Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: ltte

Atonement and Redemption

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday September 2017

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=29362

 

Sean O’Callaghan was once a killer for the Provisional IRA. He died on 23 August 2017. His death was not a violent one. He died in a swimming pool in Jamaica, probably of a heart attack, while visiting his daughter, Tara. For many years, O’Callaghan himself had been expecting a violent death because, after becoming disillusioned with the IRA, he turned informer and was a fierce critic of his former comrades. He put his chances of dying a natural death at less than 20%. He wrote: “As the years went on, I came to believe that the Provisional IRA was the greatest enemy of democracy and decency in Ireland”.

Early Life

He was born in Tralee, County Kerry in 1954 and was part of a family with a long tradition of nationalist rebellion. In his teens, he gave up Catholicism and became an atheist and a student of Marxism. He saw the unfolding events in Northern Ireland as an indictment of British Imperialism and joined the Provisional IRA in 1969 at the age of 17. He went to prison after accidentally detonating a bomb he was making and completed his sentence.

Murders

He claimed to have been responsible for two murders in 1974:  in May, a “Greenfinch” Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, Private Eva Martin aged 28, the first female from the security forces to die in the Troubles, was killed in a mortar attack on the British Army’s base at Clogher in County Tyrone; in August 1974 O’Callaghan murdered Detective Inspector Peter Flanagan, an Ulster Catholic officer of the RUC Special Branch, by shooting him repeatedly with a handgun in a public house in the town of Omagh in County Tyrone. On more than one occasion O’Callaghan confessed to killing John Corcoran, another informer whose body was found in a sleeping bag by the side of a road in Ballincollig, County Cork in March 1985. No-one ever stood trial for that murder and there has been speculation that the state colluded in the murder and did not want its dirty linen to be displayed in court.

Taking Responsibility

When he was 21 in 1976, O’Callaghan left the IRA, and moved to London where he established a successful cleaning business.  In May 1978, he married a Scottish woman of Protestant unionist descent. However, he could not settle: “In truth there seemed to be no escaping from Ireland. At the strangest of times I would find myself reliving the events of my years in the IRA.” In 1979, the IRA contacted him and he decided to work against the organisation from within. He claimed this was his chance for atonement and redemption. He did not see himself as a traitor. “I had been brought up to believe that you had to take responsibility for your own actions. If you did something wrong then you made amends. I came to believe that individuals taking responsibility for their own actions is the basis for civilisation, without that safety net we have nothing”.

Charles and Diana Assassination

Although he wanted to subvert the IRA, he still did not want to work with the British government. He returned to Tralee in 1979 and offered his services to Detective Sergeant Seán O’Connell of the special branch of the police of the Irish Republic, the Garda Síochána. He met Kerry IRA leader Martin Ferris and participated in a number of attempted robberies. O’Callaghan claims to have foiled these attempts “by a whole series of random stratagems”. In 1984, after a tip-off from O’Callaghan, the Irish Navy and the Garda Síochána intercepted an arms shipment from Boston to the IRA. O’Callaghan claims that he foiled the assassination of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1983 by alerting the authorities to a bomb planted in the Dominion Theatre before a Duran Duran concert.

Surrender

On 29 November 1988, O’Callaghan walked into a police station in Tunbridge Wells and confessed to the murders of Eva Martin and Peter Flanagan. He served his sentence in prisons in Ulster and England, during which time he foiled several planned escapes by IRA prisoners. He was released as part of a Prerogative of Mercy by Queen Elizabeth II in 1996. In 1999, he published an account of his experiences entitled The Informer: The True-Life Story of One Man’s War on Terrorism. After his release, he lived openly in the UK after repeatedly refusing offers of witness protection and a new identity.

Doubters

It is not surprising that Sinn Féin questioned his account; The Sinn Féin paper An Phoblacht concluded an article about O’Callaghan: “No-one likes informers. They tell lies.” An Phoblacht said: “During almost eighteen months in Crumlin Road Sean O’Callaghan’s mental health was a cause of concern to the prison authorities. He tried to commit suicide on at least two occasions and he was taking regular medication”.  The paper dismisses the claim that O’Callaghan gave himself up out of remorse. “An Phoblacht has learned that throughout 1988 O’Callaghan was drinking heavily and becoming increasingly depressed at the turn his life had taken…  MI5 had cut him loose. … He realised he had outlived his usefulness for his British handlers – that was why he did not offer his super grass strategy to MI5 – and he could not return to Ireland”.

O’Callaghan’s former IRA colleague, Martin Ferris, is now a member of parliament in the Irish Republic. He is derisive about O’Callaghan: ““His many attempts at self-aggrandisement were highly fanciful and despite the attempted lionisation of Sean by some, his obvious fabrication of the truth is clear for anyone that has delved into his claims and counterclaims.”

Others with less of an axe to grind have doubts. Some said the reason for O’Callaghan’s release was so that he could express the views of Conservative politicians who opposed the peace negotiations that led up to the Good Friday Agreement. Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe interviewed O’Callaghan during the time of peace negotiations and he insisted that Sinn Féin was not serious about peace: “His cynicism about the process was badly misplaced.” Nevertheless, Dean Godson, the biographer of David Trimble the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who fought hard to push the peace process through found O’Callaghan’s counsel helpful: “O’Callaghan’s advice was particularly important to Trimble, giving the latter extra confidence to join the first power-sharing Executive between Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein in 1999”.

Supporters

Historian Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote in the Belfast Telegraph: “One of the many reasons that despite coming from a Dublin Catholic nationalist background I came to form great friendships with Ulster Protestants was their astonishing ability to forgive.” O’Callaghan told the Los Angeles Times in 1997: “The IRA wasn’t really after the British,” “It was the guy down the road who had the better land that his ancestors had taken from the Catholics. The bitterness was there all the time, rooted and deep. What they really wanted to do was to murder their neighbours. It was tribalism.”

Ruth got to know O’Callaghan well when he worked with her to seek justice for victims of the Omagh bombing in 1998. I wrote about that in these pages. https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/omagh-part-one-the-road-of-tears/

Those who seek to question O’Callaghan’s account and his motives often cite him as being under the influence of those who seek to question the mythologies of Irish nationalism. Ruth Dudley Edwards is one of those people as is Conor Cruise O’Brien and Eoghan Harris. I myself have been greatly influenced by Ruth’s writings and those of Professor Liam Kennedy, who coined the acronym MOPE about the Irish “Most Oppressed People Ever”.

I sought to apply what I had learnt from them to the Sri Lankan situation and encountered a great deal of abuse as a result. http://groundviews.org/2012/03/17/martyrology-martyrdom-rebellion-terrorism/ As Michael Clifford wrote about O’Callaghan in the Irish Examiner: “His testimonies of the sectarianism, the wanton criminality, the expedient killing, all gave lie to the bright shining image of selfless freedom fighters protecting their families.”

When someone has committed terrible crimes is it possible to put that behind us as we move to the future? Many who did terrible things for the LTTE still walk free. Eoghan Harris wrote on hearing the news of O’Callaghan’s death: “O’Callaghan committed terrible crimes. But, unlike other republicans, he showed remorse and sought to make restitution by laying his life on the line. His moral rigour forbade him to seek forgiveness either in counselling or in Christianity. He sought absolution by risking a dreadful death, as an unpaid agent inside the IRA. To meet Sean, or even see him on TV, was to be struck by the simple truth of his testimony.”

 

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal. May his soul be on the right hand of God.

Nixon Part Four

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday December 29 2016

Colman's Column3

Hiss Case as Paradigm

Nixon was always proud of his part in pursuing allegations that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. Alger Hiss (November 11, 1904 – November 15, 1996) was an American government official who was convicted of perjury in 1950. Before he was tried and convicted, he was involved in the establishment of the United Nations both as a US State Department official and as a UN official. Nixon would always consider the Hiss case a defining moment in his career and included it as the first of the “six crises” he described in his political memoir of the same name.

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Anthony Summers, in his Nixon biography The Arrogance of Power, considered that the Hiss case was a paradigm for Nixon’s later career because of several themes that it brought out.

  • Delusion: Nixon could not resist exaggerating his own role. Robert Stripling, chief HUAC investigator, called Nixon’s account “pure bullshit”.
  • Addiction to intrigue: Nixon’s journalist friend Walter Trohan believed Nixon developed “a weakness for playing cops and robbers in the Hiss case. Maybe this led him to countenance Watergate”.
  • Vengeance: Nixon questioned the competence of the judge in the first Hiss trial and wanted to prosecute the foreman of the jury.
  • Resentment of the elite: The Ivy League types that Nixon detested thought Hiss could not be guilty because he was from their class.
  • Persecution complex: Nixon thought people were out to get him because of the Hiss case whereas he was repeatedly out to get others.
  • Rage to blame others: attorneys Vazzana and Stripling who worked on the Hiss investigation said Nixon became viciously abusive with them when evidence was questioned.
  • Cracking under pressure: he drove himself beyond his limits going without food and sleep and family life. During the Hiss case Nixon started using sleeping pills.

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Vietnam

Perhaps Nixon’s greatest crime was to conspire to scuttle the Vietnam War peace talks on the eve of the 1968 presidential election. Nixon tried to project an image of himself as a peacemaker on Vietnam but had been an early adopter, disagreeing with Eisenhower, for sending in ground troops. He plotted to prolong the war for his own political advantage.

President Johnson surprised everyone by announcing a peace initiative in the form of a bombing halt. On March 31 1968, LBJ declared he would not be running for re-election. “I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing.” Peace in Vietnam was the last thing Nixon wanted at that point as it might hand the election to Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Nixon wanted to take the credit for ending the war himself.

Anna Chennault was the Republican party’s chief female fundraiser. She had friends in the South Vietnamese government and at Nixon’s bidding persuaded them not to participate in peace talks. Three days before the election the FBI sent LBJ a wiretap report that Chennault had contacted the South Vietnamese ambassador telling him “hold on We’re gonna win”. President Thieu announced that South Vietnam would not be sending a delegation to the Paris peace talks. LBJ correctly described Nixon’s scheming as treason and the Logan Act of 1799 provides severe penalties against private citizens who interfere in negotiations between the US and foreign governments.

dragon-lady

Humphrey lost the election. With Nixon as president the war went on for another four years; 20,763 more Americans died; 109,230 South Vietnamese soldiers died; 496,260 North Vietnamese fighters died.

Cambodia was secretly bombed without congressional approval and when the truth emerged during Watergate one congressman, Robert Drinan, described Nixon’s actions as “conduct more shocking and more unbelievable than the conduct of any president in any war in all of American history”. The bombing contributed to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime – two million Cambodians died.

Watergate

Nixon was fortunate to avoid prison for his part in the criminal activity and cover up relating to the Watergate affair. Fourteen of his associates who thought they were doing his bidding served jail sentences. Nixon avoided impeachment by resigning.

watergateapprehended

Much has been written about Watergate and I read a great deal of it with great fascination as well as following the news as it unfurled. Briefly here is what happened. On June 17, 1972, a security guard found five men in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. FBI agents establish that the Watergate break-in was part of a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of the Nixon re-election effort. On January 30, 1973, former Nixon aides G Gordon Liddy and James W McCord Jr were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate incident. Five other men pleaded guilty,

liddy

The FBI discovered a connection between cash found on the burglars and a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CRP or CREEP), the official organization of Nixon’s campaign. An investigation conducted by the Senate Watergate Committee revealed that President Nixon had a tape-recording system in his offices and that he had recorded many conversations and the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the president should release the tapes to government investigators. The tapes revealed that the president himself was directly implicated in trying to cover up activities that took place after the break-in and used federal officials to impede investigations. There has been speculation that Nixon was trying to find out what dirt the Democrats had on him about the Chennault affair, funding from the Mob or his role in Cuba. Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974. On September 8, 1974, his successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him.

ford

Watergate led to calls for greater controls on fund raising as well as condemnation of government surveillance. The achievements of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein led to them being portrayed onscreen by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffmann. Aggressive investigative journalism enjoyed a vogue.

bern-and-wood

How do the effects of Watergate look after 40 years? The tactics covered by the term “Watergate” were used in the name of national security to attack political enemies. Could that happen today? We were already getting nostalgic about Obama before he left because we were so horrified at the prospect of Trump. Obama may have had the excuse of an obstructionist Congress for failing to achieve some of his aims. However, in matters of national security, he exercised largely unchecked powers. After 9/11, national security concerns (much as during Nixon’s formative years of the cold war) have presented a good argument for unimpeded presidential powers in all areas of national security, just as the Executive Presidency was argued to be a good thing in Sri Lanka in order to defeat the LTTE, but still remains seven years after the defeat of terrorism. I have just been watching Oliver Stone’s film Snowden. It seems that the courts, the Congress and much of the public now tend to agree with Nixon: “When the president does it, it’s not illegal.”

Trumpery

During his election campaign, Donald Trump seemed to believe that if he were to be elected he could do anything he wanted. He could lock up Hillary Clinton just by telling his Supreme Court to get the job done. He could deport Mexican immigrants by diktat and build a wall to prevent more coming in and expect Mexico to pay for it. He could lock up Muslims. He could stop the press criticising him. Richard Nixon tried all that kind of stuff and ended up losing the presidency he had wanted so much.

Trump probably did not want the presidency as much as Nixon did. To Trump, the election was an advertising campaign for Trump Enterprises and the surprise bonus of the real presidency itself provides a unique marketing opportunity. Nixon was intense about politics, Trump not so much. Nixon was thwarted. Can Trump be thwarted?

Next week – did Nixon have any good points?

 

 

The Blair Years Part Six

Colman's Column3Sleaze and Achievements

lord_levy_and_blair

 

Formula for Sleaze

bernie-ecclestone-and-slavica-ecclestone

Much of the reason for the voters’ distaste for the Major administration was because of the “sleaze factor” but the new administration itself became besmirched in its very first year. Labour had pledged to ban tobacco advertising. Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone had donated a million pounds to the Labour Party and this came to look like a bribe when health minister Tessa Jowell, who was fiercely anti-tobacco, was forced to argue the case for exempting Formula One from tobacco advertising restrictions. Blair apologized and the money was returned but it was later proved that he lied about the timing of decisions in this matter.

tessa

The Hinduja Foundation is back in the news after promising to contribute £3.5m to the Duke of Edinburgh Award. Back in 2000 the Hinduja Brothers donated £ one million to the Millennium Project and brought about the resignation of Peter Mandelson in their quest for British citizenship. The Hinduja passport applications also affected Keith Vaz, a junior minister for Europe, whose wife ran a company that advised on applications for British citizenship, which had received money from the Hinduja Foundation.

Elizabeth Filkin, who was Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards between February 1999 and 2002, was subject to a venomous whispering campaign and one political reporter was told she was a “mad alcoholic”. Filkin resigned in December 2002, complaining about the “quite remarkable” vitriol from the Labour MPs she investigated, including Geoffrey Robinson and Keith Vaz.  Vaz is known to Sri Lankans as an LTTE sympathiser and is, as I write, again under a cloud following allegations relating to rent boys and drugs.

Lord Cashpoint

One of the consequences of Blair’s “success” in getting rid of Clause IV was that the trade unions, who had once been the mainstay of Labour Party finances, were no longer inclined to be so generous with funding. New Labour had an enduring problem raising enough cash with which to fight elections. It was alleged that Lord Levy (formerly a pop music entrepreneur whose stable included Alvin Stardust and Chris Rea) was tasked with raising funds for the party and was offering knighthoods and peerages in return. Levy became known as Lord Cashpoint.

levy-eye

Blair himself was interviewed by police. He and the Labour party were not exonerated from acting illegally. The decision of the Crown Prosecution Service not to proceed was made solely on the basis of a lack of evidence and an assessment of the likelihood of a conviction. Some of the police officers involved in the inquiry claim there was political pressure applied to them and that some of the politicians interviewed were less than helpful.

steve-bell

Messiah, Mafia and Porn King

Broken Vows is a recent illuminating (although not beyond criticism) biography of Tony Blair by Tom Bower. Bower also wrote a biography of someone whose support Blair sought – Richard Desmond, proprietor of the Daily Express newspaper.  In 1982, Desmond’s company, Northern & Shell, began to publish the UK edition of the soft-porn magazine Penthouse, including Forum (for which Alistair Campbell once wrote). The company soon moved on to publishing a range of adult (sic) titles, including Asian BabesBig Ones, Eros, Horny Housewives, Only 18 and Mothers-in-Law.

John Sweeney wrote in the London Observer in May 2001 that Desmond had made a deal in 1991 for running advertisements in his “adult” titles for telephone sex lines run by Richard Martino of the Gambino crime family. In October 1992, Desmond’s then managing director, Philip Bailey, had a Taser applied to his testicles in New York as an explicit threat to Desmond himself. Desmond hired James Brown, a convicted criminal, as his bodyguard. An associate of Brown’s has claimed that bags containing £2 million were delivered to an Italian restaurant in Soho, London, to settle the issue with the Gambinos

Blair’s interest in this model citizen was sparked by Desmond’s acquisition of the Express. Blair invited Desmond to meet him at Number 10.  Desmond claimed to be a socialist and donated £100,000 to the Labour Party. Blair did not know that Desmond had also contributed to the Conservative Party and had ordered the editor of his pornographic magazine Readers’ Wives to “put Cherie Blair on the front cover”. Stupidly, Labour spent £120,000 (more than the size of Desmond’s donation) on buying campaign adverts in Desmond’s papers.

 

desmond-eye

Mandelson, Blunkett

Peter Mandelson was renowned for his manipulative Machiavellian skills but had a tin ear about his own actions. He bought a home in 1996, partly with an interest-free loan of £373,000 from Geoffrey Robinson, a cabinet colleague and millionaire whose business dealings were subject to an inquiry by Mandelson’s own department. Mandelson failed to declare the loan in the Register of Members’ Interests, or to his building society. He did not believe he had done anything wrong but his evasions embarrassed the prime minister who persuaded him to resign in in December 1998.  He came back to the Cabinet after ten months. In October 1999, he was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. On 24 January 2001, Mandelson resigned for a second time, following his involvement in the Hinduja passport scandal.

David Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary on 15 December 2004 after allegations that he helped fast-track the renewal of a work permit for his ex-lover’s nanny. Following the 2005 general election Blunkett was returned to the cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He was ousted again because of a directorship in a company proposing to bid for government contracts to provide paternity tests to the Child Support Agency (CSA) – part of his department.

Caplingate

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Although Blair used the media relentlessly for his own ends, Mrs Blair resented intrusions of privacy and did not try to hide her contempt, which was reciprocated by the press. Cherie had asked her “lifestyle advisor”, Carole Caplin, to find her property in which to invest in Bristol where her son was going to university.

chercaplin

Caplin’s boyfriend, Peter Foster, helped to find two flats and got a discount of £40,000 by mentioning the Blairs. Foster had been convicted in Australia of fraud. Cherie lied to Blair about this and the lies were passed on to the press, causing the prime minister great embarrassment.

Carole Caplin and Peter Foster in grabs from BBC documnetary called " The Conman, his Lover and the Prime Minister's Wife " 15/02/03 for paul

Carole Caplin and Peter Foster 

Achievements

Despite the sleaze and the disappointments, Blair did transform the Labour Party and presided over three consecutive general election victories, a feat which had eluded every previous Labour leader. The UK did generally become a more comfortable place to be after ten years of Blair. New Labour adopted the EU social chapter, introduced a minimum wage, reduced child poverty, shifted state aid from the middleclass, increased taxes on the better-off, concentrated considerable resources into deprived areas and used windfall profits from the privatised utilities to create job and training opportunities. A five-year homelessness strategy was effective. Government figures published in 2005 showed homelessness acceptances had fallen by nearly 7,000 on the previous year.

I cannot do justice here to Blair’s impressive achievement on Northern Ireland. I recommend two books by people who followed the process step by painful step. Deaglán de Bréadún was Political Correspondent with the Irish Times. His daily coverage of the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland was published in a book, The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland which is essential reading. In Great Hatred, Little Room, Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, gives an insider’s account.

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Blair’s success with Northern Ireland was due to his faults as well as his strengths. He was determined to look at Northern Ireland afresh, free from the received wisdom of his predecessors. Ignorance and naivete were assets in this case, helping him to resolve a situation that history seemed to have made intractable. It was a tribute to Blair’s doggedness, communication skills, resilience and creativity that he persuaded Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness not only to govern together but even to become friends. McGuinness wept when Paisley died.

chuckle-bros

Michael Burleigh adds the caveat about the Northern Ireland triumph: “Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell … were surely influenced by their triumph amid the steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone to scale up to the mosques of Basra, Baghdad and Ramadi?”

 

 

Next week – Blair’s later career.

 

 

President Hillary Clinton and Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 30 2016

Colman's Column3

 

 

hillarymeetsjayalalithaa

It is hard to imagine what a Donald Trump presidency might bode for Sri Lanka because Trump makes a virtue of avoiding fixed positions on foreign policy – and he lies. We might surmise that Hillary Clinton as president would probably be bad for Sri Lanka because we can examine her track record as Secretary of State at the time that GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) was trying to defeat the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Clinton chaired the UN Security Council session on September 30 2009 when it adopted Resolution 1888, which dealt with conflict-related sexual violence. The official transcript of her address contained this: “We’ve seen rape used as a tactic of war before in Bosnia, Burma, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. In too many countries and in too many cases, the perpetrators of this violence are not punished, and so this impunity encourages further attacks.” This is not an off-the-cuff remark – she was reading a prepared speech to a session of which she was the chair.

Sri Lankan prime minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake’s initial response was off-the cuff. He said that Clinton had apparently forgotten the Monica Lewinsky affair and should tend to her own backyard before alleging that women are being maltreated in other countries. This was not very statesman-like but in those days the prime ministership was not an important job.

The Sri Lankan government lodged an official “note of protest” (omitting any mention of Lewinsky) with the US Embassy in Colombo. Professor  Rajiva Wijesinha, then Secretary to the Human Rights Ministry, told The Island that the government would like the US to reveal any specific allegations against the Sri Lankan Army and  that it was unfortunate that those who had failed to save the LTTE from being crushed, at the hands of the Sri Lankan Army, were now harassing Sri Lanka.

 

Trump has been taking every opportunity to embarrass Clinton on the issue of her e-mails. The controversy over Clinton’s use of a private server led the US government to release some of the e-mails. This enables us to see what her thinking on Sri Lanka was behind the scenes.

A letter from the State Department to Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Rohitha Bogollagama claimed that “numerous cases of rape and sexual violence in Sri Lanka, particularly acts committed against women held in detention by the government” had been detailed over the years by the US government and international human rights groups. This misses the crucial point that Clinton was not merely saying that rapes had occurred but that the Sri Lankan state had officially adopted sexual abuse as a weapon of war.

 

The letter was signed by Melanne Verveer, ambassador at large for global women’s issues at the State Department. She did concede that “in the most recent phase of the conflict, from 2006 to 2009 … we have not received reports that rape and sexual abuse were used as tools of war, as they clearly have in other conflict areas around the world.” She made sure that she got the last word and set the scene for Clinton’s future actions in getting Sri Lanka’s war record examined by the UNHRC. “Secretary Clinton believes that Sri Lanka must focus to the future and move forward on the promotion of peace and the protection of human rights,”

 

On Oct 3, 2009, Lissa Muscatine, a senior aide to Clinton, acknowledged there had been a lack of due diligence in clearing Clinton’s UN statement.  State department spokesperson Philip Crowley wrote that Clinton was open to the idea of the response coming from someone other than herself. “She feels that this has generated a great deal of media commentary in various quarters, including prominent outlets in this country and in Asia that we have no choice but to respond in a public way. Government supporters are saying that she is listening to the Tamil Diaspora”.

Verveer’s letter was not a retraction and did not come from Clinton. Clinton was still appeasing those who had been calling for an international inquiry into the Vanni offensive. The idea that GOSL used rape as a weapon of war still hung there. Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN, Major General Shavendra Silva, asserted that allegations of rape, during the conflict, as well as in the  post-war period, were meant to justify demands for withdrawal of the Sri Lankan army from the Northern Province. The UN repeated the allegation, in early 2014, in relation to the post-war period also.

 

On 6 May 2009 Deputy Assistant Secretary Mike Owens declared “We, of course, have designated the LTTE as a terrorist organization, and we certainly have no sympathy for some of the things that they’ve carried out, but I think you do have to ask a very legitimate question: Why did they have a following in the beginning? And I think it’s because some in the Tamil community do have legitimate grievances, and we need to find — I think it’s imperative for Sri Lankans to find a way to give everyone in the community, all Sri Lankans a legitimate voice in their government.”

 

There is no denying that Sri Lanka’s military received significant help from the US in its struggle with the LTTE. However, Clinton seemed miffed when President Rajapaksa refused to bow to demands from the international community for a cease fire. Rajapaksa knew fine well that the LTTE used cease-fires to regroup and re-arm and, being so close to victory after 30 years of brutal war, he was not going to fall into that trap.

 

During the war against the LTTE, Sri Lanka’s traditional arms suppliers imposed restrictions. GOSL had to look elsewhere and China was willing to help. Following the defeat of the LTTE, the Rajapaksa regime chose to focus on rapid economic revival and development of infrastructure. The US reneged on its commitment to provide $500 million from the Millennium Development Account for road development.

The released e-mails reveal that Clinton tried to block an IMF loan to GOSL and that the IMF did not like it. Clinton was told that the IMF had, during the final stages of the war, lambasted her in a conversation with Timothy Geithner, the then US Secretary of the Treasury, for ordering the IMF to suspend funding to Sri Lanka. In an email sent to Clinton by Burns Strider, a former senior advisor, Strider said people on the ground with the World Bank and the IMF believed the LTTE must be completely defeated.

 

During her previous campaign for the presidential Democratic nomination Sri Lankan Americans who strongly supported her were discouraged by the way her remarks on terrorism were manipulated by pro-LTTE outlets. Clinton visited Tamil Nadu and met Chief Minister Jeyaram Jayalalithaa, a persistent critic of GOSL, on July 20 2011 and proffered congratulations on her electoral victory. Clinton invited Jayalalithaa to visit US to tell Americans about the great achievements of Tamil Nadu.

 

Clinton has supported regime change in Asia, Africa and South America. She supported the sanctions that did so much harm to Iraqi children. Clinton is supported by former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who said on TV that the death of half a million Iraqi children was “worth it”. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton threatened to “totally obliterate” Iran with nuclear weapons. When the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, was publicly sodomised with a knife, Clinton gloated: “We came, we saw, he died.” The US might have thought they had got the regime they wanted after Rajapaksa was ousted and the new government “co-sponsored” with the US a resolution on human rights for the UNHRC. However, the UNHRC business seems to be moving slowly and the current Sri Lankan government has found that it cannot live without China after all. Perhaps the new President Clinton will have plans for a Sri Lankan spring and further regime change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MOPE – a Tale of Two Diasporas

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 28 2016

Colman's Column3

Susan Sontag: Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking.

Shedding Blood in Every Generation

Four years ago, I posted a lengthy article on Groundviews which was prompted by a statement in May 2011 by MDMK chief Vaiko in Tamil Nadu. He said that the war for Eelam was not over; Prabhakaran was not dead and would emerge from hiding at the right time. According to Victor Rajakulendran, the LTTE remained a shining example, a “good history,” for all Sri Lankan Tamils to follow. For a very small number of Irish people the leaders of the Easter 1916 Rising remain a shining example. In her new book, The Seven, about the seven members of the Military Council who made the decision to rebel in Dublin, Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, concludes: “By courting death for a cause that had no popular support, were the Seven different to Bobby Sands and his comrades who committed suicide by starvation? Or from the jihadis who these days joyously sacrifice themselves in suicide bombings? They shared a sense of their own absolute moral superiority as well as an ambition to achieve some kind of immortality”.

Choosing Martyrdom

Ruth Dudley Edwards quotes words of Yeats written in 1939:

Some had no thought of victory

But had gone out to die

That Ireland’s mind might be greater,

Her heart mount up on high;

And yet who knows what’s yet to come?

For Patrick Pearse had said

That in every generation

Must Ireland’s blood be shed.

 

In my Groundviews article, I asked: “Did Prabhakaran ever ask those who are shown in the horrific Channel 4 images if they wanted to be martyrs? Was there a referendum on martyrdom, a focus group?”

 

Unhappy Land of Heroes

Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Queen’s University, Belfast, recently published a collection of essays entitled Unhappy the Land. That phrase comes from Bertolt Brecht: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes”. The subtitle to Professor Kennedy’s book is The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? The acronym MOPE has been used a lot since Kennedy first introduced it in what Ruth Dudley Edwards called “a good essay at the very end of a book containing lots of boring economic history”. Professor Kennedy writes: “It is hard to overestimate the role of self-delusion in in Irish history, whether as a force animating colonial ‘reformers’ in the seventeenth century or Sinn Fein activists in the twentieth”. Self-delusion is not confined to the Irish.

Unhappy

Unhappy Land?

Did Ireland suffer from exceptional disadvantages? Kennedy thinks not  “…the island of Ireland, when viewed comparatively, was favourably circumstanced in terms of soil, climate and biological conditions”. Professor Kennedy contends that no major war was fought on Irish soil after the seventeenth century. With the exceptions of Switzerland and Iceland, “it is difficult to think of any major European society which has enjoyed the degree of isolation Ireland enjoyed from the immediate depredations of war”. During the last three centuries, there have been no major invasions of Ireland. Unlike most Europeans, the Irish have never experienced military conscription. “During the most brutal century that Europe has ever known – the twentieth- Ireland escaped relatively unscathed”.

Some might point out the number of Irishmen who perished in the First World War. About 210,000 Irishmen, all volunteers, served in the British forces during World War One and 35,000 of them died. Others might draw attention to the deformation to the Irish psyche caused by being next door to England and being subsumed into the oppressive British Empire.

A Happy Land?

 

Kennedy

As an economic historian, Professor Kennedy confidently states that Ireland was among the fastest growing economies in Europe at the time of the Easter Rising. Apart from slow growth in particular sub-periods such as 1932-38 and 1951-59, “Over the twentieth century as a whole, the growth performance of the Irish economy has been close to the western European average and well ahead of eastern Europe. The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland today rank among the richest regions in the world in terms of income per head”.

Professor Kennedy also challenges received wisdom that the introduction of the Penal Laws at the end of the seventeenth century repressed the religious rights of the majority Catholic population of Ireland. Kennedy contends that after 1715, the Penal Laws were fiercer on the statute book than in practice. By the 1790s, Catholics and dissenters in Ireland enjoyed freedom of worship, Catholic churches and dissenters’ chapels dotted the Irish countryside and a state-subsidised national seminary for Catholic priests was founded at Maynooth. At the same time, there was vigorous persecution of religious dissent on the European mainland.

The nineteenth century saw the uninterrupted progress of the Catholic Church in Ireland as it developed a vast infrastructure of churches, presbyteries, convents, monasteries, bishops’ palaces. Perhaps most important was clerical control of the school system with funding from the British state. Clerical education and clerical appointments were free of state control. As a child, I used to enjoy the rousing hymn Faith of our Fathers. Whatever the words of that hymn might claim, Irish people, from the 1740s, were able to worship without fear of “dungeon, fire and sword”. Kennedy says that at a deep level “there was the image-world of Christianity and its symbolic representation of pain, sorrow and exile – universals of the human predicament – which could be exploited selectively to colour the Irish collective experience”. Patrick Pearse was a master of this. After Ireland became independent the church’s power reached totalitarian proportions.

Diaspora

Emigration has been seen as a downside, a drain on the economy, depriving the nation of its bright ambitious young. Professor Kennedy sees a positive side. The Irish have unlimited freedom of exit and have enjoyed privileged access to two of the highest-wage economies in the world – North America and Britain.

Large-scale emigration began after the Famine and it did not take long for the victims to become victimisers. The New York riots of 1863 (as featured in Scorsese’s film The Gangs of New York) were called the Draft Riots because of protests against conscription into the Union army in the Civil War. In fact, they were race riots carried out by Irish immigrants, the children of the Famine, who feared competition in the labour market from emancipated black slaves. At least 119 were killed in an orgy of lynching and arson.

One of the Seven, Tom Clarke, lived in America and revelled in the atmosphere of grievance and heroic struggle that Irish Americans propagated. He expressed a virulent hatred for blacks. As Ruth Dudley Edwards puts it: “Irish Americans would take the narrative of exceptional Irish victimhood to extreme levels of narcissism, self-pity and absurdity and feed it back to republicans in Ireland in what became a malign circle”.

The Politics of Grievance

Sound familiar? In the same way, genuine grievances of Tamils living in in Sri Lanka get subsumed in the exaggerated claims of genocide uttered by sections of the Tamil diaspora.

Professor Kennedy does not deny that Ireland suffered injustice. “It would be an act of denial… to fail to acknowledge that Irish history is replete with instances of persecution, of evictions, of famines. These form part of a European historical experience that was, time out of mind, brutal, bloody and oppressive. One does not have to go all the way with Hobbes to conclude: the past is not a pleasant place”.

However, he sees the ever-present danger of keeping historical resentments alive. “The library of past and present wrongs, including those of an economic nature, were articulated in a continuous present tense that seemed to give historical depth and legitimacy to newly-minted notions of nationalism”.

Bosnia provides a warning. The horrors of the 1990s came “out of a hate-filled history of victimhood. The sadism of the moment was clouded by the rhetoric of the centuries”. Let us not dwell on self-delusion about “800 years of oppression” or deal with perceived grievance by more bloodshed.

 

Padma Rao’s Sri Lanka

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

 

 

Colman's Column3

 

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

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

 

Omagh Part 3 An End to Terrorism?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 13 2015.

peace process

On 15 August 1998 at 3.04 p.m. an explosion in Omagh killed 31 people and injured 220. This was done in the pursuit of a united Ireland by dissidents objecting to the Good Friday Agreement signed earlier that year. Although the police knew who the culprits were, the families of the victims were frustrated that no one was prosecuted and they raised funds to bring a civil action. Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness expressed their support but refused to give any information that would help bring the bombers to justice. The case was not concluded until 2009. Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? The authorities believed the actions of the families were unhelpful to the peace process. Compromise and forgiveness were the order of the day with their corollaries of impunity and surrender.

Good out of Evil?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real IRA into giving up the “armed struggle”. With arms being decommissioned in 2005, we were told that the war was over and the Provisional IRA was no more.

McGuigan Murder

kevinmcguigan

On August 12th, 2015, former Provisional IRA member Kevin McGuigan was shot dead outside his Belfast home. It is believed that he was killed in retaliation for the killing in May of IRA leader Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison. PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) Chief Constable, George Hamilton said  that the Provisional  IRA still exists and IRA members may have been involved in the McGuigan murder.

mcguinnessstorey

Bobby Storey was arrested. Storey is a close ally of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and has an office at Stormont. Stormont Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, said he was “surprised” to learn about Mr Storey’s arrest. “Bobby Storey is a valued member of Sinn Féin’s core leadership. He has played a leading role in the development of Sinn Féin’s peace strategy and is a long-standing and loyal supporter, defender and advocate of the peace and political processes.”

coffin

Terrorists and Ordinary Decent Criminals

 

Before the Good Friday Agreement, the Provisional IRA enjoyed links with organized crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin’s top “ordinary” criminals, the “Murphia”, lived. The Murphia became the wholesale suppliers for parts of the UK drugs markets. The Provisional IRA funded its terrorist activities with bank robberies and protection rackets. Martin McGuinness, former IRA Commandant for Derry, and Gerry Adams were prominent in the labyrinthine negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA laying down its arms. As a minister in the government of the statelet of Northern Ireland, McGuinness   visited Sri Lanka to advise us on peace and reconciliation.

 

The Real IRA has been responsible for murders and pipe bomb attacks in the Republic and has taken over many of the security and protection rackets once run by the Provos. The group is believed to be extorting millions of Euros from targeting drug dealers — as well as business people — in Dublin and Cork. The dissidents are also believed to be selling some of these bombs to gangs including criminal elements within the Travelling community. In 2009, the Irish Army Ordnance Corps dealt with 61 live bombs and 140 hoax bombs. In 2010, they dealt with 40 live bombs, mostly in Dublin.

 

In Sri Lanka, the LTTE was mainly dependent for funding in the early days on robberies and extortion.  Trading in gold, laundering money and dealing in narcotics brought the LTTE substantial revenue to buy sophisticated weaponry. They also played a role in providing passports, other papers, and also engaged in human trafficking.

Real IRA Still in Business

According to Forbes, the Real IRA is currently the ninth richest terrorist organisation in the world, with an income of around £32m, (ISIS is top of the league with £1.3bn) largely generated from smuggling and organised crime. The Real IRA remained active immediately after Omagh. A car bomb exploded at midnight on March 4 2001 outside the BBC’s studios in London. British authorities suspected the Real IRA had planted the bomb as retaliation for a Panorama programme about Omagh.  There was also a bombing in Ealing on 3 August 2001 and an attempted bombing in Birmingham city centre on 3 November 2001.

Did the Provos Really Lay Down Arms?

There has been informed speculation recently that the Provisional IRA did not fully decommission its arms as officially announced in 2005. According to Mitchell Reiss, former US special envoy, during negotiations on decommissioning, Gerry Adams asked that the IRA be allowed to keep guns to counter dissident threats – a request that was accepted by the Blair government but rejected by Dublin. Arms  that Adams wanted to keep as a defence AGAINST  dissidents disrupting the peace rare now available TO dissidents to disrupt the peace process. Reports, issued by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) acknowledged that the IRA had retained weaponry. Did the retention have the approval of the British, Irish and US governments? Neither the IMC nor the IICD ever specified the precise nature of the weaponry, although there is a hint that high-powered weapons, such as automatic rifles were held back. Neither body reports that the withheld weaponry was recovered or destroyed, or explained what happened to it. Kevin McGuigan was killed with an automatic rifle.

Arms Caches Still Being Found

In July 2013, Gardaí uncovered the largest ever dissident republican arsenal buried on land at the Old Airport Road in north Dublin. It included explosives and guns that the Provisional IRA should have decommissioned years earlier. The haul included 15kg of semtex that the Gaddafi had supplied in the 1980s. The buried weaponry also included handguns, shotguns, an Uzi submachine gun, electronic devices to disrupt mobile phones and more than 1,300 rounds of ammunition. In September 2013, Gardaí in Meelick, County Clare, seized weapons, explosives and circuit boards that could be used to trigger massive bombs.

In May 2015, when the Republic’s security forces prepared for a visit by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, six republican dissidents from two hard-line factions were arrested. Irish Defence Forces’ bomb disposal teams were sent to Courtown in Wexford and Dundalk, Louth. Bomb components were found in the security operation near the border with Northern Ireland.

Terrorists Could Govern in Dublin

Sinn Féin, formerly the proxy of the Provisional IRA, is confident of winning enough seats in the next Dáil to lead the Opposition in the Republic of Ireland, with a chance of being the leading party in the election after that. A scenario can be imagined in which the governing party in the Republic of Ireland is influenced by someone who has been questioned about the IRA execution of Kevin McGuigan.

 

Could the LTTE Rise Again?

For nearly 20 years, we have been hopeful that peace would endure in Ireland. Perhaps we were too complacent. Following the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, there have been no terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka. Lower level cadres were rehabilitated and senior figures like Karuna, Pillayan, Daya Master and KP entered the mainstream. In the 2015 parliamentary election former LTTE fighters contested (unsuccessfully) for parliamentary seats. Currently the TNA, which during the war was the proxy of the Tigers, is now the official opposition party in the Sri Lankan parliament.

Does this mean that separatist militancy has been absorbed into the mainstream Sri Lankan polity or is it lying dormant? There is plenty of funding available from the diaspora and many people who still long for Eelam.  Could a reduction of military presence allow a resurgence of violence?

 

Omagh Part One – The Road of Tears

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday September 8 2015

Colman's Column3

roadtears1

roadtears2

After the bombing, Cathy could never settle back into her university studies at Derry and Patsy was often on the road to bring her traumatised daughter back home. In the car mother and daughter would be keening uncontrollably for Aiden, the son and brother forever lost to them. They christened the road from Derry to Omagh ‘The Road of Tears’.

On 15 August 2000 my wife and I were having a post-shopping Murphy’s at Le Chateau on St Patrick Street, Cork City in Ireland. I was going to write “enjoying a pint of Murphy’s” but that would not be appropriate because, like everyone else in the bar, we had tears streaming down our faces. The TV was on and the news programme was marking the second anniversary of the Omagh bombing.

 

On August 15, 1998, just two months after we had gone to live in Ireland, a huge bomb exploded in the centre of Omagh, a small market town in rural County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland. A total of 31 people were to die as a result of the bomb, and 220 were injured. The dead included a  woman 34 months pregnant and her unborn twins girls; six children, three of whom had been visiting from County Donegal in  the Irish Republic and one of whom was on holiday from Spain (Fernando’s mother, Lucrezia, had previously been traumatized when her husband had been seriously injured by an ETA car bomb) and six teenagers. Death was ecumenical; nineteen of the dead were Catholics, eleven were Protestants.

It Was People who Died

Each person who died represented a crushing loss to a wide circle of people. The bombers killed two babies and two about to be born, three schoolgirls, four schoolboys, six students, three shop assistants, a despatch clerk, a shopkeeper, a crane driver, a mechanic, a horticulturalist, and an accounts clerk. These were the targets of the “soldiers” of Éireann, the “freedom fighters”.

It was the time of year when parents and children went to SD Kells or Watterstones to buy new school uniforms. Most of the people in the centre of Omagh on August 15 1998 were from the town or surrounding countryside. It was an uncommonly sunny day for that part of the world and crowds were gathering for the processions that mark the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. The original plan was for the procession to start 200 yards from where the bomb exploded. Thousands would have been close to the explosion if the plan had not been changed.

Damages

Recent horrific pictures of drowned refugees have sparked controversy about the ethics of displaying such images. I want to convey to you the horror of Omagh but I want to respect the sensibilities of my readers and the dignity of the dead. Buses were used to ferry victims to hospital and blood was flowing down the steps on to the road. In the rain, the gutters ran red with blood and rose petals. A young girl sat in the street holding a severed hand saying: “I don’t want her to be alone”. A policeman who had wandered up and down the street carrying a head had to be invalided out of the RUC. Steve Buttle was so affected by Omagh that he functioned badly at work and his relationships deteriorated. Eventually he wrapped himself in a body bag and shot himself in the head.

The poison administered on August 15 1998 did harm not only to those who were present in Omagh on that day. It spread far and wide and for a long period, for generations into the future. Thousands had their lives blighted by intense sorrow, physical pain and depression beyond imagining.

Who Was Responsible?

Unusually, no group claimed responsibility on the day of the attack, but the Royal Ulster Constabulary suspected the RIRA (Real Irish Republican Army).Indeed, three days after the attack, the RIRA claimed responsibility and apologised for the attack. The RIRA had few members and the authorities knew who most of them were and where they lived. Two months after we had been crying in our Murphy’s, BBC put out a Panorama programme called Who Bombed Omagh? hosted by journalist John Ware. The programme gave the names of the four prime suspects as Oliver Traynor, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, and Seamus Daly.

 The Law’s Delay

Daly was not charged with the bombing in a criminal case until April 10 2014. However, a civil case brought by the victims’ relatives was concluded on 8 June 2009. Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy and Seamus Daly were found to have been responsible for the bombing and held liable for £1.6 million of damages. It was described as a “landmark” damages award internationally.

The Campaign

Because of frustration at the slow progress of the criminal investigation, the families of the victims created the Omagh Support and Self Help Group (OSSHG) soon after the bombing. The organisation was led by Michael Gallagher, who lost his 21-year-old son Aidan in the attack. In the 30 years of The Troubles, there was no precedent for a group of victims challenging the system in this way.

In the tribal society that is Northern Ireland it was surprising that the OSSHG included hard-line and moderate unionists as well as nationalists; there were Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Free Presbyterians, and a Mormon.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

I draw in these articles on the work of,  among others, Ruth Dudley Edwards. Ruth was deeply involved in the campaign and her 2009 book about the Omagh bombing was named the Sunday Times current affairs book of the year and won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award for non-fiction. The book, Aftermath: the Omagh Bombing and the Families’ Pursuit of Justice, should be of interest to Sri Lankan readers. Ruth is a distinguished Irish historian from a distinguished family of Irish historians.  She was born and brought up in Dublin and educated at University College Dublin (UCD), Girton College, Cambridge and Wolfson College, Cambridge. She has worked in the London civil service.

She is also a crime fiction writer and a prolific columnist, often stirring up controversy in the British and Irish press.  She now lives in London and describes herself as British-Irish and is comfortable with being culturally both Irish and English. She takes a particular interest in Northern Ireland and her writings have had her placed in the category of “revisionist”. That is to say, she has no time for myths about heroes and martyrs. She once told a hostile audience: “I wear the badge ‘revisionist’ as a badge of honour! Patrick Pearse had a right to sacrifice himself but not all those civilians! If seven people can determine these things, the Continuity IRA has the right to style themselves the heirs of 1916. There is a flouting of democracy.”

An End to Terror?

Just two months after Omagh, two planes flew into the World Trade Centre. That was supposed to change the context of terrorism. Different conditions post-9/11 helped in the defeat of the LTTE. Did Omagh help the Irish peace process? After the carnage many tried to adopt a positive outlook, hoping good would come out of evil. It was thought that the strength of public outrage would shame the Real  IRA into giving up the  “armed struggle” that was killing unborn babies. How did that work out?

Why did it take so long to bring the murderers to any kind of justice and why was it left to “ordinary” people to make such an effort? They had, as Ruth puts it, “to take on not just a terrorist organisation, but most of the Dublin, Belfast and London police, justice and political establishments”.

More on this next week

Getting Death off Our Roads Part 3

Colman's Column3This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday June 5 2015.

busespart3

Economic Cost

According to iRAP (the International Road Assessment Programme) road deaths and injuries,  because of medical bills, care, lost output and vehicle damage, cost 2% of GDP for high-income countries and 5% of GDP for middle- and low-income countries —$1.9 trillion a year globally.

Road accidents are the main cause of death for 15- to 29-year-olds. A dead or maimed 17-year-old costs much more in lost earnings than an 80-year-old. Avi Silverman of the FIA Foundation, (http://www.fiafoundation.org/about-us) says a victim’s family is often plunged into poverty for generations.

From 1977 to 2007, 120,848 accidents were reported in Sri Lanka in which 40,000 people died and 370,000 were injured. More than 75% of road deaths were from the age group 20 to 55 years – family  breadwinners. The estimated cost of road trauma in Sri Lanka was Rs. 10.25 billion, nearly 2% of GNP, as long ago as 2001.

Travel and Terror

Although terrorist bombs are no longer destroying buses, buses themselves are making Sri Lankan roads deadly and terrorising the public. There was an interesting double interview in the Sunday Observer on June 1 2008. SSP Ranjith Gunasekara, police Media Spokesman, and Gemenu Wijeratne, spokesman for private bus owners, were asked a number of questions about the safety of bus passengers during the LTTE bombing campaign. Wijeratne said: “I am happy that the private bus sector is not that much threatened, comparatively. If we consider the past bomb explosions, the majority of the buses were Sri Lanka Transport Board buses and not private buses…On our part we are always highly vigilant and all the time we strongly emphasize the bus owners and conductors should keep their eyes open! And of course they do it with a sense of commitment.”

It is a pity that there is not a similar sense of vigilance and commitment to passenger safety in peacetime. During wartime, it was a common to see buses halted at the roadside while police searched for bombs. One never sees buses stopped for being unroadworthy, belching out black smoke, crossing the white line. One sees many three-wheelers, motor bikes and private vehicles being stopped for no prior cause. Why not buses?

Ireland

Richer countries have cut road deaths more successfully than developing or middle-income countries through higher vehicle standards and infrastructure investment. Governments enforced speeding and drunk-driving laws and hammered home the message about seat belts, helmets and mobile phones.

The Republic of Ireland once had one of the worst accident records in Europe. More than 23,600 people have died on Irish roads since records began in 1959. That is the equivalent of the entire population of the town of Tralee, County Kerry. From 1977 to 2013,   76,586 people received serious, life-changing injuries. Reforms have reduced the number of deaths considerably. In 2012 there were 161 people killed on the Republic’s roads, the lowest on record. The number of people killed on the State’s roads increased for the second year in a row in 2014 a rise of 6 to 196. However, in 1997 there were nearly 500 deaths. In 1978, there were 628.

The Road to Hell

I often say that the road to hell is paved with false analogies. Although the island of Ireland is the same size as Sri Lanka, it is very thinly populated. The Republic of Ireland’s population is 4.58 million, while Sri Lanka’s is 20.48 million. There are low traffic intensities on many Irish roads. Nevertheless, perhaps Sri Lanka could learn something from the Irish experience.

The Irish Government Strategy for Road Safety 1998-2002 says: “Human action is a contributory factor in over 90% of road accidents. The principal emphasis of all road safety strategies must therefore be on improving road user behaviour. This behaviour needs to be informed and trained, and to be modified, so as to improve interaction between road users, to ensure consideration for others and to reduce risk. In this way a culture of road use is created that is both precautionary and pro-active in relation to road safety”.

 

Professor Fred Wegman 

 

Professor Fred Wegman advises the European Commission and many national governments on road safety. In 2002, he wrote a report on the Irish strategy. He said an “important question is whether Irish society is prepared to accept a higher level of enforcement…Are they prepared to change their own behaviour, and are they prepared to accept (far-reaching) government road safety measures? Influential social groups could be invited (and perhaps forced in the position) to show the courage of their convictions: road safety would then simply have to be defined as a top priority. Recent research suggests that the Irish population would support this point of view.”

 

Zero Casualties

 

Sweden’s roads are the world’s safest. Although the number of cars in circulation and the number of miles driven have both doubled since 1970, the number of road deaths has fallen by four-fifths during the same period. In 1997, the Swedish parliament wrote into law a “Vision Zero” plan, promising to eliminate road fatalities and injuries altogether.  Sweden builds roads with safety prioritised over speed or convenience. Low urban speed limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bikes and oncoming traffic have helped. Strict policing has also helped: now less than 0.25% of drivers tested are over the alcohol limit. Road deaths of children younger than  seven have plummeted—in 2012 only one was killed, compared with 58 in 1970.

 

What to do in Sri Lanka?

Perhaps the government should commission the FIA Foundation to undertake a study or invite Professor Wegman to Sri Lanka. Wegman asked if Irish society was prepared to press for a higher level of enforcement. We might ask the same question about Sri Lanka. The government has to show willing and society needs to put pressure on government to take effective action.

 

There will be immediate costs. The current court system is already overloaded and will collapse completely dealing with a more pro-active policy. Should there be separate system outside conventional  courts? How about a digitised fine system linked to payment of utility bills?

 

There are costs in doing nothing. Is this something that the business community should be taking on board? Should business magazines, chambers of commerce, Lions Clubs and Rotary Associations be raising awareness?

Among many helpful suggestions I received:  Allocate a single bus route to a single private company. Scheduled departures and arrivals would reduce races even if more than one company were plying the same route. Provide a daily map online of all accidents. Compile a blacklist of cops on the take and owners doing the bribing. Owners as well as drivers should be punished. Bus owners need to be brought before a public forum by a neutral body to formulate a solution. Organise meetings of concerned citizens with drivers and owners and senior police officers.

Is the Government Doing Something?

TMKB Tennakoon, Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order recently announced 790 people had been killed on Sri Lankan roads between January and April this year. “The number of accidents reflects badly on the country’s image”.  He said that instructions were being sent out to all OICs to train all police personnel to book traffic offenders.  More ticket books would be printed. For three months, all police would be expected to address the problem. A senior officer said this would place unacceptable burdens on staff deployed for other duties such as crime prevention and investigation. He thought the solution was to train more traffic police.

Someone commented on my previous article that we should bear in mind that transport fares in Sri Lanka are cheap so perhaps things are not so bad. It seems that life is cheap too. Road safety must be a top priority. Whatever about the country’s image, this carnage and waste of human life must stop.Colman's Column3

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