Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Sri Lanka

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.


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

Sri Lanka Escapes Tsunami April 11 2012

Tsunami Warning

A  twenty-six-year old British NGO intern on a short-term contract in Sri Lanka,  asks on her Facebook page why  people in Colombo are making such a fuss about earthquakes.

“Anyone else in SL felt earthquake tremors?”

“Not entirely sure why Colombo has become a ghost town and everyone seems in mass panic when a). we’re in Colombo and b). no waves have been reported.”

My wife has just been talking to her aunt who lives in Colombo. She said she felt the bed shake and has heard reports from other people around Colombo that they felt tremors. Colombo escaped the tsunami in 2004 but it is on the coast and there is no guarantee that it would escape if there was another huge wave.

When I saw the comment, I was not aware of the tsunami warning (we do not have a TV or radio) and I responded thus:

“Colombo becomes a ghost town this time every year because of the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. All the Tamil workers go home to their villages and the middle classes take advantage of the long weekend to go on trips to the country or the beaches.”

She responded.

“I know. But this mass migration was accompanied by panic.”

It would be surprising if people who remembered what happened in 2004 were not frightened at the prospect of the same thing happening again. There is a superstition that bad things happen at new year. One  could make a value judgement about this fear and label it “panic”. One might risk being thought lacking in compassion if one did so.

I checked out my news updates on the internet and saw that the Director General of Geological Survey and Mines Bureau Dr. N. P. Wijayananada had said a tsunami alert had been issued following  a US Geological Survey report of a 8.6 magnitude earthquake centred 20 miles (33 km) beneath the ocean floor, around 269 miles (434 km) from Aceh’s provincial capital. There had been three aftershocks of 8.2, 6.0 and 5.2 on the Richter scale. “We are still on alert,” he said.

Could It Happen Again?

I responded  thus: “I know that you have been in Sri Lanka only a very brief time but surely you must have read about the horror that was the tsunami of 2004. See: Can you really blame people for panicking when a new earthquake is reported? People we knew very well died in the tsunami and that is typical of everyone here. Please don’t belittle the fear.”

She responded:  “Yes, I am well aware of what happened and the devastation it caused. And I could understand the panic/fear/worry if waves had been reported when I was outside and witnessed all this chaos, or we were on the East/South coast. But people are obviously not following the news updates.”

I am not sure what point she is making here. Is  she saying because she felt no tremors and saw no waves there is nothing to worry about? The huge wave happened very suddenly in 2004. Is she saying people are behaving stupidly or irrationally?

The 2004 Tsunami Affected All Sri Lankans

The 2004 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. The number of casualties cannot be accurately stated. In Sri Lanka, the authorities reported 36,000 dead and 5,644 missing. There were 21,441 injured, 516,150 internally displaced.

A friend of my wife’s family, was killed with her brother on a bus in Galle. She was Sri Lankan but lived mainly in London and was here on a short holiday. We stay at her husband’s apartment in Mount Lavinia from time to time and he  is still from survivor’s  guilt.

Galle bus station

A strange phenomenon was noted 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?

The south and east coasts were most badly affected. Up to  2500 passengers on the holiday train, Queen of the South, perished as the wave engulfed it at Peraliya, between Colombo and Galle. Only 824 bodies were actually recovered, 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, only 10 were spared.

Some local survivors thought  the wrecked train was a curse upon Peraliya. Yet when the railway authorities set about removing the carriages during the rebuilding of the line, the villagers realised that the train was now part of their collective soul. They demanded its return. The carriages are still there, a rusting memorial. A fading poem from a husband to his lost wife written on the side of one carriage:

“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?”

 Coping with the 2004 Tsunami

In 2004, the government was slow to react to the tsunami but an effective, spontaneous immediate response was organized locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings, and tents. Communities and groups cooperated across barriers that had divided them for decades. A local relief effort that got underway almost immediately is generally agreed to have been a success despite the understandable confusion which accompanied this effort at times. Even in the poorest, most remote areas people flocked to the roadside to hand over money, clothes, bottles of water and bags of rice and lentils. Sri Lanka’s past investments in a broad-based public health system and community awareness of basic sanitary and hygienic practices ensured that there were no disease outbreaks. Essential medical aid, emergency food, and other relief supplies were mobilized within a day. It was possible to feed, clothe, and shelter survivors; provide the injured with medical attention; and ensure that the thousands of bodies were quickly cremated or buried.

Twenty thousand soldiers were deployed to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order after sporadic looting. It is probably inaccurate to call this looting. As in the immediate aftermath of Katrina people had to get supplies from somewhere and normal conditions did not pertain.

Viewing the Devastation

We visited Hambantota on several occasions to give what small help we could. Just outside the town 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 wires near a mosque.

Many houses had been illegally built, so records could not 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 a smell like foul gas.

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.

Sadeesha, a veterinarian we knew in Bandarawela, used to commute there every day from her home in Hambantota.  Sadeesha’s house had gone and her father had drowned.  The rest of the family were safe but had lost everything. One of Sadeesha’s neighbors showed us where his house had been. Now there were just the foundations. The neighbor had saved his daughter from the wave but then she was bitten by a dog. He could find no medicine.

Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories in the press about thousands of starving and desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service, led by Dr PAL Harischandra, courageously resisted panic calls for mass slaughter of stray dogs and took the opportunity, with the support of tireless local vets, to carry out a program of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilization of dogs.

Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari (local government official) at Samodarama. Cynics  had warned us about the army pilfering but the major wanted us to deal directly with the people, rather than having us give supplies to him. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.

We were at a Buddhist temple but it was an ecumenical event. Many were Muslims. Some were Christians. Some were Hindus. Some Christian friends had suggested that the tsunami happened as a judgment of God because Buddhists had attacked Christian churches and opposed conversion. Others said Muslims were taking over the world. Buddhism has become contaminated by Sinhala nationalism and exploited by politicians. Some Sinhalese complain that western NGOs favored Tamils. The Tamil Tigers said the Sinhalese were preventing supplies getting to Tamil areas. Sri Lanka has suffered much ethnic and religious strife over the years, because of the divide and rule tactics of the British followed by the opportunism of the indigenous political elite, but here people seemed to be united in adversity. Nature did not discriminate.

One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone  to market with a 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.”

A brilliant series of photos by JB Russell can be found at

Nona, mother of ten children in a fishing village on the south coast.

April 11 2012

We live far from the coast, 4,000 feet above sea level. I did not feel any tremors on April 11 2012. However, our four dogs became unusually agitated that evening. The Avurudha firecrackers were suddenly drowned out by the loudest thunderclap I have ever heard and for several hours we sat in darkness (all the fuses tripped) as deafening  claps and brilliant electric flashes succeeded each other with hardly any intervals. This may have been unrelated to the earthquake but it was damned scary.

Whatever  the NGO intern might have felt  or not felt in Colombo, the Aceh tremor of April 11 was reported to have been  felt in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and India. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said a tsunami watch was in effect for Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, Myanmar, Thailand, the Maldives and other Indian Ocean islands, Malaysia, Pakistan, Somalia, Oman, Iran, Bangladesh, Kenya, South Africa and Singapore.

Minister of Disaster Management, Mahinda Samaraweera, urged people not to panic, but to move to safer areas. The government ordered the armed forces to move in to ensure criminal elements did not take advantage of the situation. The Sri Lankan Navy was ordered to take all vessels out to sea in case huge waves hit naval bases. The Meteorological Department advised citizens living in coastal areas to move to safe places. The department warned that there was the possibility of a tsunami striking Trincomalee on the east coast at 4.10 pm, Colombo at 4.50 pm and Jaffna on the northern tip at 6.00 pm. Sri Lanka Railways temporarily suspended all trains on the coastal belt and also the Puttalam line, while the southern coastal road was closed for traffic for several hours. The government announced that people could use the Southern highway toll-free in view of the emergency.

The government lifted the tsunami warning at 6. 30 p.m. A spokesman for the Information Department said that people could now return to their homes.

Can’t Do right for Doing Wrong

In 2004, the Sri Lanka government was criticised for not issuing a tsunami warning. Because it was a holiday period it seems that no-one was minding the shop. The immediate state response was weak and the government took some time took some time to set up a co-ordinating committee.

This presents a marked contrast with the US government’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. US authorities reacted to Katrina with mind-boggling incompetence.

At another holiday season an earthquake is reported and the government, learning from its mistakes, takes what it believes is appropriate action. The Mancunian expression “Can’t do right for doing wrong” springs to mind. Is she condemning the government for causing unnecessary panic?  What if they had not issued tsunami warnings and there had been a big wave like in 2004? Damned if they do, dammed if they don’t.

Sri Lanka in July 2009

Sri Lanka: view from the ground

This was the first article I had published on Le Monde diplomatique

Exclusive July 2009, by Padraig Colman

Even those Sri Lankans, including Tamils, who were dubious about their government’s decision to pursue the military option against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), are relieved that the venture appears successful. They also are surprised at the reaction to the victory by nations such as the US, the UK, India and Israel, and the sharp criticism about civilian casualties and displaced people.

From Sri Lanka, it feels as if the Tamil diaspora in the UK, Canada, US and Australia has overly influenced the media in those places. People in the West seem to believe that all Sri Lankan Tamils were confined to a narrow strip of beach under shellfire from government troops, and are now herded into concentration camps. I do not wish to downplay the suffering of those in the north, but the reality is that Tamils are spread throughout Sri Lanka and many are prosperous and influential.

A distinguished Tamil journalist based in Canada, DB Jeyaraj, wrote: “The Tamils need to remind themselves that the LTTE, despite its prolonged campaign, has ultimately achieved nothing for the Tamil people. If the LTTE had converted the military strength it once enjoyed into bargaining power at the negotiating table, the Sri Lankan Tamils would have been much better off. It did not and in the process has brought misery and despair to the Tamil people.”

Dr Noel Nadesan, editor of Uthayam, a Tamil newspaper in Australia, wrote: “The Sri Lankan president deserves the congratulations of all Sri Lankans regardless of their ethnicity. More than any other community, the Sri Lankan Tamils owe him their thanks for ending their misery.”

As a Tamil blogger remarked: “I hold no brief for the Sri Lankan government which, unfortunately, is growing more despotic by the day”, but he wondered why Sri Lanka should have agreed to a ceasefire when it had the Tiger leader trapped; it was unlikely that, in similar circumstances, the US would let Osama bin Laden escape.

Hillary Clinton has criticised Sri Lanka for being too tough on the Tamil Tigers — and Pakistan for not being tough enough on the Taliban. (In Swat there are up to two million displaced civilians. There is a shortfall in humanitarian aid and NGOs are pulling out.)

The current Indian government promotes reconciliation and a just settlement for Sri Lankan Tamils. Memories of India’s previous interventions are still acute in Sri Lanka. Indira Gandhi’s government funded and armed Sri Lankan terrorists, including the LTTE. In 1987 an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) tried and failed to disarm the LTTE. Tamil sources asserted that more than half of the victims of the IPKF 1987 offensive were Tamil civilians and Brigadier Manjit Singh admitted: “We could not differentiate between the LTTE and the civilians.” In October 1987 Indian troops stormed into Jaffna hospital, throwing grenades and firing, killing 70 doctors, staff and patients.

Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian, argues that the Sri Lankan army had similar problems recently, noting that “the category ‘civilian’ is an ambiguous category”, because the LTTE command-state integrated civilians into the front line. Roberts makes a comparison with the end of the second world war, when the Allies insisted on unconditional surrender and carpet bombed civilians (and exploded the atomic bomb) to attain that goal.

The Sri Lankan government was taken by surprise when Israel, in spite of or because of, its actions in Gaza, accused Sri Lanka of indiscriminate military action and violations of human rights in fighting LTTE terrorism. Israel supplied military hardware and expertise which were probably significant factors in the LTTE’s defeat.

The writer and journalist Neil Ascherson has written about the way the British delude themselves that they built and divested themselves of their empire in a decent fashion, although, in fact, “In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.” The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, was involved during a recent visit to Colombo in a shouting match with Sri Lanka’s defence supremo, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who felt it necessary to remind Miliband that Sri Lanka was no longer a British colony. Miliband has been complicit in US rendition and torture and Britain continues to allow the US to use the British colony of Diego Garcia, from which it expelled the inhabitants, for those purposes.

A recent report by Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, found that accountability in the US has been “deplorable”; few would doubt that the US has killed civilians and used torture in Iraq. In Britain, Miliband proposes that an inquiry into the UK’s involvement in Iraq be held in secret, but Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former head of Defence Intelligence, said: “There is only one reason that the inquiry is being heard in private and that is to protect past and present members of this government. There are 179 reasons [179 dead soldiers] why the military want the truth to be out on what happened over Iraq.” Major General Julian Thompson said that the military wanted to be heard in public “the allegation that a British government manipulated intelligence to take part in an illegal war.”

Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN has said: “Sri Lanka is not the case of an army of occupation invading and occupying another country. Sri Lanka’s army is a military that serves a constitutional democracy, a military that fought a war strictly within its recognised borders against a separatist, terrorist militia, with whom the state had tried to arrive at a peaceful settlement on numerous occasions. Therefore, we will not have forced upon us formulae and paradigms derived from entirely different contexts.”

Because those accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes are not free of guilt themselves, should the issue of war crimes in Sri Lanka be ignored? Some would argue that a full investigation of war crimes would be a distraction from the reconciliation process; others argue that reconciliation is impossible if war crimes are not investigated (perhaps more bitterness is felt among the diaspora than among Tamils in Sri Lanka).

The reconciliation process in countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Chile and Northern Ireland have been cited. There is no doubt that Sri Lankan Tamils have suffered discrimination and there has, in the past, been horrific anti-Tamil violence. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is not an apartheid society like South Africa, Palestine or even Louisiana. The government was fighting terrorists, not trying to wipe out the Tamil population. In Sri Lanka a democratically-elected government increased its popularity with voters by overthrowing a de facto unelected, totalitarian military dictatorship in part of its internationally recognised sovereign territory, and intends to restore democracy to that area. In Northern Ireland peace was achieved through long negotiations when both sides became exhausted and accepted that neither could win. The IRA gave up its arms and put its goal of a united Ireland in abeyance. The LTTE went into any “negotiation” with an uncompromising demand for a separate state of Tamil Eelam.

There are arguments that the government must blame itself because of inept PR and censorship. Certainly, the news has been manipulated under the cover of “prevention of terrorism” and press freedom will continue to be threatened. Anti-terrorism laws (perhaps not as draconian as in the UK or US) remain in place and many investigations into attacks on the media remain unresolved.

President Rajapakse’s reputation is high with the Sinhalese majority and he should now have the political capital to reach out for the hearts and minds of the Tamil community and bring them within a unified nation without fear of backlash. It is to be hoped that other governments and the international media will help the nationbuilding by supporting reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

30 comments on « Sri Lanka: view from the ground »

  • #
    2 July 2009 @15h15
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Tks for the unbiased comments. You see the problem wisely and broadly. Why not others can see it this way.

    From Canada

  • # Happy Reader :
    2 July 2009 @16h19
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Thanks for the article.

    Yes, the Sri Lankan Government should reach out to the tamil community (only in Sri Lanka), but the Tamil community should also reciprocate and rule out a separate or federal state. This would remove a lot of the understadable fear and suspicion.

    Non-war related discrimination against Tamils is only the language issue for the rural community, just as the vast majority of Sinhalese faced during British rule. This should be rectified.

    But in the long run, multi-ethnic integration based on new commercial centres in the north, east and south is the only real solution. Basically, develop the rural areas and people will forget their ’greivances’.

  • # Mohamed Jamal/Doha :
    2 July 2009 @17h16
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    AS a Sri Lankan I 100% agree with what Dayan Jayatilaka our UN/Ambassador says. We have best democracy in the world. Anybody violate the law will dealt with country’s law.
  • #
    2 July 2009 @19h17
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    It has been/is dishartening to see the condescending double standards of the ’international community’ regarding the actions taken by the Sri Lankan government to unify the country.

    It is also unfathomable why a minority should be able to own almost a majority of a soverign nation, which, unfortunately was one of the fuels that supplied this three decade long pointless blaze of hatred.

    The only solution possible now is to reconcile, but remember the past such that future generations will not repeat the same mistakes, and come together to rebuild the nation to her original glory as the ’Pearl of the Indian Ocean’

  • # MAHESH :
    2 July 2009 @19h39
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
  • # Sepala Munasinghe :
    2 July 2009 @19h46
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    An investigation into corruption at the highest level over an arms deal was stopped by an executive order; the Constitutional Head of the country, in whose name a criminal prosecution was brought against a private individual, was less than honest in regard to it bringing the criminal justice system into disrepute;the second legislative Chamber has in its membership convicted criminals; the first legilative Chamber comprises members who de-frauded the tax revenues of the country for their own use; a judicial inquiry by the High Court into allegations of torture could not proceed to a meaningful conclusion because of an Executive order;a Prime Minister holding office is criminally investigated by the leading law enforcement agency. Are we referring to a bannana republic? A fish and chips monarchy more likely! UK lost its moral authority long time ago to lecture on international/humanitarian law to other countries.
  • # Himan :
    2 July 2009 @19h46
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    UK’s colonial mindset has to be eradicated first. Sri Lanka is a small country, but bullying small nations should be severely dealt with.
    Sri Lanka should claim damages to the nation as a whole fromthe British giovernment. There are no two questions about it. The damage UK caused to the society, economy and environemnt is immense. They did the same to other countries they captured. It is indeed a crime. FOr that they have to pay.
    That alone would be enough for Sri Lanka to prosper and to sustain as the pearl of the Indian ocean, which existed before the British rule.
  • # Serenity Now :
    2 July 2009 @20h16
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Very Nice article. Very good journalism. Good to know that there are still professional journalists, and not just tabloid writers out there.
  • # MahamahaRaja :
    2 July 2009 @21h17
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Tamils have not faced any “discrimination” in Sri Lanka. Wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them, in the home of the Sinhalese into which they were brought like slaves, which they achieved through unwavering servitude and sucking up to their colonial white masters, is UNACCEPTABLE!

    Do some research before regurgitating terrorist propaganda.

  • # Selvam :
    2 July 2009 @23h31
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    This article gives an unbias brief account in this island’s terrorist problem.No country should be given a chance to intervene into their internal problems. The tamil dispora in Uk,Usa,Canada and othere countries should not be considered as Sri Lankan tamils since they left Sri Lanka for their personal gains and only tamils in Sri Lanka should be accounted and they know their problems very well.Also they are the people who are going to live with the majority Sri Lankans.
  • #
    3 July 2009 @00h38
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Well said Le Monde. It is heartening to note that there is still unbiassed reporting without the influence of ’diaspora dollars’. Reconciliation and rehabilitation should be the need of the hour and not the hatred peddled by the tamil diaspora who are smarting due to the fact that their contributions over the years have amounted to nothing but misery for those living in SL. If they had planted some mango trees over there, people would now be reaping some fruits at least. from Nandi

  • #
    3 July 2009 @03h37
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Selective quotes from pro-government Tamils does not acurately reflect the ground situation nor does comparing the situation to other countries.
    Just because US’ and UK’s practise torture or committ other human rights violations means the Rajapaksa regime’s horrific treatment of Tamils is OK. The Rajapaksa regime are war criminals and should be treated as such.


  • # Nissan :
    3 July 2009 @04h52
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Nothing more than a lip service to the Government of Sri Lanka.
  • # Lanka Lion :
    3 July 2009 @04h52
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Thank you very much.

    Nothing can be more true.

  • # Siri From NY, USA :
    3 July 2009 @06h13
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    The winners of the war against the LTTE are the Sri Lankan people and they should never allow any foreign power to interfere in the internal affairs of their country. The big losers are the Western powers who tried to side with the LTTE for Tamil diaspora votes. However it is surprising that Hillary Clinton took the stand she did as the Tamil votes in the USA is insignificant. She should also keep in mind that there are many non Tamil Sri Lankans in the USA who supported the Democratic party in the last election and her attitude may antagonise them. Many of the Tamil protesters may not even be vote carrying citizens as they came as refugees. Only the unemployed have time to protest on the streets. It is also possible that the monetary contributions made by the Tamil diaspora to Clinton’s fund may have helped her to form her opinion. This kind of foreign policy will not benefit America as we keep losing our friends all over the world and this becomes crucial in the voting at the UN. Sri Lanka has always been a friend of the USA and they are being badly treated for personal gain.
  • # Trevor (Berlin) :
    3 July 2009 @11h07
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Well said! I belong to the Burger community, also a minority group in SL that is privileged due to it’s mother-tongue being the english language. I was born, bread and “buttered” in Colombo and grew up in a very comfortable atmosphere together with my Sinhalese, Tamil, Moor, Malay and Bora english-speaking friends, colleagues and neighbours. Mind you, the Tamil-diaspora abroad does not consist of only SL-Tamils but also Tamils from other nations. Remember, there are over 100 million Tamils in the world. In comparison, the Sinhalese (about 18 million) are in the minority. It is obvious that the English try to protect the Tamils as the Tamils were the government servants during the colonial period. The first schools built by the English in SL were in the Northern and Eastern provinces where the majority Tamils lived. The Sinhalese only wanted to see the English out of their country. It is pathetic that the English have now scooped down to such a level in allowing even SL-cricket fans be mollested by Tamil demonstrators, some of those who have not even seen the shores of SL. If such ignorance should prevail, then the SL cricket board should consider boycotting future cricket games in England. Tamils who are disheartened with our beautiful country should consider moving over to Tamil Nadu, there are over 60 million Tamils there to support you!! It’s time that the other minorites of SL expressed their views so that the world is not misled by the false propaganda of the Tamil diaspora. Politicians like Hillary Clinton should first visit our country before making unsavourable remarks. I love my motherland!
  • # mohan :
    3 July 2009 @22h41
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    It is a well balanced article..however lacks the vision of what should be done for the future..winning the hearts and minds of the minority community should be the priority of the government…Minority communities, especially tamils are wounded souls.. not necessarily of their own fault.. LTTE’s peak was infact the by product of SL policies and naiveness of the tamils..and these have to be reversed as a matter of priority by both communities.. A military victory alone does not solve a political problem that has languished over several decades in one form or the other. what is needed is progressive policies and visionery constituitions akin to other successful country for example like singapore. All communities must be a stake-holder in re-building the country. Both the tamil and sinhalese communities take a look at themselves and ask the question: we have to live in this island (where we lived for the 2000 odd years under several forms of rules) for the forseable future (unless some thing like a tsunami strikes..) and there fore we have to find a way to be masters of our own destiny.. after all the measure of a society’s progressiveness must be measured how it accommodated and co-existed with other’s not the other way around…may it is time to introduce “good citizenship” lessons as grassroot levels..A brand new contituition acceptable to all at the MACRO level would be the answer.. then at the micro level and political structures all shades of aspirations could be accommodated depending on the areas of rule..All it would take imagination and compromises by all..
  • #
    4 July 2009 @02h30
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Excellent article. If only more western journalists would bother to report on the ground realities……..

    Thank you!

  • #
    4 July 2009 @02h36
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    A beautifully written article. In my view, well balanced, and I agree with it 100%.
  • #
    4 July 2009 @03h23
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    It is a rare unbiased artile. As a Sinhalese I believe that Sri Lanka is a country belonging to all its people – regardless of their ethnicities. The issues in Sri Lanka today are common to poor people in the country – has little to do with ethnicities. Sinhala though is the official language, the private sector, recognised as the engine of growth will employ capable people who can communicate in English. Henc,there is no descrimination.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    4 July 2009 @05h54
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    Thank you to all those who have made further comments.

    MahamahaRaja , who accused me of “regurgitating terrorist propaganda”, also said “Wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them, in the home of the Sinhalese into which they were brought like slaves, which they achieved through unwavering servitude and sucking up to their colonial white masters, is UNACCEPTABLE!”

    He seems to be confusing two types of Tamils here.

    The British indeed stole the land of the Sinhalese in order to create plantations to grow coffee, tea and rubber for the profit of the British Empire. Not unnaturally, the Sinhalese were not too keen on helping the British turn a profit on the stolen land. The British solved their labour problem by importing indentured labourers from South India to labour on the plantations and pluck the tea and work in the factories. After independence these people were deprived of citizenship by Sinhalese-dominated governments.

    The involvement of plantation Tamils in politics has mainly been restricted to trade union matters. The main thrust for a separate state for Tamils, and subsequently terrorism, has come from the Tamils in the north who have lived in Sri Lanka for many centuries. The British played a role here also because they used divide and rule tactics, as they commonly did all over the Empire, and were felt by Sinhalese to favour educated “Jaffna Tamils”.

    Plantation Tamils have very little to do with the diaspora or with terrorism. Saying that Tamils who were “brought like slaves” are “wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them,“ makes no sense at all. What privileges do slaves have? Do some research Mahamaha.

    Mohan said: “A military victory alone does not solve a political problem that has languished over several decades in one form or the other. What is needed is progressive policies and visionary constitutions”. I agree wholeheartedly. I would like to say to Mohan that I agree with him that progressive policies are essential if further conflict is to be avoided.

    I am limited by the space available here and was mainly focusing in this particular piece on western hypocrisy. I am working on further articles to cover Mohan’s concerns.

    Also, I have already dealt with many issues relating to Sri Lanka at great length and in great detail on another blog at Open Salon, for example:
    blog/padraig colman/
    tamil separatism in
    sri lanka part 1

  • # Ranjith V.A. Embuldeniya :
    4 July 2009 @07h10
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    While I personally agree with the article published in the Le Monde I think it would be the same with any sane minded Sri Lankan.

    Apart from the tribute we pay to the gallantry displayed by the members of the Armed Forces and the political will displayed this time in bringing this curse which was on Sri Lanka to an end, I hope and pray that successive governments will also choose their diplomats in the future in the likes of Professors Dayan Jayathilleke and Rajiv Wijesinghe who have the ingredients in them beyond any measure to represent Sri Lanka at any foreign forum.

  • # Sunil :
    4 July 2009 @07h37
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    As many others have done I wish to thank you for what I honestly believe is a truthful and extremely balanced assessment of the facts.I have no doubt that the Real Tamils of Sri Lanka ,that is the Tamil people who live there and have chosen to do so against all odds must be grateful their ordeal has finally come to an end.It is not the outcome they set out to achieve in the first instance.Thank heavens or ones Karmic forces if one is agnostic, that it’s not the outcome that the selfish and selfserving Tamil Diaspora tried to force upon them.Had that come to fruition it would have meant the death knell for the sons and daughters of thousands of innocent Tamil and Sinhalese Mothers for another 30 years whilst the diaspora parents pet and pampered their own offspring in comfortable Western climes.
  • # Ruveni :
    4 July 2009 @09h29
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    It is indeed refreshing to read a balanced presentation after reading foreign corrospondents writing with a colonial neurosis.The problem is they do not concentrate on being objective but opines views to further the interest of their own country or agenda often fashioned by their sponsers or paymasters or whom they meet in Colombo’s alienated society called the Colombians.

    I have decided not to believe BBC or Al Jazeera or CNN after following reports on Sri Lanka.So I disbelive them on Iran whereas previously some reliance would have been placed.They misled the world and themselves in supporting the terrorists and finally got egg in the face when they lost out.In shame, with the defeat of their pet poodles,they are becoming more vituperative.The real issue consequent to misreading and misinterpreting, is falling into the losers column as in Afghanistan and Iraq.So it is jealousy against a small nation for achieving which they are still trying to follow and cntnue to fail.They will never understand how to handle an issues until they know the aspirations of a wide spectrum of opinion within a country.

    Please write objectively on other conficts too.Your name is now recognised and read with respect.

  • # shanie :
    6 July 2009 @07h15
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    This blog received so many responses because in the western media there are so few objective writings.Most are subjective according to the gospet they preach.West is not interested in the truth but in the vested interest of the west,
  • # ruwan :
    11 July 2009 @07h54
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Maham’s email address tells the tale.It reads needs no further introduction.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    11 July 2009 @13h39
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    I followed the link that Maham recommended to me. I see that there is much interesting reading there which will inform work I am doing on the general subject of nationalism. I was struck by a quotation from a Tamil poem at the top of the page.

    “To us all towns are one, all men our kin.

    Life’s good comes not from others’ gift, nor ill.

    Man’s pains and pains’ relief are from within.

    Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !.”

    Those are wise words which should serve as an inspiration to all of us.

  • # MahamahaRaja :
    25 February 2010 @10h30
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    To the writer, you can moan as much you like, but the majority of Tamils in the country were brought in illegally. You still do not explain how they are “discriminated” or “marginalized.” It is you who is confused, and It is you who should do some research. Poor attempt at a straw man there with talk of “different types of tamils” as if that has any relevance whatsoever to the issue at hand.

    The entirety of the island was ruled by one Sinhalese King for the entirety of history, before the interference of colonialists, who used Tamils as a battering ram against the Sinhalese who would not bow to them, the Sinhalese who refused to learn their language, and the Sinhalese who would not convert to the whites’ religion – all these things were done by the Tamils in order to gain some power. If they had anything worth protecting, such as the Nation that the Sinhalese had, they would have fought and died for it rather than sucking up to foreign barbarians. The Sinhalese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Aborigines, Maoris, Zulus, and Native Americans all fought against foreign barbarians. Not the Tamils though. Why? I wonder.

    Stop spouting terrorist propaganda, and go sort out the problems in the banlieus before coming to talk about Sri Lanka.

  • # Prashan :
    18 April 2010 @09h02
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground
    Great article! But must remember Tamils are not at all discriminated in Sri Lanka. Tamil is official only in Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu means Tamil homeland where 55 million Tamils live but yet Tamil is not official there. I hope great journalists like Padraig Colman are used by BBC for interview and not Tamil diaspora terrorists like Suren Surendiran.
  • # Padraig Colman :
    1 May 2010 @07h57
    Sri Lanka: view from the ground

    MahamRaja – why are you sending me off to the banlieues? I write about countries that I know. I have lived in UK, Ireland and Sri Lanka. I have never lived in France so I will not attempt to write about French issues.You have a very confused picture of Sri Lankan history. I would be happy to discuss any matter with you by e-mail. contact me on I am always happy to be corrected on matters of fact and to have a civilized, adult discussion about matters of opinion.

    Prashan I am afraid that cannot agree with you fully. I will be in touch through Facebook or e-mail. Thank you for your interest.

MIA Flips the Bird

Who watched the Superbowl? Was MIA’s flipping of the bird as shocking as Janet Jackson’s mammary apparatus?

This has created some controversy in Sri Lanka because MIA is of Sri Lankan Tamil origin.




Way back in May 2010, Alaska Progressive  wrote a post  on on Open Salon about  the banning of a violent MIA video which showed children being blown up.

I am against censorship and wouldn’t support the banning of  MIA’s video. Nobody has the right to be immune from being  annoyed or offended. However, nobody seems to object to child pornography being banned. A lot of complex issues are involved if one thinks seriously about  censorship.

AP said:  “We are subjected to gratuitous violence every day, whether it is first-person shooter video games or stylized slaughter in movies and TV”. Does that mean we need more of it and that we should not worry about it?

AP:  “People claim to want art to be provocative, but when it hits a little too close to home or touches a nerve as it approaches an unspoken truth, then it is ‘offensive’ and ‘distasteful.’”

I am myself happy to be  provoked but let us  examine the reality behind the provocation and not succumb to the fantasy. Let us look at the “unspoken truth” behind  MIA’s position.

It seems to be OK to blow someone up in a film because the movies are just fantasy.

I have a problem with that. Fantasies have proved toxic in Sri Lanka. As a result of fantasies about national myths, a  lot of people in Sri Lanka have seen people blown up in real life. As one goes about from day to day in Sri Lanka, one sees a lot of people with missing limbs. The north and east, the areas once dominated by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) , are still littered with mines left by MIA’s friends. MIA supports the LTTE. The LTTE blew people, including babies and schoolchildren, up.. The LTTE, to the joy of most Sri Lankan  were  comprehensively defeated in May 2009 and there have been no terrorist incidents since then.

Large sections of the Tamil diaspora seem to want to continue the fight. MIA seems to be continuing to support them. Let her have her video but let us examine the “unspoken truth”.

I am sure that there is a lot of research showing that images of pornography do not lead to rape and that movie fantasies about violence do not engender violence. Does rap music cause men to imitate misogynistic attitudes and bad behaviour towards women that extends to physical violence? My gut feeling  leads me to believe that Hollywood violence de-sensitises viewers and leads to atrocities in Iraq and allows politicians to sanction torture. Which came first, Jack Bauer or John Yoo and Abu Ghraib?

The US likes to fight “wars” like video games or TV programs.

AP makes the very good point: “this is the violence we take part in and promote throughout the world on a daily basis.” AP says:  “It is disingenuous of Americans to be so outraged when we are the ones perpetrating this violence against so many others.”

There is an assumption that the US has a moral justification and obligation to intervene in other nations’ affairs. There is also the fantasy that it has the capability to address terrorism and, simultaneously, support ill-defined humanitarian objectives. The US is not as tough and powerful or as humane as it deludes itself to be. It is unlikely that it can defeat the Taliban forever. In trying to make its fantasies real it causes havoc and suffering.

Ian Birrell wrote about elections in Afghanistan in the London Independent:  “Once again, we are chasing a chimera, falling for the myth of democracy rather than the reality. Buttressed by our own history, we see the ballot box as the ultimate expression of democracy… The dream is back on. Meanwhile, warlords wash the blood from their hands and dress up as democrats, doing deals to carve up the country… At the end of the process, there will still be some tribal tensions, gangsterism and poppy fields. Even to get to this point will cost billions. It will take many years. And sadly, there will be scores more teenage soldiers slaughtered and maimed. ”

The birth of the American nation depended on the genocide of the indigenous races and its development depended on slavery. In his book, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of  Modern America, 1877-1920, Jackson Lears describes how many Americans embraced militaristic fantasies of national rebirth through war and empire. US soldiers were awarded medals in 1890 for firing Hotchkiss cannons at unarmed Indians at Wounded Knee. When Filipinos resisted US imperial claims, the US Army ‘civilized’ them with indiscriminate slaughter – as Mark Twain put it ‘Maxim Guns and Hymn Books’.

And still it goes on.

America is today an imperial power with military bases instead of colonies. George Orwell commented in 1943, “It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory.” Citizens of many nations today get that same feeling. Those populations hosting US bases, in say Okinawa,  are expected to be grateful that the bases are contributing to democracy and freedom, but instead feel exploited because the bases are used to control trade, resources, local supplies of cheap labour, and the political, economic, and social life of host countries. They also force the host countries to support American imperialism, including foreign wars, despite harmful fallout, like the rape of local women and children, to the indigenous populations.

As Sri Lanka’s President Rajapaksa said, why is the US criticising Sri Lanka for defeating its own home-grown terrorists? Sri Lanka is a small nation (about the same size as West Virginia).  It is not sending its planes to bomb other countries. It is not setting up bases all over the world.

Americans’ attitudes are  fuelled by Hollywood fantasies. MIA’s fantasies are accepted as entertainment with the added bonus  of another fantasy about giving the oppressed a voice. This is just another aspect of American imperialism. Even leftish US “liberals” seem to want to police the rest of the world through cultural dominance.

Just about everybody in Sri Lanka resents the USA’s attitude towards it. Robert Kaplan acknowledged that tiny, cash-strapped Sri Lanka has successfully defeated its terrorists but asserted that the US had nothing to learn because the US was too virtuous to use such methods.


Dayan Jayatilleke, (he would not be very popular in the states as he is an admirer of Fidel Castro), former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN said:  “Sri Lanka is not the case of an army of occupation invading and occupying another country. Sri Lanka’s is a military that serves a constitutional democracy, a military that fought a war strictly within its recognised borders against a separatist, terrorist militia, with whom the State had tried to arrive at a peaceful settlement on numerous occasions. Therefore, we will not have forced upon us formulae and paradigms derived from entirely different contexts.”

Moving on to the specific case of MIA and her video. MIA supported (and still supports) an organisation, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), which invented suicide bombing and held the population of the north and east of Sri Lanka hostage for thirty years in a de facto totalitarian fascist state. The population was mainly Tamil because the Tigers carried out brutal ethnic cleansing to get rid of all the Muslims and Sinhalese who had lived there for generations. The Tigers were certainly not “poorly equipped”, thanks to the funds provided by the diaspora. They had an effective navy and a rudimentary air force bombed the international airport, petrol stores and government buildings. On one occasion, the airport had to be closed and frightened foreign tourists hid under desks while the Tigers went on a killing rampage and destroyed most of the Sri Lanka Airlines fleet.

Because of “fantasy”, many in the west came to see the LTTE as romantic freedom fighters, the good guys, the white hats against the Sinhalese majority, the government, the bad guys, the black hats.

The LTTE oppressed Tamils and killed off any Tamil politicians or civilians who stood in their way. Their activities were funded by drug smuggling and people trafficking and by the Tamil diaspora of which MIA is a member.

Tamil journalist, DBS Jeyaraj,  wrote a year ago, just before the LTTE was defeated, in the Indian newspaper based in Tamil Nadu, The Hindu: “the conflict has gone beyond its original causes. If the Tamils opted for a separate state owing to certain discrimination and unaddressed grievances, the brutal war has brought in a whole set of new problems dwarfing the original ones. Many of the ills afflicting Tamils now are due mainly to the war. It is logical therefore to assume that many of these war-related issues would gradually cease or lose their potency in a non-war situation.”

This is not to say that I buy the fantasy on the Sinhalese nationalist side. While trying to adopt an unbiased approach, I have been berated by Sinhalese for “regurgitating terrorist propaganda” by merely trying to explain why people were fighting for a separate state of Tamil Eelam. One charmingly told me that I was a “a crazed Irish monkey, an IRA fugitive  who should be in a zoo or an asylum”. From the other side, I am accused of being a government lackey and a bigot if I criticise the LTTE.

Clearly, we wouldn’t have  had a thirty-year war in Sri Lanka with over 100,000 dead if there were no genuine grievances. Tamil separatism gained traction because of the acts of commission or omission of successive Sinhalese-dominated governments. Tamil people did suffer but the situation is far more complex than western fantasists would believe.

Prime minister, SWRD Bandaranaike alienated Sri Lankan Tamils by introducing a Sinhala only policy in 1956. In Being a Tamil and a Sri Lankan,  Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby wrote: “If I may not be misunderstood by my non-Tamil friends, what happened in post-1956 Sri Lankan politics was not so much the implementation of Sinhala as the sole official language,  but Sinhalisation of the entire administration and political machinery. The Tamils were prepared  to learn Sinhala and there were in Jaffna, Buddhist monks teaching that language in the better-known schools. The Muslims also learnt Sinhala. It was, however, not the use of the Sinhala language, but the insistence on Sinhalising the staff and the geographical areas which made Tamils and Muslims hold on steadfastly to their north eastern areas and identities. When they were threatened in the areas where they were working and had established themselves as its people the slogan of the Traditional Homeland began gradually to emerge”.

After 1956 there were anti-Tamil riots culminating in the horrific events of July 1983 which led many Tamils to leave the country. There were many incidents where ill-disciplined police took reprisals against innocent Tamil civilians reminiscent of the Black and Tans in Ireland. Many Tamils who remained in Sri Lanka gave  up all hope of justice from the government and therefore fought for a separate homeland.

I have covered this in some detail at

Whatever Sri Lankans think about President Mahinda Rajapaksa, most are grateful that there have been no terrorist problems since he defeated the LTTE nearly three years  ago. No-one in Sri Lanka, even Tamils, would want the LTTE back. Apparently many Tamils abroad, like MIA, do want the LTTE back.

Many of the militant Tamil separatist groups  – PLOTE, EPDP, TULF and TNA – have stated categorically that a separate homeland for Tamils in Sri Lanka is no longer on the agenda. However, some elements of the diaspora still fantasise about it and have held “elections” for a “transnational government”

Douglas Devananda used to carry arms for the EDPD (Eelam People’s Democratic Party)  but is now a government minister. Many innocent people have been killed in botched attempts by the LTTE to assassinate him. He said: “when the whole country is looking towards a bright future, extraneous forces which cannot digest the healthy political developments in the country have now embarked on an idiotic move called `Transnational Government’. I am confident that the selfish action of a handful of LTTE proxies is not going to take them anywhere. Hence the Tamils abroad and in Sri Lanka should be cautious of these sinister moves to destabilise peace that prevails in the country”.

Devananda himself is part of the problem.

The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader V. Anandasangaree said, “The intended ‘Transnational Government’ by the LTTE proxies is sheer stupidity. The elements opposed to the people’s co-existence in the country are all out to create another racial calamity for their existence abroad. People such as V. Rudrakumar in the USA and his allies in other parts of the world are trying to continue with their ulterior motives to destabilise the peace created in the country after three decades”.

Leader of the People’s Liberation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) D. Sitharthan said, “Even after people gave their verdict in the North and the East at the parliamentary polls sidelining the TNA, the LTTE proxies are trying to deceive the people abroad and in the country by coming out with gimmicks such as forming a ‘Transnational’ government abroad. When the LTTE was active there were people who were thriving by showing themselves as supporters of the outfit. However, with the annihilation of the LTTE those who supported it are finding it difficult to survive. Therefore, they are resorting to all sorts of stunts to revamp their activities. Foreign Governments should be cautious of those elements and ensure that their sinister moves are curtailed”.

What Sri Lanka needs now is a genuine attempt to address current grievances rather than endlessly stirring the pot about what happened in the past. What of the present day? What grievances do Tamils in Sri Lanka have today and how might they be addressed in order to prevent further outbreaks of violence?

In the north and east many people are still suffering the after-effects of thirty years of domination by the LTTE which left the infrastructure of the north and east undeveloped or destroyed. The defeat of the LTTE left further damage by government forces which will not be easy to put right.  I have written elsewhere about conditions in the IDP camps. People who went “home” from the camps faced a bleak outlook. Restoring livelihoods and alleviating poverty will be a huge undertaking.

The government has taken positive steps to rebuild homes and provide jobs even for former LTTE fighters (see . A spokesman for the garment industry said: “It does not matter whether they come from the IDP camps or rehabilitation camps for former LTTE cadres. What is important is that everybody is given a chance to grow in the new Sri Lanka.”

A grievance in the past was “colonisation”.  Some argued that the central government, under cover of developing “bare land”,  was engaged in a process of Sinhalese settlement similar to the Israelis in Palestine. Such settlements by Sinhalese assisted by the government allegedly worked under a sinister agenda of infiltrating the Tamil “homeland” and diluting Tamil representation. Economic regeneration and re-integration needs to be handled sensitively. Reconstruction should not just be for the profit of carpet-bagging southern business. This danger is epitomised by reports that the people of the north are not unanimously overjoyed by being gawked at by tourists from the south.

So far, a separate Tamil state no longer seems to be on the agenda of anyone in Sri Lanka, although elements of the diaspora might still entertain such fantasies. As Jeyaraj wrote: “The future and well- being of the Tamil people are inextricably intertwined with that of Sri Lanka and its people. All future efforts to secure rights and share power have to be within the unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of Sri Lanka.” The position taken by Dayan Jayatilleke, ambassador to France, and others is that devolution under the 13th Amendment of the constitution is essential to prevent future unrest. Columnist Malinda Seneviratne believes that any form of federalism or devolution risks continuing fragmentation and that economic development is the best way of reintegrating the north and east into the rest of the nation. “If minority grievances going unheeded leads to political unrest and violence then it is in the interests  of those who voted for Rajapaksa and the UPFA to have such grievances addressed. My only demand  was that grievance must be undressed of the frills called myths, legends and fantasies”.

In Northern Ireland, peace was achieved through negotiation when both sides became exhausted and accepted that neither could win. The IRA gave up its goal of a united Ireland. The LTTE went into every negotiation with an uncompromising demand for nothing short of a separate homeland, comprising two-thirds of the territory of Sri Lanka, of Tamil Eelam.

Whatever notion the western media might convey, the entire Tamil population has not been imprisoned in concentration camps prior to extermination. Tamils are spread throughout the country and generally live normal lives in harmony with Sinhalese and Muslims and the myriad ethnic and religious groups that inhabit this island. Many Tamils are prosperous and influential. Some held senior positions in government until the Tigers killed them.

Reconciliation will be difficult but it is possible. Sri Lanka needs help in this process not sanctimonious lectures.

If MIA is using her music and videos to further the agenda of the vestigial elements of a vicious terrorist group to undermine from abroad sincere efforts towards reconstruction and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, it is distasteful . If it’s all only for the sake of entertainment and marketing and consumerism is that OK?

Paul Murphy MEP

This was my first article for The Nation newspaper, published on October 23 2011. It has disappeared from their website.

My compatriot, Paul Murphy MEP, an Irish member of the EU Parliament,  wants to visit Sri Lanka to lecture the government about democracy.

He is  a prematurely balding twitchy 28 years old, (There are many videos on You Tube showing Murphy ranting to an empty hall and demonstrating that he cannot pronounce “Sinhala”).

He has never had a proper job and has been an MEP for around eight months. No-one ever voted for him to be an MEP.

He  has been complaining about Sri Lanka in several media outlets.

“The idea to travel to Sri Lanka came from the meeting I hosted in the Parliament a few months ago about the massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka. My wish to go was strengthened by the many meetings I have had with the Tamil Diaspora, and others active on the issue of Tamil rights, in the recent period.”

“I will continue to highlight and speak out against what I consider to be war crimes of the Rajapaksa regime and to defend the right to self determination by the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. I will also continue to speak out against the ongoing militarisation of Sri Lankan society and against the repression used against any opposition to the Sri Lankan regime. The whole of the working class, poor farmers and poor people, Sinhala and Tamil, are victims of this repressive government in my opinion.”

As well as complaining that he was refused a visa to visit Sri Lanka, he is raising the issue of an Irish citizen, Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram,  whom he says has been held prisoner by the Sri Lankan authorities without charge for four years.

Other than the assertions of Murphy himself. I have been unable to find much  information about Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram. All I know is that the man studied polymers at Queen Mary College in the 1970s.

I asked the Irish Ambassador in New Delhi, Kenneth Thompson, if any representations  had been made to him about this case.  I was  fobbed off by one of His Excellency’s minions. The press office of the Foreign Ministry in Dublin told me: “The Department is aware of this case and all possible consular assistance is being provided to Mr. Gunasundaram Jayasunderam’s wife and family through the Consular Assistance section in Dublin, the Embassy of Ireland in New Delhi and the Honorary Consul of Ireland in Sri Lanka.”

I have asked Paul Murphy himself for more information. He has not responded.

I would greatly appreciate it if  any readers  point me in the direction of some information about Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram. (I can be contacted at  Is he in custody in Sri Lanka? If so what has he done?

I was sorry to hear that Paul Murphy was  unable to get a visa to visit Sri Lanka. I understand that he  wished to visit the north of the country. It will be  a pity if he does  not get an opportunity to do so. I do not think he has  visited Sri Lanka before. If he  had, he should  be impressed by the changes that have occurred all over the country since the Tamil Tigers were defeated.

Paul Murphy wants to teach Sri Lanka about democracy. How many people voted for Paul Murphy? President Rajapaksa, despite a strong  animosity expressed in some papers, notably the Sunday Leader, and despite anxieties about the economy and worker unrest,  has  generally won the confidence of voters and he currently seems unassailable. A recent Gallup found that more than nine out of ten Sri Lankans approved of the president. Mainly, Sri Lankans of all ethnicities are grateful to President Rajapaksa that their children can go to school without fear of being blown to giblets.

Joe Higgins of the Irish Socialist Party won the Dublin EP seat in 2009 but gave it up when he was elected to the Irish national parliament on the wave of voter disgust with mainstream Irish parties.

There was criticism that Higgins was being less than transparent: “He deliberately kept people in the dark about the fact that if he got elected to Europe he would throw in the towel at the first smell of a general election and that in truth people were not electing him but some unknown entity”. There was a great deal of high-minded debate about how the Socialist Party would choose a successor to Higgins but none of this seemed to involve consulting  the electorate.

Paul Murphy worked for Higgins and took over Higgins’s EP seat. The above comment is from the website Here are some more:  “He [Murphy] is known to nobody outside of his small party and has never sought election…This appointment of Higgins’s assistant is complete cronyism despite the tripe being written by the hard-line socialists.” “The people voted for a list that named Ruth Coppinger as the replacement for Joe Higgins, in the present circumstances. For the Socialist Party to instead appoint a crony of Joe Higgins is a sign of contempt for democracy.”

How many votes did Paul Murphy get? None! How many votes did President Rajapaksa get?

Paul Murphy, in his infinite compassion,  wants to get involved in everyone’s problems and spreads himself thin. The British satirical magazine Private Eye has been bursting bubbles of pomposity since the early 60s. One of the Eye’s great comic creations is the all-purpose lefty agitator Dave Spart. Spartism has entered the English language. The Urban Dictionary defines a Spartist as: “An individual who observes Marxist theory to the exclusion of all else. Often condemns most things in society and the world with meaningless far left-wing dogma, and often ends up in logical cycles and jumping to conclusions in the process. Such people claim to be progressive, but are as backward thinking, unimaginative, hare-brained and colourless as the leaders of the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe.”

There is a lot of Spartism on Paul Murphy’s website:

Paul is a feisty little fellow. His tireless ecumenical activism tempts me to rename him  Daibhéid Ó Speartáin. Murphy is supporting striking Kazakh oil workers, unionists in Columbia, Syrian revolutionaries, Bahraini and Chinese dissidents, oppressed Palestinians (he took part in the flotilla to Gaza), he protested against a high speed rail link in Italy, he feels for the homeless all over the world. The Chinese government must be trembling to know that Daibhéid Ó Speartáin has them sussed.

There are many problems to be solved in Ireland.

Ireland has a reasonable international image when it comes to human rights and global charitable works. However, it has to be noted that the Irish government (not the current one) allowed Shannon Airport to be used by the CIA for extraordinary rendition flights. That means anonymous people held without charge were being flown all over the world to be tortured with the complicity of the Irish government.

This was not Paul Murphy’s fault, of course. He was not a member of the Irish government. He has never been elected by anyone. He has no power or influence. Murphy certainly has no mandate from the Irish people to take on the entire world’s problems.

Lest we accuse Paul of neglecting problems back home in dear old Ireland, it should be noted that he is suing the Irish police for assaulting him when he was protesting at the Shell gas plant at Corrib. He protested  against cutbacks at Tallaght Hospital. He is active in Free Education for Everyone. In 2009, he was working on a PhD thesis titled “Does socialist law exist?” In Ireland,  he has been prominent in campaigning for young workers rights, holding a series of public meetings throughout Dublin as part of the “Jobs not Dole” campaign. Paul Murphy has also been vocal in opposition to the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland and austerity measures being carried out by the government including the proposed “Household Tax”.

Mind you,  he has not got a mandate from the Irish people to address those issues either. He has no electoral mandate at all.

Writing in the October 2011 issue of Lanka Monthly Digest, Amantha Perera reminisces about his grim visits to Vavuniya during the war. He finds the North as a whole transformed for the better, with Vavuniya a particular revelation. The Tampa hotel is providing better facilities for journalists than five-stars in Bangkok and a boisterous crowd gets drunk around the pool. The next morning Perera chats to some students one of whom says he is sleepy because he studies late into the night. “I am not scared to study alone at night, there are no more loud noises”.

This reminded me of something my friend the Reverend Harold Good said in 2008 when receiving his  award from the Gandhi Foundation for his role in the Northern Ireland peace process. A child wrote: “I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight.” Harold commented: “Today our children see sunsets instead of bombs. As a community we have faced and accepted realities; engaged in dialogue; achieved consensus; accepted compromise and witnessed the signs and symbols of peace.”

Is amnesia more conducive to reconciliation than truth? Do we need a young Dublin jackeen who has never set foot on Sri Lankan soil  and has very little experience of life in general to remind us that horrors have occurred in this land?

Don’t be a begrudger,  Paul. Let Sri Lanka continue to enjoy the peace we have had for over two years.

Suffering at Wars’ Ends


This article was published in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation on December 11 2011 but has disappeared from their website.


War is hell and the suffering goes on after war’s end.


Over the past few years, there have been many books describing what happened at the end of the Second World War. The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard was published in April 2010. After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation by Giles McDonogh was published in July 2007. The Struggle for Europe by William Hitchcock was published in January 2003. Walter Laqueur’s books on post-war Europe came out in 1992. John Roberts, Norman Davies, Mark Mazower and Richard Vinen, David Calleo, and last but not least, the late, great Tony Judt,  have produced  strong analytical work examining Europe’s future in the light of what its 20th-century past reveals.


Scholars have had 67 years to assess the six years of World War 2. Sri Lanka has only had just over two years to come to terms with nearly 30 years of internal war.


In 1945, the Allies had to deal with  10 to 15 million DPs (displaced persons) –  concentration camp victims, foreign workers and slave laborers and  destitute Germans. The UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was set up to deal with DPs. Shephard is sympathetic but also describes incompetence and political manipulation. Some UNRRA functionaries made mistresses of Polish DPs. Others engaged in crime.


One thing for DPs to do after years of deprivation was to get blind drunk. Two thousand people died from alcohol poisoning  in two months after war’s end. Many DPs reacted to freedom with sexual abandon. At Wildflecken DP Camp in Bavaria, the Virgin Mary in the “Holy Manger” Christmas show had gonorrhoea. The birth rate in DP camps rocketed.


Not everyone was ready to debauch. Richard Wollheim, later a distinguished philosopher, was tasked with organising  a dance party for British soldiers and female survivors in Bergen-Belsen. The party ended in mayhem, with panicking women expecting nothing but more torment from uniformed men


“Resettlement” was not an easy task. Shephard describes American soldiers dragging terrified Russians and Ukrainians to assembly points. They were often being sent in open cattle trucks to their deaths in Russia or Yugoslavia. British soldiers, sometimes with tears in their eyes, had to force about 70,000 people who had, in many cases already suffered terribly under the Germans, to go back to a more horrendous  fate.


McDonogh describes the rape and pillage that went with Red Army “liberation” of  Eastern Europe. Native populations turned on ethnic Germans with frightening ferocity. Whole  communities of Germans, up to 16 million, who had lived outside the Reich for generations, were violently uprooted. Old men, women, and children were forced to march westward, or crammed into cattle cars in which they sometimes froze to death. The most conservative estimate that  600,000 German civilians were killed at this time is still high. The savagery was comparable to what the Nazis had inflicted. Schools and public buildings became torture centres. Up to 15,000 Germans were held at Strahov soccer stadium in Prague, where  the guards amused themselves by forcing thousands to run for their lives and then machine-gunning them.


The Americans set up PWTEs (Prisoner of War Temporary Enclosures) which make Menik Farm seem like Club Med.  In the spring of 1945, some 40,000 prisoners died of hunger and exposure in the twelve open camps containing a million men. The Americans had burned their kit, so they had nothing to protect them from the elements.


The British and Americans also set up Direct Interrogation Centres to find major war criminals or  subversive activity. Their function soon changed to gathering intelligence against the Russians. Prisoners were tortured by guards with scores to settle. Methods are familiar today from their use in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan and CIA centres all over the world: savage beatings, starvation, deprivation of sleep, and removal of clothing. Men were kept standing for hours. Many never came out alive.


At Schwäbish Hall, near Stuttgart, Americans used methods similar to  those employed by the SS in Dachau. Prisoners endured  long periods in solitary confinement. Men were led off in hoods and  lifted off the ground to convince them they were about to hang.  When the Americans set up a commission of inquiry, they found that, of the 139 cases they examined, 137 had “had their testicles permanently destroyed by kicks received from the American War Crimes Investigation team.”


NGOs such as Human Rights Watch were strongly critical of GOSL’s  decision to keep civilians in IDP camps. More extreme sections of the Tamil Diaspora accused the government of having a genocidal agenda and referred to extermination camps. David Begg, leader of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, took time off from watching his members lose jobs and welfare benefits as the Irish economy went  rapidly downhill, to take  an interest in far-away Sri Lanka. He claimed that 1,000 people were dying every week in concentration camps.


The UN Refugee Agency reported that there were around 16 million refugees and 26 million IDPs in the world at the end of 2008. In recent years it has been increasingly tasked under the UN’s humanitarian reform process with assisting IDPs.


War is hell and the suffering goes on after war’s end. Some wars just do not end.


Today, 63 years after the foundation of the state of Israel, five million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) services.

The Devil’s Excrement

This article appeared in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation but has disappeared from their website.


In his treatise Petroleo y Dependencia, Dr. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, principle architect of OPEC, wrote: “Oil will bring us ruin. It’s the devil’s excrement. We are drowning in the devil’s excrement.”


Sri Lankan hopes of oil finds

Once again,  fantasies of Sri Lanka becoming oil-rich are bubbling to the greasy surface.

Sri Lanka imports nearly 30 million barrels of oil, which is used to generate electricity as well as for transport, every year. This used to cost around $800 million a year. In 2005 it cost $1.64 billion. In 2006 higher international prices took the bill to $2.2 billion. Add to this, $19 million per month in subsidies, the knock-on effect of transport costs on prices and the never-ending cost of war and reconstruction and one can see why the government would like to have its own oil.

India started exploring the Cauvery Basin in the Palk Strait as long ago as 1954, drilling 100 test wells. From 2000, India started production from fields close to Sri Lanka at the rate of 1,000 barrels per day. In the late 1970s, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, assisted by US and Russian companies, drilled seven test wells on and offshore in the Gulf of Mannar Basin without success. India’s success encouraged Sri Lanka to try again. The Cauvery and Gulf of Mannar basins are said to be associated with rift complexes of the Late-Jurassic-Cretaceous Age and have the potential to yield 100 million barrels.


An oil bonanza cannot be confidently predicted without drilling. Offshore wells require more than $10 million each and the investor loses it all if the well is dry. It will be at least five years before there is any return on the investment.


The Director General of Petroleum Resources, Dr Neil R de Silva said in January 2007 that the picture was still ‘fuzzy’ about how viable the fields were. “One of the requirements oil companies would be expected to meet in getting a licence for oil exploration would be a benefits plan – this would ensure employment for Sri Lankans and enable Sri Lankan manufacturers and service providers to take part on a competitive basis to supply goods and services.” He added that they must be competitive, efficient and trained. How can that work? He conceded that there was a serious shortage of  professionals to work in the field and that the industry needs to train  a certified labour force. There are no petroleum professionals coming through the education system.

The number of local people employed after the construction phase of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline was negligible in Cameroon and around 350 in Chad. In Ecuador, 50,000 new jobs a month were promised; there have been only 9,000 new jobs so far, mostly unskilled and temporary.

De Silva gave the Sunday Observer an update in March 2011. He did not sound very positive to me: “with the available data it is not possible to estimate the amount of oil in the Mannar Basin confidently… At the beginning of the oil production process the Sri Lankan Government’s share would be 15% and Cairn Lanka’s 85% … As the years go by, Sri Lanka’s share will increase to … 85% while Cairn Lanka’s share will come down to …15%”.



Oil and Corruption

As long ago as 2004, Transparency International estimated that billions of dollars were lost to bribery in public purchasing and oil seemed to guarantee corruption. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Angola, Azerbaijan, Chad, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela and Yemen were highly corrupt. Public contracting in the oil sector is plagued by vanishing revenues.



Even if Sri Lanka’s oil exploration is successful, it is unlikely that many citizens  will benefit. Venezuela is to some extent an exception in that government policy has been to  use oil to improve the lot of the people as a whole. Even with Chavez’s reforms, problems persist and Caracas is one of the three most violent cities in the world.


Prof. Michael Ross of UCLA  produced a chart mapping  oil sales against literacy and malnutrition. Every  5% rise in oil exports was matched by a three-month fall in life-expectancy and a one-point rise in childhood malnutrition. Sri Lanka currently enjoys good WHO indicators, but child malnutrition figures are causing concern. This could get worse with the “benefits” of oil.


Terrorism and Environment


Spillages from sabotage sometimes occur. In Colombia  and Nigeria guerrillas persistently targeted pipelines. In 1995 the LTTE attacked CPC refinery and oil storage installations in Colombo causing several deaths and massive fires in the storage areas. Security fears undermine human rights. In more recent times the LTTE air force targeted oil installations.

The seismic vibrations generated by drilling can adversely affect buildings and the chemicals used can also deplete aquatic life in rivers and streams. Pollution can occur because of human error, sudden rupture of pipelines, or instrument failures.


So, does Sri Lanka want to be a nation where foreigners call the shots – a polluted nation, plagued by poverty and  inequality; where corruption, dynastic elites and nepotism compromise good governance and erode human rights?


Does Sri Lanka deserve the blessing of oil?


Ethical Dilemmas in the Gift Relationship

This article appeared in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation on November 6 but it has disappeared from their website.



Sophocles: “An enemy’s gift is ruinous and no gift”.

At its annual Berlin Humanitarian Congress, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) discussed  some of the ethical dilemmas it has faced over the past 40 years. The report, published this month,  is entitled  Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience.

Dutch journalist Linda Polman argued in her book War Games that humanitarianism has become a massive industry that, along with the global media, forms an unholy alliance with warmongers. She cites a damning catalogue of examples in which humanitarian aid has helped prolong wars, or rewarded the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide rather than the victims. Polman believes aid enabled the interhamwe, Rwandan  Hutu extremists, from the security of the UNHCR camps in Goma,  to continue their attempt to exterminate  Tutsis.

A number of people from the NGO world rushed to attack Polman but they failed to address substantively her central thesis. The May 2010 issue of Opinion, the journal of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, carried a long article by Matthew Foley intended to be a rebuttal of Polman’s book. Foley  complains:We tell donors that they’re not giving enough, while simultaneously telling ourselves that giving too much creates aid dependency… A lack of contextual knowledge, plus cultural insensitivity, often lead to inappropriate, unwanted or unsustainable projects. Displaced people are still herded into massive camps because delivering aid is easier and cheaper when they are in one place, despite evidence that camps are often incubators of disease and crime, and often develop into more-or-less permanent communities. At higher policy levels, we worry that humanitarian aid may become a substitute for the state, freeing governments of their responsibility to their own people.”

Fabrice Weissman, one of the co-authors of the MSF book was quoted as saying:

“In Sri Lanka in 2009, the government rounded up some 270,000 people it suspected of supporting Tamil rebels and then gave aid groups the job of providing the basic services. We did not want to be supporting a vast prison for an innocent civilian population which the state was unjustly labelling criminals, but we were also concerned about what would happen to the civilians if we didn’t assist them.”

Where did that crazy idea come from?! MSF adopted a more reasonable attitude on their website on September 24, 2009:


“The Sri Lankan Ministry of Health have mobilized significant resources from all over the country to provide health care in the camps; deploying doctors and nurses in 24 health structures, and therefore considers MSF medical assistance in the camps unnecessary. Some primary health care facilities have been set up in camp zones and a referral system has been implemented gradually since February. MSF teams are currently working in three hospitals outside the camps… Two of the Ministry of Health hospitals, Vavuniya General Hospital and Pompaimadu Hospital, are supported by MSF with extra human resources and some equipment. .. However, despite significant effort, the needs of a population trapped in conflict for so many years remain substantial and concerning. MSF is ready to scale up its activities to assist the Ministry of Health in their efforts to provide quality health care in the camps and during the resettlement process.”

When Henri Dunant set up the Red Cross, he was keen to stay neutral in any conflict. He wished to ease the suffering of all victims of war, which at that time were mostly soldiers. These days civilians are usually caught up, and even used as human shields, in conflicts. Dunant was opposed by Florence Nightingale who argued that Dunant’s compassionate vision was a charter for prolonging war. Linda Polman agrees with Nightingale that neutrality is as much of a problem as taking sides.

Humanitarianism is a multi-billion-dollar business – at least $18 billion in 2008. NGOs  are huge corporate businesses and they offer a career structure. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV.

During the Sri Lankan conflict  there were many accusations of NGOs supporting the LTTE rebels beyond a reasonable boundary of humanitarian neutrality. Two employees of Care International were arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. It  is interesting to note that Care is based in Atlanta, Georgia but in its mission statement specifically excludes itself from doing any poverty alleviation work in the USA. Is there no poverty in the USA? Athens-Clarke County in Georgia, home of REM, has 28.6% of its population living below the poverty line.

Giving humanitarian assistance directly to armed groups is another topic tackled in the MSF book. “Combatants are also human beings and sometimes they need humanitarian assistance more than civilians,” Weissman said. “When combatants are wounded we no longer consider them combatants.”

Considering the comments about the IDP camps, one wonders whether MSF were neutral when it came to those combatants known as the Tamil Tigers. Is Weissman expressing personal views or has the MSF, since September 2009, altered its stance and added to  the chorus of western lies about Sri Lanka?

I intend to write more later on the topic of aid.

Privatisation – Provider Profits, Public Pays

This article appeared in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation in November 2011 but seems to have disappeared from their website.


In 1977,  J.R. Jayawardene cried, ‘Let the robber barons come!’  Peter Mandelson said New Labour had no problems about people being seriously rich. “Liberalisation” of the economy made some people seriously rich.

It has been claimed that the term “privatisation” was first used in the 1930s by The Economist to describe Nazi economic policy. In my lifetime, it has generally been seen as a right-wing kind of concept.

One of the foundation myths of Thatcherism is that the Iron Lady  banged down a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty and declared “this is what we believe”. However, Hayek was no Thatcherite.  He wrote: “probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rules of thumb, above all of the principle of laissez-faire capitalism.”

Despite the nostalgia of some on the left, nationalised industries were not easy to love. I tried hard, snoozing over the works of Ralph Miliband (father of David and Ed) in Manchester Central Reference Library, but I did not learn to love British Gas or British Steel.

After privatisation, UK public utilities  initially became more efficient and customer-friendly. A customer service ethos briefly crept into public services previously noted for their surly sloth. The man on the Clapham omnibus bought shares and was encouraged to offload  them instantly to make a quick profit. Controlling blocks of shares were snapped up big institutions, many of them foreign. The cliché changed  from “a nation of shareholders” to “selling off the family silver”.

I was a management consultant in the NHS in the early days of the health service “reforms”, which aimed to introduce market discipline. Imposing artificial distinctions between providers and purchasers on a sensitive area like health care seemed to me a crazy idea even then. Dr Hamish Meldrum told a BMA conference: “End the ludicrous, divisive, expensive experiment of the market in healthcare in England. Never has there been a better time to abandon the wasteful bureaucracy of the market”.

It was unfortunate for the UK and the NHS in particular that Blair and Brown were fixated on the idea of PFI (Public Private Finance Initiative). Let Carlisle NHS Trust Hospital stand as an emblem of PFI in the NHS. Reports told of  sewage bubbling out of theatre sinks when nurses were scrubbing up. Sir Stuart Lipton, head of the government’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, said: “The present round of PFI is effectively sub-contracted obligations. It is not that the buildings are being built inefficiently, but the contractor has got nothing to do with the medical process – they are two separate functions, which effectively should be one”.

When the conservative government was ousted, the Blair government pursued PFI with even greater zeal. In the UK, the partnership has been one-sided – the provider profits, the public pays. Despite propaganda about the risk-taking adventurous spirit of the private entrepreneur, the private side of the public-private partnership cannily avoids risk. The government, or rather the taxpayer, carries the risk.

The British Empire imposed western institutions and Christianity on the savages. In recent times the Bretton Woods institutions have imposed the voodoo economics of neo-liberalist orthodoxy on the “developing” world. Because debtor governments are in a relatively weak position and international banks, backed by the World Bank and the IMF, in a much stronger one, complex currency deals invariably produce knock-down sales of state assets to foreigners

World Bank documents recognised that re-building the damaged Sri Lankan infrastructure after the tsunami “may strain public finances” and suggested that governments consider privatisation. “For certain investments,” noted the bank’s tsunami-response plan, “it may be appropriate to utilise private financing.” So money donated nominally to help tsunami victims was actually used to inflict a “second tsunami” on them, handing over their land to foreign corporations and ending their historic lifestyles for ever.

Neo-liberal imperialism leads to the assumption  that poor countries cannot modernize without foreign help. In the 1990s this “help” meant blackmailing developing countries into accepting the Washington Consensus – deregulation and liberalisation of markets, privatisation and severe cuts in the public sector and undermining sovereignty. Health and education are cut  and essential utilities like water are handed over to foreign entrepreneurs. These policies have been imposed without concern for the social effects on the target economies and has left the Bank open to charges that its main objective is to further US interests.

It is bizarre that, in spite of  the crash, some people are still calling for more deregulation and privatisation. In India, the Planning Commission’s Approach Paper to the Twelfth Plan claims to have consulted civil society organisations for six years, but seems to have been deaf to reason. PV Rajagopal, president of Ekta Parshad,  a Gandhian social movement struggling for the rights of landless and economically marginalized people, told the Chennai magazine  Frontline that the slant in the Approach Paper towards more privatisation and PPP was not what he had in mind when he participated. Bill Clinton has been criticising Obama’s financial policies. Although the Clinton years were prosperous, he  helped precipitate the present crisis by deregulating banks and encouraging the mortgage binge.

It surely was not too much regulation or not enough privatisation that caused the world’s financial woes.

Death of an Editor

On 8 January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed on his way to work in Sri Lanka.

He died after three hours of brain surgery by a team of twenty surgeons. It was initially assumed that he died of gunshot wounds to the head but there was later speculation that the immediate cause of death was a metal spike rammed into his brain through his eyeball.

Lasantha started out as a  lawyer but turned to journalism and politics. His Good Morning show on  Sri Lankan MTV was very popular. Wickrematunge was founder and editor of the Sunday Leader  newspaper. The Sunday Leader had a reputation for in-depth investigative reporting and fearless exposure of corruption. He  told Reporters without Borders in an interview that his aim as a journalist was to “denounce the greed and lies of the powerful.”

He was 51 years old and the father of three children, Avinash, Ahimsa and Aadesh. He had only recently married his second wife, Sonali. He was in his car driving to the Sunday Leader office at Templars Road, Mount Lavinia from his residence at Nugegoda when assassins on motorcycles blocked his car in rush-hour traffic about 100 metres from an air force checkpoint near one of the city’s airports.

Eye witnesses told police that two of the men stopped their motor cycles at a distance and watched for a while. The assailants smashed the window of his car with a steel bar before shooting him at close range in the head, chest and stomach. He was shot at around 10.45 am at Attidiya Road, Ratmalana. After the first man shot him, a second man bludgeoned him with a blunt instrument and fled the area.

The victim was rushed to the hospital by the police with the assistance of residents of the area. Wickrematunge had severe brain damage at the time he was admitted to Kalubowila Teaching Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries at around 2pm.

Police said that there was evidence he had been trailed by his killers all the way from Nugegoda and pounced on after he reached the particular spot near the Malagala Model School on Attidiya Road, which is “a lonely area”.

“For a number days, Wickramatunge’s movements to and from his office had been followed by certain elements,” police said.

Previous Threats

There were many suspects. Wickrematunge was an exceptionally brave man who had made many enemies. He managed to upset all the political parties, presidents, ministers, corrupt businessmen, criminal elements and all the various factions of the terrorist groups. The paper exposed internal rifts and sexual scandals in the Marxist JVP.

A few years before his murder Wickrematunge was assaulted by an unidentified gang which blocked his vehicle on a narrow lane when he was returning after work. On another occasion, gunmen attacked his house.

The printing press of the Sunday Leader media group, which is in a high security area near Colombo, was destroyed in an arson attack by a group of gunmen in November 2007.

Wickrematunge told Reporters without Borders at the time that the attack was “a commando operation supported by the government.” The police promised a thorough investigation but the result is still awaited.

Wickrematunge was often the target of intimidation attempts and libel suits. The most recent lawsuit had been  brought by the president’s brother, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who got a court to ban the newspaper from mentioning him for several weeks. President Rajapaksa called Wickrematunge a “terrorist journalist” during an interview with a Reporters without Borders representative in Colombo.

According to police, Wickrematunge had complained that he had been threatened with death over the phone on a number of occasions.

Tributes  [i]

Prabath Sahabandu

Prabath Sahabandu, editor of another Sri Lankan newspaper, The Island wrote a moving editorial.

“The tragic death of Editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge has diminished us beyond measure. Our sorrow and consternation know no bounds. Gone is a fearless newspaperman who did not give a damn about his personal safety in putting forth his bold views and taking on the high and mighty.

Having cut his journalistic teeth on political writing at a relatively young age, Lasantha stood political writing on its head in this country and made an invaluable contribution to The Sun, The Island and The Sunday Times before moving on to edit the Sunday Leader.

An exuberant maverick, he represented the new vitality of Sri Lankan journalism, braving the political turbulence and social upheavals of his times. His penchant for controversy was monumental and he made waves of tsunami proportions in political and journalistic circles, sailing as he did at times close to the wind. His racy style was truly remarkable and made him stick out like a sore thumb. His pungent columns spiced with juicy gossip, trenchant comment and caustic criticism were the hallmark of the paper he edited with a zealous passion.

In a country embroiled in a protracted conflict which has brought about a culture of intolerance, violence and impunity, bravery comes with an exorbitant price. Lasantha, therefore, had his fair share of enemies. He became a target of several goon attacks during the past two decades. He was roughed up, his house bombed and his press burnt.

Investigations into those despicable incidents predictably drew a blank. But, he was unstoppable. Each time an attempt was made to frighten him into submission, he bounced back more fiercely than ever much to the disappointment of the sinister forces that sought to break his will.

There may have been people who had problems with the brand of journalism Lasantha practised. But, none of them had a right to silence him violently. We don’t intend to indulge in prejudgment but we have reason to believe that Lasantha was felled because of what he wrote.

The government has undertaken to probe Lasantha’s violent death. We only hope at least that investigation will be conducted to a successful conclusion. Since there were some government bigwigs among those who were at the receiving end of Lasantha’s scathing criticism and sensational exposes and launched venomous attacks on him, the government will remain a suspect in his killing, until and unless his assassins are brought to justice and it is proved that they are without government links.

Unfortunately, two acts of barbaric violence committed by unidentified gangs in quick succession this week in the South – the arson attack on the MTV and the brutal killing of Lasantha – have come to eclipse the spectacular victories the country is achieving in its war against terror in the North. Hence, it behoves the government hunt down Lasantha’s killers and the arsonists responsible for the attack on the MTV, if one is to believe that it has nothing to hide.

Goodbye dear friend, Lasantha!” [ii]

Rajpal Abeynayake

Rajpal Abeynayake is currently editor of Lakbima News.

“My initial encounter with Lasantha was when I was working in The Island. We were both very new to the field then but even as a young reporter, he showed much promise. Even at that time, he was showing tendencies of reporting many controversial stories. As a journalist, he was very much of an inside player and was very popular for his own brand of investigations. Whatever he worked on, he did it with a lot of passion and energy. He brought out a lot of issues and his objective was to expose the misdeeds of the country. His greatest strength as a journalist was the drive which he possessed to go to any length in order to obtain a story.

This assassination will certainly have a tremendous negative impact on the field of journalism. First, it was the abduction of Keith Noyahr and this year it’s this assassination; a cold-blooded murder in broad daylight. It is evident that the situation keeps getting worse. After this point, every journalist will certainly think twice about publishing a controversial topic and the news stories would often be censored, after all everyone is concerned about his life.” [iii]

Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Handunnetti once was a Sunday Leader staffer but now writes for Ceylon Today, a new  paper founded by wealthy businessman Tiran Alles, who is negotiating to get former Army commander Sarath Fonseka released from prison.

Handunnetti  described Lasantha thus: “A buoyant and mischievous editor with the largest heart and a brilliant mind, the heartbreaking fact is that while his many colleagues were becoming statistics, it was Lasantha who would not let the targets of media violence die without cause by creating a fiery media debate around their murders. To most, that is why he was the elixir of hope and an antidote to their woes.

Lasantha was an epoch-making investigative journalist, the fiercest government critic and the most courageous man I ever knew. The man who single-handedly revolutionized Sri Lankan journalism and made a conscious decision to lose much advertising revenue in the name of the Sunday Leader’s motto: to write Unbowed and Unafraid…. This editorial room is silent today, ominously so. We do not hear his infectious laughter. But the journalists resolutely go about doing their daily work with a body language that strangely appears to signify that his spirit still lingers: Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.” [iv]

DBS Jeyaraj

David Jeyaraj is a freelance  journalist in Canada. He is a Christian Tamil from Sri Lanka’s northern province who has been critical of the government but also received death threats from the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and a beating in which his leg was broken.

Jeyaraj wrote: “Lassie Boy, as I called him, was one of the bravest journalists I ever knew. It was he who single-handedly changed the nature of journalism in Sri Lanka. Lassie belonged to that dwindling tribe of scribes who believed in speaking truth to power. His death or the way in which he was killed has brought about a great void in Sri Lankan journalism. Yet the Sunday Leader follows the path chartered by Lassie ‘unbowed and unafraid’. The staff remains loyal to his principles and memory and continues amid very difficult circumstances.

Lasantha’s brother Lal is now the managing Editor while Frederica Jansz (another gutty journalist) has taken over as Editor.” [v]

Rohan Pethiyagoda

Pethiyagoda is a biologist, founder of the  Wildlife Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka and Cambridge graduate who also has written for the Sunday Leader.

“Lasantha Wickrematunge often referred to the well-known warning of German pastor Martin Niemoeller-who fell victim to Nazi forces-on the consequences of inaction and passivity in the face of fascist terror….In the 1980s, some Sinhalese (JVPers) were being hunted by pro-government vigilantes, he wrote about them and earned the ire of an all-powerful personality at that time who promised him to be ‘garlanded with a necklace of burning tyres.’

He had to flee the country at that time but came back soon. He consistently stood up for ethnic and religious minorities who were victims of the war on terrorism. That was a cardinal sin in the eyes of many. He exposed bribery and corruption, nepotism, racketeering, gangsterism in all its forms, bureaucratic lethargy and corruption under which the public suffered and even judicial misdemeanours…. Wickrematunge in effect became a one-man opposition to government. He warned the public of the possibility of an impending dictatorship and the need of an unfettered media to prevent such moves.” [vi]

Dayan Jayatilleke

Dr Jayatilleke is currently Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Paris.

“Lasantha had guts, which is more than I can say for the cowardly barbarians who murdered this unarmed man….

I do not know who killed him, but I must disclose that I do know something about his killers and those who ordered the killing. They were cowardly barbarians. They were cowards because they killed an unarmed man, and anyone who intentionally kills an unarmed man or woman is a coward. They were barbarians because they expressed their disagreement with what Lasantha wrote and did, not by opposing his ideas with the same weapons of words, but by butchering him. That conduct places one outside the borders of humanity and universal values of civilization.”[vii]

Malinda Seneviratne

Seneviratne has been a prolific freelance journalist and is currently editor of the Sunday newspaper The Nation. He wrote a moving poem about Lasantha’s death.

“And I, hardly a friend or fellow-traveller,

salute him,

for I prefer word to silence

in the matter of political engagement.

There is a finger that is itching to point,

let us point it at ourselves

at least in the manner of a question.

Who are we, who am I in these times

of omission and commission?”[viii]

“I lament the death of a fellow journalist but more so a citizen whose assassination says something serious about the law and order situation and possibly says a lot about our political culture.”

Manik de Silva

Currently editor of the Sunday Island: “I don’t think that anyone else has created more waves in contemporary journalism than him. He attracted a lot of information and I think his legal training as a lawyer also drove him into venturing deep into a story. However there is this perception that he was a politically partial journalist, with which I do not agree since I believe that he was politically neutral.”

Frederica Jansz

The current editor of the Sunday Leader: “The public view of Lasantha the journalist differed from the very private man. He was fun to be around with and was constantly making people laugh. Never one to pull rank in office, Lasantha would often whistle out of pitch to make his colleagues giggle. Though a teetotaller himself, he would offer his friends and colleagues a tipple from his vastly untouched but well stocked bar at home. He would give his last penny to people in financial distress nary a thought.”

Posthumous Editorial

After Wickramatunge’s death, the Sunday Leader published an editorial purporting to be a prediction of his own death. In it Wickrematunge quotes Pastor Niemoeller:

First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists

and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

He  addresses President Mahinda Rajapaksa as his friend of long-standing: “In the wake of my death, I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too depends on it.”

The editorial drew international attention and was movingly read by distinguished actor Bill Nighy on the BBC.

Rajpal Abeynayake is convinced that Lasantha did not write that editorial: “So why not Rohan Pethiyagoda the ghost writer of the ‘They are going to kill me soon’’ so-called Lasantha Wickrematunge editorial, (written of course by Pethiyagoda categorically after Wickramatunge’s death…) now come out from his hiding place and ghost write another editorial for Fred about not bowling to the fielding side? Shoosh! Entire factories of corny humbug — only at that silly rag they are capable of it.”  No-one, to my knowledge,  has challenged Abeynayake’s assertion, although some have said it does not matter who wrote the editorial.[ix]

Handunnetti wrote: “Lasantha Wickrematunge wrote a powerful editorial which was published posthumously. It does not matter if he wrote the whole of it or only a part of it or even none of it – the style, spirit and panache of it is unmistakeably Lasantha Wickrematunge.”

Dissenting Voices

Dayan Jayatilleke

“Let’s say it straight out. Lasantha’s paper was, in stridency of tone, a tabloid masquerading as a broadsheet. More controversially, he and his paper were not merely soft on the LTTE but were arguably pro-LTTE. None of that justifies his murder. Lasantha did not kill anyone. He did not even carry a weapon. If his paper was objectionable, it should not have been read. Perhaps it should have been boycotted. If his writing was distorted, as indeed it often was, it should have been subject to withering criticism in writing. If he had dubious connections and was engaging in political conspiracy he should have been exposed. If he was acting subversively he should have been taken into custody and prosecuted in accordance with our tough anti-terrorist laws. Nothing he said or did warranted his murder, nor can be used to justify it.”

Rajpal Abeynayake

“He was a young man who was very ambitious and energetic. As he was once working as the Private Secretary to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, [the world’s first female prime minister and leader of the left-wing SLFP] he had a lot of political contacts and was actively involved in politics. While he was working, he even contested [as an SLFP candidate] in the elections in Colombo North. ..I personally do not agree with his idea of journalism because I feel that he was partial and only exposed one side of a story. I would call him more of a politician than a journalist. But there were people who agreed with it and all these things should have space in society.”

Ajith Randeniya

“The fact that Wickrematunge belonged to the Christian fundamentalist cult ‘The Assembly of God’ was kept secret from the public until the day before his burial. People in the US will be well aware that the ‘Assembly’ is a cult often attracting attention due to questionable ‘heretical’ belief systems and allegations of child sexual abuse and forcible fund collection. Disgraced tele-evangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were the fronts of this cult in the 80s.” [x]

Peter Casie Chetty

“In my time I have always wanted proof of some nature before I went into a story that was questionable of libellous. Something that Lasantha and Frederica Jansz never thought of. They ruffled a lot of feathers and then sold out. Frederica is still alive thanks to the regime she was trying to topple. She is not nor, is Lal with pro LTTE ideas fanned by a spineless opposition, change anything as long as the poor man hears what he wants to hear and sees the development in the land. Lasantha died for a cause. Unfortunately it was the wrong one.” [xi]

Blog comments

“He did not believe in confronting this evil [LTTE terrorism] or exposing its true nature to the world. Instead he believed in negotiating with evil, compromising with evil, appeasing evil, and actually covering up evil behind NGO terms such as ‘confidence-building’. If any of you truly support what Lasantha W. stood for, then I advise you not to condemn his murderers but to advocate co-habitation with them. If you don’t like Mahinda or Gotabhaya, write platitudes about how the only way to neutralize them is to flatter and co-opt them. If you’re afraid of getting killed, sign a CFA with Fonseka and throw away any shred of self-dignity to save your skin.”

“This guy was no saint. He represented gutter journalism and he was asking for this end for long time.”

“At a time when the government is engaged in a battle that could determine the future of Sri Lankans of all persuasions and backgrounds for a long long time to come, the Editor seemed singularly and purposefully determined to denigrate and discredit the efforts of the government to bring an end to this misery and curse that has visited us and ruined our lives for decades. To that end I would always remember the man as an unpatriotic person driven by other people’s agendas and not genuinely the welfare of our nation to which he also belonged.”

Who Did It? Who Didn’t Do It?

According to the Sri Lanka Sunday Times: “In Parliament, UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe went to the extent of saying that there was a separate unit in the Army that was carrying out these strikes against the media. He asked the Cabinet of Ministers themselves to be careful. What was patently noticeable to parliamentary lobby correspondents was that there were no denials or protestations from the front benchers of the Government.”

Mangala Samaraweera, a former foreign minister in the Rajapaksa government, now an opposition politician, voiced the widespread suspicion that it was the Defence Ministry or the Army. “It’s an open secret that there’s been a killer squad in the Defence Ministry for the last two years.”

Dr Jayatilleke absolved the government: “Lasantha wasn’t running for office and the incumbent President is hugely popular. Lasantha posed no threat to him. As for exposes of financial turpitude, Lasantha’s English-language and therefore limited circulation newspaper had little effect. Another writer had opined on how perfect the timing of the killing was, oblivious to the irony that the factor of timing works precisely against the hypothesis of high level governmental guilt. On the one hand, the wave of military successes and the prospect of electoral triumph rendered utterly needless any violent measures against domestic dissenters and critics while on the other hand, the murder could only dull the glow of the President’s success and work to his discredit.” [xii]

In July 2009 controversial government minister Mervyn Silva held a meeting where he publicly stated “Lasantha from the Leader paper went overboard. I took care of him.” [xiii]

Police arrested two suspects at five a.m. on Saturday 31 January 2009. The first suspect, a 22-year-old three wheeler driver, was taken in with Wickrematunge’s  mobile phone in his possession. Under interrogation, he  revealed that he purchased the phone from the second suspect for Rs. 4,000, the police said. Police Spokesman SSP Ranjith Gunasekera said both suspects were under interrogation by a special team. The second suspect, he said, had a history of drug peddling and murder. Asked whether the police could rush to a conclusion that the suspects in custody were responsible for Wickramatunge’s murder just because the victim’s phone had found its way into their hands, SSP Gunasekera said he could not comment further as investigations were continuing. “This is all the information we have got so far,” he said, “and we expect more vital clues as interrogation proceeds.”SSP Gunasekera said the phone recovered from the suspect contained telephone numbers of key ministers and VVIPs. Nuwara Eliya garage owner Pichchei Jesudasan, who was remanded for alleged involvement in the assassination died of a “heart attack”  at the National Hospital in October 2011 while in police custody. Jesudasan was arrested after CID stated that he had purchased five SIM cards which were allegedly used by the assassins using his national identity card.

Seven soldiers belonging to the Sri Lanka Army’s Military Intelligence Unit were detained as investigations and  held for further questioning by the Terrorist Investigations Department and the Criminal Investigations Department. The seven soldiers were separated from an original seventeen taken into police custody as evidence unfolded which may link the soldiers to the murder of Wickrematunge. All the soldiers were eventually release because of lack of evidence.[xiv]

Fonseka and the Sunday Leader

On President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 66th birthday, November 18 2011, former Army commander Sarath Fonseka was sentenced to three years in  prison in what has become known as the White Flag case. Fonseka  was accused on three counts including inciting violence by  violating the Public Security and Emergency Regulations Acts. In an interview given to Frederica Jansz of the Sunday Leader, published on December 13 2009, Fonseka claimed that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had ordered Brigadier Shavendra Silva (now Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN) to shoot LTTE cadres surrendering with white flags during the final stages of the Sri Lankan armed forces victory over the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

The role of the Sunday Leader has been puzzling in the extreme. No-one has been charged with the murder of the Leader’s founder, Lasantha Wickrematunge. There have been strong rumours that a shadowy military unit was responsible and that Fonseka was involved. Fonseka was also alleged to be behind the assault, which almost killed him, on Keith Noyahr, deputy editor of The Nation Sunday newspaper, and assaults on Namal Perera of the Sri Lanka Press Institute and Mahendra Ratnaweera, of the British High Commission. The Leader has been thought of as a UNP paper and Lasantha was thought to be close to UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe. Ranil told the Working Committee of the UNP that Lasantha’s murder was carried out by a special team reporting directly to Fonseka. Ranil and Lasantha were considered to be close friends. Despite this, Ranil agreed to Fonseka being the opposition candidate for the presidency.

It would be extremely unlikely that those running the Leader today had not heard rumours of Fonseka’s involvement in Lasantha’s death. Nevertheless, the paper supported Fonseka’s presidential campaign.

During the White Flag trial, Frederica Jansz, the current editor of the Leader, said that she had directly asked Fonseka if he knew who had killed Lasantha and could not get him to give an answer.

This did not  come out in Jansz’s answers under cross-examination in the High Court. On the 6th of October 2010, according to the Sunday Times (October 10 2010), she said she went to the interview with Fonseka accompanied by a “trainee reporter” (she denies this, saying it was Raknish Savan Wijewardene, a journalist at the time and not a trainee), a photographer and Lal Wickrematunge , chairman of Leader Publications (Lasantha’s brother). The “trainee journalist” had “taken down notes of the interview, except on the question about the ‘white flag’ issue”. (My emphasis.)

At one point, [Lal] Wickrematunge had asked Wijewardene and the photographer to leave as he wanted to raise a personal issue with Fonseka. Lal asked Fonseka who was responsible for killing Lasantha. Jansz said in response to questioning in the High Court that she “did not pay attention to what was said by Fonseka in response to that question”. (My emphasis.)

Ms Jansz is a very experienced investigative journalist who over the years has been the scourge of many a corrupt businessman and many criminals. Her paper has been running a long campaign to bring to justice the killers of Lasantha. Lasantha’s brother directly asked a man linked with the crime who killed his brother and Frederica drifts off like a distracted teenager!

She said that she normally did tape recordings of interviews but the paper’s recorder had been given to someone going to interview the Western Provincial Council minister. Does the paper’s budget not run to buying a second recorder? Is the interview with the provincial minister more important than an interview with a presidential candidate who is accusing his own soldiers and government of a war crime and who is also suspected of involvement in the murder of the paper’s editor?

Jansz said in an article of 6 June 2010 was that the management of the Sunday Leader that the UNP was paying the newspaper one million rupees a week to increase the number of copies printed in order to support Fonseka’s campaign . This contributed to Fonseka’s conviction. Jansz claimed: “The financial transactions of a privately owned newspaper/publishing house is nobody’s business.” [xv]

No Conclusion, No Closure

Three years have passed and no-one has been charged with Lasantha’s murder. This is what the Sunday Leader says on the third death anniversary:

“The country grieves for the apathy shown  by the law enforcement authorities in bringing the perpetrators to book. It is evident to all and sundry why the investigation is at a standstill. They whisper but dare not speak out loud.”

“The investigation into his death is floundering. Kandegedara Piyawansa, a soldier with the Sri Lanka Army Intelligence Unit taken into custody together with Pitchai Jesudasan,  was released on bail after he accused senior officers in open court. A statement he made in chambers to the magistrate prior to being granted bail by a higher court was forwarded to the Inspector General of Police for a report which is yet to be filed. Pitchai Jesudasan died in remand custody and the JMO has returned an open verdict. Fifteen army intelligence officers held previously by the TID handling the investigation were released when an adviser to the government informed high officials that the soldiers would ‘sing’ about other operations by the Army.”

Lasantha’s daughter, Ahimsa Wickrematunge writes: “I believe my father could have achieved and done so much more if only his life had not been so cruelly taken. I have so many unanswered questions. Not a day goes by that I do not think of him. It breaks my heart that my little brother will grow up without a father. But I believe he is watching over us. They say it gets better with time but it has not got any easier. I miss him every day, and today especially, I share the pain of loss with my mother and my two brothers who loved him so much.”[xvi]

[i] An array of tributes in many forms was presented on the blogsite Groundviews:

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