Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Groundviews

Easter 1916 Part Three

 

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 7 2016

 

Colman's Column3

Martyrdom and Separatism

Four years ago, I posted an article on Groundviews in which I explored the theme of martyrdom in the militant separatism of Irish rebels at the beginning of the 20th century and of the LTTE from the 1970s. I posted the article again on Facebook recently to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. One commenter on Facebook said that she could not see the point of the article. I told her that it had been addressed to a Sri Lankan audience and was warning of the dangers of Sri Lankan Tamils elevating Prabhakaran to the status of a martyr for the cause of Tami nationalism. She responded that my article was “intellectually flawed” because it did not deal with the “800 years of oppression” that preceded the 1916 Rising.

She presumed to know that her long-dead Irish grandfather would take pity on me for my lack of respect for those who “Fought against subjugation of brutal British rule for centuries”. Professor Liam Kennedy has coined an acronym to cover this kind of thinking – MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever). I will deal in a separate article with MOPE in relation to the Diasporas of the Irish and of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Imperial Oppression

How oppressed was Ireland in 1916? The leader of the Home Rule party in the Westminster parliament, John Redmond, in a speech of 1915, claimed that by 1900 the struggle over land was effectively won. Many historians since have claimed  conditions were improving in Ireland by 1916. The writer Sean O’Faolain, who had made bombs for the revolution, later wrote that by 1916, the historical grievances justifying armed violence, had become a “purely emotional impulse”.

An economist of today, David McWilliams, wrote recently, “sometimes we get dewy-eyed about the reality of the Irish state”. McWilliams claims that in 1913, Ireland was one of the richest countries in Europe, with income per head matching that of Sweden, Norway and Finland. 75 years after the Rising, Irish income per head was half the income of the Scandinavians. McWilliams asserts: “The Empire project enriched all of Britain and Ireland. In the later part of the 19th century both Irish and English tradesmen got richer together”. During the Famine, Irish carpenters and fitters earned about 90% of what their English counterparts did. In the decades leading up to 1913, both English and Irish tradesmen saw rapid increases in their wages. Wages of unskilled Irish workers and farm labourers rose rapidly after the Famine. The various Land Acts from 1870 to 1909 began the mass transfer of land from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy to the local farmers. The Irish stock market doubled in the late Victorian era. Large-scale sanitation and infrastructural projects were undertaken such as bringing clean water to Dublin from Roundwood Reservoir.

Although it was a hotbed of rebel activity, Cork did well out of the British Empire. Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour was a major British naval base and defence against Napoleon. Cork exported salted beef, pork and butter to the West Indies and fed the British navy. The unrivalled ability of Cork Harbour to shelter the biggest fleets assembled during the American War of Independence and, later, during the Napoleonic Wars was a major factor in the expansion of the provisions trade in Cork.

Did the Revolution Improve Social Justice?

There were undoubtedly social injustices in the Ireland of 1916. Horace Plunkett of the Cooperative movement produced statistics to show the extent of urban poverty. The death rate for Ireland in 1917 was 16.8 per 1,000 of the population compared to 14.4 for England and Wales. In Ireland there were 2.2 deaths per 1,000 from TB; in England and Wales it was 1.62.Todd Andrews, veteran Irish republican born in 1901, wrote in his autobiography Dublin Made Me about the bleak existence of those at the “bottom of the heap”. “Even those who had regular work were seldom above the poverty line and very many were below it…when I was child, every mother of young children lived in constant dread and sometimes real terror of sickness”.

Mabel Fitzgerald wrote to her former employer, George Bernard Shaw, that she was bringing up her son to speak Irish and to adopt “the sound traditional hatred of England and all her ways”. Shaw responded: “You must be a wicked devil to load a child’s innocent soul with old hatreds and rancours that Ireland is sick of”. He said she should be telling her son “that the English are far more oppressed than any folk he has ever seen in Ireland by the same forces that have oppressed Ireland in the past”.

I remember when Cork was dirt poor. Ancient black-shawled women, like one might see in Greece, Sicily or Portugal, moved like shadows in the warrens of alleyways that climbed the steep streets. Beggars sat on St Patrick’s Bridge. However, this was long after the Imperial oppressor had been ejected.

Apart from those around James Connolly, not many of those who fomented the 1916 Rising were much concerned about social conditions. The writings of Pearse are concerned with a more spiritual Ireland. Likewise, Standish O’Grady used the legendary figure of Cuchulainn “to galvanise the weakened generations of Ireland into an awareness of their heroic masculinity”.

My father, Jeremiah O’Leary, was still in the womb of Hannah Noonan O’Leary when the rebels took over the GPO. He was born on 29 June 1916, two months after the Rising (because Easter is a movable feast, the actual date of the Rising was April 24). Economic circumstances forced him to go to England to find work when in his twenties. His younger brother joined him. My father joined the British Army when the Second World War broke out. Independence precipitated a massive flight of people from Ireland. In the 1950s, 450,000 Irish people emigrated to England alone. The Irish-born population there peaked at over 700,000 in 1971.

A Motley Crew

Many of those involved in the Easter Rising had advanced views. People ran away together to found communist communes in Donegal. The lesbianism of many key figures went unconcealed. Roger Casement was a homosexual as was Eoin O’Duffy, who went on to lead the fascist Blueshirts. Rosamond Jacobs was an enthusiast for Freud’s writing. Some were strongly Anglophobe even though many were from English stock. They were rebelling against their own heritage as much as social conditions or imperialism. Although many of these middle class revolutionaries were bent on self-transformation, the Irish revolution moved from artistic, social and sexual experimentation to repressive conservatism.

Post-Revolution

 

Kevin O’Higgins asserted in the Dáil in March 1923: “We were the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution”. De Valera wrote to Mary MacSwiney: “Every instinct of mine would indicate that I was meant to be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, or even a bishop, rather than the leader of a revolution”.

 

Countess Markievicz boldly stated “the Catholic church is one of the greatest influences for evil in the world” and found it “incomprehensible how any sane person of any intelligence could be a Catholic”. In spite of this, her revolution established a state which was dominated by the regressive and reactionary ideas of the Irish Catholic church. The economy was ruined and the state even begrudged paying pensions to those who were wounded in the fight  for freedom. Some met a worse fate and were executed by former comrades. The material questions around which republicans had organised, including trade union militancy, land seizures and the establishment of soviets, became embarrassing for the national leadership. As historian Tom Garvin put it: “whenever social protest began seriously to threaten the interest of men of substance, republicanism ostentatiously dissociated itself from agitation”.

 

Next week – more about MOPE in Ireland and Sri Lanka

 

 

 

 

Hate Speech and Free Speech

This article appeared on page 7 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday April 28 2015.

 Colman's Column3

I’m of the opinion that we fought too hard for freedom of speech to have a wrong ‘un like this define the terms of it – one day you’re censoring people who offend you, the next you are being censored by people you offend – it’s a slippery slope. Julie Burchill on calls to ‘silence’ Katie Hopkins.

 

Hate Speech Law for Sri Lanka

Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne announced that the government plans to revise the Penal Code to make hate speech a crime a crime punishable by a two -year prison term. The LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) had asserted that hate speech had exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions in Sri Lanka.

Rwanda Example

Kigali, capital of Rwanda is the safest city in Africa today. Twenty years after the genocide in which 800,000 people were slaughtered, Rwanda has transformed into a peaceful and prosperous nation.

In Rwanda in June 1983, a new radio station called RTLMC (Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines) began broadcasting. Drunken presenters found a large receptive audience of resentful thugs. David Yanagizawa-Drott, a Harvard political scientist, estimates that nine percent of the deaths in the genocide, forty-five thousand Tutsis, can be attributed to incitement by Radio RTLM.

Today, journalists criticising the Rwanda government can be prosecuted for defamation. The law prohibits political parties from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. President Kagame argued that some Westerners define “human rights” too narrowly, defending rights of personal expression while underestimating the importance of stability.

Sri Lankans Hating on Facebook

According to a report by the CPA (Centre for Policy Alternatives), hate speech is a particular problem on the internet and a particular problem in Sri Lanka. The CPA report says that out of a population of 21 million, there are more than 2.3 million users of social media, the majority of them male. Social media provide ”low risk, low cost and high impact online spaces to spread hate, harm and hurt against specific communities, individuals or ideas”.

In Plato’s Republic, there is the tale of a shepherd named Gyges who finds a ring that makes him invisible. He has sex with a queen, kills her king, and takes his throne. The impunity of invisibility is corrupting. Physical invisibility only occurs in fiction but the internet has granted us the license of anonymity and trolls operate under a cloak of invisibility to behave in a way they would not contemplate if they were visible in the real world. They are unaccountable- as Kathryn Schultz puts it:  “like gods and despots, beyond the reach of custom, obligation, and law.”

The CPA report only studies Facebook. One could argue that the CPA’s own website, Groundviews, and its rival Colombo Telegraph, also provide space “to spread hate, harm and hurt against specific communities, individuals or ideas”.

The Offensive Katie Hopkins

Most Sri Lankans will be fortunate in that they have never heard of, or, even luckier, never heard, Katie Hopkins. Masochists among you might wish to look at YouTube to get a flavour. Hopkins first appeared on UK television as a contestant on the reality television programme The Apprentice in 2007. She now writes a column for British “newspaper” the Sun.  She describes herself as a “conduit for truth”. Critics accuse her of expressing controversial opinions to make money.

On 17 April 2015, Hopkins wrote that migrants were “cockroaches”. This appeared in the same week that 400 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean and more than 10,000 were rescued.

An online petition to ban Hopkins from television accumulated over 75,000 signatures. By 21 April, a petition calling on the Sun to sack Hopkins attracted 250,000 signatures.

I note that the CPA report was based solely on research done into Facebook. There has been a lot of noise on Facebook about Hopkins. Julie Burchill is a celebrated polemicist and quite practised at giving offence (and taking it without flinching). Burchill detests Hopkins, her views and unprofessional mode of expressing them. However, she would not want Hopkins to be silenced. “I’m of the opinion that we fought too hard for freedom of speech to have a wrong ‘un like this define the terms of it – one day you’re censoring people who offend you, the next you are being censored by people you offend – it’s a slippery slope”.

No Right not to Be Offended

 

Josie Appleton, a free-speech campaigner, argues that: “Hate speech regulation curtails the moment of ideological conflict, when no crime has been committed. In this, the state appears to be defending the victim. But it is actually defending itself, as the mediator and moderator of public debate, and the judge of what is and is not acceptable.” She describes many frivolous and harmful prosecutions in the UK. We must have the right to offend. No one has the right to be protected from being offended.

 

I am offended when Colombo Telegraph allows someone to call me “a paedophile tourist“.  However, I am inclined to think that the person saying that is just an inadequate boy who feels tough like Gyges hiding behind a pseudonym. I wonder if he would say that to my face. My shoulders are broad and I would not like Uvindu Kurukulusuriya to go to jail for that kind of infantile nonsense.

 

Who Decides?

British journalist Paul Harris offended Anton Balasingham and was punished by being deported from Sri Lanka. Harris gives his own account in his book Delightfully Imperfect published by Vijitha Yapa. Harris wrote in the London Daily Telegraph about flaws in the peace process and called Karuna a “bad egg” and Thamil Chelvan a “rotter”. He called Prabhakaran “Chief Genial Fatty”. It was this irreverent stuff as much as accounts of child conscription and fascist rallies that angered the LTTE. Harris recalls meeting the current prime minister at a Galidari function when Ranil pointedly refused to shake his hand.  The newspaper Nawa Pereliya said that “international arms dealers” were paying Harris’s accommodation bills. That same Rajitha Senaratne who announced the new hate speech law owned Nawa Pereliya. Can we trust people like this to be the mediators and moderators of public debate?

For and Against

 

In his 2007 book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: a Biography of the First Amendment, Antony Lewis warns the reader against the potential for governments to suppress freedom of speech in times of fear. Jeremy Waldron, professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, was critical of Lewis’s stance on hate speech. Waldron argues the need for a public climate of mutual respect and tolerance. Waldron believes that it is sometimes necessary to use the law to curtail freedom of speech if speech infringes on the freedom of another.

 

What to Do?

 

Sanjana Hattotuwa writes: “Civility, tolerance and respect for diversity are as hard to find online as they are in Sri Lanka’s mainstream party political framework even post-war.” Incivility, intolerance and venomous hatred are easy to find on Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph.  The comment threads are choked with pseudonymous hate-mongers.  Hattotuwa writes: “It would be a tragedy if the country’s only remaining spaces to ideate, critical (sic) reflect and robustly debate – which are online – are taken over by hate-mongers, to the extent they are allowed to do so in the real world”.

 

Do Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph create the “climate of mutual respect and tolerance” that Waldron desires? Rather than hypocritically neglecting to put its own house in order, CPA could avoid incitement to racial hatred. I recall that, on July 19 2013, during the halal controversy, Groundviews (in an article by no named author)  tried to make something out of a non-issue relating to the brand name on a packet of dates. This could have exacerbated  tensions.

 

Without resorting to law, most publications and websites can use their editorial powers to reduce hatred.  Groundviews tells potential contributors: “Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved. Comments that seek to inflame tensions on the ground, or are of a defamatory nature, will not be approved, or will be taken off the website as soon as possible.” It is not self-censorship to enforce your own sensible rules.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sri Lanka PR Part 2

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday September 10 2014

Colman's Column3

Last week I wrote in Ceylon Today about an article in the Calgary Herald by Manisha Krishnan. That article dealt with Ryan de Hoedt’s efforts to get his sister to Canada from Sri Lanka, where, according to him, she is in grave danger. I circulated the article among many Sri Lankan contacts, all of whom had difficulty in believing that de Hoedt’s sister was being persecuted in 2014 because her family helped Tamils in July 1983. I had copied a draft of my first article to Ms Krishnan using an e-mail address given at the foot of her own article. I said that I was giving her the opportunity to comment before I published and wanted to clear up some of the points in her article that had puzzled many people. She did not respond. I copied my published article to her using the same e-mail address. My e-mail bounced back as “undeliverable”. I sent her a message on Facebook, again giving her the opportunity to comment. To date she has not responded.

I have done another Google search for Ryan de Hoedt. I can see no response from the Sri Lankan government or police to the story in the Calgary Herald. The only information about Ryan de Hoedt is new print or online outlets repeating the Calgary Herald story. There is a Ryan de Hoedt on Facebook but there is no information at all on his timeline. Does Ryan de Hoedt exist? Perhaps the Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa might look into this case and make a public statement?

Perhaps we should not expect that, as it seems that the responsibility for representing Sri Lanka has been taken away from diplomats and handed over to expensive foreign PR firms who know nothing about the country.

Bridge that Gap

Perhaps GOSL could consider handing the country’s PR contract to Tony Blair.GQ Magazine recently caused great hilarity by giving its Philanthropist of the Year award to Blair. GQ justified the award thus: “Alongside his role as a Middle East peace envoy, Blair’s channelled his energy into philanthropy… His most ambitious [project] is the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative. Launched in 2008, the foundation operates in six African countries – Sierra Leone, Rwanda Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Senegal – where teams work alongside government bodies to bridge the gap between African leaders’ visions for a better future and their government’s ability to implement it.”

Good Governance in Kazakhstan

Blair does not seem to be very successful at fostering his own public image but his philanthropic work included some PR work for others. He had a two-year contract worth millions of pounds to advise Kazakhstan’s leadership on good governance. Human rights campaigners say Blair has produced no improvements for Kazakh people apart from Nursultan Nazarbayev, “Leader of the Nation”. Nazarbayev has ruled oppressively for over twenty years. During the time was advising him Kazakhstan’s human rights situation deteriorated. Nazarbayev won re-election in 2011 with 95.5% of the vote. Blair gave suggestions on how to improve Nazarbayev’s image after his police killed 14 unarmed protesters. Oksana Makushina, a former deputy editor of one suppressed newspaper, said: “If Mr Blair was advising Nazarbayev on something, it definitely wasn’t freedom of speech. Over the last two years the screws have only been tightened on the media.” Borat might have done a better job.

Blair’s New Clients

Blair has added Mongolia and Albania to the list of clients. Albania’s new socialist government says it wants him to help Albania to achieve EU membership. Mongolia is seeking advice on foreign investment, health and education, health.

Blair’s office dismisses reports of reaping £16m in fees from Kazakhstan, and says Blair makes no personal profit. Perhaps he could philanthropically assist Sri Lanka pro bono.

Bell Pottinger

Tim Bell, now Baron Bell, who advised Margaret Thatcher on media matters when she was UK Prime Minister, is a co-founder of Bell Pottinger. The company came under public scrutiny after managers were secretly recorded talking to fake representatives of the Uzbek government and meddling with Wikipedia by removing negative information and replacing it with positive spin. It is the largest UK-based public relations consultancy. They have had many dodgy clients, such as General Pinochet, a recent one being Rolf Harris.

According to PR Week dated January 2010, Bell Pottinger hired Qorvis Communications as a subcontractor for its work with the government of Sri Lanka. Qorvis was to provide “media relations and monitoring, crisis communications planning, and stakeholder representation in the US. The budget is approximately $483,000.”

What return did Sri Lanka get for this investment? Despite Bell Pottinger’s dark arts, Rolf Harris got a sentence of five years and nine months in prison for twelve indecent assaults on children as young as seven. He is losing weight and being spat upon in prison.

Patton Boggs

Back in January 2009, the Washington Embassy of Sri Lanka retained the firm of Patton Boggs with a fixed fee of $35,000 per month, payable quarterly in advance. Democratic lobbyist Tommy Boggs helped run the account, which calls on Patton Boggs to “provide guidance and counsel to the Embassy of Sri Lanka regarding its relations with the Executive and Legislative Branches of the US Government.” How did that work out? Did we get value for money?

Patton Boggs did not influence then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Sri Lanka’s benefit. She said: “I think that the Sri Lankan government knows that the entire world is very disappointed that in its efforts to end what it sees as 25 years of conflict, it is causing such untold suffering”. Patton Boggs’s efforts did not prevent Bruce Fein filing a 1,000-page report with the U.S. Justice Department charging violations of the Genocide Accountability Act of 2007. Fein referred to “a grisly 61-year tale of Sinhalese Buddhists attempting to make Sri Lanka ‘Tamil free’”.

Patton Boggs recently merged with Squire Sanders. Will that enable them to give a better service to GOSL?

Burson-Marsteller

GOSL signed a contract with Burson-Marsteller for US$ 75,000 a month (more than US $900,000 a year). B-M’s website boasts of its sophisticated campaigns: “Clients often engage Burson-Marsteller when the stakes are high …. Most of all, clients come to us for our proven ability to communicate effectively with their most critical audiences and stakeholders.” Some critics have said that these sophisticated campaigns often include dirty tricks.

B-M is the largest PR firm in the world; it has represented some unlovely regimes. The Nigerian government engaged B-M during the Biafran war, to discredit reports of genocide.   The fascist junta in Argentina hired B-M during the 70s and early 80s, to attract foreign investment. South Korea hired them to cover up human rights abuses for the 1988 Olympics. B-M represented the communist Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu.

As well as asking if it is a good idea for Sri Lanka to be associated with these regimes, one could ask if B-M was successful in improving the public image of Nigeria, Argentina, South Korea or Ceausescu.

Thompson Advisory Group

GOSL paid millions of rupees to Thompson Advisory Group (TAG). A lump sum of Rs 4.5 million (as well a monthly fee of Rs. 910,000) went to a driver called Tilak Mohan Siriwardena. Apparently, there are plans to give TAG millions more. In a previous effort, more than once TAG referred to this island nation as “Sir Lanka”.

TAG produced a documentary, Sri Lanka: Reconciling and Rebuilding, which Groundviews described as “rank propaganda… albeit produced very well, with compelling visuals and a well scripted storyline”. Did this film change anyone’s mind about Sri Lanka?

Macro or Micro?

Other PR firms advising the Sri Lankan government have included Vigilant Worldwide Communications of New York. Their task (for six months at a cost of $5,000 a month) is to “develop a strategic communications plan and conduct outreach to Members of the Congress and other US government officials with the purpose of raising awareness of Sri Lanka’s strategic importance to the US.”

There may be some logic in this macro strategy of trying to influence influential people. The nitty-gritty though is does it work? It does not seem to.

Should a micro approach be tried? Why are such large sums being spent at the same time that challengeable items like the Calgary Herald story are allowed to go unchallenged? Embassy staff should be challenging these stories. The huge funds paid to western PR behemoths should be diverted to the diplomatic service to equip embassies to serve their country effectively.

Perhaps Mr Lional Premasiri, Acting High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Ottawa, could issue a press release about the Calgary Herald story.

 

 

Where Are the Prosecutions, Punishments?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday 25 June 2014

Colman's Column3

 

On Monday 16 June 2014, I went to Badulla to take a dog to the vet. Everything seemed normal in town. I was shocked to see pictures later in the day on Asian Mirror, showing a mob stoning familiar shops on Bazaar Street. The BBS (Bodu Bala Sena) staged a protest in Badulla demanding the release of several suspects who were arrested for attacking a Muslim shop in the town a few days before. The suspects, according to Police, are members of the BBS.

This is a disturbing echo, closer to my own home, of the appalling events at Aluthgama. The Aluthgama riot and bloodshed apparently arose out of a road rage incident or a physical assault on a bhikkhu. The Badulla incident apparently arose out of a sexual harassment allegation.

The Badulla story goes that two Sinhalese girls had entered a Muslim-owned shop and asked to purchase a pair of denims. The girls then allege that the sales clerk videoed them from above the changing room using his cell phone. A variant version was that the shop owners had fixed CCTV cameras in the changing room. The girls’ father recruited a mob and stormed the shop, assaulting the salesman. Police had intervened to maintain the peace and taken the sales clerk into custody. Police investigation into the incident is in progress.

On June 20, Badulla was calm but tense. On every street there were policemen in riot helmets carrying big sticks.

Malinda Seneviratne wrote: “Not only are things lost in narration, lots get added on too in the process. A disagreement becomes dispute, dispute becomes argument, argument raises voices, raised voices lead to in-your-face closeness, proximity tends to contact, contact is read as aggressive touch, touch is blow, and blow is assault.  What happens between two human beings is then an altercation between two persons from two communities, religious communities, that is.”

As a Guardian reader succinctly commented: “What ‘triggered the incident’ was the propensity of stupid people to believe stupid things, especially if the stupid things target a group they are predisposed to hate.” Another viewpoint is that this is becoming a common ruse adopted by extremist organisations to attack Muslim-owned businesses, and that Muslim entrepreneurs need to take adequate precautions to protect their interests. Could that lead to further violence?

These incidents reminded me of a much more serious “trigger”, even closer to my home, a couple of years ago. A Muslim youth stabbed and killed a Sinhalese boy. Their dispute was not about religion and had nothing to do with communal strife. The two boys had been firm friends since childhood. This was a crime of passion – they had fought in rivalry over the affections of a girl. Luckily, BBS were not around to exploit the incident and all sections of the local community sprang into action to dampen any sparks of conflict. All local shops closed voluntarily and the police imposed a curfew. Meetings were held between Buddhist and Muslim clerics, the families of the dead youth and his assailant and the police. There was no further violence, although one still reads about jealous husbands killing wives and vice versa.

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts abroad are bemoaning the moral turpitude of “the average Sri Lankan”. One of my favourite quotations is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalisations are dangerous, including this one”. I would hesitate to judge “the average Sri Lankan”. I  would like to take a more optimistic line. I do not like headlines about “communal strife”. I live in a poor village, which has many Muslims and Tamils. It sometimes feels as though the Sinhalese are the minority. I am not saying that it is an idyllic paradise. There are often disputes but they are not on an ethnic basis. Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese generally get on OK and even intermarry- a woman who works for us is a Tamil married to a Muslim and they have an adopted son who is Tamil (but does not know it). We have Sinhalese workers who live in the Tamil lines. Many Tamils are Christian rather than Hindu. The broker who arranges our car insurance has a Muslim name but is a staunch Catholic. There could be harmony if the BBS would allow it.

Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese seem to get along with each other, and with the Sinhalese, and with this Irishman. Our immediate neighbours are Muslims. We were here before them. We have not always enjoyed perfect harmony- there used to be some intimidation from them and on one occasion, there was an angry mob at our gate wielding knives. They were responding to a false rumour about what we were doing with the water supply. This was the kind of thing Malinda referred to. I responded to other incidents of aggression on my neighbour’s part by presenting him with a box of avocadoes from our trees. Our sympathetic response to a couple of deaths in their family has led to a situation where we rub along generally and help each other out on occasion. As I write, their cattle are tearing at our hedge again!

We are fortunate in that the high priest of our local Buddhist temple, who has been a good friend to us for ten years, is a wise, compassionate and humorous man. Most of the people who work for him are Tamils and they worship him. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school at the temple. He regularly attends events organised by Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

As I write, the situation is still not clear because most of the news is coming to us from abroad and the Government is saying nothing. It seems that seven died, three of whom perished in a drive-by shooting indicating that BBS might have an armed militia. The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) a research and link aggregator  owned by the Beacham group, classified Bodu Bala Sena as a ‘terrorist organization’ in April 2014

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts who live abroad have expressed fears that nothing has been learnt from the horror that was Black July in 1983, when Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamils and sparked off a thirty-year civil war. One woman in Aluthgama was quoted in the press: “At this rate, it won’t be long before a Muslim Prabhakaran is born.”

There was one positive aspect in 1983. Many Sinhalese -and I have heard eye-witnesses reports about this – endangered themselves by having the courage to protect Tamils who were strangers to them. This time one of my Muslim contacts reports that “Buddhist work friends collected funds in an office and donated for the affected at Aluthgama. Very noble of them. Why , it’s entirely possible that BBS will lose adherents in greater numbers than gaining them. Allah Akbar!”

In Aluthgama, a Sinhalese citizen told Dharisha Bastians. “We have no grouse with the people on that side of the village. They are our friends. We know them. We didn’t recognise the people who fought last night, they were not from here”.

Encouraging news came from Dickwella. The Chief Incumbent Priests of eight Buddhist temples spent two hours at the Muhiyibdeen Jumma Mosque at Yonakpura, Dickwella. The act of solidarity was to strengthen communal ties and avert any fears of copycat incidents in the area. The clergy said that the root cause of the incidents in Aluthgama and Beruwala was misinformation and that the people of Dickwella should be vigilant about attempts to instigate communal disharmony in their town. Dickwella Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Krishali Muthukumarana said that Dickwella people have lived in harmony by respecting each other’s beliefs and customs. All the members of the PS irrespective of their political affiliations would ensure that no communal hatred was instigated.

Harendra Alwis on Groundviews explored this issue in a philosophical mode but also offered some practical advice on avoiding despair, promoting tolerance and social integration and embracing diversity. I feel a smidgeon of caution about one thing Harendra says. “Do not be distracted or discouraged by those who call you “Facebook heroes”, “armchair critics” or hurl any number of derogative remarks at you instead of – or while – engaging with what you have to say.” It is true that these issues have to be exposed to the cleansing sunshine and fresh air of open debate. Groundviews has an important role to play in this. There is, however, a danger that passions could be further inflamed by polemic in the social media. As Nick Hart commented on Groundviews, it is “nonsensical and irresponsible to attempt to tar all Buddhist monks with the brush of intolerance, or to imply that every individual from a minority group is an innocent victim. Sri Lanka and the world know that this is not the case.” I recall that Groundviews itself seemed to be dangerously stoking the fire in the controversy over halal products, when Sanjana Hattotuwa strained very hard to find insult to Muslims in the packaging of a certain item.

 

The use of terms like “communal strife” makes me queasy. Just like every act of communal violence in Sri Lanka’s history, the recent “riots” in Aluthgama against Muslims were not spontaneous expressions of ethnic or religious grievance involving ordinary civilians. There is legitimate fear on the part of Muslims. Buddhists need to convince their Muslim neighbors that BBS are not acting in their name. That, of course will be futile if the police allow BBS to continue their thuggery. Where are the prosecutions and punishments?

 

“Generating Calamity” by Michael Roberts

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 23 2014

 

Colman's Column3

Michael Roberts posted an article on Groundviews entitled: Generating Calamity, 2008-2014: An Overview of Tamil Nationalist Operations and Their Marvels.
http://groundviews.org/2014/04/10/generating-calamity-2008-2014-an-overview-of-tamil-nationalist-operations-and-their-marvels/
I am dealing with the matter here because I have been banned from commenting on Groundviews. Sanjana Hattotuwa told me on a previous occasion: “The web’s an open place – and you can follow the example of so many others over 7 years and choose to raise your concerns in other web fora and channels. Good night and good luck”.

 
The main thrust of Professor Roberts’s piece is that, in the final days of Eelam War IV, the LTTE used some 320,000 of their own people to manufacture a picture of an “impending humanitarian disaster” so that concerned international forces would intervene and impose a ceasefire or effect a rescue operation.

 
I am not saying that Professor Roberts is correct. It would be quite legitimate to argue against this thesis. Unfortunately, reasoned argument is not guaranteed on fora such as Groundviews. In this case, at an early stage in the discussion, a moderator steps in and says: “Rather than attack the author, can you please provide counter factual analysis and/or a detailed breakdown of how and where you differ with the author’s submission? Please help to further the debate by focussing on the content, not the person.” That sounds encouraging but the moderator is soon convinced by the commenter and says “Point taken” and steps back from the fray.

 
A later ad hominem attack is allowed by the moderator: “Look closely at the writings of the author and you will find, sinhala supremacist agenda peeping through”. A bizarre comment considering that Roberts is not Sinhalese. Another commenter calling himself Sri Lanka Campaign (SLC) is allowed to attack the author without addressing the substance of the author’s arguments.

 
Roberts divides his article up into sections labelled A to M. SLC writes something about each of these sections. I will not bore Ceylon Today readers by dealing with every section myself but I will try to give a flavour.

 
SLC tries to convict Roberts of taking the humanitarian crisis lightly: “Regardless of how the LTTE chose to portray the situation it is undeniable that the situation in Vanni in 2009 was a humanitarian catastrophe… The idea that the catastrophe was overstated does not sit at all well with what most of us remember of that time.”

 

 

Surely, the point is not that the LTTE “portrayed” the situation or “overstated” it but that they created it?

 
SLC concedes this much: “The LTTE certainly share the blame for the ‘situation of entrapment’ but the idea that they were solely to blame does not stand up to any scrutiny”. He continues: “Regardless it is a complete non sequitur, and callous reasoning, that moral concerns around a humanitarian catastrophe should be put to one side because one of the parties involved shares responsibility for the situation.”

 

 

That is slippery in the extreme.

 
It is an LTTE leader whom Roberts quotes. KP said: “[we] had to magnify the humanitarian crisis.” Roberts himself is not saying the humanitarian crisis was imaginary or of no account. SLC says :“The LTTE certainly share the blame for the ‘situation of entrapment’”. Of course, moral concerns should not be put to one side by GOSL simply because the LTTE had no moral concerns about shooting their own people and using them as human shields. The GOSL continued to supply medicines and food to the north and rescued a great number of those held hostage by the LTTE.

 
Colombo Telegraph published a leaked cable from the WikiLeaks database. Jacques de Maio, ICRC Head of Operations for South Asia, said the LTTE had tried to keep civilians in the middle of a permanent state of violence. It saw the civilian population as a “protective asset” and kept its fighters embedded amongst them. De Maio said that the LTTE commanders’ objective was to keep the distinction between civilian and military assets blurred. He also said, “the Army actually could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths.” Robert O Blake, noted in a confidential embassy cable: “The Army has a generally good track record of taking care to minimize civilian casualties during its advances…”.

 
Even Gordon Weiss, in his book The Cage, praised the conduct of the Sri Lanka Army: “Dozens of Tamils described the Sinhalese as inherently kind and gentle people. The front-line soldiers who received the first civilians as they escaped to government lines, those who guarded them in the camps and the civilian and military doctors who provided vital treatment distinguished themselves most commonly through their mercy and care.”

 

 

Did the government not provide Prabhakaran’s parents with pensions and medical care? Did the government not airlift Daya Master to hospital for heart surgery and then give him transport back to the war?

 
At many points, SLC seems content to go along with a particular brand of received wisdom in a manner that is far too trusting. For example at one point, he says: “Every serious history of the conflict…suggests … that civilian casualty figures were significantly under-estimated…”

 

 

He does not provide any citations to support this assertion. SLC sneers about “All those inconvenient verified facts in multiple independent and UN reports.” He does not acknowledge that those reports have been challenged. “I would not consider it wise to go toe-to-toe with a UN panel containing three of the world’s pre-eminent specialists on questions of credibility. Actually subsequent work on the area from the Petrie report, World Bank figures etc… suggests 40,000 is on the lower end of the probable figures.”

 
Oh no, it doesn’t. You are too trusting, SLC. Is it because you used to work for the UN? Roberts deals with this point but SLC ignores his argument: “The slipshod methodology of the UNSG Panel (also known as the Darusman Panel) consolidated this process. Worse still, the Panel’s concluding statement that ‘a number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths’ has been widely turned into a definitive figure by leading Western politicians as well as leading media personnel”.

 
Roberts backs up his own argument with references to a number of studies which cast doubt on casualty figures which have gathered “credibility” from constant repetition. All of those studies explain how they arrived at their estimates of civilian casualty figures. After careful consideration, the IDAG-S concluded that the civilian death toll was probably between 15,000 and 18,000. This itself has been challenged by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who points out that “only 6000 injured were taken off by the ICRC ships over four months, along with bystanders, suggesting that the figure of the dead would have been less.” The 18,000 figure includes civilians killed by the LTTE, the IDAG-S says, although “it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small”.

 
The IDAG-S estimate is somewhat higher than some other calculations made by Tamils, who are by no means supporters of the government. Dr Rajasingham Narendran talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere. His estimate of deaths – “including LTTE cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”. Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute said “[approximately] 12,000 [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “. Dr. Noel Nadesan: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”. Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying “as many as 2,800 civilians may have been killed”.

 
SLC’s treatment of Section E is bizarre. He snarks: “I scarcely know where to begin with this train wreck of a paragraph.” I myself am not a great fan of counter-factual history and do not see much point in discussing what might have been. I would not have written the paragraph myself, but SLC’s response is over-the-top. Likening what Roberts says to “something from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is infantile as well as being an unpleasant smear. SLC asks: “Does anyone really believe Prabhakaran could care less?”
That is why the war had to be fought to the bitter end.

 
SLC excuses himself: “This was written in haste and apologies if my irritation sometimes shone through. No doubt others could do a better and more comprehensive job of debunking, but the material scarcely merits it”. Certainly the following sneer strikes this reader as mean spirited: “This is essentially a lengthy moan at IGEP for not taking his work, or that of various shadowy and anonymous groups, seriously”. That is going for the man rather than the ball. SLC sneers at the anonymity of the IDAG_S report.

 

SLC, you should use your own name when dishing out stuff like that. You seem “shadowy and anonymous” yourself.

 

Broadband, Narrow Minds.

Colman's Column3

 

This article was published in Ceylon Today February 5 2014

 

Shamindra Kulamannage, editor of the excellent business magazine, Echelon, did me the honour of inviting me to the Innovation Summit last year. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend and was disappointed to miss the opportunity to hear my Ceylon Today colleague Nalaka Gunawardene speak about the internet.  Nalaka impressed me with his ideas when I met him at a CEPA Symposium in December 2012 and I have been following his writing ever since.  At the Innovation Summit, Nalaka said that in Sri Lanka, the internet was still immature judging by the behaviour of some of the “netizens” prowling around cyberspace. “We must nurture trust – not in terms of cyber security but in cyber civility”. He referred to the amount of hate speech found on the web. “We are cyber-stunted and still not able to take advantage of its uses. We have broad band but narrow minds”.

Hate speech and incivility are phenomena on the internet world wide, not just in Sri Lanka. I have been following a thread on Facebook about an article concerning Holocaust Memorial Day by a blogger who calls himself Old Holborn. One of the Facebook commenters summarised the issue: “ the true lesson we should learn from Holocaust Memorial Day is that he should be allowed to be rude to people on Twitter.” People died on the Normandy beaches so that Old Holborn could enjoy freedom to insult. Another commenter said: “to equate infringement of his right to being an arse on the Internet to being a victim of the holocaust is fatuous in the extreme.”

Professional contrarian Brendan O’Neill wrote on his Spiked website: “It’s time we referred to this fretting over trolls by its real name: a moral panic, as unfounded in fact and motored by irrational fears as any of the moral panics of the twentieth century…”.  O’Neill believes that media sensationalism has fuelled the skewed idea that trolling is a mass and dangerous phenomenon, rather than just streams of words in a virtual forum. Sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the term “deviation amplification” to describe the media’s exaggeration of small numbers of deviant folk into fabric-tearing folk devils.

In Sri Lanka, which is undergoing a difficult reconciliation process after thirty years of brutal war, the online incivility of pseudonymous troll is more dangerous than in other countries.

The editor of the pro-Government Daily News, Rajpal Abeynayake, thought that there was better level of debate in UK comment threads than in Sri Lanka. He wrote in September 2011 in Lakbima News: “Website commentary is so well-written and argued a lot of the time that it gets equal attention as the writer does… In this country, the assault on free speech is also on the side of responsibility. With a few Rambo-like grunts, they make their opinions known … This is like allowing children with dodgem cars to enter a Formula One race.” I check comments most days on the Independent, the Guardian, Huffington Post, and Slate. They are not always very cogent.

Abeynayake He did a good bit of grunting himself on Colombo Telegraph. See:

https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/surely-the-queens-government-can-do-better-than-this/

Now, CT is going after him in a big way including attacks on his appearance (calling him a “midget” and “pint-sized prick” and comparing the reduction is size of his paper’s main section with the size of  the editor’s)  and private life.

Abeynayake  does have a point about comments in the SL Daily Mirror. The Island and Ceylon Today are strange cases as they appear to be open to comments but comments never appear. The Sri Lankan commenter can be seen in all his (there are some females, but commenting is generally a male pursuit) glory in habitats such as online sites like Colombo Telegraph and Groundviews. There is much about CT and GV that is excellent. They both publish informative articles by distinguished writers of all shades of opinion.

However, the comment threads are problematic. There is a general tendency for the same crowd of pseudonymous trolls to resort to ad hominem attacks, going for the man rather than the ball. Whenever Dayan Jayatlleka posts an article, the usual suspects immediately accuse him of looking for an ambassadorial job. Here is a recent example from CT: “How is it that this Bugger Dayan De Silva escaped the eye of the International Crooks, not to have appointed him as the UN Sec Gen? It is not too late even now.” Rajiva Wijesinhe takes the trouble to make suggestions for improving governance at the most minute nut-and-bolt level. Rarely do his suggestions attract anything other than personal abuse. “Shitty Sinhala majoritarian ‘professor’ is condoning, pretending not to know about it, the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka. He is worried about the Buddha Ariya Sinhala state of Shit Lanka.” Michael Roberts brings his years of distinguished academic service to the task of reporting historical facts. “This is another moron who is selling his Pseudo ‘Dr.’ title to gain an upper hand in reporting fairy tales & presenting it to the public to be believed. He is in the business of licking the back of MR regime for paying him handsomely for his service.”

Just for balance, CT allows virulent anti-Tamil comments like this from Fathima Fukushima”:   “In vain I real wish 150,000 Tamils died in the last few days”. The “moderators” often allow this kind of comment. “Whatever the arguments and counter arguments are, SL is better off without the dead Tamils…Well done SL army – the best in the world. If need be, do the same thing again in higher numbers. Anything that is bad for Tamils is good for SL”.

In his 2007 book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment, Antony Lewis warns the reader about the potential for governments  to take advantage of periods of fear and upheaval to suppress freedom of speech and criticism by citizens. In Rwanda, President Kagame has banned writing about ethnic differences. Ostensibly, this was to prevent a repeat of genocide but critics see it as an excuse to suppress criticism of his regime. Free speech campaigner Josie Appleton argues that: “Hate speech regulation curtails the moment of ideological conflict, when no crime has been committed. In this, the state appears to be defending the victim. But it is actually defending itself, as the mediator and moderator of public debate, and the judge of what is and is not acceptable.” She describes many frivolous and harmful prosecutions in the UK. We must have the right to offend. No-one has the right to be protected from being offended.

Jeremy Waldron, who is professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, argues the need for a public climate of mutual respect and tolerance. “‘[The] peaceful order of civil society and the dignitary order of ordinary people interacting with one another in ordinary ways, in the exchanges and the marketplace, on the basis of arm’s-length respect.” Waldron argues that it is sometimes necessary to use the law to curtail freedom of speech if speech infringes on the freedom of another.

It should not be necessary to resort to the law. Most publications and websites have their editorial and community standards. For example, Groundviews tells potential contributors: “Attack the issue, not the person. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.  Comments that seek to inflame tensions on the ground, or are of a defamatory nature, will not be approved, or will be taken off the website as soon as possible.”

Colombo Telegraph has similarly high-minded guidelines: “We welcome debate and dissent, but personal attacks (on authors, other users or any individual), persistent trolling and mindless abuse will not be tolerated. The key to maintaining the website as an inviting space is to focus on intelligent discussion of topics.”

I leave it readers to judge if CT is serious about this. Dip a toe into the world of CT here: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/buddhism-bashing-columnists/

Is the Appleton/Lewis line feasible in a country like Rwanda? There is still plenty of scope for conflict in Sri Lanka. Is it sensible to allow hate speech continually to stoke the fires of conflict? War still raged when Dr Rajasingham Narendran wrote: “Better communication, awareness and sincere debate, I am sure can yet resolve our problems sensibly and silence the guns permanently. It is about time we truly get to know each other after several decades of relative separation and mutual suspicions, begin to celebrate our commonalities and accept as normal our differences.”

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