Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Jaffna

The Numbers Game and Critical Thinking

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on February 19 2016.

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Critical Thinking and Ethics

I have long gained deep intellectual satisfaction from the application of critical thinking. A number of writers have analysed the obstacles to successful critical thinking. Reams have been written to define the  term but Webster’s has the short definition: “the mental process of actively and skilfully conceptualising, applying analysing, synthesising, and evaluating, and evaluating information to reach an answer or  conclusion”.

I would have expected to be able to engage in calm and rational discussion on most topics. Sadly, this has not always happened. It seems to be impossible to discuss Sri Lankan politics without encountering bizarrely false assumptions about my character, beliefs, allegiances and associations. I have been called both a government stooge and a Tiger sympathiser sent by sinister foreign agencies to undermine the state.

Kenan Malik

My taste for critical thinking with an ethical and humanist background led me to the writings of Kenan Malik, a lecturer and broadcaster who has published many books and articles defending rationalism and humanism in the face of what he has called “a growing culture of irrationalism, mysticism and misanthropy”.

I was dismayed when Mr Malik used his visit to the Galle Literary Festival in January 2016 to recycle the fictional figure of 40,000 plus civilian casualties at the end of the war against the LTTE. I have given this matter of “the numbers game” a great deal of thought, researched the topic extensively and discussed it with many people. I do not think that Mr Malik has had the time in his busy schedule to study the matter in so much depth. This has not deterred him from putting forward strong views on the topic.

Darusman Report

Mr Malik claims to have “done his homework” before intervening in Sri Lankan affairs but seems to be unaware of the vast amount of research that has been done. He responds to criticism by Professor Michael Roberts by citing what he calls “The 2011 UN report on the final stages of the war” as if it were a neutral and accurate investigation of the last days of the war. In reality, this was not an official UN report but a report by a “panel of experts” called by the UN General Secretary as a preliminary to further investigation and action. The panel did not carry out any investigations of its own (and recognized that it had no mandate to do so) but had to rely on second-hand “evidence” that was not evidence in the normal sense of the word. The Marga Institute evaluation of the report said that this forced the panel “into an adversarial stance with the Government” in which it assumed the role of prosecutor.

Moving the Goalposts

In his response to comments by Professor Roberts and myself, Mr Malik shifted his ground and brought in the idea of “apologists for the Sri Lankan Army.” “The question of numbers dead in the final phase is not central to the argument I was making.” He continued: “where the figures are disputed, it makes sense to settle for those provided by more objective collectors of those figures, which is what I did.”

I would contend that the figures I cited were even more objective as many of them were calculated by Tamils, including Navi Pillay of the UNHRC and the Tigers’ own website. Mr Malik’s argument now seems to be that the SLA deliberately targeted Tamil civilians and that anyone who disagrees with that position is an “apologist”. The true number of civilians killed is crucial to that very argument. If one looks at a spectrum from the zero casualties ludicrously asserted by the government at one time, to the 147,000 claimed by Frances Harrison, zero casualties would demolish the contention that the SLA was targeting civilians (unless their aim was very poor). If it is true that 147,000 were killed, the case that there was deliberate targeting becomes very strong. The numbers do matter.

War Crimes Apologist?

Mr Malik is putting words in Professor Roberts’s  mouth when he says Roberts was arguing that “the actions of the LTTE somehow justified the actions of the Sri Lankan Army”. I have read and re-read Professor Roberts’s words and he is saying nothing remotely like what Mr Malik attributes to him. The actions of the SLA may legitimately be discussed and if necessary condemned, but, if they behaved badly, it was not a tit-for-tat because the LTTE behaved badly. Malik claims “You do not, as far as I can see, contest the empirical claim that the Sri Lankan Army fired into what it had declared to be No Fire Zones or on hospitals or civilian areas.” Michael Roberts and many others have indeed contested that claim.

Universal Expertise

In his helpful book Thinking from A to Z, philosopher Nigel Warburton list alphabetically the many tropes used to manipulate argument. One trope is “truth by authority”. Warburton writes: “Unwary members of the public may make the unreliable assumption that because someone is a recognised authority…in a particular area he or she must be capable of speaking with authority on any other subject”. The problem is that when one covers a vast array of subjects, one exposes oneself to the danger of being downgraded from polymath to dilettante.

Tropes Employed by Online Commenters

One Facebook commenter chose to place his trust in the UN. He wrote: “I doubt if the UN plucked this figure out of thin air”. He ignored the many analyses which showed in detail why it seemed that the UN figure was plucked out of thin air. He does not explain why he refuses to  accept criticisms of the Darusman Report but relies on faith: “The UN report was done by eminent legal personalities and it is doubtful if they would quote numbers which they cannot defend in a court of law. If not their reputation would be in tatters.”

Immunising Strategies

In his book Believing Bullshit philosopher Stephen Law uses the term “immunising strategies”. He shows how Young Earth Creationists counter the arguments of evolutionists by claiming that, however much evidence is presented, they will still claim it is provisional and incomplete. Those who claim high figures of civilian casualties dismiss contesting calculations with responses like: “It was a war without witnesses” or: “No-one can know without forensic evidence”. Informed estimates have been made which could be refuted or accepted. “Comparing high-resolution satellite images of the second No-Fire-Zone between February and April 19, indicates that the No-Fire-Zone as a whole did not witness anything like the scale of sustained bombardment required for there to have been more than 40,300 fatalities” contends the IDAG report. There were witnesses. Murali Reddy was embedded with the SLA and wrote about what he saw for the Tamil Nadu magazine Frontline.

Guilt by Association

It is a common trope on comment threads, particularly with Sri Lankans, to avoid discussion by saying “He’s not worth considering because he has an agenda or he is close to so and so or his father did blah”. I have decided to call this move “The Mandy Rice-Davis Trope”. One commenter claimed that he had inside knowledge that two of the people whose calculations I cited were “buddies of Gota”. He refused to say which two so we could concentrate on the others.

 

I asked  why would Sir John Holmes (of the UN) , Navi Pillai (of the UNHRC), Tamil Net (website of the LTTE), Rohan Guneratna (head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research), the Voice of the Tigers (the LTTE media organisation), the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Dr Rajasingham Narendran, Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan (of the Point Pedro Institute of Development), Dr Noel Nadesan, the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka, all come up with lower figures? “Are they all buddies of Gota? Have you read any of their arguments?”

Do Numbers Matter?

The aim of the SLA (the legitimate armed forces of a democratically elected government trying to end an insurrection within the borders of its sovereign territory) was to defeat the enemy (at that point the most vicious terrorist group ever known with no democratic mandate) with as little harm to civilians as possible. It was not to punish Tamil civilians for the crimes of the LTTE. Many will disagree with me, but I do not believe that civilians were targeted as a matter of policy. I do believe that the aim was to limit the number of civilian casualties as far as possible in a situation where the enemy was using its own people as human shields. In this context, the number of dead being cited is of crucial importance if one is making the assumption that the government deliberately engaged in the punitive “mass killing of civilians”. Mr Malik, having raised the issue brushes it aside as “not central to his argument” when challenged.

A longer version of this article with footnotes can be found here:

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/the-numbers-game-and-critical-thinking/

 

Partisan People and Fissiparous Parties

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 15  2015.

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http://www.ceylontoday.lk/e-paper.html

The regime has changed. Now is the time for mentalities to change too. Uditha Devapriya.

The People’s Verdict

The people have spoken! Four years ago, I was among those who believed politicians allowed personal considerations and pure weakness to persuade them to support or ineffectually oppose the 18th Amendment. It was left to the people themselves to shout a resounding NO to a third term for Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Although some have branded me a Rajapaksa supporter (more about that later), I felt a certain lightness of spirit on the morning of January 9, 2015, when it became clear that a change had been effected. After several depressing weeks of gloom, rain, floods and landslips, the clouds have gone. A Jimmy Cliff song keeps going through my mind.

Not Groundhog Day

On January 10, I woke at 4.41 am precisely with a cat on my face. I was somewhat spooked to recall that on January 9, I had woken at precisely 4.41 with a cat on my face. Was this Groundhog Day? On January 9, just before waking, I dreamt that I met Mahinda Rajapaksa in a street market. I had never met him or any of his family in real life, although I did once make eye contact with him at Nuwara Eliya flower show when he was prime minister. I awoke at 4.41 to find that he had conceded defeat and left Temple Trees.

On the morning of January 9, the sun was bright in a clear blue sky and there was an invigorating, chill breeze that had a cleansing effect.

A Surprising and Welcome Result

When I first heard last September from the then president’s local agent (that is one poor fellow who must be looking for a new job) that there was to be a presidential election in January, my immediate thought was that , for good or ill, there was no one who could defeat the incumbent. If I had a hat, I would eat it now but will instead consume a slice of humble pie. I knew of Maithripala Sirisena but never imagined him as a presidential contender. I offer my sincere congratulations to him on a successful strategy.

Even during the course of the election, I wondered if the NDF’s (National Democratic Front) success in wooing Tamil and Muslim politicians would be reflected among Tamil and Muslim voters, considering the influence of the Sinahala Buddhist Nationalist JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya – National Heritage Party) in the NDF. In the event, NDF majorities were highest in areas with significant minority populations. These figures were impressive and were not undermined by the fact that these areas also had the lowest turnout. Jaffna, Mannar, Killinocchchi, Batticaloa were in the 60% bracket, which is very high compared to less than 43% in the last EU elections. The turnout in the recent US mid-term elections was 36.4%.

The Tribe, the Herd

When I was around ten years old, I was fanatical about Aston Villa because my handsome cousin played for them and gave free tickets for my father and myself. It was not possible to be a Villa supporter without despising Birmingham City. Later, I lived in Manchester and had the privilege of being able to see George Best and Denis Law up close. I was more of a Manchester City fan, though, and spent more time at Maine Road watching Rodney Marsh, Colin Bell and Denis Tueart. Up to the age of about 15, I was a very devout Catholic and prayed fervently for the rest of the world to be converted to “our team”. I was educated at Sir Thomas Rich’s School; the other grammar school in Gloucester was Crypt. We never played each other at rugby because of the fear of mayhem. Kolombians might see a parallel in the rivalry between St Thomas’s and Royal. There has been discussion about the composition of the new cabinet- 12 Royalists in 27-member Cabinet.

Thus we shape our identities through dichotomies, feeding our sense of self by hating or mocking the Other.

Partisan Voices

I enjoy reading polemical writers like Hazlitt, and in contemporary times, Nick Cohen and Julie Burchill. I have read and quoted Tisaranee Gunasekera’s impassioned articles. I have read and quoted Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena and am currently reading her thoughts on torture. I do not do polemic myself. I do analysis and criticism. For an international audience, I wrote articles critical of the 18th Amendment, the imprisonment of Sarath Fonseka, the failings and misdeeds of the police, environmental crimes, child abuse through vehicle emissions, the errant entitled thuggish sons of ministers, crime in politics; I frequently accused the government of living on immoral earnings by depending on migrants’ remittances and tourism. I wrote an article condemning BBS and asking why there were no prosecutions.

This was not enough for those who called me government shill.

I realised that the problem with some Sri Lankan readers of my articles was not that I was praising Rajapaksa – I knew that I was not. At one stage, I thought the problem was that I was not attacking the government. Then, I thought I was not criticising the president himself abusively enough. There were many talented writers doing that job with great gusto. I came to realize that UNP (United National Party – Uncle Nephew Party to its critics) supporters were unhappy that I criticised Ranil. Most who read my article in Le Monde diplomatique got that I thought the !8th Amendment was a bad thing. I could see no argument in favour of it. All one of my persistent bêtes noirs got from the article was that I was critical of Ranil.

Groucho Marx said, “I would never be a member of a club that would accept someone like me as a member”. I have found myself added to a number of groups supporting one political viewpoint or another. I have swiftly withdrawn. I have lingered a little longer in a couple of groups which had the ostensible mission of building bridges or encouraging philosophical discussion. They quickly become hotbeds of dissension and entrenched views. My attempts at neutrality win me hate mail from all sides. As well as being called a Rajapaksa sycophant, a Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist (strange label to attach to someone brought up as an Irish Catholic) I have been branded an IRA fugitive who regurgitates Tiger propaganda. This is spite of the fact that a piece of mine condemning both the IRA and the LTTE got 5,000 viewings on Groundviews.

The great, if today unappreciated, English essayist William Hazlitt was an admirer of Napoleon. Hazlitt’s views on Napoleon and, most other topics, were diametrically opposed to those of that other great wordsmith Edmund Burke (a Trinity man). Despite their different philosophies, Hazlitt’s guiding concept of “disinterestedness” meant that he did not trust anyone who did not believe that Burke was a great man. The disinterested thinker can empathise with views with which he or she does not agree or even opposes. As another loquacious Irishman, Tom Paulin, puts it in his book on Hazlitt, The Day Star of Liberty, “The disinterested imagination takes a position, but it is not entrenched, obdurate or rigid; rather it is based on an active and flexible way of knowing that is essentially dialogic. It doesn’t talk to itself”. Hazlitt believed he could do an enemy, “justice or more than justice, without betraying a cause”.

As an impartial foreign observer, I really, sincerely, do not have atavistic emotional attachment to one side or another. Why would I? Why would I support one Sri Lankan party over another unless I was paid to do so; I assure you I am not paid (except by Ceylon Today). My modus operandi is to say, “on the one hand…and on the other hand”. I have quoted Uditha above. I was amused to see someone berating him because he was “too neutral” in his public utterances. The poor man was trying to adopt a balanced approach but his scourge condemned him because he would not tell her to whom he planned to give his vote.

Indi Samarajiva’s  analysis of the new cabinet was rubbished by two commenters because he had previously said some positive things about Rajapaksa. Someone thought he should not be heeded because of  the politics of his father. This was a man who had clearly said he was going to vote for MS and had advised others to do so.

Rajiva Wijesinha played a vital role, with his constant flow of informed comment and practical advice on good governance, in the downfall of the Rajapaksa regime. Most people welcomed his ministerial appointment but someone objected because he had once supported the outgoing government and had questioned Channel 4’s Killing Fields in a TV interview.

My social media contacts are ecumenical and eclectic. There are Catholics, Anglicans, Hindus, Muslims, and Atheists, gay men and lesbians, jazz fans and folk singers singers (even banjo players), rock musicians (even drummers). There are people who hate the Rajapaksas with venom. There are those who think he was a great president. There are those who think Ranil walks on water. I enjoy dialogue with right wing conservatives and lefties from various sects. I am friendly with staunch supporters of Israel and those protesting at the treatment of Palestinians. I even resisted a strong urge to “defriend” someone singing the praises of Tamil rapper and Tiger supporter MIA. I open my mind to all these influences to challenge my own ideas. I am willing to change my opinions but sometimes I just do not know what my opinion is and I set out different viewpoints for my readers to chew over.

I become uncomfortable when someone is loud and bullying in his or her partisan stance. During the election process there were instances of commenters on social media “naming and shaming” those who did not seem to be voting the “correct” way, or even for not speaking loudly enough for the approved candidate. One woman was exposed in a public forum despite her protestations that she had voted for MS. Her crime was that she had shared an article by Dayan in which he had said, after much deliberation, that he would himself be voting for MR. This mental attitude goes beyond the totalitarian mantra of, “If you are not with us, you are against us”. “If you have a friend that we disapprove of you are our enemy”.

Some people cannot consider ideas without being overwhelmed by emotion. Some people cannot understand that to explain is not the same as to advocate. UNP/SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) dichotomies do not seem relevant in these days of fissiparous alliances. The victorious alliance this time has made a good start without being stuck with a party doctrine.

Welcome Changes

Why did I feel invigorated and optimistic at the election result? There are many excellent proposals in the new government’s work plan. Here are some that attracted my notice:

  • A Cabinet of not more than 25 members, including members of all political parties represented in Parliament.
  • Repeal of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution with legislation to establish strengthened and independent institutions.
  • Relief to the people by reducing the rising Cost of Living.
  • Proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system .
  • An Ethical Code of Conduct will be introduced legally for all representatives of the people.
  • A Right to Information Bill will be introduced and passed within three weeks.
  • Special Commissions will be appointed to investigate allegations of massive corruption in the preceding period.
  • Laws will be passed swiftly to put a stop to ill-treatment of animals

 

Gracious Ranil

Before the election, I echoed Dayan Jayatilleka’s concern that voters would be casting a vote for Sirisena but giving power to Ranil, for whom no one was voting directly. The voters clearly did not see this as a problem and accepted the opposition package as offered. The UNP’s organisation and vote bank contributed to a change that allows the possibility for beneficial developments for the governance of the nation. The people clearly want change and the NDF electoral strategy has opened up possibilities that would not have existed had Rajapaksa won. Ranil was extremely gracious in victory and I look forward to seeing him govern as the gentleman many of his admirers have described to me.

Although there was great relief (and surprise) at the swiftness and smoothness of the transition, (compare with Bush versus Gore where the Supreme Court handed the presidency to the candidate with fewer votes) there is a dispute about how gracious Rajapaksa really was in defeat. There is speculation about what his future plans might be. If I were him, I would relax and enjoy retirement. There are stories going around that he plans to recapture the SLFP and get back into parliament and stake a claim for the prime minister job which M3 and Ranil would have made the power centre. Thus, he might be able to block the governance changes for which we hope. As I write, the issue of the SLFP leadership is confused. MR and MS seemingly both consider themselves in charge but one paper thinks CBK will make a bid. Apparently, Karuna still considers himself SLFP vice-president. In all this confusion who is the official opposition? Is it the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna  – People’s Liberation Front) with just three MPs?

Good out of Bad

Some have found a good deal of amusement at the sight of former supporters of Rajapaksa, who did not cross over before, now pledging support to Sirisena after his victory. One commenter expressed this pithily: “Their brown noses will never change. Same nose different object.” They may be keen to back the winner. They may be hopeful of preferment – with a reduced cabinet, let us hope they will be disappointed.

There is a positive side. It was a conundrum how the positive changes could be effected within the timetable set by the incoming regime when the UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) still had a majority in parliament. Constitutional changes require a two-thirds majority so a general election was thought necessary. That in itself would not guarantee a two-thirds majority for constitutional change. Nimal Siripala de Silva has announced that he and the current UPFA MPs will not stand in the way of the new president’s programme. Will we have a government of national unity? Do we need an opposition? However, it seems that some defections are causing dissension in the ruling coalition. A clean machine does not want Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, Sajin Vaas Gunawardena, Anura Vidanagamage and Udith Lokubandara.

At this point in history, it is good that we appear to have peaceful change and are moving towards a government of national unity. There is the promise that mechanisms will soon be put in place to guarantee that it does not become a one-party dictatorship. The sun is shining on the mountains and I am optimistic.

Julie MacLusky

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