Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: concentration camps

Channel 4 and Sri Lanka

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 22 2014. It can be found on page 7 of the E-paper at:
http://www.ceylontoday.lk/e-paper.html
It was also reproduced by Sri Lanka Guardian:
http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2014/10/there-is-no-room-for-truth-in-world-of.html

There is no room for truth in the world of sound bites.

For some bizarre reason the article is credited by Sri Lanka Guardian to Upul Joseph Fernando rather than me.

No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka

I was most dismayed to read an article by my friend and colleague Sulochana Ramiah Mohan on the front page of Ceylon Today on Wednesday 15 October. Sulochana reported that Channel 4’s No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka is one of four documentaries nominated for the International Emmy Awards 2014. This news comes at a time when I am considering making a submission to Sandra Beidas, at OIHCR. Her remit is “to coordinate work and activities and act as the main interlocutor with stakeholders and oversee report writing and documentation,” in relation to a UN inquiry into alleged war crimes in the last seven years of Sri Lanka’s war.

Channel 4 first screened The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka in 2011. Why is it being nominated for an Emmy in 2014? Is the nomination timed to coincide with Beidas’s investigation?

The Allegations

The main charges covered in the programme are:

  • 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.

Numbers

Jon Snow introduces the Channel 4 programme by citing the “Panel of Experts” report commissioned by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon. Callum Macrae, director of Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields said: “Channel 4 has been reporting on this throughout the past two years and the documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields represents the culmination of all that. Although the release comes not long after the Panel of Experts (Darusman), report was published, that was a coincidence and we were clearly researching at the same time. However, I think it’s significant that we both reached virtually identical conclusions.”

It would not be surprising that they reached similar conclusions if they were both using the same tainted evidence. The Channel 4 effort resembles the Darusman Report in the way it presents in a tendentious manner allegations posing as fact. The Marga Institute deconstructed the Darusman Report.[i]

When Gordon Weiss was UN representative in Sri Lanka 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, he increased the figure to 40,000.

In his book, The Cage, Weiss quotes a press release by Navi Pillay in which she says 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?

Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator challenged even Gordon Weiss’s lower estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, Holmes 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.

A detailed discussion of numbers of civilians killed can be found in The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice, by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka.[ii] I summarised that report on the Transconflict website and attended a seminar on it at the Marga Institute.[iii] 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 Sri Lankans did not care. That exaggeration in turn prompted a bunker mentality among the victors who were reluctant to admit to a figure of civilian dead for fear of a litigious reaction. After careful consideration, the IDAG-S concluded that the civilian death toll was probably between 15,000 and 18,000. This itself has been challenged by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who points out that “only 6000 injured were taken off by the ICRC ships over four months, along with bystanders, suggesting that the figure of the dead would have been less.” The 18,000 figure includes civilians killed by the LTTE, the IDAG-S says, although “it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small”. The IDAG-S estimate is, despite the ire of some critics, somewhat higher than some other calculations, even by Tamils.

Rajasingham Narendran talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere. He said: “My estimate is that the deaths — cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute said “[approximately] 12,000 [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “.Dr. Noel Nadesan: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”. Note that Nadesan includes fighters and natural deaths. In any population, a number would die from natural causes of ill health or medical misadventure at child birth or operation. On 13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data “primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net”, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.

IADG-S considers that those who claim that 147,000 civilians were killed 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.”

A more recent publication by the Marga Institute and the Consortium of Human Rights Agencies also deals with this issue. [iv]

 

Shelling Hospitals

Viewers would not realise that the LTTE possessed and used a wide range of artillery and mortars, including 152mm long-range guns, 130mm artillery pieces, 122mm artillery guns, 120mm mortars, 81mm mortars, 60mm mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers. There is an odd statement in paragraph 94 of the Darusman report where it is acknowledged that the LTTE fired artillery from the vicinity of Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital (PTK) but that they did not use the hospital for military purposes. Channel 4 chose not to mention that LTTE fired from within the no-fire zones, often from the vicinity of hospitals and that the Sri Lankan army had fired back in response. They did not mention clear evidence that the LTTE shelled hospitals and shot their own people. Their own star witness Gordon Weiss says in his book that PTK hospital was hit by artillery fire on several occasions and that “a number of strikes appeared to be from Tamil Tiger positions”. Channel 4 gave the false impression that any government shelling within the no-fire zone was unilateral and unprovoked.[v]

 

Channel 4 suggests that was SLA’s policy to drive hundreds o thousands of civilians into harm’s way when the reality is that soldiers risked and often lost their lives trying to get civilians out of danger. Channel 4 repeatedly ignored the fact that the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the last weeks of fighting had been forced into the combat zone by the LTTE, who then brutally prevented them from leaving.

 

Rape

In Lakbima News June 26 2011, Namini Wijedasa interviewed Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. She put it to him that the Channel 4 programme called on viewers to make many inferences from the footage used. “It suggests, for instance, that women were raped, although it is not possible to determine from the bodies whether sexual abuse had, in fact, occurred.” The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made an accusation that GOSL were employing rape as a policy. She later withdrew the allegation.

Heyns’s response to Namini’s question was : “I think the video has to be seen in the context of all the available evidence, which includes what has been investigated and published by NGOs and the panel of the Secretary General. The cumulative effect of the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern about what both sides did during the war, and in particular what happened in the final stages, when the government gained the upper hand, and that there were no outside witnesses”.

“In the context of all the available evidence” seems to mean that if enough dodgy allegations are gathered together, they gain some credibility purely from their critical mass. This is something akin to those urban myths that gather moss on the internet. If a rumour appears on a lot of websites or blogs, it is quoted repeatedly and the mere accumulation is seen as proof.

Withholding Supplies

Channel 4 alleges that GOSL deliberately withheld food and medical supplies from the north. It is a little-known (in the west) and perhaps surprising fact that throughout the conflict, the central government tried to maintain a government structure even in LTTE-held territories. It continued to send food and medicine even though it knew that much of this would be siphoned off by the enemy. The doctors working in the embattled hospitals in the north attested that they had ample supplies.

Authenticity of Tapes

Another UN Rapporteur, Philip Alston, said his experts (Peter Diaczuk, an “expert in firearms evidence”, Daniel Spitz, a “forensic pathologist”, and Jeff Spivack, an “expert in forensic video analysis”) could prove the authenticity of the images used by Channel 4 showing abuses by SLA soldiers. Alston conceded that there were some “characteristics of the video which the experts were unable to explain” but asserted that “each of these characteristics can, however, be explained in a manner entirely consistent with the conclusion that the videotape appears to be authentic.”

Alston’s “experts” do not inspire confidence. Spitz’s father, who had held the post before him, appointed him Medical Examiner for Macomb County. Spitz achieved notoriety by ruling that an execution-style death was suicide, not noticing a bullet hole in the neck and a bullet in the jaw. Fredericks had no training in photogrammetry and has no more expertise than a layperson. He lied in court about his company’s ties to Taser, and supported a police cover-up. Spivack was a not very successful self-employed private investigator (he filed bankruptcy in 2003), with little verifiable work experience, and flaky credentials.

Unreliable Witnesses

An important witness in the Channel 4 programmes is referred to as “Vani Kumar”. The Channel 4 commentary at no point mentions that her real name was Damilvany Gnanakumar and that she was a Tamil Tiger whom Castro ordered to work in Mullivaykkal hospital. In London, she was women’s co-ordinator for the Tamil Youth Organisation, an LTTE front. In Kilinochchi, she was assigned to work with foreign media and was described by a former colleague called Prabakaran as a “news correspondent”. He said she had been trained to use firearms and wore a cyanide capsule around her neck. As long ago as September 2009, Gnanakumar was discredited. Channel 4 must have known about her past.

Semiotics

I am not an investigative reporter or an expert on authenticating videos. I have communicated with Siri Hewavitharana, the expert who questioned the authenticity of the tapes. I have had a lengthy telephone conversation with the lead author of The Numbers Game, which gives a detailed rebuttal of the figures used by Channel 4. I have participated in Marga Institute seminars on the topic. I do have some knowledge of semiotics and linguistic analysis. When I first saw the Channel 4 programme, many things about it jarred.

The title, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, is a major distortion as there is no comparison between Pol Pot’s ambition to send Cambodia to Year Zero and the efforts of a democratically elected government to deal with terrorism within its own sovereign borders. The director manipulates viewers’’ emotions throughout the film by means of images and music, as well as voice-over commentary.

Jon Snow introduces the programme by saying that at the war’s end “as many as 40,000, and possibly far more, civilians were killed”. That is meaningless. How can one say “as many as” and “possibly far more” in the same sentence?

Alston employs strange language to defend the authenticity of the videos. The unexplainable characteristics can be explained in a manner consistent with the conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Alston is not saying the “experts” have said the video is authentic. The unexplainable can be explained to fit a conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Even if they came out and said directly that the video was genuine and had not been tampered with, this is not proof that it shows Sri Lankan soldiers killing Tamils.

IDP Camps

The Channel 4 programme includes a solemn sequence about the brutality of life in the IDP camps. The director manipulates our emotions with sinister soundtrack music. The Emmy nomination allows Channel 4 to continue to peddle untruths about the camps. Here in October 2014, we know that the predicted mass deaths from disease or a policy of genocidal extermination did not happen. Today the camps are empty.

Even in 2009, Channel 4 should have known that these were not concentration camps. The camps had banks with ATMs, shops and schools with children studying for and passing exams. B Lynn Pascoe, UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs, visited the IDP camps in September 2009 and said, “You have a better story than is getting out today.” Mr. Pascoe stated that he was “impressed by the work done by the Army, the demining teams, the UN staff and the civil society” and that his team also witnessed the rehabilitation work that was underway.

Conclusion

Channel 4 used Gordon Weiss as one of its major “witnesses” but chose to ignore what he had written about the (generally) exemplary conduct towards Tamil civilians of the SLA. There is testimony from many surviving Tamil civilians about the risks that soldiers took to protect civilians. The Red Cross and Human Rights Watch also said this. Weiss, Tamil survivors, the Red Cross and HRW also made it clear that the LTTE were firing artillery from hospitals, using civilians as human shields and shooting those who tried to escape. Channel 4 mentions none of this. The first programme devoted only 49 seconds to LTTE abuses.

A book called Corrupted Journalism[vi] produced by a collective known as Engage Sri Lanka covers these issues in far more detail than I can do here. They have the good judgement to cite me on several occasions. Channel 4 spokesperson, News Editor Ben de Pear, attempted to rubbish the book but did not, in any way, address the detailed concerns raised in it. In fact, he makes it clear that he has not even read it. “I do not have this weighty tome in my hands, so I can’t react to everything it says.” This “weighty tome” is a paperback of 222 pages. It is also available online. Engage Sri Lanka’s argument is supported by 625 detailed footnotes, an eight-page bibliography and 12 pages of appendices. De Pear’s flippant response clearly indicates that he does not want to employ joined-up thinking and address detail.

De Pear hides behind a ruling by the UK regulator, which dismissed a complaint about the programme. “All three times Ofcom found in our favour, found our journalism to be balanced and objective and dismissed all Sri Lankan complaints. All other complaints made by the government were ignored by Ofcom.”

No, they did not. This is what Ofcom said:”While all subjects in news programmes must be presented with due impartiality and reported with due accuracy, in other non-news programmes there is no requirement in the Code for issues to be treated with due accuracy.” Ofcom, despite what de Pear claimed, did not find in Channel 4’s favour in the sense that it decided that they had reported the truth. Ofcom decided not to require Channel 4 to respond to the “detailed and lengthy concerns” raised in the complaint simply because it would be too expensive for them and it might discourage broadcasters from making controversial programmes.

Engage Sri Lanka commented: “a company generating a billion pounds of revenue and employing 800 people couldn’t afford the cost of responding to a legitimate complaint. Channel 4 then added that to have to respond to the complaint posed a ‘serious threat to the future of…current affairs television’ and had the potential to be ‘highly chilling of free expression’”. At the annual Hugh Cudlipp lecture a few weeks before the complaint, Jon Snow praised Ofcom.

 

At the Marga seminar I attended, 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.

Civilians die in war. In a “civil” war where one side deliberately holds its own people hostage there are, regrettably, bound to be civilian casualties. It is clear from the testimony of even those critical of GOSL, such as Gordon Weiss , that SLA soldiers behaved well towards Tamil civilians and there is no evidence that they were under orders to be brutal. 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.

Engage Sri Lanka make an excellent point in their conclusion. “Channel 4 seems oblivious to the fact that their dubious allegations about the conflict in Sri Lanka are artificially sustaining what remains of the LTTE, one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organisations, and elements of the Tamil diaspora that continues to support it in pursuing unrealistic expectations”.

 

 

[i] www.margasrilanka.org/app/webroot/…/files/Truth-Accountability.pdf

 

[ii][ii] https://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-Justice

 

[iii] http://www.transconflict.com/2013/06/the-numbers-game-and-reconciliation-in-sri-lanka-136/

 

[iv] https://www.dropbox.com/s/tdxwntf7wu5andq/The%20Last%20Stages%20of%20the%20war%20in%20Sri%20Lanka.pdf?n=66191473

 

[v][v] LTTE artillery can be seen on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=lFDm5KVibmE

 

[vi] http://www.corruptedjournalism.com/

 

Suffering at Wars’ Ends

This article was published in The Nation on December 11 2011.

 
War is hell and the suffering goes on after wars 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 Second. 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 labourers 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.

Lasting havoc

 
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.

 
World War II aftermath

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 12 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.

 
Despicable punishments

 

At Schwäbisch 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.

 

Sri Lanka’s displaced people Part 1

This was posted on August 8 2019

Concentration camps or welfare camps?

Introduction

Whenever I write about the situation in Sri Lanka, I try to approach the subject in a calm and rational manner. My only bias is in favour of this beautiful country, which I have chosen as my home, achieving the peace and harmony that has eluded it for so long. In spite of, or perhaps because of, my even-handed approach, comments on my articles tend to fall into three categories.

The very same article (whose main theme was western ignorance and hypocrisy) drew comments from Sri Lankans along these lines:

  • Most commended me for my professional and unbiased approach.
  • Some accused me of bigotry against Tamils and of being in the pay of the government.
  • Others accused me of being an LTTE propagandist because I mentioned discrimination against Tamils as a possible factor in thirty years of mayhem.

Former Chief Justice, Sarath N. Silva, who is Sinhalese, fears that the continuing confinement of Tamils in camps in the north may lay the foundation for a new war, since comparable discrimination against and persecution of Tamil civilians played a major role in starting the war, which has just ended. Silva said the confinement of civilians in these camps insults the soldiers who risked, and in many cases lost, their lives to free the civilians from the LTTE, and makes a mockery of celebrations of the end of the war.

Some Sinhalese argue vehemently that there is not and has not been any discrimination against Sri Lankan Tamils. A surprising proponent of this point of view is Gayathri Jude, an Australian who recently visited Sri Lanka. “To say that Tamils are being persecuted in Sri Lanka is bunkum,” she said. This was surprising because the speaker is not Sinhalese and is the daughter of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Kumaru Pancharatnam, better known by his nom de guerre, George Master.

George Master was in the custody of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) when his daughter in Australia decided to visit Sri Lanka in hopes of seeing him. “When I announced plans to visit Sri Lanka, they [Tamil friends and family in Australia] warned me that the police will not only kill me, but my husband and two children as well. If not, we will be tortured, they warned. So, I returned to Sri Lanka with a great degree of fear. I now realize the extent of the false propaganda spread by the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] to mislead the international community and tarnish Sri Lanka’s image. “My father said that he is being treated well by the police”.

IDP camps in Sri Lanka

It is perhaps foolhardy of me to attempt to deal with the topic of the camps in northern Sri Lanka, as this subject has generated a great deal of vituperation. I will set out here various points of view and leave it to the reader to draw conclusions. Once again, I must stress that I have no axe to grind here except where it concerns dispelling mistaken impressions in the west where knee-jerk opinions are expressed on the basis of reports by what Sri Lankan writers call ”parachute journalists”. As a foreigner myself I believe I am qualified to do this.

For example, some foreign critics seem to believe that all Sri Lankan Tamils were deliberately confined by the government to a narrow strip of beach in the extreme north of the country where they were subjected to heavy artillery and then kept in extermination camps. The reality was that 70% of Tamils live outside the north and are not segregated; many are prosperous and influential. The north is largely mono-ethnic because the Tigers engaged in ethnic cleansing to drive out Sinhalese and Muslims.

Estimates vary about how many internally displaced people (IDPs) are in the IDP camps in Sri Lanka. The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) presented a petition to the government saying that 300,000 civilians who escaped the battlefields of the island’s civil war are being detained illegally in 40 centres.

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the CPA, wrote in Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD):”Would tardiness and a failure to expedite decongestion at the camps through voluntary return compound the security situation? Will not decongestion make life considerably more bearable for those who remain and the management of the camps much easier?”

International criticism

NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have been strongly critical of the government’s decision to keep civilians in these camps. More extreme sections of the Tamil Diaspora have accused the government of having a genocidal agenda and have described the camps as being designed for the purpose of exterminating Tamils.

Some international commentators have picked up this theme, preferring to ignore the government’s case.

Just to take one example of international criticism: David Begg, leader of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, taking time off from defending his members against pay cuts and redundancies as the Irish economy goes rapidly downhill, has taken an interest in far-away Sri Lanka. He has written two letters to the Irish foreign minister urging him to intervene in Sri Lanka. The gist of his message was: ”We also know that around 300,000 Tamils remain interned without trial in so called ˜welfare centres that are concentration camps in all but name. Contrary to international law, there is no freedom of movement of the displaced and there is not enough water, food and sanitation. There have been reports saying that more than 1000 people are dying in the camps every week. As it is almost impossible for independent organisations or international press to enter the camps we do not know what is really happening there. The Sri Lankan government bears the entire responsibility for the atrocious situation in the camps.”

Some see a sinister aspect, beyond mere hypocrisy and delusion, to the agenda of some foreign critics. For example, L. Jayasooriya writes that Robert Blake, former US ambassador to Colombo and currently Under Secretary to Hillary Clinton, ”spent his entire energy, effort and time to undermine Sri-Lanka by planning, plotting and scheming with the traitors in our land to destabilize our country.”

Jayasooriya continues: ”Little Sri Lanka militarily defeated all plans by America and her allies to save the LTTE hierarchy so that they could use the LTTE first to de-stabilize Sri-Lanka and divide the country and then lever Tamil Nadu out of the Indian federation to remove for ever India being a threat to the living standards of the West. India also wanted the LTTE hierarchy but for a different purpose, namely to annex Sri Lanka at some date in the future.”

”The Japanese government has decided to open training facilities to teach and train youth how to live in peace and that it is most likely that Sri Lanka will also benefit. The plan he said already has two slots for Sri Lanka and he thinks that Sri Lanka will be accommodated. Soon after that America said that she has an exchange programme  for the same purpose. With these two programmes the hard core LTTE cadres which may be several hundreds could be moulded to fit into a grand plan to de-stabilize either Sri Lanka or Tamil Nadu the type of which has never been attempted before by the CIA or MI5 or RAW. Now they say that we are violating human rights by keeping the IDPs far too long in the camps and they want to assist us in screening them.”

In a poll conducted by LMD, over 70% of respondents agreed that double standards were applied by western nations when they tried to intervene in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. 75 per cent supported the government’s decision to seek aid from nations such as Libya and Iran.

Concentration camps?

Language is corrupted and confused by politics and war. The Vietnam War gave us ”pacification” which meant destroying villages and livelihoods and spraying toxic pesticides in order to cut off support and destroy potential havens for the Vietcong. More recently, we have had ”collateral damage”, which, in grim reality, means dead babies and young children with amputated limbs. I have just encountered a neologism that was new to me “ in Pakistan, prisoners were ”processed in the traditional manner”, which means torture. The victorious Vietnamese set up ”re-education camps”.

In the north of Sri Lanka, there are large numbers of civilians in what the Sri Lanka government calls ”welfare camps” or ”relief centres”. Foreign critics have called these camps ”concentration camps”.

Let it not be forgotten that the concept of the concentration camp was invented, not by the Nazis, but by the British Empire.

Recalcitrant Boers were incarcerated in South Africa in British concentration camps. The poor diet and inadequate hygiene led to endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery. A report after the war estimated that 27,927 Boers (of whom 22,074 were children under 16) and 14,154 black Africans had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the camps. About 25% of the Boer inmates and 12% of the black Africans died (although recent research suggests that the black African deaths were underestimated and may have actually been around 20,000). 4,619 Boers were interned in Bermuda, compared to Bermuda’s total population of around 17,000; at least 34 Boers are known to have died during the journey to Bermuda.

Michael Collins, hero of the Irish fight for independence (although he was killed at a tender age by rival Irishmen), was imprisoned at the Frongoch concentration camp in Wales. The prisoners were very poorly treated and Frongoch became a breeding ground for Irish revolutionaries. Internment camps were set up by the British in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, holding without trial many civilians unconnected with the IRA. Internment only succeeded in bringing down the Heath government and gaining more recruits for the IRA.

During the 1940s, the British, with the help of German POWs, built internment camps in Cyprus for up to 30,000 Jewish detainees. They consisted almost entirely of Holocaust survivors who were being prevented from reaching Palestine. Funds for maintenance of the camps were taken from taxes collected from the Jewish population of Palestine.

For the duration of World War II, many people passed through internment camps at Knockaloe and Douglas on the Isle of Man. The internees included enemy aliens from the Axis Powers, principally Germany and Italy. Initially, refugees who had fled from Germany were also included, as were suspected British Nazi sympathizers such as British Union of Fascists leader, Oswald Mosley. The British government rounded up 74,000 German, Austrian and Italian aliens. Within six months the 112 alien tribunals had individually summoned and examined 64,000 aliens, and the vast majority was released, having been found to be ”friendly aliens”. Among the aliens were 28,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis (the Amadeus String Quartet was formed in one of these internment camps). In Britain, internees were housed in camps and prisons. Some camps had tents rather than buildings with internees sleeping directly on the ground. Men and women were separated and most contact with the outside world was denied. A number of prominent Britons including writer H. G. Wells campaigned against the internment of refugees.

Recently, several elderly Kenyans delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street asking for justice for their castration and rape in the Kenyan Gulag during the Kenyan fight for independence. According to Caroline Elkins, up to 320,000 Kikuyu, ”nearly a third of the population”,may have passed through the more than 50 camps, a figure which does not include the people, mostly women and children, held behind barbed wire in the fortified resettlement villages. One British colonial officer described the labour camps thus: “Short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment and flogging – all in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights.” Cholera swept through the camps. Official medical reports were ignored, and the British lied about conditions in the camps.

The USA used the term ”War Relocation Camps” to describe the facilities into which 110,000 US citizens of Japanese origin were herded during World War II.

In Canada in January 1942, a “protected” 100-mile-wide strip up the Pacific coast was created, and any men of Japanese descent between the ages of 18 and 45 were removed and taken to internment camps and forced labor. Ian MacKenzie MP said: ”Let our slogan be for British Columbia: ”˜No Japs from the Rockies to the seas.’” Most of the 21,500 people of Japanese descent who lived in British Columbia were naturalized or native-born citizens. Some were decorated war heroes who had served with the Canadian forces in the First World War. Those unwilling to live in internment camps or relocation centres faced the possibility of deportation to Japan. In early March, all ethnic Japanese people were ordered out of the protected area, and a daytime-only curfew was imposed on them. Some of those brought inland were kept in animal stalls in Vancouver for months. The authorities then moved them to ten camps in or near inland British Columbia towns, sometimes separating husbands from their wives and families.

I recall as a child in Ireland in the 1950s seeing graffiti on walls demanding ”End internment now”. My father explained to me that the Republic’s government was still holding, without trial, political prisoners. During the Second World War (which in another of those peculiar neologisms was called ”The Emergency”) the Irish government amended the constitution to allow emergency powers which included internment without trial of those who had committed a crime or even might be likely to. The IRA leadership were mostly imprisoned at the internment camp at the Curragh, where they were treated increasingly harshly. (Allied personnel were treated rather better as can be seen in the movie The Brylcreem Boys starring Gabriel Byrne).

Let us not forget the camp at Guantanamo. Although President Obama has announced that it will be closed it has also been announced that the administration should continue to claim the right to hold some Guantanamo inmates indefinitely as ”combatants” under the ”laws of war”, without charging them either in criminal courts or in military commissions.

Global refugee situation

The UN Refugee Agency reported that there were around 16 million refugees and 26 million IDPs in the world at the end of 2008 and that the number of IDPs is growing faster than the number of refugees because the majority of conflicts today are within individual countries rather than between nations. While the UN agency’s mandate is to “lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide”, in recent years it has been increasingly tasked under the UN’s humanitarian reform process with assisting IDPs.

How is Sri Lanka coping with its internally displaced people following

Obama Tortured by British Shock!

The London Times reported a while ago that  Hussein Onyango Obama, Barack Obama’s paternal grandfather, was arrested in 1949 by the British during the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya and subjected to horrific violence which left him permanently scarred and embittered against the British. He worked as an army cook but became involved in the independence movement aimed at overthrowing colonial rule.

“The African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he confessed,” Sarah Onyango, 87, Hussein Onyango’s third wife, the woman President Obama refers to as “Granny Sarah” said. “He said they would sometimes squeeze his testicles with metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down,”

Onyango served with the British Army in Burma during the Second World War. Although a member of the Luo tribe from western Kenya, he sympathized with the Kikuyu Central Association, which evolved into the Mau Mau. Mrs Onyango said that her husband had supplied information to the insurgents. “His job as cook to a British army officer made him a useful informer for the secret oathing movement.”

Mr Onyango was probably tried in a magistrates’ court on charges of political sedition or membership of a banned organization, but the records do not survive because such documentation was routinely destroyed in British colonies after six years.

British involvement in Kenya began late in the 19th century when at the Berlin Conference of 1885, European nations carved up the African continent. East and southern Africa fell under the British sphere of influence. In 1888, the Imperial British East Africa Company was granted a Royal Charter to administer East Africa until, in 1895 the British government established a Protectorate.

Kenyan society was clearly divided along racial lines during colonial rule. White Europeans dominated politics, economics and were at the top of the social scale. Asians occupied the middle levels of society. They were mainly involved in small-scale agriculture and industry, retail, trade, skilled and semi-skilled labour and generally worked in the middle level of the civil service. Africans, who formed the majority of the population, were mostly poor farmers and had very little say in how Kenya was run.

The occupation of land, particularly in the Kikuyu areas of the cool central highlands, by European settlers had long been a source of bitter resentment. By 1948, 1.25 million Kikuyu were restricted to 2,000 square miles, while 30,000 white settlers occupied 12,000 square miles of the best agricultural land.

Settler farming was uneconomic, supported by government subsidies for most of the colonial period, whereas early Kikuyu cash-crop farming was efficient and undercut settler prices. But Africans were soon banned from growing tea, coffee, and sisal, and a minimum price set for maize removed their advantage. Some Kikuyu were allowed to occupy land as tenant farmers with no legal rights on white settlers’ farms, which had been their homes, in exchange for their labour. The real income of these Kikuyu fell by about 40% during the period 1936 to 1946 and fell even more sharply after that. The settlers demanded ever more labor and further restricted access to land in an attempt to turn the tenant farmers into laborers. Overstocking, soil erosion, and hunger spread. “Improvements”, like the digging of terraces by female forced labour, were bitterly resented.

Thousands migrated to Nairobi whose population doubled between 1938 and 1952. By 1953, almost half of all Kikuyu had no land claims at all. The results were worsening poverty, starvation, unemployment and overpopulation.

After World War II, there was an increase in the number of white settlers in Kenya. Most were demobilised British officers who hoped to benefit from the comfortable lifestyle that was available to them and their families. Black Africans who had served with British forces during the Second World War returned home to Kenya with hopes for a better life. I have met the spoilt offspring of some of these creatures.

There was a civil war among the Kikuyu because some Kikuyu managed to retain their land and forged strong ties with the British. Divide and rule.

The Mau Mau were able to be portrayed as savages by the British because of lurid tales of oaths which included promises to kill, dismember and burn settlers and rituals which included animal sacrifice or the ingestion of blood. There were rumors of cannibalism, congress with goats, orgies, ritual places decorated with intestines and goat eyes.

A State of Emergency was declared in October 1952. Troops arrested nearly 100 Kenyan leaders, including future president Jomo Kenyatta. In the first 25 days of Operation Jock Scott, 8,000 people were arrested. The British fielded 55,000 troops in total over the course of the conflict, although the total number did not exceed more than 10,000 at any one time. The majority of the security effort was borne by the Kenya Police and the Tribal Police/Home Guard. Over the course of the conflict, some soldiers either could not or would not differentiate between Mau Mau and non-combatants, and reportedly shot innocent Kenyans. Many soldiers were reported to have collected severed rebel hands for an unofficial five-shilling bounty,

The small numbers of British troops, a high degree of popular support for the rebels, and the low quality of colonial intelligence gave the Mau Mau the upper hand for the first half of 1953. Over 1800 loyalist Kikuyu (Christians, landowners, government loyalists and other Mau Mau opponents) were killed. The Mau Mau mainly attacked at night, emerging from the forests. They attacked isolated farms, but occasionally also households in suburbs of Nairobi. Only the lack of firearms prevented the rebels from inflicting severe casualties on the police and European community.

In 1954, Nairobi was put under military control. Security forces screened 30,000 Africans and arrested 17,000 on suspicion of complicity, including many people who  were later revealed to be innocent. About 15,000 Kikuyu were interned and thousands more were deported to the Kikuyu reserves in the highlands west of Mount Kenya. Entire rebel leadership structures, including the Council for Freedom, were swept away to detention camps and the most important source of supplies and recruits for the resistance evaporated. The authorities repeated the exercise in other areas so that by the end of 1954 there were 77,000 Kikuyu in concentration camps. About 100,000 Kikuyu squatters were deported back to the reserves.

One British colonial officer described the labour camps thus: “Short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment and flogging – all in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights.” Cholera swept through the camps. Official medical reports were ignored, and the British lied about conditions in the camps.

Atrocities were committed on both sides. Mau Mau militants were guilty of human rights violations, and many of the murders of which they were guilty were brutal in the extreme. More than 1,800 Kenyan civilians are known to have been murdered by Mau, and hundreds more disappeared, their bodies never found.

Kenya’s whites saw the killings by the Mau Mau as irrefutable proof of African barbarism, but Africans were engaging in practices perfected in Europe. Galician serfs hacked their Polish landlords to pieces in 1846; Spanish peasants used the scythe and the axe on latifundista families in the civil war; Ukrainian peasants did the same or worse to their better-off neighbors between 1941 and 1944.

In January, 1953, Mau Mau murdered a white couple and their six-year-old son on their farm with knives. Many settlers sacked all their Kikuyu servants. Europeans, including women, armed themselves with any weapon they could find, and in some cases built full-scale forts on their farms.

In March 1953, 1,000 rebels attacked a loyalist village, where 170 non-combatants were hacked or burnt to death. Most of them were the wives and children of Kikuyu Home Guards serving elsewhere. In the weeks that followed, some suspected rebels were summarily executed by police and loyalist Home Guards, and many other Mau Mau implicated in the massacre were brought to trial and hanged.

Only 32 British civilians were killed by Mau Mau militants. The number of Mau Mau fighters killed by the British was about 20,000, and large numbers of Kikuyu not directly involved in the rebellion were persecuted. Lawyers acting for Kenyans suing for compensation have documented about 6,000 cases of abuses including fatal whippings, blindings and rapes.

A British officer, describing his exasperation about uncooperative Mau Mau suspects during an interrogation, explained that:

“I stuck my revolver right in his grinning mouth and I said something, I don’t remember what, and I pulled the trigger. His brains went all over the side of the police station. The other two Mickeys [Mau Mau] were standing there looking blank. I said to them that if they didn’t tell me where to find the rest of the gang I’d kill them too. They didn’t say a word so I shot them both. One wasn’t dead so I shot him in the ear. When the sub-inspector drove up, I told him that the Mickeys tried to escape. He didn’t believe me but all he said was ‘bury them and see the wall is cleared up.’”

Many settlers took an active role in the torture of Mau Mau suspects, running their own screening teams and assisting British security forces during interrogation. Many white settler volunteers ran the concentration camps. Mrs. Katharine Warren-Gash—who liked to think of herself as a “white Kikuyu,” ran the women’s camps at Kamiti. There they were interrogated, whipped, starved, and subjected to hard labour, which included filling mass graves with truckloads of corpses from other camps. Many women gave birth at Kamiti, but the infant death rate was overwhelming. The women buried their babies in bundles of six at a time. Mrs. Warren-Gash brought the archbishop of Mombasa to Kamiti, where he conducted a mass oath-cleansing ceremony in person.

Neil Ascherson, in the New York Review of Books, described an encounter he had in Cyprus in the late 1950s. “Pordy Laneford had come from Kenya. He sat on his hotel bed, a chinless wonder with watery blue eyes and a small moustache, and chatted about himself. He was even younger than I was. Pordy had been named after a Devonshire trout stream which ran past his family home, a bankrupt farm (as he described it) run by a military father who collected medals and taught his children about the Empire. Pordy also took up medal-collecting and Empire. He signed up with the Rhodesian police. But soon, to his surprise, he was discharged ignominiously for torturing an African suspect. He looked around for ‘something which was good fun and sort of helped to hold the Empire up.’ In Kenya, the Mau Mau rebellion had begun, so Pordy joined the infamous Kenya Police Reserve, the paramilitary force recruited mostly from white settlers. He explained to me how important it was to kill captured suspects at once, without waiting for the ‘red tape’ of trials and witness statements. ‘Killing prisoners? Well, it’s not really the same thing, is it? I mean, I’d feel an awful shit if I thought I’d been killing prisoners.’”

“I had met other Pordys before, in different parts of the Empire. It was that schoolboy innocence which made them so terribly dangerous, because it was an incurable condition. They were worse, in many ways, than those compulsive sadists who emerge whenever licensed savagery is in prospect. For Pordys, torture was just a lark, a naughty sport like shooting pheasants out of season. Addicts are treatable. Fun-lovers will always hanker for more fun.”

Ascherson was reviewing books by Caroline Elkins and David Anderson.

Caroline Elkins, Associate Professor of History at Harvard has written a book on the period, Imperial Reckoning: the untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a lot of attention.

According to her calculations, up to 320,000 Kikuyu—nearly a third of the population—may have passed through the more than 50 camps, a figure which does not include the people, mostly women and children, held behind barbed wire in the fortified resettlement villages.

She also attempts to put a figure to the total loss of Kikuyu lives, the born and the unborn. She projects population growth from the 1948 census total, compares the result with the 1962 census figure, and finds a gap between them of over 136,000—at the very lowest estimate of growth rates. In her introduction, Elkins declares: “I now believe there was in late colonial Kenya a murderous campaign to eliminate Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead.”

Lawrence James, who has written extensively on the British Empire, criticized Elkins’s book as being one-sided. James in turn was criticized for being too kind to the British. A number of historians have questioned her methodology and asserted that her figures are grossly exaggerated.

Demographer John Blacker writing in African Affairs demonstrated in detail that Elkins’ estimates of casualties were grossly over-estimated.

In the Journal of African History, Kenyan historian, Bethwell Ogot, wrote that the Mau Mau:“Contrary to African customs and values, assaulted old people, women and children. The horrors they practiced included the following: decapitation and general mutilation of civilians, torture before murder, bodies bound up in sacks and dropped in wells, burning the victims alive, gouging out of eyes, splitting open the stomachs of pregnant women. No war can justify such gruesome actions. In man’s inhumanity to man there is no race distinction. The Africans were practicing it on themselves. There was no reason and no restraint on both sides, although Elkins sees no atrocities on the part of Mau Mau”.

David Anderson went into the surviving trial archives of Emergency Kenya. He examines the grounds on which at least 1,090 Africans were sent to the gallows within a few years—a total without parallel in the late British Empire. He then uses the evidence to reconstruct in detail the story of the Mau Mau rebellion, with its intricate background and its terrible consequences.

Caroline Elkins did lengthy archival research in Kenya and London but also uses oral testimony, which can be unreliable. Nevertheless, the brutality revealed in her interviews is in all too many cases corroborated by witnesses who could not have cooked up the stories in collaboration. Chroniclers of King Leopold’s “Congo Free State,” for example, have always lamented that the firsthand witnesses to its atrocities were all European or American.  Nobody let the Congolese speak for themselves.

The “Hola Massacre” has become part of British, as well as Kenyan, history. On March 3, 1959, a hundred detainees in the remote Hola camp defied orders to go to work. A force of five hundred riot police had already been assembled. When the prisoners refused to pick up their spades, a prearranged onslaught began. An hour later, ten prisoners had been clubbed to death and dozens lay dying or injured. In spite of a frantic cover-up campaign, Britain’s domination of Kenya was fatally damaged.

Anderson writes: “What is astonishing about Kenya’s dirty war is not that it remained secret at the time but that it was so well known and so thoroughly documented.”

Ascherson comments: “The British need to believe that their Empire was run and eventually dismantled with restraint and humanity—as opposed to the disgusting brutality of the French, Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese, Spanish, and German colonial empires. Punctures in that belief have to be mended.”

“The myth that British colonialism guaranteed a minimum standard of behavior toward ‘natives’ cannot—or should not—survive the evidence of twentieth-century Kenya. In the field, the security forces behaved like Germans on an antipartisan sweep in occupied France. In the detention and work camps, and the resettlement villages, the British created a world no better than the universe of the Soviet Gulag.”

Julie MacLusky

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