who calls himself “Fed Up” have the last word: “Please understand Usha, that I would love to see Tamil activists committed to ensuring our rights within a unified country. My concern  about this separate state is that even if you get it, how will Tamils treat fellow Tamils, let alone those of other ethnicities? The caste system is alive and well in the north, so will low caste people be allowed into top positions? If you are fighting against racism, will you allow a Muslim or Sinhalese into top positions in Tamil Eelam? Usha, practically speaking, why don’t the TGTE conduct a survey amongst the Tamils who live in Sri Lanka, to find out what we really want….don’t claim that you speak for all of us without finding out what we who live here, really want.”

The Marga Institute plans to undertake research to enable the views of Tamils living in Sri Lanka to be heard. Watch this space.

 

 

The Numbers Game: Marga Institute Seminar.

On May 16 a seminar was held at the Marga Institute to launch  a publication by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka (IDAG-S) – The Numbers Game: Politics of Restorative Justice. I was at the seminar and will here attempt to provide an impression of the ideas generated in the discussion. This is in no way intended to be a formal record or set of minutes.

The members of the panel leading the discussion of the publication were Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, Chairman Emeritus of the Marga Institute, Asoka Gunawardena, Marga’s Executive Governor,  and Raja Korale, an international statistics consultant. The open forum was moderated by Dr Nimal Gunatilleke.

The IDAG-S Report

Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, opened  the proceedings by answering the question: “Do numbers matter”. He acknowledged that, while even a low number of casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures raised issues of the proportionality of the military response and the ethical position of the line of command. Continual recycling of spurious figures can only inhibit the healing process. Dr Dayan Jayetilleka agreed that the numbers do matter because the truth is a moral issue.

The Marga Institute had taken up this publication because it seemed authoritative enough to provide ammunition to persuade the UN to revisit its position on the numbers of civilian casualties in the final months of Eelam IV.

The provenance of the report encouraged confidence in its impartiality and competence. The IDAG-S is a think tank of academics, professionals and analysts from  the Sri Lankan diaspora in Europe, North America and Australia. The lead author is an aerospace engineer who was able to bring a wide range of multidisciplinary skills to the task.

Although Eelam War IV has been described as a war without witnesses, the authors of this report had managed, through thorough research, to assemble a logical and well-argued package which casts doubt on some of the calculations being peddled. Dr Gunatilleke found the high-resolution satellite images included in the report impressive. These had not been published so comprehensively elsewhere. These satellite images show that shells fired by the SLA from February to May mostly avoided concentrations of civilians and in the final weeks had used  hardly any artillery.

Remembrance and Amnesia

There was a strong theme at the seminar of the need to acknowledge the size of the catastrophe. Those who are citing inflated figures are making a demand for reckoning based on the assumption that we did not care. That exaggeration in turn prompts a bunker mentality among the victors who are reluctant to admit to a figure of civilian dead for fear of a litigious reaction.

Ernest Renan observed that nation-building requires amnesia as well as invention. In some countries memorials and commemorative days are seen as part of the healing process. Elsewhere, remembering is felt to be dangerous. In Rwanda, 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. Remembering might inflame old hatreds. Cambodia celebrates a Day of Remembrance on My 20 each year. It used to be called the National Day of Hatred.

How do we strike a balance between remembering and the infantile abuse that too depressingly often passes for comment on the websites of newspapers. How do we contrive a discourse that notes the mistakes of the past without allowing the armchair conflict junkies from forcing further mistakes to be made?

Victory parades are not a helpful form of commemoration despite claims that that there are no longer any minorities, only Sri Lankans. Michael Roberts warns against  “hegemonic incorporation” of this nature. “Constitutional fiat cannot transform minds, especially entrenched mindsets. Multiple strategies are required. Political imagination is called for, both from President Rajapaksa and his advisors as well as eminent minds attached to this their land.”

Accountancy and Accountability

The war arose from a constellation of issues, not just as a reaction to grievances. The government’s foreign service and highly-paid PR consultants have dismally failed to convey this and to let  the world know the true nature of the LTTE and the kind of war it fought. GOSL needs to convey the truth about battle. Jim Grant of UNICEF had commended the government for still continuing to provide services in conflict zones. The world was not aware of this. The government has allowed the LTTE rump to convince some sections of western opinion that GOSL was following a policy of extermination. GOSL has not made the case that it took 11,000 LTTE prisoners alive and rehabilitated many of them.

On the other hand, there was a consensus that civil society must engage with the GOSL  focusing on the LLRC recommendations on the  process of collective atonement and  that leadership on this needs to be given by the President.

It would have  been surprising if there had not been some atavistic and brutal reaction from some soldiers who witnessed horrible things happening  to their comrades and lived under traumatic fear themselves. The IDAG-S conclusion states clearly: “Nothing in this survey denies the probability and the evidence that some extra-judicial killings of high-ranking LTTE officers occurred during the last days of the war. These actions need to be impartially investigated by an independent body, and where possible criminal indictments pursued against the perpetrators.”

There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for  genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis  of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise  the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils.  Bludgeoning them with  inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.

In 2009, the Banyan column in the Economist said: “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.”

 IDAG-S consider that some critics , such as Frances Harrison and Alan Keenan have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity / morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”

In Sri Lanka’s case, controversial estimates of civilian deaths were introduced not as irrefutable facts, but as circumstantial evidence to lay the foundation for an international investigation and ultimately regime change.

Way Forward

At the conclusion of the seminar, the question was posed: “How can we engage in the international debate and how can civil society encourage  the implementation of LLRC recommendations on issues relating to humanitarian law and civilian casualties?”

 

Pradeep Jaganathan stressed the need to raise  public consciousness and  make people realise that we are all responsible and accountable for  what took place during the last 30 years – through sins of  commission and omission, hate, apathy, failure to speak up.

 

Dr. Dayan Jayetilleka proposed establishing a group to review the study and make necessary recommendations to GOSL which could be used  in the international debate. Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke thought it important that we address the moral responsibility and accountability of all actors in the conflict, including the TNA, and not solely the state. What is the universalist framework for an understanding of this whole tragedy of war and human suffering?

 

Deadly Accountancy Part 2

Sri Lanka Eelam War IV

In an address on November 11 2011, under the auspices of the British Scholars Association at the British Council in Colombo[i], Rohan Gunaratna discussed his contention 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 and doctors in the area and with some of the 11,800 Tiger prisoners then held by the government.  He asserted that 1,200 were unintentionally killed by government cross-fire and 200 by LTTE gunfire.

This is in stark contrast to the figures peddled by Channel 4 and in the report by the “Panel of Experts” commissioned by Ban Ki-Moon, known in Sri Lanka as the Darusman Report.[ii] The panel did not include  military or social science experts, or anyone knowledgeable about Sri Lanka.

In Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields [iii]Jon Snow doomily intoned that ”As many as 40,000, probably more” civilians  had died. Gordon Weiss[iv] , who featured in the Channel 4 programme, started with an estimate of 7,000 which became   15,000, which he then upped to  40,000,  a figure that a whole range of media outlets, including BBC and NDTV, ran with.

Weiss, an Australian who used to work for the UN in Colombo,  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”.

The UN Hub

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 UN personnel did not follow basic UN rules for humanitarian workers in conflict zones. The Darusman  report does not name the UN personnel but in his book, The Cage, Weiss blows their cover and makes it clear that the UN officers who provided information to him and to the Darusman team were Chris Du Toit and Harun Khan, although I get the impression that Du Toit was in Colombo and not actually physically with the convoy. Weiss writes that “Du Toit would be the driving force behind the gathering of much of the intelligence revealing that large numbers of civilians were being killed”[v].

The Darusman  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 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.[vi]

Views of The Cage

My own lengthy review of The Cage can be found at

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/the-cage-by-gordon-weiss/

Where did Weiss get his figures? Could it be from Chris Du Toit? Rajiva Wijesinha recalls meeting Du Toit: “Pressed on the number of those seen by the UN, he said it was something like 39, over the previous month.”

When he was  working  for the UN in Colombo,  Weiss  went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. The UN used that figure. In The Cage Weiss recalls a press release by UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay saying that “as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 40,000 and Frances Harrison  to say 147,000?

Gordon Weiss’s lower  estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, was challenged by Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, who stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified. In spite of this, Weiss throughout The Cage routinely talks of “between 10,000 and 40,000”,  which is a meaningless mantra and statistically useless.

Weiss was not a witness. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist” [vii]

A Sri Lanka Media Watch review[viii] of The Cage quotes other sources which estimated different figures to those provided by Weiss. In February 2009, the US Embassy noted that the pro-LTTE “Tamil National Alliance parliamentary group leader R Sampanthan claimed that 2000 Tamil civilians have been killed and 4500 injured since mid-December….Such reports from Tamil sources cannot be confirmed and are frequently exaggerated.”

The Voice of Tigers, the LTTE’s “official radio”, claimed on 1 March 2009, that the Sri Lankan armed forces had been responsible for the deaths of 2,018 Tamil civilians in January and February 2009 in the Vanni. These figures were repeated by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, on 13 March 2009. Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified: “The reason we have not come out with this as our figure is because, as I have said before, we cannot verify it in a way that you want to be able to verify, if you put it as your public figure.”

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.

Michael Roberts

Professor Michael Roberts considers Gunaratna’s statistical estimates “astounding and misleading”. This is mainly because the conditions of battle at that time and the difficulty of distinguishing between “civilians” and “combatants” at a time when the LTTE was rounding up everyone to the cause, makes such precision spurious.

Rajasingham Narendran asked:  “how many coroners were available during the war in the area for recording deaths? “ Narendran had talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere.  “My estimate is that the deaths — cadres, forced labour and civilians — 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: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”. Note that Nadesan includes fighters and natural deaths. In any population, a number would die from natural causes of ill health or medical misadventure at child birth or operation. Roberts believes that 600 deaths from natural causes would be a reasonable estimate for the area and the time-frame, but it could be more because of stress and shortage of food.

In The Island, [ix]Professor Roberts wrote: “Within their attentiveness to the approximate character of any assessment, there is a striking agreement in their computations. Their evaluations also dismantle Rohan Gunaratna’s estimate on the one hand and, on the other, reveal the exaggerated character of the figures peddled by the Darusman Report, Channel Four and HR bodies abroad. In the latter instance it is both travesty and paradox that moral fundamentalism has encouraged extremism in factual claim in ways that serve the goals espoused by these organisations.”

Someone commented on Transcurrents:

“Dear Professor Michael Roberts, Rohan Gunaratna, Sarvananthan, Noel Nadesan, R. Narendran and you have been living abroad and actually over-estimated the deaths. Your vision far away from Vanni only made you people to come to such an over-estimation. I live a few kilometres from Vanni boundary. I have spoken to a number of people who were trapped in Vanni and escaped death. The majority of them told me that ONLY about 150 (hundred and fifty) civilians WERE KILLED IN THE VANNI WAR. THEY ALSO SAID THAT THE SUPPORTERS OF THE TIGER TERRORISTS ONLY give over estimated figures. We living in the North are not fools to accept your over-estimated figures!”[x]

Lies and Statistics of the Damned

In the documentary Lies Agreed Upon,[xi] it is argued that 40,000 deaths would be physically impossible. 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 government maintained for a long time that there were no civilian casualties, expressing moral outrage at the very concept of “collateral damage”. That position has modified over time to a claim that everything possible was done to avoid civilian casualties. Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the Sunday Leader: “What we did say was a ‘zero civilian casualty’ policy! That was what we were aiming at. That was what we told troops. Our goal was to achieve that”. [xii]See the Ministry of Defence’s Humanitarian Operation Factual Analysis .[xiii] However, the government PR machine and the inept foreign office and diplomatic service have allowed western critics to take sole possession of the numbers game by failing to come up with its own numbers. LLRC has recommended further investigation of certain incidents that witnesses say happened.[xiv]

Sense and Census

Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the government has made a proper assessment of the number of civilians killed and missing during the last stages of the conflict. Arbitrary figures of between 10,000 and 40,000, he insisted, had “no basis in reality.” An  assessment was done by the Department of Census and Statistics through Tamil public officials in the relevant districts of the North and East.[xv] The questionnaire specifically addressed the issue of people who died or went missing during the ‘humanitarian operation.’

The government has identified by name all such persons, Rajapaksa said. The results of the census will be released in the near future. He said that some  people died of natural causes and of accidents, some  died whilst fighting as members of the LTTE, some  died as a result of being coerced to fight by the LTTE, some  died as a result of resisting the LTTE and some died because of military action. “It is only for the deaths of people in this last category that the Sri Lankan military can bear any responsibility.” The defence secretary also maintained that if, in future, any substantial evidence is provided about crimes committed by its personnel, the Sri Lankan military will not hesitate to take appropriate action.

The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice

This is a discussion paper by IDAG-S (Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka). According to Michael Roberts: “The key hand is a person who wishes to remain anonymous and can be called ‘Citizen Silva.’ Born to Sinhalese parents, raised and educated in the West, he has spent the entirety of his life outside the island. This foreign setting has enabled him to build close personal links with the island’s other ethnic diaspora groups, thus shielding him from the communalistic shadows that overwhelm many of his compatriots back home. As the analysis of the satellite imagery reveals, his engineering background allows him to bring to the examination a range of technical skills not usually associated with the average empirical scientist.”

IDAG-S’s analysis only considers events and the actions of the warring parties (Sri Lankan State and LTTE) leading up to and including May 2009.

The main purpose of the survey is to estimate how many civilians were killed. “Whilst it is widely accepted that the fighting during the last few months was brutal, and that there were potentially many civilian casualties, the aim of this discussion paper will be to examine in detail the accuracy of some of these larger fatality estimates.”

The paper mentions different estimates from UN sources. In June 2010, the UN Secretary General appointed  a Panel of Experts to advise him. In their report  they gave an estimate of 40,000 deaths. Critics in Sri Lanka would quibble at the IDAG-S’s description of this as a UN report. It has generally been referred to in Sri Lanka as the Darusman Report. In November 2012, the UN published a report which pushed the estimate up to 70,000.

The IDAG-S paper quotes some surprising comments from Wikileaks.  Jacques de Maio, ICRC’s (Red Cross) Head of Operations for South Asia,  said that the Sri Lankan military was somewhat responsive to accusations of violations of International Humanitarian Law and was open to adapting its actions to reduce casualties. “He could cite examples of where the Army had stopped shelling when ICRC informed them it was killing civilians. In fact, 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.” [xvi]Even Robert O Blake, noted in a confidential embassy cable[xvii] : “The Army has a generally good track record of taking care to minimize civilian casualties during its advances…”.

From available media reports and other sources of information from the conflict zone during this period, it would appear there were no complaints or accusations directed at the Sri Lankan military for causing significant civilian casualties before September 2008. The Government claim that civilian casualties were minimal was widely accepted by the international community as being true, and was not challenged in international forums.

What Is a Civilian?

The IDAG paper explains that defining “civilian” is not easy.  According to Article 1 of the 1938 ILA Draft Convention for the Protection of Civilian Populations against New Engines of War, the phrase “civilian population” within the meaning of this Convention shall include all those not enlisted in any branch of the combatant services nor for the time being employed or occupied in any belligerent establishment as defined in Article 2.”

A ‘civilian’ undertaking any activity that ‘helps/contributes/ advances’ the military ‘goals / objectives’ of the LTTE – like sentry duty, building bunkers / bunds / trenches or transporting military material – cannot then enjoy the protection this category (civilian) is afforded under international law in a conflict situation.

In 2006, the LTTE maintained roughly 25,000 trained cadres. As the conflict progressed, the LTTE escalated its recruitment process, forcibly recruiting and training many more civilians, including child soldiers. At the start of 2008, the Sri Lankan Army estimated that the LTTE had within its ranks approximately 30,000 cadres.

The LTTE abused the No- Fire-Zones created by the Sri Lankan Army, to allow civilians to escape the effects of hostilities. By refusing to acknowledge the protective character of these areas and by deliberately using them for military purposes, their status as a protected space under international law became null and void. As a direct consequence, the LTTE denied the civilian population under its control the best means of shielding itself against the effects of war. The LTTE with increasing regularity fired  from near schools, hospitals and IDP settlement clusters, alongside using hospitals as bases of operation and storing weapons in and around IDP settlement areas. This was all in contravention of clear and specific prohibitions of international law. Armed LTTE operatives routinely mingled with civilians in order to cover their movements and launch attacks against the Sri Lankan Army.

“The Sri Lankan military could not forego a legitimate military objective without undermining its mission and putting at serious risk both its soldiers and the wider Sri Lankan civilian population. In those circumstances, the result of the LTTE approach was to make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for the Sri Lankan military to avoid harm to civilians and civilian structures.”

The IDAG paper cites Kenneth Watkin (Canadian Judge Advocate General who presided over the workings of the Israeli Tirkel Committee investigating the Israeli attack on  the Gaza Aid flotilla in May 2010)”[a]lthough civilians are not to be directly made the object of an attack, humanitarian law accepts that they may be killed or civilian property may be damaged as a result of an attack on a military objective.”

According to L. Oppenheim’s International Law: Disputes, War and Neutrality “civilians do not enjoy absolute immunity. Their presence will not render military objects immune from attack for the mere reason that it is impossible to bombard [the military objects] without indirectly causing injury to the non-combatants.”

Critics have concluded that there was a deliberate strategy on the part of the Sri Lankan Government to intentionally target and kill civilians. The IDAG-S point out that the Darusman Panel denies  any humanitarian intention despite the Panel’s own account of (a) how soldiers, at the risk to their own lives, had helped countless civilians attempting to escape the war-zone, and (b) their account of how the Army penetrated the second No-Fire-Zone, incurring heavy casualties amongst its troops, to rescue over 100,000 people.”

Witnesses

Eelam War IV  has often been described as a “war without witnesses” on the grounds that foreign reporters and NGOs were discouraged from entering the war zone. The authors of this study have accessed witnesses. Here is how they describe their methodology. Their evidence is gathered from the following sources:

Eyewitness Testimony – Culled from a large body of interviews conducted by the UTHR(J) (University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna)) [xviii]team in 2009 with persons from the conflict zone. The UTHR(J) was one of the few organisations to interview people in Sri Lanka, and at the same time cover a broad spectrum of views. They also provide valuable historical data through their informants in the Vanni about the state of affairs in the region from 2006 to 2009. [xix]

Satellite & associated imagery – Images from the conflict zone covering a period from 2007 to 2009.

Wikileaks – Reveals information related to the conflict from sources / contacts maintained by the U.S. Embassy within Sri Lanka and other postings outside the island.

Documentary Information – Covers information gleaned from various reports / articles / statistics.

Media Groups – Information about the conflict from media coverage during the conflict and after.

Information from human rights groups and related organisations – Covers reports / analyses / eyewitness accounts – these sources are usually independent to the ones used by the UTHR(J).

UN – Data from various UN departments in and outside Sri Lanka.

Numbers Game 

Fatality estimates, issued by various international bodies / persons after December 2009, have used  the same empirical data first sampled by the UTHR(J) team during the latter half of 2009. The results are wildly different, ranging from a low of 7,700 by the US State Department to 147,000 by  Frances Harrison[xx].

The UTHR(J) method was to subtract  from the population claimed to have been present in the second No-Fire-Zone in February 2009 – a figure close to 330,000, the final number of registered IDPs in Government camps by May 2009 – roughly +290,000.

According to IDAG-S, the validity of this framework for estimating the number of civilian fatalities depends on:

  • The accuracy of the estimate for the number of people in the second No-Fire-Zone in late February 2009.
  • The ability to differentiate between combatant and non-combatant fatalities.

The reality is that for the most part, the weight of all the evidence of mass-scale fatalities – these alleged numbers of people killed being the primary drivers behind the need for an international investigation; rests on the accuracy of a single figure – 330,000.

That figure was supplied by Assistant Government Agent  Parthipan. He did not do an individual head count. Parthipan’s estimate was based on discussions with village headmen, the Grama Niladharis. The GNs in the Killinochchi and Mullaithivu districts worked very closely with the LTTE: “The government’s social welfare measures, ration cards, identity cards, and voters lists are all routed through the headman. From the 1990s, the LTTE has used the headmen under its control to police the people, force them to attend demonstrations, perform compulsory military service as auxiliaries, impose punitive cuts of rations, diddle government aid and report on those coming in and going out…”[xxi]

The IDAG concludes that number of people in the second No-Fire-Zone towards the end of February was a figure considerably smaller than the 330,000 quoted by AGA Parthipan. This figure would also have included designated combatants like enlisted and forcibly recruited personnel. According to Parthipan, from March 31 to April 29 40,340 people were unaccounted for.

April ICRC data for the number of injured persons transported by sea shows that the mercy missions removed around ~2,800 injured civilians from the No-Fire-Zone. Sources in the conflict zone also claim that only 50% of the total numbers injured were transported by sea. This would mean that for April alone there were potentially 5,600 combat related injuries. for the whole of April 2009, TamilNet reported that there were roughly 2,600 civilian fatalities.

Comparing high-resolution satellite images of the second No-Fire-Zone between February and April 19, indicates that the No-Fire-Zone as a whole did not witness anything like the scale of sustained bombardment required for there to have been more than 40,300 fatalities. The UN estimated that for April there were potentially between 3,000 – 3,900 civilian fatalities. Assuming a worst case scenario where there were 5,000 civilian fatalities, and an additional 2,000 LTTE cadres and conscripts killed in April. This would still leave an unbridgeable deficit of close to a staggering 33,040 unaccounted for.

IADG-S calculates that the number of those who escaped from the conflict zone or detention centres would have ranged between 3,000 and 6,000 and  at least 10,000 LTTE combatants and auxiliaries were killed in this period. Up to 15,000 truly civilian people were possibly  killed in the conflict zone during the last five months, with an additional 2,000 – 3,000 having died by either being shot, shelled or having drowned whilst trying to flee the battle zone. “The respective proportion of civilians killed by the LTTE and the government forces is difficult to work out. Though it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small.”

“Although the Panel report stated from the onset that there was no authoritative figure for civilian fatalities during the final phases of the war: only assessed evidence – or interpretations of it – that it felt reinforced its primary hypothesis, that there were tens of thousands killed. Whilst at the same time other sources of credible evidence that contradicted these assessments were either by intent or sheer negligence, ignored.”Some reliable witnesses and other IDPs who were present when the Army entered on the 18th May are certain that a large number, perhaps the majority, of those killed in the NFZ during the last 12 hours were killed by LTTE shelling. Shells were falling into them and from the direction they are certain that they were fired by the LTTE”.

The IADG-S report says: “that civilian deaths and injuries from Government Forces firing did occur is indubitable, but one has to be cautious in concluding intentionality from such a result without having studied each incident in detail and taken into account issues like: (a) the conditions ruling at the time of the attacks; (b) whether the commander ordering the attack believed his actions would cause clearly excessive levels of civilian harm in relation to the anticipated military advantage gained; (c) the reasons behind the choice of weapon used in a vast majority of the attacks – mortar as against artillery, rockets and airstrikes; (d) considered the military advantage gained as being part of the overall military objective of which the attack was a part.”

Conclusions are further complicated by the fact that the LTTE killed civilians on several occasions when they sought flight.  Again, computing statistics on fatalities caused by Sri Lankan Army action is complicated by the fact that many LTTE fighters did not wear fatigues and thus deliberately contravened the protocols of war that enjoined the principal of distinction. This in turn makes the identification of a civilian corpse into a questionable issue in a significant number of instances.

Accountancy and Accountability

In 2009, the Banyan column in the Economist said:[xxii] “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.”

 IADG-S consider that some critics , such as Frances Harrison and Alan Keenan have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity / morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”

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 New York Times reports[xxiii] that President Obama presides over Tuesday Terror sessions at which he personally selects victims, including US citizens, for “targeted  assassinations. 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.

In Sri Lanka’s case, controversial estimates of civilian deaths were introduced not as irrefutable facts, but as circumstantial evidence to lay the foundation for an international investigation and ultimately regime change.

However, IDAG conclusion states clearly: “Nothing in this survey denies the probability and the evidence that some extra-judicial killings of high-ranking LTTE officers occurred during the last days of the war. These actions need to be impartially investigated by an independent body, and where possible criminal indictments pursued against the perpetrators.”

There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for  genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis  of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise  the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils.  Bludgeoning them with  inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.


[iv] The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers

[v] The Cage p 107

[xx] Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War by Harrison, Frances

[xxi] UTHR(J) Information Bulletin No.39, 1 November 2005.

The Cage by Gordon Weiss

While I was reading the new publication from the International Diaspora Group on counting the dead in Sri Lanka,[i] I cast my mind back to what Gordon Weiss had to say on the subject in his book, The Cage.

Bad Writing

Jason Burke[ii], writing in the Literary Review, describes this book as a : “comprehensive, fair and well-written work”. I beg to differ about the well-written bit. It is a good read, but not a good write. As seems to be the custom with contemporary authors in any genre [iii], Weiss provides a lengthy list of acknowledgements to those without whom etc….

Weiss is readable enough but it is a pity that some of those who “helped” did not draw his attention to several examples of inelegant English or lack of clarity.

I am not sure if it is helpful  or logically sound to describe Sri Lanka as “this endemically violent country”.[iv] I will leave it to those with more expertise than I possess in linguistic analysis and Sri Lankan history to argue that one.

“Most ominously of all, there is good evidence that at least on some occasions the Tigers fired artillery into their own people”.[v] Notice the jarring disjunction between the firm “good evidence” and the slippery and logically meaningless “on at least some occasions”. The way that he expresses it make it seem like a minor peccadillo on the part of the Tigers, perhaps no more than clumsiness.

“Yet, contrary to the ICRC, the very breadth of this mandate makes for inherent contradictions, so that  the UN often finds itself   at loggerheads with itself”.[vi] It is that “contrary to” that buggers up the sentence. I think he means that the UN has a broader mandate than the ICRC.

“Hunger, however, is a great leveller, and erodes at notions of freedom, turning a resistant mood”. [vii] What?!

Navi Pillay, UN Commissioner for Human Rights,  is described as “an ethnic Indian Tamil of South African origin”. [viii]Would it not be better to say “A South African of Indian Tamil origin”?

Factual Errors

In his review on Groundviews, Sanjana Hattotuwa, pointed out some errors and even sternly scolded about “irresponsibly written and edited content”.[ix]  Sanjana points out that it was an armour-plated BMW 7 Series that saved Gotabaya’s life, not a Mercedes. When the war ended, there was a “big, riotous party” in Colombo (and indeed in Badulla) rather than ”little of the air of celebration” that Weiss claims. Sanjana points out that Weiss gets his Peirises mixed up – Prof. GL was never Attorney General.

Some of Weiss’s statements raised an eyebrow with me. “In what they called Eelam (a Tamil word implying separation) a small portion of the Tamil inhabitants of Sri Lanka began to enjoy the fruits of an independence long denied by the Sri Lankan state, including the right to use their own language”.[x] Did Tamils living under Prabakharan in Killinochchi really have a better life than those living in Wellawatte?

Am I alone in finding Weiss’s use of his Jewish forebears’ victimhood vicarious and somewhat distasteful? Weiss claims that during the Second World War his own grandfather “and dozens of other relatives were killed because of their ethnicity”. He is blasé about the LTTE’s racism. Would Weiss be in the appeasement camp had he lived in Europe in the 1930s?

On page 203 he says the Chinese built a port in Laem Chabang in Myanmar. Laem Chabang is in Thailand not far from Pattaya Beach, where I once went on holiday.

“In relative terms, and in the course of a long and bloody civil war, the number of civilians killed by terrorist acts attributed to the Tigers was somewhat modest compared with estimates on the overall death toll inflicted on the Tamils”.[xi] Discuss. What does “in relative terms” mean? The “overall death toll inflicted on the Tamils” includes, of course, Tamils killed by the Tigers. Perhaps he should have clarified that.

Weiss says on page 65 that Alfred Durayappah, Prabakharan’s first victim, was appointed mayor of Jaffna by the prime minister. He was elected not appointed.

On page 237, Mano Ganesan, is described as “the TNA party leader”. I asked Mano about this. “What to say? Gordon is a known friend. It is an oversight. No issue. haha. I am comfortably the leader of Democratic People’s Front, the party of the Voiceless, the party which conducts democratic struggles for all the people of all the regions.” [xii]

In his survey of Sri Lankan history, Weiss criticises D S Senanayake for settling Sinhalese in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa,  “part of Tamil majority ‘dry zone’ as opposed to the Sinhalese majority ‘wet zone’”.  Sinhalese view those areas as the cradle of their  ancient civilization rather than part of a Tamil homeland.

Lack of Expertise

“In Sri Lanka, even though I could not bear witness, I was close enough to the levers of action to believe that they [children] were being wounded and killed in large numbers each day”. My emphasis.

That’s not what it says on the tin. The cover blurb says: “Gordon Weiss witnessed the conflict at first hand as a UN spokesman in Colombo”.

The bibliography is both long and deep. If he has actually read all those publications he is a better man than I am. I wonder how he found the time. The notes are also extensive and informative, although open to debate in some instances.

Weiss was not a witness. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.

Praise for Sri Lankan Army

Weiss has good things to say about the Sri Lankan Army. “On the whole, however, the vast majority of people who escaped seem to have been received with relative  restraint and care by the front-line SLA troops who quickly passed them up the line  for tea, rice and first aid. The faceless enemy, such a source of terror for the young peasant men and women of  southern Sri Lanka who made up  the majority of the troops, were suddenly given a human aspect, as thin, bedraggled and women clutching children to their breasts and pleading in a foreign tongue fell at their feet”.[xiii]

Note that Weiss cannot say that those who “escaped” were treated with care. It has to have the begrudging modifier “relative”. Relative to what? Relative to the care given by the  LTTE from whom they had escaped?

He repeats similar sentiments later but drops the begrudgery. “During the course of research for this book, 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.”[xiv] We will forgive the dangling participle. Only a pedant would point out that Tamils were not doing the research.

Hang on – weren’t these internment camps? “If a civilian survived the crossing , they faced an uncertain future in government internment camps (of the existence of which they were well aware)” .[xv] I was tempted to file that under Bad Writing.

“It remains a credit to many of the front-line SLA soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, they so often seem to have made the effort to draw civilians out from the morass of fighting ahead of them in an attempt to save lives. Soldiers yelled out to civilians, left gaps in their lines while they waved white flags to attract people forward and bodily plucked the wounded from foxholes and bunkers. Troops bravely waded into the lagoon under fire to rescue wounded people threading their way out of the battlefield or to help parents with their children, and gave their rations to civilians as they lay in fields, exhausted in their first moments of safety after years of living under the roar and threat of gunfire”.[xvi]

Numbers Game

Weiss introduces a caveat. “I have not dealt in close detail  with the matter of figures of dead and wounded, how they are calculated and how reliable those sources  might be. I make the point in the text that it is for others to get closer to that particular particle of truth”. [xvii]  A strange way of putting it. Despite this disclaimer, throughout  the book , Weiss  repeats the mantra that 10,000 to 40,000 civilians were killed.

Weiss was and is a major player in the numbers game. When he was  working  for the UN in Colombo,  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 and began writing this book he increased the figure to 15,000,  which he then upped to  40,000, a figure that a whole range of media outlets, including BBC and NDTV, ran with. Journalists confused the issue by failing to make clear whether information came from “an employee of the UN”  or  “a former employee of the UN”, rather than “the UN”.

“From this confusion of information, and despite the prospect that the Tamil Tigers might be forcing the Tamil doctors or the UN staff, to give inflated figures of the dead and wounded, the accumulation of events and casualties seemed consistent”.[xviii] Having raised the possibility that figures were inflated, he gives himself licence to inflate further.

“From this point on, the death toll could only grow”.[xix] Does this mean that more people would be killed or that estimates of the dead would become more inflated? Earlier on the same page, a press release by Navi Pillay is quoted which says that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 40,000 and Frances Harrison  to say 147,000?

Gordon Weiss’s lower  estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, was challenged by Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, who stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified. In spite of this, Weiss throughout The Cage routinely talks of “between 10,000 and 40,000”,  which is meaningless.

Convoy 11

In his Groundviews review, Sanjana Hattotuwa writes that The Cage is: “A mind-numbingly harrowing account of violence that supports what the UN Panel of Experts says are credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Weiss takes pains to emphasise that the appalling details are based on reports by two men who each had significant experience in active combat.”

Sanjana  chastises Weiss for naming names which the Darusman Report withheld: “Justifiable caution over and confidentiality of sources in the UN Panel’s report is ruined by the revelations in The Cage, attributed by Weiss to specific individuals. ..After reading The Cage, it is a matter of simple extrapolation that the sources were in fact Col. Khan and Col. Du Toit.”

Rajiva Wijesinha recalls meeting ”the shady South African Chris du Toit”[xx], whom he says was an intelligence officer for the apartheid regime. Weiss also claims that Du Toit had trained and commanded proxy guerrilla forces in the illicit wars fought by South Africa in Angola. Du Toit was most probably involved in the training of Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA guerrilla group who committed horrendous crimes against humanity in Angola.

Wijesinha questions Du Toit’s method of calculating civilian casualties. “He said that there were three elements taken into consideration, first the dead bodies … seen by UN staff, secondly reports they received, and thirdly extrapolation. Pressed on the number of those seen by the UN, he said it was something like 39, over the previous month. Given what he then said about the numbers calculated on the other methods, I believe the figure that was being floated around was excessive. The implications of the methods he employed, for speculation that is now treated as gospel by the panel, need to be reviewed in greater detail”.[xxi]

Wijesinha continues: “Under close questioning, he had to admit that, while there had been firing on areas near where he had been sleeping, he could not say with any certainty from which direction the firing had come. He had brought with him large pictures of craters caused by shells, and he took out one and said that was the only shot the direction of which they could be certain of, and that had come from the direction of the LTTE forces.”

The UN officer who was actually with the convoy was Retired Colonel Harun Khan. He is said to have managed counter-insurgency operations in Bangladesh,[xxii] most probably against the Buddhist Chakma hill tribes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts where horrific crimes against humanity were committed.[xxiii]

Weiss says Harun Khan took photographs of the carnage, but the only example he provided seems to be questionable. This is what Groundviews said: “The problem is that this photo, part of what Weiss claims is ‘many other images of the wounded and dead from these days in late January 2009’ taken by Col. Harun was actually taken 22nd August 2008 at 5.08pm, and not in late January 2009. This emphatically does not help any advocacy, domestic and international, to hold those responsible for alleged war crimes accountable for their actions and calls for independent investigations to determine the veracity of these very serious allegations. It is possible that Weiss was careless, and posted the wrong photograph. It is possible he and the UN, as we noted in our review of his tome, have the originals of these images, where similar scrutiny under any photo editing programme can very easily determine whether they are in fact from late January or earlier.”[xxiv]

I do not know the truth of what happened but there is a lot of churnalism here. Weiss’s account cannot “support” the Panel’s view because he was not there and they were not there. I gather from Weiss’s account that Du Toit was not with the convoy either but was back in Colombo.

Conclusion

Weiss quotes Timothy Garton Ash: “Liberal internationalism… means developing norms and rules by which most states will abide, preferably made explicit in international law and sustained by international organisations. It posits some basic rights that belong to every human being on this planet…It seeks to  build peace between nations on these foundations”.

I am a great admirer of Timothy Garton Ash. I have even set up a Google alert so that I can read all of his articles. Let us not forget, however, that he supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the “Coalition of the Willing”. Remind me what the reason for that invasion was. First of all, Iraq was somehow behind 9/11; then Saddam had WMD; when those excuses proved spurious the invasion was retrospectively justified as being about  “basic rights that belong to every human being on this planet”.

Weiss puts his own spin on this: “The choice between strategies when fighting  an insurgency is relatively straightforward”. There’s that word again; relative to what? Weiss believes that liberal democracies choose the “hearts and minds” strategy. I am reminded of General Westmoreland’s maxim: “Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”. See how the liberal democracy that is the United States conducted “counterinsurgency” in Vietnam[xxv]. Weiss sermonises: “Counterinsurgencies are fought by liberal democracies in places like Afghanistan. Their leaders and decision makers understand that they are ultimately answerable to constituencies that might, like the French in the Algerian war of independence, withdraw support if they become too murderous”.

Despite praising the conduct of most SLA soldiers, Weiss in the end accuses the winning side of exceptional brutality, not fitting in with his sense of how liberal democracies would fight insurgency.  As Sanjana Hattotuwa said in his review: “Weiss offers no larger analysis of this tragic fragmentation between spontaneous compassion and calculated mass scale atrocity, and its effects on the civilians caught in direct or cross-fire. “

Has the book had an influence? It generated great interest in foreign embassies in Colombo. As Sanjana told me: “Several embassies had block booked 20 – 30 copies of the book, which resulted in higher than planned demand. This may have given rise to the perception at the time the book was hard to get, which it was, but not because of heavy handed Govt censorship.”[xxvi]

 

Jason Burke is generally positive about The Cage but finds something lacking in the coverage of President Rajapaksa: “His various political victories are not the result of electoral fraud. The end of the war in Sri Lanka has sparked an economic boom that is forecast to double the wealth of Sri Lankans – if not of northern or plantation Tamils – within a few years and possibly triple it within a decade as foreign investment and tourists flow in. If that is so, his continued rule seems assured.”


[iv] The Cage pxx

[v] The Cage p109

[vi] The Cage p139

[vii] The Cage p191

[viii] The Cage p205

[x] The Cage p8

[xi] The Cage p81

[xii] Personal communication via Facebook.

[xiii] The Cage p181[xiii]

[xiv] The Cage p186

[xv] The Cage p209

[xvi] The Cage p216

[xvii] The Cage pxxvii

[xviii] The Cage p135

[xix] The Cage p205

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