Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Sunday Island

The Numbers Game. Marga Institute Seminar

This article was published in the Sunday Island on June 1, 2013


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

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

The IDAG-S Report

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

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

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

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

Remembrance and Amnesia

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

Ernest Renan observed that nation-building requires amnesia as well as invention. In some countries memorials and commemorative days are seen as part of the healing process. Elsewhere, remembering is felt to be dangerous. In Rwanda, political parties are prohibited from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. The authorities have used these limitations to imprison critics. Remembering might inflame old hatreds. Cambodia celebrates a Day of Remembrance on My 20 each year. It used to be called the National Day of Hatred.

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

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

Accountancy and Accountability

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

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

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

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

In 2009, the Banyan column in the Economist said: “It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.”

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

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

Way Forward

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

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

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


The Cage by Gordon Weiss

This article was published in the Sunday Island on May 11, 2013
It may seem to be a little late to be reviewing Gordon Weiss’s book. It was published a while ago but is still relevant and still misleading people. While I was reading the new publication from the International Diaspora Group (IDAG-S) on counting the dead in Sri Lanka, I thought I would revisit what Weiss had to say on the subject.


Numbers Game


In this book, Weiss begins with 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”.


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”.


In The Cage, Weiss writes: “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”. Having raised the possibility that figures were inflated, he gives himself licence to inflate further.


Earlier on the same page, a press release by Navi Pillay is quoted saying that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 4,000 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.


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”.

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”.


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 later repeats similar sentiments 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”.


“It remains a credit to many of the front-line SLA soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, 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”.




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 Timothy Garton Ash 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”. 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”. Ask the people of My Lai how the liberal democracy that is the USA conducted “counterinsurgency” in Vietnam. 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”. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was hugely unpopular with British voters but they did not get a chance to vote on it. MPs like Siobhain McDonagh, who endlessly campaigns against Sri Lanka, voted in favour of the Iraq invasion and against an inquiry into it.


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 Groundviews 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 Cage 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.”


More on the subject of deadly accountancy and accountability after the launch of the IDAG-S paper.


Irish Cricket

This article was published in the Sunday Island on  October 20, 2012.

I was recently invited to a reception at the Galadari Hotel in Colombo to meet the Irish cricket team participating in the T20 tournament. Our boys in green were rather glum at the Galadari, following a defeat by Australia (in a joust truncated to ten overs each). Captain William Porterfield had been dismissed with the first ball (he had suffered the same fate against England in Bangalore last year and he repeated the same trick against the West Indies in Ireland’s next and final game 2012 T20 game). I had heard rumours about a stomach bug but that did not stop the glum players tucking enthusiastically into the spicy buffet.

It was quite a quirk of fate that Ireland’s cricket team should depart from a tournament in Sri Lanka partly because torrential rain prematurely ended their match against the West Indies. When I first came from Ireland to live in Sri Lanka ten years ago, a friend asked me if I missed the Cork rain. I said that I missed its moderation. Up in the mountains where we live, the monsoon season generally seems to last for 13 months each year. Hiding indoors, it seems as if we have been living underwater. However, this year there has been a prolonged drought even at our mountain retreat.

Dr Johnson famously remarked, “Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Some might think that an Irishman playing cricket would be a similar phenomenon. But no!

For some time, I had been aware of one celebrated Irish cricketer. One of the strange facts fairly commonly known about Samuel Beckett is that he was the only Nobel Literature laureate mentioned in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the cricket bible. Beckett played for Trinity College, Dublin in two first-class games against Northamptonshire and apparently acquitted himself well.

In his 2011 MCC Lecture, Sanga spoke about cricket in Sri Lanka being part of the colonial legacy. It was colonialism that prevented cricket catching on in Ireland. Irish nationalists regarded cricket as a symbol of imperial oppression and cultivated the essentially Irish sports of Hurley and Gaelic football as means of building a national identity.

A ban on playing “foreign” (i.e. English) games by the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), which was an integral element of the push for Irish independence, limited the spread of cricket in Ireland. The ban was not lifted until 1970.

Despite the tinge of treason, cricket began to spread soon after it was introduced to Ireland by the English in the early 19th century. Many of the clubs which were founded then are still in existence today. The first match played by a national Irish team was as long ago as 1855. This was against The Gentlemen of England in Dublin. The Irish Cricket Union (ICU) – the governing body of Irish cricket – was officially founded in 1923, although its predecessor had been active since 1890. In common with a number of other Irish sporting governing bodies, the Union was formed to represent cricket throughout the island of Ireland, rather than just the Republic.

So the Irish cricket team is one of those cross-border institutions dismissed by Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, hunger striker Bobby Sands’s sister, wife of Real IRA leader, Michael McKevitt. “Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers. He did not die for nationalists to be equal British citizens within the Northern Ireland state”.

At the Galadari reception, I committed a social faux pas. I was in conversation with Arun Narayan, Vice President of the Irish Investment and Development Agency (IDA) in India. I spotted a ginger cricketer heading towards us. I extended my hand and said “Pleased to  meet you, Kevin”. He muttered: “I’m Niall. That’s Kevin over there”. Brothers Niall and Kevin O’Brien have been the backbone of the current team. I blundered on by asking if he played English county cricket for Somerset. No, he played for Northamptonshire. Kevin plays for Somerset. My prior research had clearly left my brain. My study of team photographs had been in vain. Luckily, I did not get the chance to ask where Eion Morgan was. I later discovered that he was playing for England.

Current batsman Ed Joyce had also joined the imperial project and played for Sussex and Middlesex in county cricket and in 2005 became the first batsman to hit 1,000 runs. Joyce was born in Dublin and like Beckett was educated at Trinity College. Despite that he played for England. On February 2, 2007, Joyce scored a match-winning 107 from 142 balls, helping England amass 292-7. He got a special dispensation from the ICC to play later for Ireland. Joyce said in 2010: “When I made the decision in 2001 to try and play for England, it was with a view to trying to play Test cricket which is the pinnacle of the game and which of course Ireland doesn’t play.”

Easily noticeable at the Galadari reception was Boyd Rankin who is six foot seven. The T20 tournament in Sri Lanka will be his last outing for Ireland as he hopes to play for England. He has signed a three-year contract with Warwickshire.

Paul Stirling is a quality batsman with several four-day centuries for Ireland, but he has still to make his first-class debut for Middlesex after three years at Lord’s.

When Jack Charlton was manager of the Irish football team he became a hero to the Irish. His success depended on him finding effective players with often tenuous claims to Irish nationality. Wits dubbed the FAI (Football Association of Ireland) Find an Irishman. Irish cricket stalwart Trent Johnson was born in Wollongong, Australia. An unusually jovial presence at the Galadari reception among the morose players was coach Phil Simmons, a large Trinidadian, whose nephew Lendl plays for the West Indies.

In the 2011 World Cup, Ireland scored a historic victory against England. Ireland beat England by three wickets on 2 March 2011 with Kevin O’Brien hitting the fastest World Cup century off only 50 balls. It was the highest successful run chase (329 in 49.1 overs) in World Cup history.

At the Galadari reception, the Irish ambassador Feilim McLaughlin, praised the Irish team for the great PR job they were doing for Ireland in the cricket-crazy world of the rest of the ex-British Empire. That may be true but the individuals did not seem very comfortable with their PR role. Niall O’Brien made a good effort at putting himself about but seemed ill-at-ease. Niall had once said of Kevin “in the field he was grumpy, he was moping around … when he’s like that, he tends to kinda take the bull by the horns” Most of the players seemed grumpy, clustered together muttering among themselves or stayed close to their WAGS (Trent Johnston’s wife Vanessa, resplendent in a leopard-skin patterned blouse).

I found the crassness of the commercialism on Star TV quite astounding. The same ads showing smug middle-class Indian families were repeated endlessly and squeezed in between balls and even as a ball was being bowled ads appeared at the side and bottom of the screen. Occasionally, there was something a little different as Kevin O’Brien popped up to advertise the attractions of his homeland. Sometimes Kevin was extolling the beauties of the Irish landscape. In another ad he was trying to persuade foreign students to go to Ireland and pay for a great education. A third ad had Kevin working for the IDA, trying to persuade foreign investors to put their money into the Irish economy.

It was a disappointing exit by the Irish. Ireland did not even get to play two entire games. Playing the West Indies, eventual winners of the tournament, Ireland made 129-6 in 19 overs after being asked to bat first at R. Premadasa Stadium, and persistent rain prevented any further play. According to the peculiar rules of this tournament, Ireland were out although they scored 129 runs and West Indies scored none. Something to do with an abstruse calculation of average run-rates apparently.
Despite years of being “promising” Ireland’s cricket faces a bleak future. ICU CEO Warren Deutrom doggedly fights for Test status but Trent Johnston believes other Associate nations are begrudgers. “Why don’t Bangladesh and Zimbabwe want to play us? I know why, because they’re scared that we’ll beat them and that we’ll go above them in the rankings. I know that for a fact.” Phil Simmons rarely gets his full squad together in the Irish summer because of the players’ commitments to English county cricket. Many of his seasoned players will no longer be available to him at all. There are no fixtures on the horizon to test the new team he has to develop, first to qualify for and then to compete in the 2013 World Twenty20 and 2015 World Cup.

What We Knew: Jimmy Savile and the Culture of Abuse

This article was published in the Sunday Island on November 10, 2012.


A former Yorkshire miner, wrestler and disc jockey is posthumously rocking the British establishment with tremors being felt in the BBC, NHS, the press, academia, charities, toffs’ clubs and even the monarchy.

John Banville: “We knew, and did not know. That is our shame today”

Teenagers in Gloucester

I was a teenager in the sixties in the sleepy cathedral city of Gloucester. We had no connections with the world of celebrities. There was no internet. The tabloid press did not gossip so much in those days.
How did we know, as we gathered in the New Inn on Saturday nights looking for parties, that Rock Hudson and Russ Conway were gay (and in a relationship with Billy Cotton, the bandleader whose son went on to be a big cheese at the BBC) ; that Dusty Springfield was a lesbian; that Ruby Murray was an alcoholic; that Kathy Kirby had had at least one abortion as a result of her long-term affair with bandleader Ambrose.

Another thing that we “knew” was that Jimmy Savile was a child molester.


Savile first came to public notice in a small way in 1958 when he joined Radio Luxembourg, the first of the pirate pop stations, founded in 1948. For my generation, 208 on the radio dial was where we kept up with pop music because the BBC did not cater for us. The main format for the pop music shows was a sponsored slot in which the major record companies touted their own product. Jimmy Savile hosted the Teen and Twenty Disc Club, which peddled the pop product of the Warner Brothers label. Savile as a radio presenter was better than Savile as a TV host because one could not see him. I recall however that he had already started developing his irritating verbal tics: “howzabout that then guys and gals?” “Am I right , or am I right”.

National treasure. What was he famous for?

BBC TV producer Colehan had the idea in 1963 of making a TV version of Teen and Twenty Disc Club. He produced the pilot which later became Top of the Pops, which ran until 2006.

Savile was not a pioneer DJ like John Peel or Roger Eagle (See It would be difficult to detect any musical enthusiasms in Savile. Even the anodyne Noel Edmonds (who some people said looked like me) had an interest in music and championed some artists such as Harry Chapin. According to Edmonds is worth around $100 million ( £73 million). Will he catch up with me?

Savile became famous for being famous. His eccentric appearance and manner were unattractive. Novelist Howard Jacobson’s father was a Manchester cab driver who knew Savile through charity work with disabled children. The young Jacobson was horrified that father could claim to like Savile.

“’But the man’s a creepy nincompoop’,” I used to say. “’He has the dead face of a thug, makes ridiculous noises, and aspires to the condition of a slow-to-develop infant. You’d have had me adopted had I behaved like that when I was three.’”

One of the reasons that Savile achieved such wealth and prominence and a knighthood was that he was perceived to do great work for charity. The national treasure is now boldly described as a “predatory sex fiend”.

Jacobson asks: “So, is philanthropy the last refuge of the scoundrel?”

The Accusations

On 19 October Scotland Yard launched an investigation into allegations that Savile  has sexually abused children over four decades. Police were pursuing over 400 separate lines of inquiry, based on evidence of 200 witnesses, via 14 police forces. They described the alleged abuse as being “on an unprecedented scale”, and the number of potential victims as “staggering”.

It is alleged that he preyed on young patients at Stoke Mandeville, Leeds and Broadmoor hospitals where he worked as a volunteer. He is alleged to have molested a brain-damaged patient at Leeds. Someone walked into his dressing room at the BBC and saw him engaged in penetrative sex with an under-age girl. Savile was annoyed but not ashamed. He told the intruder to get out. The intruder said he had gone to discuss business and was shocked enough to report the incident. No-one did anything.

In the bosom of the establishment

Savile was for years a regular guest of Margaret Thatcher at Chequers, her official country house when she was Prime Minister. He was frequent visitor to Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and Highgrove (Prince Charles’ estate). Charles sent a Christmas card saying: “Jimmy, with affectionate greetings from Charles. Give my love to your ladies in Scotland”. Princess Diana described Savile as a “sort of mentor to Charles”.

He was elected to membership of the Athenaeum club on Pall Mall (a far cry from the Teen and Twenty Disc Club). The Athenaeum used to represent the peak of London’s clubland for the public intellectual. Savile was put up for membership by Cardinal Hume and was accepted over the protests of many other members. My boss in the early 80s, Sir Arthur Armitage , stayed at the club when he was working in London.

When Savile was made an honorary doctor of arts by the University of Bedfordshire some commentators said he was hardly an example of academic excellence. Savile’s honorary degree has been rescinded

Undermining of institutions

There have been accusations of a cover-up by the BBC. Victims are likely to sue and the BBC might be “vicariously liable” for Savile’s actions on their premises. Liz Dux, who represents some of Savile’s victims, said that Savile had targeted both boys and girls and that when victims came forward no action was taken.”There are some quite serious allegations that a paedophile ring was operating”.

The Independent describes “a recursive nightmare in which the BBC found itself investigating its own failure to investigate”. A Panorama programme broadcast by the BBC itself on October 22 reported allegations that the Top of the Pops programme was a centre of abuse – and that Savile was not the only one involved.

Paul Gambaccini was a BBC DJ. He said that everyone knew what Savile was doing but it never occurred to him to do anything about it. He makes the feeble excuse that he was “junior” to Savile and no-one would have listened to him

Esther Rantzen was a BBC TV presenter who became a virtual saint with her ChildLine charity. It now appears that she knew about the Savile rumours but did nothing. She now has the gall to call for a stronger whistle-blowing “culture” among junior staff.

Continuum of exploitation

A number of individuals have been dragged into the scandal. It seems that Savile once said Gary Glitter had done nothing wrong. Glitter (Paul Gadd) was deported from Cambodia and jailed for four years in Vietnam for having sex with underage girls. Comedian Freddy Starr has strenuously denied any guilt. The BBC has also been embarrassed by revelations that John Peel impregnated a 15-year-old girl.

Some of this guilt by association has somewhat fogged the picture. In an attempt to convey a “culture of sexual abuse” at the BBC, a number of people have come forward with their own experiences. Sandy Toskvig and Liz Kershaw have said they were groped on air. Toyah Wilcox made headlines by saying she had not been groped because she was too tough but knew it was going on. Headlines suggested that David Walliams had been in danger but he was merely saying, to raise a laugh, that he had written to Jim’ll Fix It but had not got a reply.


When I worked in child protection at the Department of Health the government gave large financial grants to enable the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) to continue its work. The NSPCC also felt the need to maintain a public profile by raising funds itself from members of the public as individuals. They did this by attention-grabbing campaigns which indicated that just about everyone in Britain had been abused as a child. When one analysed the raw data one discovered that their definition of sexual abuse ranged from violent and persistent penetrative rape to having seen a flasher out of the corner of an eye, or to two consenting teenagers being caught at it and being labelled sex offenders because they were underage.

The Savile case has brought out statements like one from Sue Berelowitz, Britain’s deputy children’s commissioner, who is quoted as saying: “There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.”’ I have dealt with sexual abuse hysteria and lynch mob mentality before in this paper.


Conflation of different types of behaviour can result in wrongful persecution of innocent people. In this case it trivialises the gravity of Savile’s crimes.

Culture and Power

George Entwistle, BBC Director General told the Commons culture, media and sport select committee: “There is no question that what Jimmy Savile did and the way the BBC behaved in those years – the culture and practices of the BBC seemed to allow Jimmy Savile to do what he did – will raise questions of trust for us and reputation for us,”

Howard Jacobson again: “Power corrupts, in sexual matters as in political, and one of the most important lessons to be learnt from Savile’s progress is that we should check power at every turn.”

Banville on Unknown Knowns

Writing in the New York Times about the child abuse scandal in the Irish Catholic church, novelist John Banville said: “Never tell, never acknowledge, that was the unspoken watchword. Everyone knew, but no one said…Amid all the reaction to these terrible revelations, I have heard no one address the question of what it means, in this context, to know. Human beings — human beings everywhere, not just in Ireland — have a remarkable ability to entertain simultaneously any number of contradictory propositions. Perfectly decent people can know a thing and at the same time not know it.”

Human Rights Hypocrisy

This article was published in the Sunday Island on March 3, 2012

My friends in the UK are asking me what is happening to Sri Lanka as they read about the Commons debate and the shenanigans in Geneva. This is what I told them.


On February 22 2012, the House of Commons witnessed one of its periodic orgies of self-righteousness. The Pecksniffery was ecumenical – opposition MPs eagerly lined up to offer their unsolicited support for the UK government line. The issue that united so many diverse humbugs was the human rights record of the Sri Lankan government. The debate was about whether an independent, international commission of inquiry should be established to investigate allegations of war crimes perpetrated at the conclusion of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict in 2009.


The debate was initiated by Virendra Sharma, Labour MP for Ealing Southall, who claimed the Sri Lankan military had killed 40,000 civilians. James Wharton, Conservative member for Stockton South and Stephen Hammond, Conservative member for Wimbledon questioned Sharma’s figures. Sharma promised to answer their points later but failed to do so. Nick de Bois, Conservative member for Enfield north said: “given the recent publication of this report (of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) and, notwithstanding the understandable scepticism…should not more time be given to see whether those involved can genuinely and accountably deliver? If they do not, then we hold them to account.”


The Sri Lankan government made a decision in 2006 to push for a military victory over the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) who had been fighting for nearly 30 years for a separate state in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The CFA (Cease Fire Agreement) brokered in 2002 by Norway never really held. When the Tigers assassinated the highly respected foreign minister Lakshman Kadigarmar, a Tamil, The government finally accepted that the LTTE were not sincere about peace.


In May 2009, the Tamil Tigers were comprehensively defeated. There have been no acts of terrorism in Sri Lanka since then, which is a great relief after the horrors suffered over decades. Leaving aside the behaviour of Sri Lankan bus drivers, Sri Lanka today is safer than the UK according to the MTRI (Maplecroft Terrorism Risk Index). All of the Tamil political parties who had fought for a separate state have now agreed to enter the democratic political process and many of them have joined the government in the reconciliation and reconstruction programme. Several prominent former Tigers now hold government office.


The charges laid against the Sri Lankan government by international human rights organisations, Ban-Ki Moon’s panel of advisors and Channel 4 News can be summarised as follows:


  • The Sri Lanka army and air force targeted hospitals and civilians in the NFZs (no-fire zones) leading to 40,000 civilian deaths.
  • Withholding of food and medical supplies from the north
  • Summary execution of prisoners
  • Rape of female combatants and civilians
  • Imprisoning of Tamil civilians in concentration camps.


Post war Tamil grievances are:

  • The government has failed to account for thousands of Tamils alleged to have disappeared or to have been abducted
  • The government was criticised for keeping refugees in camps. It is now being criticised for releasing them.
  • There is allegedly a deliberate policy to militarise the north and east
  • There is allegedly a plan to alter the demographics of the north by bringing in Sinhalese settlers
  • The government is reluctant to devolve power to the north and east.


One of the leading voices in the campaign against Sri Lanka is Siobhan McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden. She made a speech in Parliament saying she makes “no apology for concentrating on local issues”. The term “local issues” includes Sri Lanka because of the large number of Tamils in her constituency. On 16 June 2011, she made representations against “the deportation by the UK Border Agency of my constituent Mr. Jenach Gopinath back to Sri Lanka, whose Government are suspected of war crimes against Tamils, including the killing of 40,000 Tamil citizens. Later today, a plane chartered by the UKBA will deport 40 asylum-seeking Commonwealth citizens of Tamil ethnicity back to Sri Lanka”.


Siobhain McDonagh’s libertarianism and concern for human rights seem very selective. In spite of her campaign to stop her Tamil constituents from being deported, she had voted very strongly for a stricter asylum system i.e. more deportations. In spite of her campaign against Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism, she voted very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws and very strongly for introducing ID cards.


McDonagh says: “Anyone who has committed a crime must pay the price; they need to be tried. Then and only then can reconciliation go forward.” This does not appear to apply to Britain and Blair and Brown. In spite of her accusations against the Sri Lankan government about war crimes, she voted very strongly for the Iraq invasion, very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.


During a Commons debate on 21 October 2005, she said: “Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do. I know that some people disagree. However, we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere”.


It depends who your murderous tyrant is and who is deposing him. It depends what you mean by democracy.


Sri Lanka’s defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, said: “Any sensible person will realise the advantage our people got. Today there is no more killing, fighting. It is peaceful, people are free. Nobody can categorise [the crushing of the separatist rebel army which itself had committed atrocities] as a genocide.”


I would not celebrate the methods used by the UK to combat the IRA. There could be no rejoicing that Jean Charles Menezes died in the war against Islamic terrorism. Watching the President of the USA gloating over the shooting of the unarmed Osama bin Laden was not an elevating experience. One cannot be happy that Corporal Donald Payne served only a year’s imprisonment for beating to death an Iraqi hotel receptionist. I personally felt more relief than triumphalism at the death of LTTE leader Prabhakaran. I would have preferred to see him on trial.


The crimes alleged against Sri Lanka do not compare in magnitude to the war crimes perpetrated by the USA and UK over the decades and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. The USA blatantly ignored the Geneva Conventions and abducted innocents to torture them in foreign countries. Rather than being punished, those responsible are still free to sign lucrative book deals for advocating and practising torture.


A strong critic of the Sri Lankan government, journalist Namini Wijedasa, wrote thus: “The call for a credible investigation would be infinitely more effective if the global human rights industry were to show some fairness in its campaign – something it consistently fails to do. If the argument is that the vanquished are dead, leaving only the victors to be hounded, this is not so. Representatives of the LTTE are still active abroad and could be prosecuted.”


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

The government’s position on “zero civilian casualties” has modified over time to a claim that everything possible was done to avoid civilian casualties. However, by failing to come up with its own numbers the government has allowed western critics to take sole possession of the numbers game. The Census Department has just released, with very little publicity, statistics suggesting the death toll was less than 9,000.
Some commentators actually living in Sri Lanka are worried that international investigations could reignite the fires of violence in a population whose majority is already feeling insecure and under attack. Read any blog to which members of the Sri Lankan diaspora, Tamil or Sinhalese, contribute and it is depressing to see how these keyboard warriors get off on the auto-eroticism of violent fantasies.


Sri Lankan human rights lawyer, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, has written: “The truth about the deaths of civilians is vital to the process of reconciliation regardless of all other issues of accountability”. As in Northern Ireland, those left behind need the comfort of knowing what happened to their loved ones. Unfortunately, such a process can be hi-jacked by the conflict junkies who want to continue the hatred and violence.
Bad things happen in wars. Bad things have been happening for a long time in Sri Lanka. Terrible things were done by the LTTE. These things are hard to forget and forgive. The danger is that picking at the scabs would achieve exactly the opposite of reconciliation with dreadful consequences for the people of Sri Lanka.


American Gulag

This article was published in the Sunday Island on March 17, 2012 


Motes and Beams

The US prison system is an interesting subject of study because it encapsulates the great themes of the Great American Narrative: Genocide, Slavery, Race, Democracy, Sex and Capitalism.

As recently as July 2011, Hillary Clinton voiced concern over the plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Sri Lanka. It is unlikely that there were ever more than 350,000 in the Sri Lankan IDP camps. There are more than 2.3 million people in US prisons, more than any other nation on earth, a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. America has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population. (If you count only adults, one in 100 Americans is locked up.)

The only other major industrialized nation that even comes close is Russia, with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people. England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63. The median among all nations is about 125, roughly a sixth of the American rate. San Marino, with a population of about 30,000, has one prisoner.

Ethnic justice


African-Americans account for 12% of the U.S. population. At the end of 2005, of those incarcerated in state and federal prisons, 40% were black, 35% were white, and 20% were Hispanic. In 2005, 8.1% of all black males age 25 to 29 were in prison, compared to 2.6% of Hispanic males and 1.1% of white males.


Punishment fitting the crime?


Crime rates are falling but the prison population increases. Americans are locked up for crimes that wouldn’t warrant incarceration elsewhere. Once convicted, Americans are locked up for far longer than prisoners in other nations. We have all seen them on TV – orange-suited, manacled and humiliated in public.


In New York, the 1973 Nelson Rockefeller anti-drug law provides for a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life for possession of four ounces of any illegal drug. There are stiffer penalties for possession of crack, used by Blacks and Hispanics, than for possession of cocaine powder, used by rich white people. The three-strikes policy (life in prison after being convicted of three felonies) of Hillary’s husband made it necessary to build 20 new federal prisons. One prisoner received three 25-year sentences for stealing a car and two bicycles.


Of 125,000 federal inmates 97% have been convicted of non-violent crimes. Possibly more than half of the 623,000 inmates in municipal or county jails are innocent. Two-thirds of the one million state prisoners have committed non-violent offenses. Of the country’s total 2.3 million prisoners, 16 % suffer from mental illness.


Only 34% of those in juvenile detention are accused of violent crimes. More than 20% were confined for technical offenses like violating probation, missing curfews, truancy, or running away—often from violence and abuse at home. More than 200,000 youth are also tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day approximately 8,500 under eighteen are confined in adult prisons and jails.


Seeing the funny side of gang-rape


Have you noticed that an easy standby of American humour is prisoners getting raped in the showers? Not so funny when one considers a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) which showed that 64,500 of the inmates who were in a state or federal prison on the day the latest BJS survey was administered had been sexually abused at their current facility within the previous year, as had 24,000 of those who were in a county jail that day—a total of 88,500 people.


Wilbert Rideau, an inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola Prison Farm) from 1961 through 2001, wrote in 2010 that “slavery was commonplace in Angola with perhaps a quarter of the population in bondage” throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Weak inmates were gang-raped, and traded and sold like cattle. Rideau stated that “The slave’s only way out was to commit suicide, escape or kill his master.” C. Murray Henderson, one of the wardens brought in to clean up the prison, states in his memoirs that systemic sexual slavery was sanctioned and facilitated by the prison guards.


12.1% of young people questioned in a survey said that they’d been sexually abused at their current juvenile detention facility during the preceding year.


Rates of HIV/AIDS are several times higher inside US prisons than outside, just as they are much higher among black Americans than white. Incarceration for trivial offences in the US can amount to an unadjudicated death sentence.


Slavery and prison labour


Many Blues songs have been sung about Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary). Blues musicians imprisoned there included Bukka White and Son House. Angola had some Blues singers also, including Robert Pete Williams and Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly). The land on which Angola Prison Farm stands was purchased by Isaac Franklin during the 1830s with the profits from his slave-trading firm. Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell, authors of The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, said that Angola was “probably as close to slavery as any person could come in 1930.” Angola is still operated as a working farm; Warden Burl Cain once said “you’ve got to keep the inmates working all day so they’re tired at night.” In 2009, James Ridgeway wrote in Mother Jones magazine that Angola was “An 18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once was.


Prison labour has its roots in slavery. After the Civil War, freed slaves were incarcerated on trumped-up charges and then “hired out” for cotton picking, working in mines and building railroads. One has seen movie depictions of prison farms where prisoners are white – Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels, Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? In reality most inmates have been black. From 1870 until 1910 in the state of Georgia, 88% of hired-out convicts were black. In Alabama, 93% of “hired-out” miners were black. In Mississippi, a huge prison farm similar to the old slave plantations replaced the system of hiring out convicts. The notorious Parchman plantation existed until 1972.


Louisiana- the inmate state


Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration of any state in the USA. Of its 39,000 inmates, 70% are African-American. After BP’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded, coastal residents, many of whom had just seen their livelihoods disappear and were desperate for work, were outraged to see that BP was using prisoners for the clean-up. in Grand Isle, Louisiana, where nine out of ten residents are white, the cleanup workers are almost exclusively African-American men. Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, sent a public letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward asking why black people were over-represented in “the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins.”


The prison-industrial-military Gulag


Echoing Eisenhower’s warning about the US succumbing to the military-industrial complex, the term “prison-industrial complex” has been coined.
Increasing labour costs obliged business to undermine the power of domestic trade unions and to exploit the labour of developing nations. When the workers in those developing nations became more organised, labour costs increased and western capitalism had to seek another source of cheap labour. Between 1982 and 1994 the prison population of the USA rose 2.7-fold and most of the newly convicted were fit young people, mainly unemployed. Was this coincidence or was the increase in the prison population deliberately engineered to provide a large but very cheap work-force to meet the needs of labour-intensive industries?


There was certainly one example of a [democratically-elected] judge who was a major shareholder in a private prison who had no compunction about sentencing young men to work in his prison to increase his profits.
Western capitalism is capable of using the methods of Soviet Communism or German National Socialism. Stalin had the Gulag; the Third Reich used conquered peoples as slave labourers. Prison policy in the USA is no longer about justice, public safety or rehabilitating recidivists. It is about contracting out labour to industry. Investors do not need to worry about strikes or unemployment insurance. All of the workers are full-time, with no absenteeism.


The prison system is a multimillion-dollar industry with its own trade exhibitions, conventions and websites. It fits neatly into the military-industrial complex. According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens.


Sweat shops

Human rights organisations condemn sweat shops in Asia but they are also being operated in US prisons. At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations.IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, all profit from prison labour. Between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. In privately-run prisons, inmates receive as little as 17 cents per hour, the equivalent of $20 per month. The highest-paying private prison company is CCA (Correctional Corporation of America) in Tennessee, where prisoners receive 50 cents per hour for “highly skilled positions”. For any infraction, CCA inmates get 30 days added to their sentence- which means more profits for CCA. According to a study of New Mexico prisons, it was found that CCA inmates lost “good behavior time” at a rate eight times higher than those in state prisons.


Democracy and prisons


Prisoners don’t pay taxes or care for their children at home, and, because many states bar felons from voting, at least one in seven American black men will have lost the right to vote.


Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a famous book on democracy in America. He had initially gone to the USA to study the American prison system. James Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, who has studied Tocqueville’s work on American penitentiaries, was asked what accounted for America’s booming prison population.”Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy — just what Tocqueville was talking about,” he said. “We have a highly politicized criminal justice system.”


The Englishwoman Who Invented Iraq



This article was published in the Sunday Island on October 1, 2011



Last week I wrote in the Sunday Island about an Englishwoman (albeit of Irish stock – Siobhain McDonagh) who supported the LTTE’s plan to redraw Sri Lanka’s borders at the same time as supporting her master Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq. Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh wanted the boundaries of Sri Lanka altered along the spurious lines of the minute from “that madman Cleghorn” to please her Tamil constituents. She was happy for Britain to impose “democracy” on Iraq and to allow British soldiers to behave as they pleased. She voted against an investigation into the Iraq war, saying: ” we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere”.

Look at a map of Africa and see the unnaturally straight lines that demarcate different nations, without regard to natural features or the ethnic origins of the population. Look at a map of Ireland and note how the northernmost county of the island of Ireland is not located in the artificial statelet of “Northern Ireland” but in the Republic because the Catholic majority would have undermined loyalist hegemony. Map-making is an essential tool of the colonial project. Brian Friel in his brilliant play Translations showed how the army imposed Britain’s will on Ireland by redrawing the maps and translating place names from Irish.

Another Englishwoman who had a malign influence on Iraq was Gertrude Bell. Many of the problems of the Middle East today can be blamed on that one woman.

She was commissioned in 1919 to analyse the situation in Mesopotamia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. On the basis of her analysis, the nation of Iraq was born, created in 1920 from the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, which were conquered and occupied by the British during World War I.

The map was drawn in such a way because it was feared that the Shi’ite majority, with its nomadic, tribal base, was too volatile. Bell had no doubt that the final authority should rest with the Sunni minority, “otherwise you would have a theocratic state, which would be the very devil.” The British thought that by denying the Kurds an autonomous state they would be protecting their oil interests in the Kurdish homeland around Mosul.
The tensions created by these map-drawing decisions still exist today causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Bell became known to the Arabs as Al Khatun, “The Lady”, from her pre-war travels in the desert lands. Who was this woman who said of her relationship with Faisal, the king of the new nation of Iraq:  “You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain”?

Mark Sykes, the MP who negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement with France to determine control of former Ottoman territory in the Middle East, described Bell as a “silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass.”

While one could not condone such misogyny and while one might marvel at Bell’s achievements in such a male-chauvinist milieu, it would be a mistake to see her as a proto-feminist. She was honorary secretary of the Anti-suffrage League, firmly believing that women were not ready to be entrusted with the vote.

Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 in Washington, County Durham, and raised in Yorkshire. Her father was one of the richest men in Britain. Her grandfather was a friend of Darwin and her stepmother wrote plays about working-class suffering. Bell herself was a devout atheist steeped in radical thought.

In 1899 she began serious alpine climbing in Switzerland, conquering seven summits in the Englehorner range, one of which is still named after her. She once clung to a rope in a blizzard for fifty-three hours and contracted severe   frostbite in her unsuccessful ascent of the northeast face of the Finsteraarhorn. She produced a detailed survey of the Abbasid castle of Ukhadair, in Iraq, and wrote a popular travel book.

She fell in love, when a virgin of 42, with a married military hero, Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie. In 1913, she toured the Arabian Peninsula, becoming one of few foreigners to survive the Nejd desert and the hostile Arabian tribes, and to enter the remote city of Hail, in north-central Saudi Arabia.

The British appointed her as their senior political officer in Basra during the First World War when she was 46. Apart from a few months as a Red Cross volunteer in France, she had never previously had a job. She had an impressive academic record but none of her training was in international affairs, government or management. Yet from 1916 to 1926, Gertrude Bell won the affection of Arab statesmen and the admiration of her superiors, founded a national museum, selected the leadership, and drew the borders of a new state. In her letters, she was remarkably prescient about the difficulties faced in 2003 by the Coalition of the Willing.

Unlike the occupying forces of 2003 she was knowledgeable about the area. She was a fluent Arabic speaker and had the experience of a decade of travels in the Middle East and four years in the British mandate administration in Iraq. Yet she never pretended in her letters to be in a position to understand or control events. She emphasised the weaknesses of the previous Ottoman administration; the persistence of the tribal system; the divisions between urban and rural areas. Bell showed how the cultural insensitivity of British soldiers exacerbated hatred.

She knew that the occupation could not be sustained but she could not contemplate total withdrawal. She recognised that British colonial control was unworkable and that there must somehow be an Arab government. These themes are strangely familiar in Iraq today.

The British did a lot of damage in the Middle East even in the 1920s and 1930s. They sowed the seeds of conflict in Sri Lanka by their divide and rule tactics. They favoured educated Tamils and gave the majority Sinhalese a minority complex for which they later over-compensated. In Iraq the British encouraged urbane, Western-educated, Jews who staffed the civil service, ran the economy and helped lay the foundations of the modern Iraqi state.

Iraq’s first minister of finance was a Jew. Sir Sassoon Eskell, KBE, along with Bell and TE Lawrence, was instrumental in the creation and the establishment of the state of Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He himself, founded the nascent Iraqi government’s legal and financial structure. Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems. Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews and the first musical band formed for Baghdad’s nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews.Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy which in many cases led to resentment by the Iraqi population.

As friends of the British, Iraq’s Jews, like Sri Lankan Tamils, were an easy scapegoat for anti-colonial fury. This was exploited by Nazi Germany which craved Iraqi oil. Iraqi Jews were portrayed in the Iraqi press and radio as a fifth column, especially after the death of King Faisal in 1933. Faisal’s son and successor, King Ghazi, who styled himself a Pan-Arabist and dabbled in Nazi doctrine, imposed a tax on Jews whenever they left the country. Ghazi befriended Hitler’s ambassador to Baghdad, Fritz Grobba.

The British used the ersatz Iraqi monarchy for their own purposes and forced upon it a series of humiliating ‘agreements’ in which the country’s sovereignty was signed away, and British dominance guaranteed. The British tried to keep control of the oil discovered in Kirkuk by forcing the Anglo-Iraq Treaty of 1930 on the King and ensured that foreign policy was directed by British advisers, mainly, notably Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, for whom Bell had an unrequited passion.

It seems that Britain does not learn lessons from its long history. By removing the tyrant who was holding the whole shaky enterprise together, they caused the disintegration of the artificial nation, Iraq, they had forged for their own purposes. Italy forged a fragile colonial nation out of fractious tribal territories in Libya. Britain contributed to future problems by removing the tyrant who was holding it together.

When Bell returned to Britain in 1925 she suffered from poor health and the economic depression had undermined the family wealth. She returned to Iraq and suffered from pleurisy. It is surmised that while she was in England she was diagnosed with lung cancer (she was a heavy smoker).

On July 12, 1926, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
She was buried in the British cemetery at Bab al-Sharji.

In February 2011, eccentric German film director Werner Herzog was said to be in “serious discussions” with Australian actress Naomi Watts for his upcoming project about Bell titled Queen of the Desert. At the end of March, it was reported that Ridley Scott was planning a film about Bell and had hired screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, the man responsible for The Constant Gardener, to write the script.

Perhaps one day there will be a movie about Siobhain McDonagh.


Cronyism and Impunity – Ireland Pays the Price

This article was published in the Sunday Island on March 5, 2011.


On February 25 2011, Ireland chose a new government.The turnout was 70.1% per cent and was the highest since 1987. The election was a resounding success for the Fine Gael (FG) party and its leader Enda Kenny, although the proportional representation system means that FG will need a coalition partner. Kenny, who will be the new Taoiseach (prime minister) himself won 17,472 first preference votes in his Mayo constituency- the highest number for any candidate. The outgoing Fianna Fail (FF) government was severely trounced. FF have been in office for most of the republic’s life – 60 of the 79 years since it first won office in 1932. Its vote has only rarely dipped below 40%. This time it was 15%.

Many senior figures lost their seats. One casualty was Seán Haughey (son of the notoriously corrupt former Taoiseach Charles Haughey). In the Dublin area the FF vote was down to 8% with only one FF candidate winning a seat.

FG won 76 seats, Labour 37, FF 20, Sinn Féin 14, United Left Alliance 5 and Others (including the United Left Alliance with five) 14. The share of first-preference votes was: FG 36.1%, Labour 19.4%, FF 17.4%, Sinn Féin 9.9%, Independents 15.2% and Green Party 1.8%.

The Green Party were in government in the previous coalition. None of their candidates were elected this time. They were punished for their complicity.

Gerry Adams for Sinn Fein topped the poll in Louth, in the north-east. His party scored its best-ever election result in the Republic and will be a major Opposition force.

When FG was in government last, it formed a coalition with Labour, with Labour’s Dick Spring, former Rugby international, serving as deputy PM. This time, the courtship has not been smooth. Labour are in a stronger position than heretofore. There are major differences between the two parties on the reduction of public-sector debt; the ratio between tax and cuts and public-sector reform. The Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, said he was confident that a programme for government could be negotiated.

The election was caused by the meltdown of the Irish economy after a few years when it seemed a model to the world. Between 1993 and 2000, Irish GNP grew by an average of 9% a year; unemployment—which had reached a peak of 17% in the 1980s—almost disappeared.

People flocked to Ireland from Africa and Eastern Europe. Now emigration, the curse of the island nation throughout history, is rising again. With youth unemployment exceeding 30%, many young Irish people have already fled abroad. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, at least 100,000 Irish citizens will be emigrating in the next two years.

The country’s well-educated workforce made it attractive to foreign investors, particularly American corporations. The US share of industrial investment in the Irish economy rose from 32% in 1990 to 68% in 1997. FDI was concentrated in computers, pharmaceuticals and electronic engineering. The Celtic model did not have enough sustainable indigenous strength. Multinational corporations were responsible for 85% of total Irish economic growth. Multinationals exported 90% of their output; Irish-owned firms sold less than 40% of what they produced abroad.

Part of the illusory Irish prosperity depended on “financial services” – in other words, funny- money practices akin to money-laundering, which caused Dublin to be called “Liechtenstein on the Liffey”.

Property and financial services created a bubble economy. Despite the wealth of some, Ireland ranked second-to-bottom in the OECD league tables for poverty and inequality; only the USA fared worse. The number of households earning below 50% of the average income rose from 18% in 1994 to 24% in 2001. Government expenditure on social protection as a proportion of GDP was 20% in 1993, but fell to 14% by 2000—barely half the EU’s average.

When I lived in Ireland builders were a scarce and expensive commodity. We wondered why so many houses were being built when the population never exceeded 4.5 million. The average price of a new house rose from €67,000 in 1991 to €334,000 in 2007, by which time there were 21 new units of housing being built per thousand citizens. Our own house was an old one but we saw its market value rise by 464% in four years. Unfortunately, the apartment we bought when we sold that property has no chance of being sold now for anything near what we paid for it; it is doubtful if it can be sold at all.

Construction became the main source of new private-sector jobs, with employment in the industry rising by 59% between 2000 and 2008. Some estimate there are 300,000 unoccupied homes. The National Housing Development Survey identified 2,800 “ghost” estates which presented safety hazards. Hundreds of thousands of homeowners have already found themselves saddled with negative equity as a result of the crash, with as many as one in seven families affected. The jig is finally up for the Irish. Ireland had to follow Greece with the begging bowl to the EU and IMF. PM Brian Cowen could not absolve himself from blame on the grounds that the problem started before he took office – he had been the finance minister who engineered the boom and failed to stop the bust.

In Sri Lanka we have the mudalali; in Ireland they have the Gombeen Man. Politicians achieve prominence by cronying up to influential local figures and doing favours like getting jobs and planning permission in return for political support. The “brown envelope”, i.e. bribery, has long been a feature of Irish politics and commerce. FF has been particularly adept at developing clientelist networks which delivered just enough goods to ensure personal loyalty and gratitude through parish-pump politics.

Widespread disillusionment with the political class has been focused by writers such as Fintan O’Toole and David McWilliams. Bob Geldof felt it necessary to announce that he did not intend to run for president in October. In one of his more printable comments the ex-Boomtown Rat spoke of boom and bust. “The overwhelming feeling I have is one of sadness for the country – and of anger for the incompetence beyond measure, the sheer stupidity and the clear venality which has Ireland where it is now”.

O’Toole wrote: “People are sickened by the amorality of so many aspects of our public life, particularly those where politics and business overlap. Cronyism and impunity are the twin pillars of an edifice that has to be demolished.”

As with austerity measures in all countries, it is not the culprits who tighten their belts. Ordinary taxpayers pay for bank bailouts, the old and the vulnerable see their welfare benefits and public services cut savagely, while speculators whose “risk-taking” caused the problem continue to get their bonuses. The bondholders who engaged in speculative commercial activity should be punished by taking the losses rather than getting unlimited compensation.

Sri Lankans who call for more privatisation and less regulation should take note of Ireland’s fate.




Diversity, Equality, Naming

This article was published in the Sunday Island on July 30, 2011

I have a favourite quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: ” all generalisations are dangerous, even this one”. Putting people into categories and expecting them to be happy in their boxes is a dangerous delusion. Putting people into racial or ethnic boxes is particularly risky.

I got into a dispute with my editor at Le Monde diplomatique when she asked for my views on an article she had published by a Frenchman, Cédric Gouverneur, who had parachuted into Sri Lanka. I said that I was not sure if his phrase, “the government, overjoyed at being able to divide the Tamils” was useful. It seems to me to verge on racism to lump all Tamils together and assume that they all have the same interests and opinions. Neither author nor editor welcomed my contribution. People of a leftist persuasion, including my good self, hate to be called racist.


I complained to the BBC, The Independent and The Irish Times about their sloppy use of language in describing the last days of the LTTE in terms of the government trouncing “the Tamils”. Robert Kaplan, in the Atlantic Monthly September 2009, wrote, “Sri Lanka has experienced more than a quarter of a century of civil war between ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils.”


In my writing for western audiences, I have tried to disabuse my readers of the delusion that Sri Lanka is a nation where two races are always at each other’s throats. I tell them that, for such a small nation (a little larger than West Virginia, a little smaller than Ireland, but with 16 million more people than Ireland) there are many fault lines of ethnicity, political philosophy, language and religion. I tell my western readers that, despite difficulties, people of all groups co-exist reasonably well.


The Sri Lanka cricket team has been a good example of multiculturalism. In his Lords speech, Kumar Sangakarra said: “I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan”.


David Cameron said multiculturalism has failed, arguing for a stronger sense of British identity (a difficult concept for most Brits to understand). Cameron was speaking in Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel had already said “multikulti” did not work, and immigrants needed to integrate. A recent survey suggested more than 30% of people believed Germany was “overrun by foreigners”. Nazism is on the rise.


Susanne Wessendorf argues that support for multiculturalism stems from changes in Western societies dealing, after World War II, with the racist trauma of the holocaust and ethnic cleansing. African and Asian nations became independent, highlighting colonial racism and exporting their people. In the USA black militants criticised assimilation, implicit in which was prejudice against those who did not act white. Multiculturalism in western countries was seen as a useful strategy to combat racism.


Supporters of multiculturalism argue that culture is not one definable thing based on one race or religion, but the result of multiple factors changing as the world changes. Multiculturalism allows people to truly express who they are within a tolerant, adaptable society.


Anti-multiculturalism covers a spectrum ranging from genuine anxieties to outright toxic racism. I recently read an extremely distasteful blog post entitled “Multiculturalism kills another Libtard”. A young Swedish woman was violently raped, killed and mutilated. The culprit was black. Someone chastised the blogger: “Since you don’t know this woman, how dare you call her a libtard in your title — do you know her political leanings?

Multiculturalism doesn’t kill, people kill. The right wing favorite “Guns don’t kill, people kill” meme applies here too, not just for your NRA bumper stickers. Depending on monitor / browser settings those who do not wish to see a mutilated corpse (me, for example) may see it despite your lame warning. The only person you have effectively insulted with this disgusting post is the dead woman. Classy.” The source blog the poster got his information from was pornographic with comments along the lines of “Kill all niggers”.

Academics have noted legitimate public fears about multiculturalism. Harvard professor of political science, Robert D Putnam, surveyed 26,200 people in 40 American communities and found that the more racially diverse a community is, the greater the loss of trust. People in diverse communities “don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions,” writes Putnam. In the presence of ethnic diversity, Putnam maintains that “[W]e hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”


Australian ethologist Frank Salter writes : “Relatively homogeneous societies invest more in public goods, indicating a higher level of public altruism. For example, the degree of ethnic homogeneity correlates with the government’s share of gross domestic product as well as the average wealth of citizens.” Salter has developed a theory of Universal Nationalism. “The realisation that ethnicity is extended kinship at the genetic level led to the realisation that individuals have a large genetic stake in their ethnic groups, which could help explain the ubiquitousness of ethnic identity, solidarity and conflict from tribal times to the present.” Salter does not recommend strengthening the gene pool by interracial marriage. He is popular with the American New Right and those who believe it is vitally important for whites to defend their legitimate group interests. However, Salter is not quite right-wing enough for them.


This is all rather depressing as many scientists argue that the concept of race or ethnicity is meaningless. According to John H Relethford, author of The Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, a race “is a group of populations that share some biological characteristics….These populations differ from other groups of populations according to these characteristics.” Race is fluid and thus difficult to pinpoint scientifically. “Race is a concept of human minds, not of nature,” Relethford writes.


I recently had my knuckles rapped for using the word “gypsies” to describe a group of people living in the Aligambay area. Their mother tongue is Telugu and they seem to originate from Andhra Pradesh. They are, inaccurately, referred to as gypsies in Wikipedia and The Island. What’s in a name?
I asked my knuckle-rapper what I should call them. She thought they would prefer to be classed as Tamil, as that would place them in one of the common ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Although ethnicity is a fluid concept, these people are definitely not Tamil and it is doubtful if Tamils would accept them as such. My interlocutor said people settled in Sri Lanka, whatever their historical origin, would like to be identified as Sri Lankan. However, this is an aspiration rather than an actuality. Whatever they might hope, they are not as fortunate as Sri Lankan cricketers. People do see them as outsiders.


Categorisation and the act of naming can exclude. However, it may be necessary to identify and name those in need of affirmative action to encourage their inclusion. Naming should be sensitively applied.


Something Rotten in the State of Norway?

This article was published in the Sunday Island on August 13, 2011 


Mankind cannot bear too much reality. People who are unhappy in the now of where they are, delude themselves that there is a better society elsewhere. Utopia might be located in an after-life or it might be in a different part of this planet, or another time in history. I recall that in the 1960s Professor Joan Robinson was telling us that Mao had it all sorted and we should try to emulate Communist China. C Wright Mills told us capitalism was finished and Castro had found a way to make Marxism human – look what a great health service Cuba has! In the 70s, I studied a fat compendium of essays arguing that worker participation in Tito’s Yugoslavia could teach Britain how to solve its industrial problems. For a while, Costa Rica, which does not have a standing army, seemed heaven on earth.


Only yesterday, I read in Huffington Post that Bhutan had all the answers, with its concept of Gross National Happiness. Someone commented: “I am Bhutanese, and I think the Bhutanese government has been milking this happiness thing for all it’s worth… The Bhutanese government should realize the special nature of their situation before it goes around promoting resolutions, or telling other countries how they should rank happiness in their list of priorities”.

I recall reading of a survey that said Ireland was the happiest place on earth. That was before the economy went down the toilet and the industrial scale of the Catholic Church’s abuses was proved beyond doubt.

My personal knowledge of Scandinavia is limited to a brief visit to Denmark (another one-time contender for happiest nation on the globe) in the early 80s. It seemed to be entirely populated by sensible teachers and social workers in home-made clothing (apart from the raving drunks on the street). My knowledge of Sweden was gained from Ingmar Bergman films – not much joy there.

When I was blogging on Open Salon, exchanges with a blogger calling himself Norwonk were always pleasant. He was a fan of the great Tommy Cooper and was grateful when I introduced him to the works of Al Read. I was surprised to learn that British comedy was popular in Norway, with Norwegian versions of Steptoe and Son and Hancock’s Half Hour.

Norwonk was understandably shocked by recent events in Norway: “I suppose I should give you some kind of unique Norwegian insight into the terror attack but I’m sorry: I’ve got nothing. This attack makes no sense to any sane person. There’s a political motive, to be sure, but not one which sane people would identify with. I just hope this is a signal to my country to not change at all. Sure, if there are some simple and sensible measures we can take to improve our security, we should do so. But frankly, I doubt it. ‘’

There is a good deal of delusion about the success of the Scandinavian social democracies. It is true that in Norway women occupy 40% of important jobs. It is true that justice minister Knut Storberget and children’s minister Audun Lysbakken are able, like ordinary citizens, to take generous time-off for paternity leave.

“This tranquil and most peaceful of all communities” is, nevertheless, a foolish cliché.

Scandinavian crime novels have become very popular and reveal the dark underbelly. The Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, like many of the Scandinavian crime writers, was an investigative reporter, and the Breivik story would probably not have surprised him. Robert Fox wrote in The Week: “The truth is Norway, like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, still has the traumas of the past to contend with – the shadow of Nazi occupation, collaboration and resistance – as well as the huge recent changes in society, including the sudden impact of new immigration and the new political Islam.” Norway is not immune to crime, corruption and racism.

In addition, Norway has lost its international ethical niche. Norway got rich because of oil but has somehow managed to avoid the opprobrium attached to other oil explorers and exploiters. The Government Pension Fund takes surplus funds from Norwegian petroleum. The fund accounts for just over one percent of all global stocks. The Fund’s Advisory Council on Ethics was established 19 November 2004 by royal decree. Companies are excluded from the fund if their conduct is judged unethical.

Nevertheless, Norway remains one of the biggest shareholders in the controversial Indonesian logging and palm oil group Sinar Mas, with, according to its most recent published accounts, a holding of more than $16m in Sinar Mas’s palm oil arm, Golden Agri Resources.

The Norwegian government also invests in Burma, gaining profit from the human rights abuses of the totalitarian military government which employs slave labour and summary executions to do business.  According to a report by Earth Rights: “The Norwegian people, through their government’s sovereign wealth fund, have USD $4.7 billion invested in 15 companies – hailing from eight countries – involved in the oil and gas sector in Burma.”
“Apart from direct human rights impacts, the Shwe gas and oil transport pipelines appear to be exacerbating rising ethnic tensions in Burma’s contested borderlands, specifically in the ethnically diverse territories of Shan State.” The Shwe gas consortium and several other companies in the Fund are engaged in onshore infrastructure construction in Burma, an activity that the Norwegian Ethics Council itself determined poses an unreasonably high risk of leading to human rights violations.

Although it has a large aid programme and strongly supports the UN, in reality, Norway has joined the club of rich nations exploiting the planet for their own benefit. There is a failure to regulate Norwegian corporations. Mark Curtis wrote in the Guardian: “Norwegian weapons sales have tripled since 2000, reaching GBP 336 million in 2007. Norwegian arms were used by the US and Britain during the invasion of Iraq, while a lack of controls have allowed high explosives to be sold to the US and re-exported to Israel.” Norway has a presence in Afghanistan and Libya.

National Geographic asks: “Why Is Japan Whaling’s Bogeyman When Norway Hunts Too?” Claire Bass, marine mammals programme manager with the WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals), says other whaling nations appear to get off lightly compared with Japan. “I think it’s part of the strategy of countries like Norway to stand behind Japan and use them to take most of the flak”. It is strange that, in the face of opposition from around the world, a rich nation like Norway is one of a small number of countries actively engaged in commercial whaling, despite the negligible contribution it makes to the economy, and despite, according to documents released by WikiLeaks, President Obama putting pressure on Norway during his Nobel Peace Prize visit.

While one has every sympathy for the innocent Norwegian citizens who suffered in the recent outrageous event, one is also dismayed by the opportunity it afforded to stoke the national myth and dangerous self-delusion that Norway is usually a paradise on earth and that the nation behaves like a paragon of virtue in the ugly reality of the world.


Click to access Broken-Ethics.pdf


THE PRESS | Music Reviews

Click Header to Return Home

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -


A fake image is worth zero words

Poet's Corner

Poems, poets, poetry, writing, poetry challenges

Casual, But Smart

Pop Culture From An Old Soul

PN Review Blog

‘The most engaged, challenging and serious-minded of all the UK’s poetry magazines’ - Simon Armitage

The Manchester Review

The Manchester Review

Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

Stephen Jones: a blog

Daoism—lives—language—performance. And jokes

Minal Dalal

Spreading resources for potential living.