Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Kenan Malik

Knowing Left from Right

Knowing Left from Right

By

Padraig Colman

 

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on Friday 21 June 2019

 

 

Telling Me

I was recently advised by an eminent political scientist (one of Sri Lanka’s leading public intellectuals) that I should be more like Frank Furedi. I responded to the LPI (leading public intellectual) that I found Furedi sinister and would continue to plough my own humble furrow applying ethical standards developed for myself over many years from a leftist perspective. I write as an elderly person who was a baby when the Welfare State was being built by the best prime minister Britain ever had, Clement Attlee. I was weaned on the New Statesman, and was in my prime during the heady days of the 1960s. From an early age I was reading the works of socialist Titans such as Raymond Williams, EP Thomson, Christopher Hill and Ralph Miliband. PLI thought it bizarre that I should describe Furedi as sinister. LPI thinks Furedi is ‘progressive’, a word PLI uses often but refuses to define. I find Furedi sinister because he and his acolytes in the LM Network, including the online magazine Spiked, are associated with extreme right-wing allies and espouse extreme right-wing views garbed in spurious left-wing attire.

Linda Ryan

Furedi was born Füredi Ferenc in Hungary on 3 May 1947. He is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent and is well known for his work on the sociology of fear, education, therapy culture, paranoid parenting and the sociology of knowledge. He used the pseudonym ‘Frank Richards’ (which was also a pseudonym of Charles Hamilton, who created Billy Bunter: “Yarooh! He ejaculated”). He also wrote under the name ‘Linda Ryan’.

Splits Go Bananas

At some point between 1969 and Spring 1973 Furedi joined IS (we student lefties from the 60s get confused by IS being to do with radical Islam. To us, IS will always be the International Socialists, a lovable group of entryist Trotskyites that gave us great amusement with their ineffectual posturing). Furedi was expelled along with the rest of the faction known as the ‘Right Opposition’ in spring 1973. Furedi’s new grouping called itself the ‘Revolutionary Opposition’.

To cut a long story, that group became the RCG (Revolutionary Communist Group). Furedi was expelled and became the founder and chairman of the RCT (Revolutionary Communist Tendency), which morphed into the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party). The RCP was distinguished by its commitment to theoretical elaboration and hostility to state intervention in social life. OK so far?

The RCP published a magazine called Living Marxism, launched in November 1988. Living Marxism became LM in 1997 and closed down in 2000 as a result of a libel suit by ITN. ITN reporters Penny Marshall and Ian Williams were each awarded £150,000 damages. LM was also ordered to pay £75,000 to ITN.

Victims

The libel action was about a 1997 article called “The picture that fooled the world”. LM claimed that a picture of an emaciated man behind barbed wire was taken at a safe haven for displaced Muslims not at a Bosnian Serb concentration camp as claimed. In February 1997, LM had recruited Thomas Deichmann to tell the ‘real’ story. Deichmann was not the investigative journalist that LM claimed. He was an engineer who had published articles in an obscure German magazine called Novo, in which he defended the Bosnian Serb leadership. He offered his services as a witness for the defence at the trial of the alleged Serbian war criminal Dusko Tadic. Radovan Karadžić, President of Republika Srpska, was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes.

Liberals Like Contrarians

The LM Network’s obsessively and oppressively contrarian approach appeals to some liberals but seems fairly consistently to tack to the far right. Furedi managed to get three hours of prime-time TV on Channel 4 to attack environmentalist groups, comparing them to Nazis. In the programme LM used well-known right-wingers like Larry Craig, a far-right Republican senator and fundraiser for the “Alliance for America”; Julian Simon, who was Ronald Reagan’s favourite economist; and Michael Gough, who, like Simon, belongs to the Cato Institute, a hard-right think-tank.

LM published articles by Roger Bate of the Institute for Economic Affairs, arguing that African countries should be sold to multinational corporations in order to bring “good government” to the continent. The IEA is notoriously cagey about its funding but we do know that it has taken tens of thousands of pounds from big tobacco firms and has issued position statements against public health measures on tobacco.

The supposedly leftist LM Network took what seemed right-wing stances on most issues. It argued that gun control was  a misconceived attack on human liberty; legal restraints on child pornography were an excuse  for wider censorship; the dangers of  alcohol were  exaggerated by “puritans”; the activities of the Neo-Nazi British National Party should not be restricted and it was unfair to associate it with the murder of Stephen Lawrence; the Anti-Nazi League was undemocratic; racist publications inciting readers to beat up black people should not be censored; animals do not have any rights; it is an offence to civilized humanity to celebrate tribal people like  the Yanomami Indians; climate change has been exaggerated but  global warming is  a good thing anyway; restricting car use is a fundamental assault on liberty.

Jenny Turner wrote in the London Review of Books about “the LM network’s habit of supporting freedom of expression for all sorts of horrible people: BNPers and child pornographers and atrocity deniers. Of course it’s only the right to speak that is supported, not what is said: members of the LM network are always careful to stress that they’re no less opposed to racism, sexual exploitation and mass murder than everybody else, it’s just that they think unpleasant opinions should be not banned but ‘battled’ with, in open debate.”

Kenan Malik

Kenan Malik is another member of the LM Network. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a contributor to many prestigious publications such as the Guardian, the New York Times and the New Humanist. I was instrumental in getting him invited to the Galle Literary Festival a few years ago. He repaid me by being extremely unpleasant to me and Michael Roberts when we objected to unfounded comments he made about the political situation in Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, he was associated with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Nick Cohen, the Observer columnist and author of What’s Left: How the Left Lost Its Way (2007), has called RCP “a vicious movement” and “the smallest and nastiest of the Trotskyist sects”. Malik stood as the RCP’s candidate in Birmingham Selly Oak in the general election in 1992, coming last out of six candidates with 84 votes (0.15%). Malik was one of the first left-wing critics of multiculturalism and has opposed restrictions on hate speech. In a series of debates with Peter Singer and Richard Ryder, he has dismissed the notion of animal rights and defended experiments on animals. He is, of course, perfectly entitled to hold such views but, to my mind, they disqualify him from being called progressive.

Mr. Malik took the opportunity of 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. I have attended think tanks and seminars, had a long conversation with the author of the IADG report, reviewed in great detail Gordon Weiss’s book on the subject, had a dialogue with Callum McCrae and published several articles. I do not think that Mr. Malik has studied the matter in so much depth.

Spiked

Kenan Malik has been a frequent contributor to Spiked. Spiked, edited by Brendan O’Neill, continues, in the name of “ordinary people”, to attack what are normally thought of as left-wing positions. It seems that capitalist corporations do not oppress ordinary people as much as “anti-Trump and anti-Brexit cultural elites”, “feministic elites”, “green elites” and “cosmopolitan politicians”. It is particularly strong against environmentalists: “We need to conquer nature, not to bow to it”. Spiked does not seem to be in favour of the Welfare State. It disapproves of regulation of financial services or of polluting industries. It defends people on the right like Nigel Farage, Alex Jones, Tommy Robinson, Arron Banks and Viktor Orbán. It demands the hardest of possible Brexits.

The LM Network stance on dark money is interesting. Carole Cadwalladr won many prizes for exposing the dodgy financing surrounding the Brexit referendum. Spiked calls her “the closest thing the mainstream British media has to an out-and-out conspiracy theorist”.

Kochs

The environmental journalist, George Monbiot, was alerted in 2018 by a reader to one line he had spotted in a form submitted to the US government by the Charles Koch Foundation. Monbiot set up a collaboration with the investigative group DeSmog UK and discovered that the far-right Koch Foundation was funding the avowedly Trotskyite Spiked.

Spiked was established in 2001 as an online magazine. In 2016, Spiked US received $170,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation. Spiked US seems to have been established in the same year the Kochs started making payments. The political network spearheaded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch has expanded into a far-reaching complex and shadowy operation built around a welter of groups hiding who the donors are. Koch Industries have had to pay massive fines for oil spills, illegal benzene emissions and ammonia pollution. The brothers have an agenda to promote lower taxes for the rich and less regulation. They have used their phenomenal wealth to penetrate and corrupt every corner of US life. They are doing the same in the UK. The year Spiked received $170,000 from the Kochs, Spiked attacked the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, in which the Koch brothers have a major interest.

The LM Network calls its critics “McCarthyites”. Furedi claims that his stance springs from the tradition of the “anti-Stalinist left”. All very progressive, no? There is a good deal of lexical ambiguity in the use of words like ‘progressive’ and ‘left’. I will go into that another time and look forward to input from the progressive LPI.

 

 

 

This Divided Island

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on 10 March 2016

 

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SubrCover

Last week, I reviewed Sri Lanka – the New Country  by Padma Rao Sundarji. This week I am taking a look at This Divided IslandStories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramaniam.You can guess at the difference between the two books just by looking at the titles. Rao is positive; Subramaniam is negative. Rao concentrates on the present and sees hope for the future; Subramaniam focuses on the past and sees dark clouds ahead; Rao wishes for peace; Subramaniam admits nostalgia for a war he did not suffer.

The top army man in the north, Major General Hathurasinghe, appears in both Padma Rao’s book and in Subramaniam’s. A Tamil woman tells Ms Rao that Hathurasinghe heard that her baby needed urgent heart surgery and came with a doctor who took the mother and baby to Colombo by plane. The baby was operated on and has been fine since. “Even today, the officers come frequently just to see how she is faring.” In Subramaniam’s book we see a different Hathurasinghe. He threatens to shoot the children (or so the author is told – he does not ask Hathurasinghe) of a woman who is asking questions about the whereabouts of her husband, Elilan, one of the top Tigers.

Subramaniam’s book received good reviews from distinguished writers –Amit Chaudhuri called it “excellent”; William Dalrymple called it “brilliant” –“a remarkable book by one of India’s most talented young writers of non-fiction”; and Kenan Malik called it “superb”. I am afraid that for a foreigner, like myself, who has lived in Sri Lanka for 14 years, yet another book about Sri Lanka by an outsider with no specialist knowledge has to work hard to justify its existence. I seem to have been reading a different book to the one reviewed by Dalrymple who believes that Subramaniam shows himself “capable of journalistic persistence and occasional moments of real bravery”.

I really do not see where “the real bravery” comes in, although the author tries his best to talk up the dangers. The war ended in May 2009 but Subramaniam did not make his first visit Sri Lanka to research this book to until 2011 (ten years later than me) although he had been for a week’s holiday in 2004. As far as I can tell from a careful reading of the book, he did not witness a single act of violence and was never in any danger. The tone irritated me right from page one when he makes a huge drama out of setting off from Colombo for the hill country at 5 a.m. “The streets glowed of sodium-lit emptiness, and Uncle W’s hatchback skimmed eastwards in silence”.

There is a ludicrous episode where he persuades someone to take him on a motor-cycle to an army base in the north. His companion advises him not to look directly at the camp lest they both be arrested. They do not attempt to take any photos. None of the soldiers takes a blind bit of notice of them. Our brave reporters get bored and ride off.

Early in the book, a snarky tone is set when he describes a meeting arranged by police to deal with the Grease Yakas phenomenon. Subramaniam writes: “Sri Lankans still felt tense, and the peace was already curdling into something sour and unhealthy. Old fears continued to throb; old ghosts transmuted into new ones”. I wonder why the author felt the need to superciliously mock the authorities for doing their best at a difficult time. There was real danger of vigilante action because of the panic. I wonder what the author means by, “before slipping into a little abstract music about communities living happily together”. Throughout the book the author makes it clear that the concept of communities living happily together bores him. War and violence is what he wants to write about. Early in the book he admits: ‘there is now no other Sri Lanka for me but the Sri Lanka of its war.”

Subramaniam gives a reasonably good account of the Tigers’ crimes as well as the army’s, although Sri Lankan readers might raise an eyebrow when he writes of the “manner in which the army had finished the war, rampaging through Tigers and Tamil civilians without distinction”. He covers the massacre at Kattankudy and the expulsion of Muslims from the north. He provides a vivid description of Black July and of the lesser grievances which preceded that horror. He deals with more recent events such the BBS persecution of Muslims. He talks to someone who was abducted in a white van and tortured.

However, he adds no new value (apart from florid prose) to old information that he has gleaned from his reading and interviewing. There are many long passages which consist only of reports of conversations he has had with people who, to my mind add nothing to what is already known, and may be unreliable narrators. The author, bizarrely, vicariously shares his interviewee Raghavan’s nostalgia for the good old days of the LTTE: “suddenly I could see it too: the glamour of the ideological life lived just outside the law, the impossible romance of a fraternity of young men out to change their world”. Just outside the law? The “impossible romance” of butchering babies in the dark?

An Indian reviewer, Mekund Belliappa, wrote, “the use of the word ‘war’ in the subtitle is misleading (or a marketing gimmick.)…There are no ‘war stories’ in This Divided Island: the author witnesses not a single violent act.” Subramaniam writes: ”Sri Lanka was a country pretending that it had been suddenly scrubbed clean of violence. But it wasn’t, of course. By some fundamental law governing the conservation of violence, it was now erupting outside the battlefield, in strange and unpredictable ways. It reminded me of a case of pox, the toxins coursing below the skin, pushing up boils and pustules that begged to be fingered and picked apart”.

“Within our tight circle, the conversation pulsed with nervousness and fear. Above Sri Lanka, the skies brooded and faded to black”. Throughout the book, the author employs this technique  of taking a normal peaceful scene and bigging it up with melodramatic vapourings. Is this the genre known as “creative non-fiction”? Kenan Malik did the same thing after visiting Sri Lanka for a few days. He had the gift of ESP in the north: “the ghosts of conflict still haunt Jaffna”. Subramaniam was similarly gifted. He writes of “inchoate dangers,” the “rank odour of menace” and many “sullen” faces. Even when he is comfortably ensconced in Colombo he “would get a glimpse of the hidden warts and scars, the anxieties and tensions.”

Subramaniam claims to be looking at Sri Lanka as a “forensic gumshoe visiting an arson site, to examine the ashes and guess how the fire caught and spread so catastrophically.” The way he finishes that paragraph gives me a queasy feeling: “but also to see if any embers remained to ignite the blaze all over again”. One cannot help but suspect that it would give him a vicarious thrill if the conflagration were to resume.

 

 

Sri Lanka – This Divided Island by Samanth Subramaniam was published by Atlantic Books in February 2015. It is available on Kindle.

Padma Rao’s Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Monday February 29 2016.

 

 

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Rao cover

 

 

One particular passage in Padma Rao’s excellent book, Sri Lanka-The New Country, brought tears to these rheumy old eyes. It concerns her Sinhalese driver Udayanga and a Tamil waiter whom she calls Murugan. She first recounts Udayanga’s story. “Throughout the trip, he had displayed none of the rough chauvinism that many commentators outside Sri Lanka insist that the Sinhalese wear on their sleeve vis-à-vis their fellow Tamil citizens”. He was a Buddhist from Balangoda. From an early age he had wanted to join the army and he tried to enlist after the LTTE assassinated President Premadasa. Despite his parents’ best efforts to obstruct him, he was eventually accepted and after some hard training joined the Special Force. During the war he met many LTTE child soldiers. He said that Prabhakaran had no humanity. “Instead of giving them a pencil he would give them a gun”.

 

 
Murugan was a tall, lanky young man working at a hotel in Mannar. He shyly asked this Indian author “Is Prabhakaran in India?” Murugan had been an LTTE cadre, forced by guns held to his parents’ heads to enlist and he was afraid that the LTTE leader would return. She told him to get on with his life now that there was peace.

 

 

She saw Udayanga and Murugan playing carom in the courtyard with “a lot of boyish guffawing”. When the time came to leave the hotel, Udayanga walked towards Murugan and they engaged in stiff handshake, then some backslaps, finally a quick rough hug. “This is the future, these children of Sri Lanka. These boys, this embrace. This is Sri Lanka, the new country.”

 

 
At the beginning of the book she gives a brief run-through on Sri Lankan history and mentions the island’s geo-strategic relevance at the crossroad of shipping lanes and writes that it “expectedly remains a focal point not only for the United Nations, international NGOs and aid agencies but also the international media. She notes that members of the Tamil diaspora are still trying to fund Tamil separatism “despite the fact that millions of fatigued Sri Lankan Tamils who did not flee, like the diaspora itself, but stayed back and bore the brunt of the terrible war, want no more talk of separatism”. She notes that foreign media may not always help these fatigued people to achieve their modest desires. “What news reporters see and experience on the ground often differs from what editors at the headquarters of their publications expect or want them to produce”.

 

 
She contrasts the bleakness of the north when she visited during the cease fire of 2002 with the north as it is today. “From Vavuniya onwards we had not seen a single bus, truck or even a cycle anywhere. We saw no children playing, no women hanging out washing, no men smoking under a tree. Up to here we had seen and heard nothing, except cicadas and the sound of our own car”. At Killinochchi “there was no electricity. There were a few people selling a few utility items like candles, matchboxes and solitary, stray vegetables on small plastic sheets on what must have once been a pavement”.

 

 
On a previous visit she had encountered a group of two dozen people squatting in a circle, tears streaming down their faces. Each person was holding a picture of a boy or a girl. They had heard that foreigners were in the Wanni and wanted to tell about their missing children. When warned that the LTTE might punish them for what they were doing, one man replied “what have we got to live for anyway?” That man later contacted the author to say the LTTE had told him that his son had been killed in fighting near Elephant Pass. He was the proud owner of a certificate of martyrdom signed by Prabhakaran.

 

 
When she visits Jaffna just before the Northern Provincial Council elections, the author wants to go to villages to talk to “ordinary” people. She is able to do this as the aide accompanying her makes himself scarce. Everyone she talks to praises the Army. One man said: “The LTTE was only involved in violence, absolutely nothing else. Our life in the Wanni was miserable. They kept taking our children away. There was no food, no power, absolutely nothing in our lives except blood. Blood, blood…”

 

 
Ms Rao notices vast improvement in the Eastern province as well as in the north. “Critics often say that building roads and setting up shops is not development. Try looking at it from the point of view of those who have lived in a place like Batticaloa for thirty years”. She saw many groves of coconut trees. Gone were the charred and barren fields of decades and most of the tents housing fleeing populations. The last of the landmines were being cleared. Mangroves are being restored to help local fishermen.

 

 
Former Tiger propaganda chief Daya Master told the author, “How many countries in the world would have emerged from such a long war and rebuilt within four years even half of what has been achieved here?” The author reminded him of the strictures from the international community. “Who is this international community, madam? … What is their purpose and role in a small country so far away? They are going over the top and making far too much noise. Why don’t they restrict themselves to doing some developmental work here… and leave our political future to us and our elected governments?”

 

 
“Why is it that you people focus only and entirely on the Sri Lankan army, and not on the brutality of the LTTE? I know it intimately. I have witnessed it for decades and indeed was forced to be part of it. Please tell them in your reports to forget the past and concentrate on the future. For us in this country that is the bottom line!”

 

 
The author comments: “The condemnation of violations by the LTTE is there – in the fine print – in all recent UN resolutions against Colombo. But it is never the same fanfare of publicity and vigour as is the key demand for condemning Rajapaksa and insisting on an international inquiry.”

 

 
Although Ms Rao is a foreigner, there is nothing of the dilettante parachute journalist about her. She has been visiting and writing about Sri Lanka for two and half decades. For fourteen years, she was the South Asia bureau chief of the Hamburg-based Der Spiegel. She has interviewed everybody who is anybody – Mahinda Rajapaksa (she was the first foreign journalist interview him when he was first sworn in as president and the first print reporter to interview him after the end of the war), Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremasinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga (who typically kept her waiting for 14 hours), Prabhakaran (who also kept her waiting), Karuna, Douglas Devananda, CV Wigneswaran, MA Sumanthiran, R Sampanthan, GL Peiris, Erik Solheim, Jon Hanssen-Bauer, General Sarath Fonseka, Major General Udaya Perera (“write what you like. But have a dosa.”), Major General Hathurasinghe,Lakshman Kadirgamar (“an inspiration and one of the few people who left me tongue-tied as a reporter”), Daya Master, Jehan Perera, KP, Dilhan Fernando, Hiran Cooray, junior members of all branches of the state’s armed forces, former male and female LTTE cadres, as well as numerous ordinary citizens of all ethnicities. She travelled far and wide island-wide and visited peripheral islands.

 

 

Throughout the book she reminds us that she is paying for travel and accommodation herself. She also stresses that she encountered no interference from the government or the army.

 
Despite her broad and deep knowledge of Sri Lanka, Padma Rao approaches her task with humility. “This book is neither meant as unsolicited advice, nor as admonishment, nor critique of either Tamil or Sinhalese Sri Lankans”. She humbly apologises in advance for any errors.

 

Sri Lanka: The New Country by Padma Rao Sundarji was first published on February 15 2015 by Harper-Collins, India. It is now available on Kindle.

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/

 

The Numbers Game and Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking and Ethics

I have long gained deep intellectual satisfaction from the application of critical thinking. Critical thinking has been defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”[i]

A number of writers have analysed the obstacles to successful critical thinking. I have been assisted by reading the works of philosophers such as Nigel Warburton, Stephen Law, Jamie Whyte, AC Grayling, Raymond Williams, Alec Fisher and Anthony Weston. These writers describe the strategies often used to undermine critical thinking. I have also taken an interest in writings on ethics and have been guided by Bernard Williams, Peter Singer, Henry Sidgwick, Simon Blackburn, Sissela Bok and the Lord Buddha. I try to lead an ethical life.

Enemies of Reason

With this background, I would have expected to be able to engage in calm and rational discussion on most topics. Sadly, this has not always happened. I try to avoid any discussion of the policies and actions of the Israeli government because I know that my Zionist friends will eventually call me an anti-Semite. Similarly, 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 a government stooge, a Sinhala-Buddhist Chauvinist (despite my Irish Catholic upbringing) and a Tiger sympathiser sent by sinister foreign agencies to undermine the state. Discussions about animal welfare can also be very fraught as there are many warring factions among animal lovers.

Kenan Malik

My taste for critical thinking with an ethical and humanist background led me to the writings of Kenan Malik, an Indian-born writer, lecturer and broadcaster who was brought up in Manchester. He studied neurobiology (at the University of Sussex) and history and philosophy of science (at Imperial College, London). He has lectured at a number of universities in Britain, Europe, Australia and the USA. He writes: “My main areas of academic interest are the history of ideas, the history and philosophy of science, the history and philosophy of religion, the philosophy of mind, theories of human nature, moral and political philosophy,  and the history and sociology of race and immigration. “

Malik has long campaigned for equal rights, freedom of expression, and a secular society. He has defended rationalism and humanism in the face of what he has called “a growing culture of irrationalism, mysticism and misanthropy”. Like me he campaigned for the Anti-Nazi League. He is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association and a trustee of the free-speech magazine Index on Censorship.

Unlike me, (although I was a subscriber to the paper Socialist Worker and accompanied them on many a protest march) in the 1980s, he was associated with a number of Marxist organisations, including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP).  Nick Cohen, the Observer columnist and author of What’s Left: How the Left Lost Its Way (2007), has called RCP “a vicious movement” and “the smallest and nastiest of the Trotskyist sects”. Malik stood for Birmingham Selly Oak in the 1992 general election, coming last out of six candidates with 84 votes. Malik wrote for the RCP’s magazine Living Marxism, later LM. Although the RCP has since disbanded, Malik has written for later incarnations of LM, and for its on-line successor, the British web magazine Spiked. Jenny Turner wrote in the London Review of Books about “the LM network’s habit of supporting freedom of expression for all sorts of horrible people: BNPers and child pornographers and atrocity deniers. Of course it’s only the right to speak that is supported, not what is said: members of the LM network are always careful to stress that they’re no less opposed to racism, sexual exploitation and mass murder than everybody else, it’s just that they think unpleasant opinions should be not banned but ‘battled’ with, in open debate.”[ii]

Opinion without Knowledge

The Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte wrote: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.” Voltaire wrote, “prejudice is opinion without judgement”. Opinion without knowledge, truth or logic can also foster prejudice.

Kenan Malik Comes to Sri Lanka

Mr Malik took the opportunity of 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.[iii] I have given this matter of “the numbers game” a great deal of thought. I have attended think tanks and seminars, had a long conversation with the author of the IADG report[iv], reviewed Gordon Weiss’s book on the subject,[v] had a dialogue with Callum McCrae and published several articles. I do not think that Mr Malik has studied the matter in so much depth.

I have no desire to whitewash the Rajapaksa government or the Sri Lankan military. I have looked at this matter in a perfectly calm and logical manner which is what I would have expected of a public intellectual with Mr Malik’s reputation. My conclusion is that the figure 40,000 cannot be correct and it is not helpful to any reconciliation process to continue to bandy it about.

Darusman Report

Mr Malik responds to criticism by Professor Michael Roberts by citing what he calls “The 2011 UN report on the final stages of the war.”[vi] 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. “The Panel’s dismissal of the Government’s position prevents it from making a more searching assessment of the military necessity claimed by the Government. It prevents the Panel from analyzing the crucial elements of intentionality and proportionality as should have been done in any investigation of war crimes in the Sri Lankan situation.”[vii] The Darusman report was also challenged in the report of the Paranagama Commission.[viii]

This is not the place to go into a further detailed analysis of the shortcomings of the Darusman Report. Mr Malik claims to have “done his homework” before coming to Sri Lanka but seemed to be unaware of the vast amount of research that has been done. Professor Michael Roberts has given an extensive list of citations on Mr Malik’s blog. Suffice it to say that the Darusman report is dishonest in the way it pumps up a previous UN figure of 7,221 civilian deaths and in the way it elides “credible allegations’” into self-evident proven war crimes.

In one of my articles I say: ‘Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.’ The Darusman report arrives at its figures by a process of recycling hearsay.

Moving the Goalposts

My sole point in my original critical comment on Mr Malik’s blog was that it was not helpful to cite the figure of 40,000 deaths upwards as if it was incontrovertible fact. I believed that he should have mentioned that there were many closely argued interpretations that set the figure much lower. In his response he 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. The figures I have come across vary from around 9,000 to around 100,000. I rejected the figures that came from either side in the war and took instead figures from independent third parties, such as the UN and ICEP. It may be that, as you say, these figures, too, are myths, and I have no reason to dispute your research (though I have not seen it in full). However, where the figures are disputed, it makes sense to settle for the more 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. To argue that, “The question of numbers dead in the final phase is not central to the argument I was making” is disingenuous. His argument now seems to be that the SLA deliberately targeted Tamil civilians. The true number of civilians killed is crucial to that very argument. If one takes 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 for deliberate targeting becomes very strong. The numbers do matter.

Hypotheticals and Counterfactual History

I have never been a fan of counterfactual history or hypotheticals so I was not keen to take up the thought experiment posited here by Mr Malik:  “Suppose that I had written something critical of the actions of the Syrian government in the current civil war, and particularly of its mass killings of civilians. And suppose a respondent had suggested that the real problems lay not with the actions of the government forces but those of the al-Nusra Front and of the Islamic State, and that it is rebel activities that drives the Syrian government to take the actions that it does, an argument that can be heard quite loudly in certain parts of the media today. Would a robust response not be justified? And if it is justified in that case, why not in this case? (Before anyone jumps on me, the analogy I am making is not between the conflicts in Syria and Sri Lanka, but between the attempts to use insurgent actions as a means of justifying unjustifiable government actions).”

That seems to me to be rather feeble and unnecessary. He is assuming before he enters the discussion that the government actions are “unjustifiable”. He is explicitly comparing the situation in Syria with the situation in Sri Lanka at the same time as saying that he is not comparing. Why bring Syria up at all? I have coined an aphorism which I repeat in a most tiresome fashion at every opportunity: “The road to hell is paved with false analogies”. I most often use it when people try to compare the Irish peace process with what was happening in Sri Lanka. Martin McGuinness came here to tell us that a military solution to the Tiger problem was not feasible and that we must achieve a political solution through negotiation. I used to think that myself. I made the decision to come and live in Sri Lanka when Ranil Wickramesinhe, in his previous stint as prime minister, was maintaining a cease fire with the LTTE. I was very dismayed when Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated him in the 2005 presidential election. I was severely dismayed when the Rajapaksa government decided to try to defeat the Tigers militarily. I realize now that I was seriously mistaken.

Never mind about hypotheticals; why not keep it simple and concentrate on what actually happened in Sri Lanka? The LTTE used cease fires to regroup and re-arm. Peace talks had failed over many decades because Prabhakaran had no intention of compromising. Eventually, the legitimately constituted armed forces of a democratically elected government of a sovereign unitary state decided to make a determined effort to defeat a group that was systematically slaughtering civilians in order to set up a separate state.

War Crimes Apologist?

Mr Malik is putting words in Professor Robert’s mouth when he says he was arguing that “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. This was not about revenge or what-aboutery. The actions of the SLA may legitimately be discussed and if necessary condemned but they did not behave badly because the LTTE behaved badly and Roberts is not arguing any such thing. 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[ix] and many others have indeed contested that claim.[x]

Universal Expertise

In his helpful book Thinking from A to Z, philosopher Nigel Warburton lists 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 or to jack-of-all trades. There is no doubt that Noam Chomsky has a huge brain but his speciality is linguistics. Because he speaks with the authority of a specialist on that subject (although many other linguists disagree with him even about linguistics) that does not mean he speaks with equal authority on the many other issues on which he chooses to intervene.

I could never hope to have such a huge brain as Kenan Malik but there are some subjects on which, in all humility, I think I can speak with more authority than him because I have studied them in more detail than him.(Isiah Berlin’s essay about the hedgehog and the fox springs to mind.) I have assembled a good deal of evidence and opinion that convinces me that the oft-cited mantra that over 40,000 civilians were killed in the last days of the defeat of the LTTE is factually incorrect. Disagree with me if you wish but do so from a position of knowledge and do so with specifics and civility.

Tropes Employed by Online Commenters

My main interest here is, rather than going over the casualty figures yet again, is to discuss the manner in which my argument has been dealt with by Mr Malik and others. Some interesting tactics were employed. I found it impossible to get anyone to actually deal specifically with the different estimates of numbers killed.

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 then brought in some assumptions based on anecdotal ‘evidence’. “I personally had contact with several intelligence agencies from Canada, US, UK as well as Sri Lanka and Amnesty International”. At no point does he look at the various calculations of casualty figures and explain why he thinks they are incorrect. He does not explain why he does not 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”. Well-argued 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”. [xi]There were witnesses.[xii] Murali Reddy wrote in the Tamil Nadu magazine Frontline: “It must be said that the ‘journalistic team’ associated with TamilNet did a marvelous job of relaying the scenes of the last hours of Eelam War IV as they unfolded. Obviously, they were in regular touch with LTTE leaders in the war theatre. The news, nuggets and nuances that reflected in the TamilNet reportage, minus the blatant propaganda that both sides excelled in, gave a fairly good idea of the last hours and minutes as experienced and relayed by the last batch of Tiger cadre and the LTTE top brass.”

Guilt by Association

I asked one Facebook commenter to give his opinion on the many calculations which gave a lower figure of civilian casualties. I pointed out that many people had demolished the Darusman Report. He responded: “Those demolitions are in my humble opinion by personalities who are no match to the legal personalities who authored the report. All reports could be demolished, but on legal scrutiny I would suggest that the demolishers will get demolished”.

When I pressed on this point, he brought in Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin and said the calculations of one or two of the people estimating were “buddies of Gota”, the defence secretary and brother of the president. I responded : “I am not talking about Hitler, Mussolini etc. I am talking about different people’s views of how many civilian deaths there were in the final days of the defeat of the LTTE. I am merely asking you to specifically address those views. It is a common trope on comment threads 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’. You are not even being specific about which person is close to Gota. You cannot dismiss all the arguments because, according to you, some unnamed person is a buddy of Gota.”

 

He wanted to avoid dealing with the specific points that I was making by citing his superior inside knowledge. However, the very fact of his inside knowledge prevents him from naming names.  “I don’t want to be specific because both are known to me, one being a close friend for several decades. I repeatedly warned him to stay away from Gota. I accept that different views must be considered, but surely you should also be able to assess if certain views are even worth considering. I would seek enlightened views and discount pedestrian views “

I asked  why would Sir John Holmes (of the UN) , Navi Pillai (of the UNHRC), Tamil Net (website of the LTTE), Rohan Guneratna (of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research), the Voice of the Tigers (the LTTE media organisation) , the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Rajasingham Narendran , 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 was to defeat the enemy (at that point the most vicious terrorist group ever known) with as little harm to civilians as possible. It was not to punish Tamil civilians for the crimes of the LTTE. I do not believe that the aim was genocide of the Tamil people. 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. Mr Malik has  every right to disagree with me about this, even though he is less well-informed than I or Professor Roberts. To state these beliefs does not make myself or Michael Roberts an ‘apologist’ for any atrocities that might have been committed by the Sri Lankan army. To use that loaded word is rather manipulative and dishonest.

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 when challenged as “not central to his argument”.

 

[i] Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.

[ii] http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n13/jenny-turner/who-are-they

 

[iii] https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/in-the-haunting-light-of-jaffna/

[iv] http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/TheNG.pdf

[v] http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=78825

 

[vi] http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/POE_Report_Full.pdf

[vii] http://margasrilanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Truth-Accountability.pdf

[viii] file:///C:/Users/HP/Downloads/Maxwell_Paranagama_Final_Report.pdf

[ix] https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/cartographic-photographic-illustrations-in-support-of-the-memorandum-analysing-the-war-in-sri-lanka-and-propaganda-debates/

[x] http://www.peaceinsrilanka.lk/for-the-record/the-brutal-misuse-of-hospitals-by-the-ltte-and-the-darusman-panel

 

[xi] http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/TheNG.pdf

 

[xii] http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2612/stories/20090619261200900.htm

 

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