Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Mahinda Rajapaksa

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buddhism, Politics, Violence, War

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on July 17 2011
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris finds the differences between the Eastern and Western canons “startling”. In comparison with Eastern philosophical mystics, in the West “we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs”. He thinks that the fault lies with the emphasis on faith in the monotheistic religions of the book: “Faith is rather like a rhinoceros; it won’t do much in the way of real work for you, and yet, at close quarters it will make spectacular claims on your attention.” Harris chooses at random a passage from the Buddhist sage, Padmanasambhava, who was a contemporary of Muhammad. Harris claims that the passage he quotes is rigorously empirical – “the actual condition of things”- and not a statement of metaphysics.

 
I agree with Harris about the specialness of Buddhism, but I sometimes wonder if the militant atheists have been naive about the way Buddhism works out in real life. Buddhism is acceptable to atheists because there is no supreme being, no soul, no afterlife. It has a wise message at its core, but so do other philosophies.

 
Under Ashoka’s model of “Buddhist kingship”, a ruler legitimized his rule, not through descent from a divine source, but by supporting and earning the approval of the Buddhist sangha (priesthood). Such monarchs are portrayed as universally wise and generous but nevertheless do not abandon the state’s monopoly on force. This model of righteous kingship is the basis for the Buddhist warrior-kings of the Mahavamsa that continue to have national appeal.

 
Robert Kaplan writing in Atlantic Monthly September 2009 about his visit to Kandy, is more severe than Harris: “Buddhism holds an exalted place in the half-informed Western mind. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism are each associated, in addition to their thought, with a rich material culture and a defended territory, Buddhism, despite its great monuments and architectural tradition throughout the Far East, is somehow considered purer, more abstract, and almost dematerialized: the most peaceful, austere, and uncorrupted of faiths, even as it appeals to the deeply aesthetic among us. Hollywood stars seeking to find themselves—famously Richard Gere—become Buddhists, not, say, orthodox Jews.”

 
Nevertheless, because humans are material and materialistic, Buddhism is not immune from corruption consequent on institutionalisation or immune from the taint of politics. According to Robert Kaplan, Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism “is deeply materialistic and demands worship of solid objects, in a secure and sacred landscape that has required the protection of a military.” Kaplan states: “Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.”
In the 2004 election, all JHU candidates were Buddhist monks. Party member Venerable Medhananda Thera said, “Our sole intention is to establish a righteous Buddhist state with Buddhist values. Though there are invitations for us to join parties we will remain independent. No one can buy us with portfolios and perks.”

 
Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2000 about his visit to the military dictatorship of Myanmar, which reminded him of the East German communist regime: “But instead of Marxism as the official ideology, we have Buddhism.“ Ash writes: “The country displays all the familiar pockmarks of dictatorship: high gray walls, barbed wire, armed guards, bureaucracy, crude paper forms in quadruplicate, propaganda, censorship, inefficiency, and fear. Under the heading ‘People’s Desire’, faded red billboards proclaim, ‘Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.’”

 
Despite its peaceful message, Buddhism can also be turned to political purposes. Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka have not been notably peaceful over recent decades. The Laotian communists of the Pathet Lao use Buddhism to justify socialism. The ultra-right-wing Thai priest Kittiwutto can say that “killing communists is not a sin”.

 
Brian Daizen Victoria shows how Zen Buddhists were complicit with the totalitarian imperial Japanese military and how the military in turn used the model of monastic life to make their killing machine more efficient and how Zen Buddhists helped war criminals evade capture. The Zen model was also used in the Japanese corporate world.
Aung San Suu Kyi told Ash that she recognised the need for compromise if one wants a nonviolent transition in Burma. Ash wrote: “Another important social group are the Buddhist monks. I heard quite contradictory views on the intriguing question of whether Theravada Buddhism encourages resistance to dictatorship and support for democracy, but there is no doubt that the monks have significant potential as both protesters and mediators… A senior monk sadly explained to me how the government had bought off the institutionalized Buddhist hierarchy with donations, televisions, cars, and a mixture of intimidation and flattery”.

 
Tessa J Bartholomeusz explores the arguments in the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition, for and against war, analysing these ideas in relation to western ideas about just war and ethical theory. Her thesis is that, in spite of a rigorous tradition of non-violence, war can be justified if certain conditions are met. The precept against killing can be trumped by other considerations such as utilitarian considerations of sacrificing one life in order to save multiple lives.

 
Some scholars such as Damien Keown have argued that killing can sometimes be a legitimate response to suffering, others, like Rupert Gethin, have rejected this argument since it does not address dukkha as a reality that must be understood and worked through rather than suppressed. Eric Sean Nelson writes: “The issue is not that people claiming to be Buddhists at times engage in violence and war in the name of self-defense. It is difficult if not impossible to demand the saintliness according to which it is illegitimate to defend one’s parents, family, friends or community under any circumstances. The problem is when and how this reasoning can go wrong and become an ideological excuse for morally illegitimate violence and war.”

 

Rupert Gethin says: “Abhidhamma — and hence I think mainstream Buddhist ethics— is not ultimately concerned to lay down ethical rules, or even ethical principles. It seeks instead to articulate a spiritual psychology focusing on the root causes that motivate us to act… If you can intentionally kill out of compassion, then fine, go ahead. But are you sure? Are you sure that what you think are friendliness and compassion are really friendliness and compassion? Are you sure that some subtle aversion and delusion have not surfaced in the mind? In the end ethical principles cannot solve the problem of how to act in the world. If we want to know how to act in accordance with Dhamma, we must know our own minds”.

 
Elaine Scarry wrote in The Body in Pain: “It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation.”

 
Is there room in Buddhism for the concept of a just war- dharma yuddha? Are the precepts descriptive rather than prescriptive? There is no Jehovah to threaten punishment for murder, because killing is absolutely sinful. This is dependent origination. If you engage in violence, the law of cause and effect means that there are likely to be unpleasant consequences. Karmic responsibility is unavoidable for killing. Shit happens! As Nelson puts it: “The Buddha does not claim that violence is only sometimes wrong but that violence, no matter how righteous, always produces more violence; and warriors, no matter how virtuous, always suffer the consequences of war.” One has to operate skilfully and appropriately.

 

Without arguing for relativism against absolutism, one can recognise that ethics are context-sensitive. Context-based ethics means an existential mode of living involving the interdependence of self and others and self and world. One must navigate moral challenges with sense of what is appropriate. When a principle becomes uncertain, it can only be interpreted rather than mechanically applied. Codes, precepts, and rules demand the ability to distinguish between the hypocrisy of breaking them for one’s own advantage and the moral insight to adopt them to circumstances. Eric Sean Nelson asks: “Is the Buddhist notion of skilfulness too open or ambiguous”.

 

Nelson looks at the Sri Lankan situation. “Buddhist lands do not only involve traditions of nonviolence and loving kindness. They also have had a long history of thinking about and engaging
in internal and external physical conflict. … Buddhism privileges non-violence while at the same time self-described Buddhists have justified and engaged in war under certain conditions…. As Mahinda Deegalle argues, this position is not so much Buddhist as it is Sinhalese nationalist, which appropriates Buddhism as a symbol of Sinhalese heritage Sri Lanka is the island of Dhamma (dhammadvipa) , the whole island is a sacred relic of the Buddha’s and the loss of its integrity would destroy this legacy”.

 

Bartholomeusz contends that it is paradoxically Buddhist beliefs that they are more fair, tolerant, and peaceful – that leads Buddhists to set themselves apart and turn to violence to protect the ideal of pacifism. Violence, once it is justified as an exception, becomes the norm from which there seems no escape.

 
Liverpool University’s Colin Irwin’s Peace Polls contributed to the Northern Ireland peace process. One of the findings of a survey throughout Sri Lanka was “Although all communities strongly support language and fundamental rights, Tamil concerns about the special status of Buddhism has increased after the war as a political issue”.

 
President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a speech in which he saw the special status of Buddhism as a positive thing. “The establishment of Buddha Sasana in the country ensures the protection of all living beings and the message by Arahant Mahinda Thero stresses the importance of treating all races and religion equally”.

Crosstown Traffic

This article appeared on Page 9 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday January 6 2015.

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

Vote in hope and repent at leisure

About twenty years ago, I had a meeting in Whitehall with a Conservative MP who was concerned that one of his constituents had been falsely accused (by his estranged wife) of child abuse. After the meeting, I noticed that my umbrella was missing. Soon after, I was watching the news on TV when I saw the MP announcing that he had switched to the Labour Party. “That’s the man who stole my umbrella”, I cried.

Alan Howarth, for it was he, was the first MP to defect directly from the Conservatives to Labour, and the first former Conservative MP to sit as a Labour MP since Oswald Mosley. Howarth wanted to be seen to be doing the decent thing by winning a seat as a Labour candidate. He failed at Wentworth and then again at Wythenshawe, but got a chance at the safe Labour seat of Newport East. Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, who had been emasculated by Thatcher, stood against him but Howarth easily held the seat for Labour. He now sits in the House of Lords, as does his partner Baroness Hollis. They came under a cloud for claiming separate expenses although they live next door to each other. He did send my umbrella back.

New Labour

When I lived in the UK, I always regarded it as my moral duty to exercise my franchise. Because of my class and family background, it would have been anathema for me to ever vote for a Conservative candidate. The Labour Party stood for my class, the working class; it had provided the welfare state (with some help from Liberal Party thinkers); it had allowed me (with some help from Conservative education minister RAB Butler) to go to grammar school and university. Labour candidate Jack Diamond came to our school. He always won the Gloucester seat- until he lost to Conservative Sally Oppenheim.

When I moved to Wimbledon, I found it rather creepy when I received a letter from Sir Michael Havers welcoming me to his constituency. This was a rock-solid conservative seat, so I later tactically voted Liberal-Democrat in the hope of unseating Sir Michael’s successor Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes. I was unsuccessful in my attempted coup. However, in 1997, miracle of miracles, Roger Casale won the seat for Labour.

That was the year that New Labour ended 18 years of Conservative rule. On the BBC’s election night programme Professor Anthony King described the result of the exit poll, which accurately predicted a Labour landslide, as being akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, on 2 May 1997.  He promised to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions. Sound familiar?

The Myth of Political Parties

The story of the development of political parties is a fascinating one but must wait for another article. Briefly, the theory is that like-minded people band together and agree a set of policies. They exert a discipline within the group in order to translate those policies into legislation and administrative procedures. They persuade the public to support them by placing before them an outline of what they propose to do if elected. The public can compare this with what rival parties propose to do.

How does this work out in practice? Blair had won power by jettisoning many traditional Labour policies. The Blair government achieved some progressive measures but the effort was undermined by madcap experiments in neo-liberalism that undermined health services, education and transport by the attempt to introduce quasi-markets. Prisons have been privatized and there are record numbers of people occupying them – how else to make a profit? Soon after taking office, the new administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One can see why New Labour was attractive to a Conservative like Howarth – it was carrying on Thatcherite policies and it was in power. Power attracts crossovers.

Blair was a career politician with no trace of socialist principles or ethics who joined a socialist party as a career move. His father had been a prospective Conservative candidate and his political leanings appeared to have rubbed off on the young Tony, who stood in a mock school election as the Conservative candidate.

Democratic elections involving political parties are often little more than the chance to get rid of one set of scoundrels when we are tired of them, only to replace them with another set. Blair replaced Major but carried on the same policies. In Ireland, Fine Gael replaced Fianna Fail. The voters did get the chance to throw out the corrupt scoundrels who got the nation in a mess, but now the Irish economy is being supervised by 15 unelected officials from Brussels, and even the (elected) cabinet is kept in the dark.

Sri Lankan Party Theory

What do the Sri Lankan political parties stand for? We think of the SLFP of Sirimavo Bandaranaike as a party of the left. She had Marxist parties, LSSP and CP, as members of her governing coalition and she moved a long way towards a command economy with nationalisation of key areas and subsidies alongside austerity.

The UNP of JR Jayewardene was instrumental in introducing economic liberalisation even before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. When he was prime minister from 2001 to 2004, Ranil Wickremasingha tried to continue such policies. Strange to note then that in 2014 the official website of the UNP says: “We are being cheated by the neo-liberalists and the Washington consensus: the UNP vehemently opposes ‘social protection’ cuts and wants more subsidies”.

Crossovers in Sri Lanka

Incessant party-hopping is bad for democracy, confuses the voters and casts doubt upon who stands for what, if anything. There are stories of vast sums of money being paid to those who change allegiance. The case of Amir Ali vs. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Others (2006) opened opportunities for crossovers. That same Amir Ali, only a fortnight after being nominated as an MP by the UPFA, crossed over to the Opposition. As I write, 26 UPFA MPs from a 225-member parliament have defected and more are expected.

After weeks of speculation, Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, finally said he would resign his ministerial portfolio to support Sirisena. This is in spite of Wickremesinghe and Sirisena strongly rejecting Hakeem’s demand for a separate administrative district in the East for Muslims. I will never forget Rauf Hakeem’s comment back in 2007: “The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.” Blair would appreciate that.

Fissiparous Alliances

Keeping the governing coalition together must have been like herding cats. The opposition will find it as difficult as the government to herd its constituent components. Although the UNP has retained some atavistic loyalty among the planting community in places like Uva Province, Ranil Wickremasinghe has not been able to match the populist appeal of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the rural Sinhala Buddhist masses. Siresena might be able to eat into Rajapaksa’s Sinhala Buddhist support but he will also need support from the minorities.

Significant numbers of Tamil and Muslim politicians have gone over to the opposition, but will that be enough to convince minority voters that their needs will be met when the JHU seems to be exerting an unhealthy influence on opposition strategy? Rajitha Senaratne cited as one reason for his defection the ruling party’s silence over the hardcore Sinhala-Buddhist groups who were allegedly involved in anti-Muslim clashes. Faizer Mustapha decided to join the common opposition because the government failed to take action against BBS. Hunais Farook crossed over for the same reason. The opposition’s dependence on the JHU should cause Muslim voters some anxiety. The common opposition candidate has agreed with the JHU to preserve the constitutional prominence given to Buddhism.

Tamils are seeking greater devolution of power to Tamil areas but the JHU sees that as creeping separatism. Many Tamil politicians are unhappy that the TNA is supporting Sirisena. TNA Northern Provincial Council Member Ananthi Sasitharan told the BBC Tamil Service that the TNA election manifesto for the last Northern Provincial Election was clear on its stance on Tamil identity and autonomous rights. There is nothing in the JHU-inspired Manifesto to give Tamil voters confidence that their lot will be improved by an opposition victory. The hand of the JHU can be seen in the formulation: “I will not undertake any amendment that is detrimental to the stability, security and sovereignty of the country.”

Conclusion

The president has been seen as a canny populist who understands the rural masses in a way that Ranil Wickremasingha never could. Recently, many have remarked that the President appears fatigued and overworked. He was once the youngest elected MP and he has spent 40 years in politics and nearly ten years as President. US presidents always seem to age rapidly in office but they are limited to eight years. Tony Blair became haggard by the end of his reign.

Blair tried to appear hip by associating with the likes of Noel Gallagher of Oasis (the more truculent brother Liam Gallagher refused to be wooed). An indication that the president may have lost touch with the masses is that he has recruited Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Jacqueline Fernandez to help in his campaign. According to The Hindu newspaper based in Tamil Nadu, under his usual rates in 2012, Salman Khan charged approximately 30,000,000 Sri Lanka rupees per day for public appearances. Near where I live there are people living in temporary accommodation in schools because their homes have been destroyed. They may not be impressed at this time by Bollywood stars. The Hindu also reported that 30 people had been killed and 650,000 displaced because of severe rain.

The historian, Tony Judt, wrote: “Tony Blair is a political tactician with a lucrative little sideline in made-to-measure moralising.” Judt also called Blair: “the garden gnome in England’s Garden of forgetting…the inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land.” Thinking about an election in 2015 prompts a recollection of an article I wrote about an election in 2008, which prompted a recollection of an election in 1997. Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo. It has not been closed yet and today Obama seems unlikely to take action against those found guilty of torture. In 2008, I advised those euphoric over Obama’s victory: “Celebrate a new dawn but watch out. The nights draw in quickly.”

Tsunami Today

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday December 30 2014.

 

Colman's Column3

tsunami today2

I wonder what little Liam Cutler in Melksham, Wiltshire, would think of the current politicking for the presidency in Sri Lanka. Well, Liam is not so little any more. Ten years have passed since Liam’s heart was broken by the tsunami. He must be around seventeen years old by now. Have things improved in Sri Lanka since Liam decided to do something positive at the age of ten?

I wrote in these pages recently about the art of giving and the nature of the gift relationship. Reactions to the tsunami ten years ago highlighted many aspects of the gift of giving and the relationship between people and politicians. It is particularly instructive to examine the actions ten years ago of two politicians who are still in conflict today – Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

International Compassion

The feel-bad effect of the disaster triggered a feel-good factor internationally as people rushed to make donations for the relief effort. Tessa Doe is a friend I met on a tour of South India in 1994. Tessa and Frank live in rural Wiltshire in the UK. In 2005, Tessa sent me some cuttings from her local newspapers showing what the residents of Seend Cleeve and Melksham were doing in response to the disaster.

Melksham resident  Pete King took it upon himself to travel to Sri Lanka to deliver and distribute 700 kilos worth of supplies from Wiltshire hospitals and pharmacies which Krishan Perera of Sri Lankan Airlines agreed to carry free of charge (the same man was very helpful to us when we transported our three cats from Ireland to Sri Lanka). Pete King reported: “Over the last two weeks I have seen many individuals in Sri Lanka doing their bit … every little effort helps”.

Seend Cleeve village primary school organized bring-and-buy sales. One pupil, Hannah, was in Thailand when the tsunami struck but was safely inland. Many of the pupils expressed empathy with those who were suffering. Jenny said: “It’s amazing how the whole world is sticking together and sending money to the places worst affected. Even if people didn’t get killed themselves, they probably have lost family and have nothing”.

Seven-year-old Liam Cutler was so upset by his Aunt Sara Mapp’s experience in Thailand that, according to his mother, he “stayed very quiet. He always keeps his worries inside him.” He asked to speak to a teacher in private and came up with the idea of setting up a cake stall for the benefit of tsunami victims. “He has organized the whole thing himself. He got most of the parents making cakes and the rest of his class making posters to advertise the event.”

A group called Mums of Melksham held an auction of men in the Assembly Rooms. Sheila Ward said: “I decided to get involved after seeing mothers and children separated because of the tsunami. It must be horrendous and I can’t bear to think what it would be like to rebuild your life without your children”.

I was particularly touched to read about the children at St Michael’s school who raised money for the appeal by decorating and selling heart-shaped biscuits. The interesting thing about this was that the children were encouraged to undertake this task quietly with soothing music and to meditate upon the suffering of those whose lives were devastated by the tsunami. Headteacher Beverley Martin said: “We wanted the children to think about what it would be like to have no clean water, no food, nowhere to live, no clothes and, most importantly, no family left.”

Feelgood even in Sri Lanka.

Amid all the suffering, there was a hint of a feel-good factor even in war-battered Sri Lanka itself. Unlikely partners were working together, including combatants on both sides of the conflict. There was initially hope that there might be harmony with the Tamil Tigers as everyone pulled together to cope with the tragedy. Alas, this was not to last long. There was a fragile cease-fire in operation at the time but the Tigers were using this to re-arm, re-group and to impose even more securely their grip on the territories they held.

Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, about the influence of foreign NGOs on Sri Lanka: “Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them. Illustrative of the genuineness of this response was the remote Eastern province temple of Arantalawa. Here LTTE death squads had once hacked to death young Buddhist monks. Now Arantalawa opened itself to nearly 1,000 refugees, most of whom were from the Tamil community and may well have included the very assassins who had hacked the young Buddhist monks”.

Even within the government itself, harmony was short-lived. The immediate state response was weak and the government took some time took some time to set up a co-ordinating committee. Despite government failings, an effective, spontaneous immediate response was organized locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings, and tents. Communities and groups cooperated across barriers that had divided them for decades. Sinhalese and Muslims wanted to go to the North and East with supplies but the LTTE refused to allow them into  areas under its control. Up-Country Tamils went to the South to help Sinhalese victims.

Role of the Army

Today there are concerns about the role of the army in various aspects of life after the victory over the LTTE. After the tsunami, twenty thousand soldiers were deployed in government-controlled areas to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order after sporadic looting. It is probably inaccurate to call this looting. As in the immediate aftermath of Katrina people had to get supplies from somewhere and normal conditions did not pertain.

Some security personnel lost their lives trying to save civilians during the tsunami. Tamils in refugee camps flocked around soldiers without any fear. Members of the armed forces even helped Tiger cadres. The LTTE too helped save affected security personnel. On our first visit to Hambantota in January 2005, Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit. Cynics had warned us that soldiers would pilfer relief supplies. Our experience was that soldiers refused to take supplies from us saying that people would appreciate receiving gifts from our hands while looking us in the eyes.

On our visit three months after the tsunami, there was no sign of the army.

 

P-TOMS

CBK set up the Post Tsunami Operation Management Structure (P-TOMS), the joint mechanism, after a Sri Lanka donor conference in mid-May indicated that much of the promised $S3 billion in aid depended on a resumption of peace talks. Many critics saw this as in irreversible step towards conceding Eelam. Wimal Weerawansa said the JVP would “defeat this betrayal with the sacred intention of safeguarding our motherland”. He accused Kumaratunga of taking the decision without informing her coalition partners.

Tsunami Today

Part of the reason for the muddled initial state response was the rivalry, which continues to this day, between CBK and MR. As prime minister, MR set action in progress from Colombo in the absence of CBK who was on holiday in Britain. According to DBS Jeyaraj, as soon as she returned, she set about unpicking his plans and placing all reconstruction and relief under presidential control. Mangala Samaraweera has his own view of MR’s contribution.

Worldwide sympathy for the victims meant that funds were flowing into the country. However, CBK decided to go for over-ambitious plans, which excluded not only input from victims but also input from the rest of the government or the opposition parties or politicians from affected areas. Government spokesman, Tilak Ranaviraja, admitted to the media that after five weeks 70% of the tsunami victims in government-controlled areas had not received government aid.

Speaking recently at an event at Crow Island in Colombo to mark the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, CBK recalled that soon after the tsunami, political parties had united for one cause and this ensured the country recovered from the disaster within a short period of time. She said that the unity among the several political parties backing Maithripala Sirisena for President guaranteed they could win.

Mangala Samaraweera, who once served as MR’s foreign minister, previously served as CBK’s media advisor, and previously planned Sarath Fonseka’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, also brought up the tsunami in the current election campaign. In a speech on December 26 2014, he gave CBK credit for the public’s generosity. “Ordinary citizens across the world stood in solidarity with us, and on then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s request gave generously of their resources and time.” He contrasted this with “a man who is contesting to be President of this country does not care for people’s suffering. He has consistently put his own private gain above the people’s pain.”

Ten years ago, the tsunami generated harmony and compassion. Today it is exploited for political advantage. I wonder what Liam Cutler, Pete King, Sheila Ward and Beverley Martin in Wiltshire, would think.

 

 

 

Richard Murphy

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday November 19 2014

Colman's Column3

The distinguished Irish poet, Richard Murphy, spent a great deal of his childhood in Ceylon where his father, Sir William Lindsay Murphy, was the last colonial Mayor of Colombo. Richard first went to Ceylon at the age of six weeks. He made many visits to this country over the years and, according to Wikipedia, lives here now. Ashley Halpé’s translations inspired Murphy to write The Mirror Wall, versions of poems inscribed on a long wall of polished plaster at Sigiriya. Bloodaxe Books published the book in 1989 and it won the Poetry Book Society Translation Award.

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Murphy’s autobiography, The Kick, reveals that he was in Sri Lanka during some troubled times for the nation. In 1971, HAI Goonetileke, librarian of Peradeniya University had invited him thus: “The son of your father will be welcome in this still resplendent isle”. However, the first JVP uprising had deterred Murphy from taking up the offer. Murphy notes that news of bodies floating down the Kalani River under the Victoria Bridge on the airport road brought back a childhood terror of dying in Ceylon.

News of the July 1983 pogrom, which was, at best, badly mishandled by the UNP government,   troubled him.  Murphy hints that the pogrom was orchestrated by a UNP cabinet minister but does not name him. DBS Jeyaraj names Cyril Mathew and writes about violent groups that “had absolute impunity and had the protection of important members of the United National Party (UNP) Government then in power.” Jeyaraj also wrote: “Many of the mobs were led by functionaries of the UNP trade union Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS). Several UNP municipal and urban councillors were involved. Many prominent supporters and strong – arm men of cabinet ministers were involved. The Police were ordered by UNP politicians not to arrest the violent elements.”

Despite his fears, Murphy decided to return, in November 1984, to the country that was by then called Sri Lanka, “intending to examine my colonial past in the light of its legacy and to purge my fear”. He had planned to spend his time wandering around Colombo, Kandy and Bandarawela on his own, “surprising myself with spontaneous recollections…” However, his mother had insisted on getting introductions through the High Commission and, on arrival, the Tourist Board took the Murphys under its wing and arranged for them to meet President Jayewardene. On meeting the president, the 86-yer-old Lady Murphy said: “we were barbarians when you had a great civilisation at Anuradhapura.” Dickie replied, “Yes, but a long time ago you overtook us.”

Murphy’s driver, Samson, pointed out Welikade Prison and said, “That’s where more than fifty Tamil detainees were killed during the riots”. Murphy and his mother chided him for spoiling the journey. Samson replied: “One hundred per cent terrorists”. A year later, the prison director gave Murphy a guided tour and showed him the woodshed from which guards allowed Sinhalese prisoners to take saws and axes with which they broke down Tamil prisoners’ cell doors and hacked them to death.

In Kandy, Murphy and his mother visited the house on Brownrigg Street, which was her first home in the country in October 1922. The street was named after Robert Brownrigg the “butcher of Uva-Wellassa”, who issued a gazette notice condemning as “traitors” all those who rebelled against British Rule. (President Rajapaksa revoked the gazette notice in 2011.)  Sentries from the Sinha Regiment commanded by Major Nihal Pelpola guarded Lady Murphy’s former home. In 1989, Murphy visited Colonel Pelpola in Colombo General Hospital where he was in intensive care after a member of the JVP stabbed him in the back on Galle Face Green
On the 1984 trip, they travelled from Kandy to Trincomalee via Dambulla, passing several army checkpoints en route. Murphy noticed a line of chained prisoners accompanied by police. The Tamil wife of an Anglican rector said these were young Tamil boys being taken to be castrated.

A Tamil man in his thirties called Stephen Anthony, who had lost his livelihood because of the pogrom, guided Murphy around Colombo. According to him, sites belonging to Tamil professionals had been given away to enrich UNP supporters after the Tamil owners had fled from the looting.

Murphy’s former pupil, April Brunner, was now the wife of Britain’s High Commissioner, David Gladstone who invited him to many social functions over the next three years. Gladstone told him that he was inundated with visa requests because of fears that the JVP would soon take over the country and install a Pol Pot-type regime. The JVP had forced schools to close and intimidated many employees to stay away from work.

On December 19, the UNP’s Ranasinghe Premadasa became  president after an election dominated, according to Murphy, by fraud and JVP intimidation. Murphy’s barber, Wasantha, was hacked to death by the JVP near the Ladyhill Hotel and the JVP gave detailed instructions about how to conduct the funeral. On 22 January 1989, Murphy noted in his diary that the body of an old man was floating in Kandy Lake just in front of the Hotel Suisse and that the hotel telephone operator could not get anyone in the police department to take an interest. Murphy himself disturbed the DIG at his lunch and eventually seven armed police arrived. “Why bring such weaponry on a mission to remove a dead body from a temple lake in a sacred area in which it is prohibited to catch fish? Because the police are afraid of being shot at by subversives wherever they happen to go.”

When Murphy returned to Sri Lanka in November 1989 after a few months in Ireland, he found that the JVP had closed all the hospitals and fifty cancer patients had died without medical or nursing assistance. When the hospitals reopened, a child’s body was found stuck to a bed. JVP leader Rohana Wijiweera sent out a “request” to soldiers to desert. The request was backed up by a threat to kill their families. The police and army responded by liquidating anyone remotely suspected of JVP connections. A friend told Murphy that he had personally counted 300 bodies floating down the Kelani River. People stopped eating fish. Rohan Guneratna told Murphy that up to 60,000 “suspects”, mainly young men, had been taken by special units and summarily executed. Guneratna saw, with his own eyes, beside the road leading down from Heeragilla, bodies that had been burnt on tyres.

Wijiweera was captured living in bourgeois comfort in a planter’s house near Kandy and questioned for 72 hours by intelligence officers. The version of Wijiweera’s death accepted by Murphy is that he was thrown alive into the crematorium near Colombo golf course. Asoka Ratwatte, a cousin of Sirimavo Bandaranaike told Murphy he was convinced that the army was killing people with no connection to the JVP: “Now they are decorating trees in my village with chopped off hands and feet.”

Tissa Wijeyratne, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to France, told Murphy: “In Colombo the municipal crematorium works all night long…Ninety-nine per cent of the people in the rural areas approve the beating and killing of JVP suspects. I saw three corpses hung from an electric transformer, multiple injuries, holes in the head. My first reaction was immediate fear, that this could happen to me, not moral horror.”

SB Dissanayake told Murphy that he had been on a bus, when the driver slowed down to let the passengers see many bodies of young men and women, all stripped to the waist, by the roadside. Mothers held up their children so that they could see. Dissanayake also saw, at the temples at Lankatilleke, dismembered bodies lying under a tree. “Dogs eat the flesh that isn’t burnt by the tyres set alight under the corpses that are strewn along the roads at night.”

Murphy met Major Asoka Amunugama of the Sinha regiment at the bungalow where Sir William and Lady Murphy had lived soon after their marriage. The Major did not deny that atrocities were occurring but blamed vigilante groups rather than the Army. He agreed that the UNP government fully supported these groups and would have a problem controlling them. He admitted that he thought a military victory would never solve the problems caused by poverty and frustrated youth.

Anuradha Seneviratna, Professor of Sinhala at Peradeniya had told Murphy that many of his students had been taken by the Army. He said his fifteen-year old son had not been able to eat or sleep after seeing a body burning on a tyre but eventually got used to seeing many of them and no longer got upset. A JVP man had shot dead the bursar of the university and escaped on a bicycle. The Army went on a rampage and the next morning there were fourteen severed heads with battered faces on the parapet wall around the lotus pond and fourteen butchered torsos in a secluded part of the campus.

When he visited Sri Lanka in December 1991, Murphy was disappointed that the Gladstones had been ejected from the country by President Premadasa because the British High Commissioner had complained about election fraud perpetrated by the UNP.  Murphy wrote, “I felt that the country I loved was being changed for the worse” by this president. In 1993, Premadasa, the UNP president who had supplied arms and funding to the LTTE, was killed by a Tiger suicide bomber.

As I have said before in these pages, as a foreigner, I have absolutely no emotional attachment to the UNP or the SLFP. Nevertheless, it surprises me to hear my UNP friends wax nostalgic about the good old days before Mahinda Rajapaksa became president. I have heard from these very people horror stories about the JVP times, similar to those recounted by Richard Murphy. To hear my UNP friends speak, Sri Lanka today is unprecedentedly awful. This is the worst of all times. It seems from my compatriot’s observations that unimaginable horrors occurred under UNP administrations. Are similar horrors prevalent today? To this Irishman who has lived in Sri Lanka for twelve years, life is far more comfortable, if a good deal more expensive than when he first arrived. On arrival, in January 2001, I was disconcerted that, under a UNP government, military roadblocks were such a normal part of life that they were sponsored by commercial advertisers. There are no roadblocks today. I have not seen any bodies burning on tyres. Even up here in the mountains, roads have improved greatly and facilities in our small town are better by far. More importantly, I can stroll around Colombo without fear of being blown up. Whatever about crime rates, I do not see hundreds of corpses floating down the river.

I understand that Richard Murphy, who is now in his 87th year, currently lives permanently in Sri Lanka. Can we assume that that Irishman, like this Irishman, believes the country he loved, “this resplendent isle”, whatever its many faults, has changed for the better?

If anyone can tell me the whereabouts of Richard Murphy please contact me at spikeyriter@gmail.com

Channel 4 – Once Again!

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 29 2014.

Colman's Column3

 

 

Last week, I wrote an article commenting on the news that Channel 4 had been nominated for an Emmy award for its documentary about alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. Callum Macrae, who directed the programme, read the article and made contact.

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My Position

 

Before I address Mr Macrae’s specific points, let me summarise my general position. I am a foreigner who has lived permanently in Sri Lanka for twelve years. I have tried, in a small way, to contribute to the welfare of the country by becoming involved in my local community in Uva province. In spite of what the rabid trolls on Colombo Telegraph might say, I do not have any connections with the government. Because I am a foreigner, I have no emotional attachment to SLFP or UNP (or Fianna Fail or Fine Gael or Sin Fein).

When I first came to Sri Lanka, there was a cease-fire and people had a taste of peace. I thought it was safe to live here. I was dismayed when Mahinda Rajapakse was elected president because he had a reputation as a hardliner. I was further dismayed when the government decided to go for the military option against the LTTE. Dismayed because I knew that it meant civilians would be killed; dismayed because I did not think the SLA could win. My compatriots Martin McGuinness and John Hume advised against the military option and I bought the received wisdom that such conflicts could only be ended by negotiation.

I now know that I was wrong. The LTTE was firmly against negotiation and used cease-fires to regroup. They had to be defeated. They were defeated and Sri Lanka is a far better place today than it was when I first arrived.

Mr Macrae’s Objections

 A

  1. The Emmy nomination is for a programme made in 2013 not for the first Killing Fields programme broadcast in 2011.
  2. “He [Padraig Colman] also seems to have taken a fair amount of his information from the book Corrupted Journalism – the anonymously funded and written book which was so carelessly written and which has been so completely discredited.”
  3. “Mr Colman claims over and over again that we failed to criticise the LTTE “.
  4. “Why doesn’t Padriac (sic) Colman actually address the evidence around the death of the child Balachandran Prabhakaran? “
  5. “He is also silent on the fact that even since then further photographic evidence has emerged again showing prisoners (including Isaipriya) alive in the custody of identifiable SLA soldiers.”
  6. “Because Mr Colman appears to be defending a government which claimed throughout the last few months of the war, not just that they had a policy of Zero Civilian Casualties – but that in practice not a single casualty had died as a result of government action! Now Mr Colman is arguing about whether the fact that the UN said during the war that at least 7000 had died (which they did) and that in the light of more information they revised that figure upward considerably.  But how does he explain the government’s claim of zero civilian casualties. There is not a word on that”.

My Response

 

Let me now deal with Mr Macrae’s points:

  1. I thank him for the clarification. Channel 4 are still using the title The Killing Fields, thereby making a ludicrous link with what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. There have been previous awards and nominations for these Channel 4 programmes, including one for the Nobel Peace Prize (previous winners of that include Kissinger, the EU and Obama; previous nominees include Hitler, Stalin and Theodore Roosevelt). My critique was aimed at the Channel 4 project as a whole. I do not think it is contributing to peace in Sri Lanka.
  2. I published criticisms of Channel 4 before Corrupted Journalism was published. The authors cite me several times in their endnotes but I also detected my influence in the sections on churnalism and factoids. In Channel 4’s immediate response, Ben de Pear flippantly called the book a heavy tome even though it is merely a 222-page paperback. Mr Macrae has pointed me in the direction of a more serious response to the book. This also refers to the book as “hefty”.
  3. “Mr Colman claims over and over again that we failed to criticise the LTTE”. I have read and reread various drafts and versions of my article. I do not say even once that Channel 4 failed to criticise the LTTE. That said, I think that viewers who do not know the historical background will come away from these programmes with the impression that it was SLA committing all the atrocities. Mr Macrae needs to make a programme with vivid visual images of children massacred by the LTTE. Perhaps he could make a programme calling for Adele Balasingham to be tried for war crimes. She gave cyanide to 13 year old girls and is, I understand, now living comfortably in New Malden.
  4. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wittgenstein. The idea of a 12 year old boy being executed is indeed distressing. I was silent on the subject because I had nothing useful to say, no special knowledge to add. I would certainly not defend it. People who have not remained silent on the topic have reminded us of the young Buddhist monks executed by the LTTE at Anuradhapura or the 147 Muslim boys and men slaughtered while at prayer at Katankudy mosque. Perhaps Mr Macrae could make a film about those incidents. Did the government not provide Prabhakaran’s parents with pensions and medical care? Did the government not airlift Daya Master to hospital for heart surgery and then give him transport back to the war? The widow of Colonel Soosai, leader of the Sea Tigers, was captured along with her children, by the Sri Lankan Navy in May 2009. She said: “The Sri Lanka armed forces have treated us very well and afforded us all the facilities we never had before that. Today we are living happily with my children who are continuing their education well. My parents are also living with me. The story about certain LTTE leaders coming to surrender raising white flags is a fairy tale.”
  5. I am silent also about the circumstances surrounding the death of Isaipriya because I have no special knowledge on the subject. I do know that she was not a civilian non-combatant.
  6. Mr Macrae seems a little muddled about what I have written about civilian casualties. I have not been silent about the numbers of civilian casualties. I have written many articles on this, some of them lengthy with extensive footnotes. In these articles, I have said quite clearly that I think the idea of zero civilian casualties is ridiculous. Mr Macrae misleads himself by mistaking me for a defender of the government.

Panel of Experts –Completely Discredited

In The Uncorrupted Truth, Mr Macrae states: “But our findings have also been separately confirmed by the UN Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka appointed by Ban Ki Moon. The Panel found credible allegations associated with the final stages of the war. Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lanka Army advanced its military campaign into the Vanni using large-scale and widespread shelling, causing large numbers of civilian deaths”.

The Marga Institute described the report as “tendentious”. Credible allegations are not the same as established facts. “On the basis of reasonable assumptions, the Panel could have built on the UN estimate of 7,721. They reject this estimate saying ‘it is likely to be too low’ and ‘many casualties may not have been observed’. The Panel opts for a much higher estimate of 40,000 without indicating the basis for this estimate…There is a strong impression left that the Panel is not satisfied with a low estimate as that would call into question its interpretation of government strategy”.

Corrupted Journalism

I have read Mr Macrae’s detailed rebuttal of Corrupted Journalism. I do not intend to deal with it in detail myself, partly because I do not have the time, space or expertise, but mainly because, just as it is not my job to defend the government, it is not my job to defend Engage Sri Lanka. When I read about the book in the Sri Lankan press, I groaned at the naivety of setting such great store by the views of AA Gill. I read the book carefully and, like many others with whom I have discussed it, I found it fairly substantial. I understand why Mr Macrae does not agree.

I urge my readers to examine Mr Macrae’s case at:

www.channel4.com/microsites/…/The%20Uncorrupted%20Truth_R7.pdf

Mr Macrae is highly offended that Engage Sri Lanka should accuse him of corruption. However, he dismisses any criticism of the Channel 4 programmes as sinister and portrays himself as the underdog, despite the fact that his work has received much publicity all over the world. Everyone but Callum Macrae has ulterior motives. He knows nothing about me (and misspells my name) but calls me a “defender of the government”. He suggests I am being petty for questioning the number of civilian casualties bandied about. I have written many times about GOSL’s PR ineptitude. Sometimes they just cannot win He asserts that Engage Sri Lanka are dubious because they are anonymous and mysteriously funded. He swats away other critics because they write for “pro-government” publications. Don’t take points made in Lies Agreed Upon seriously because it is a Sri Lankan government propaganda film. SLA’s attempts to clear its name can be discounted because, well, they would say that wouldn’t they?

Then What?

 After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

TS Eliot Gerontion

Mr Macrae has fashioned a good career from covering the Sri Lankan tragedy. There is no mileage in him making a film about how things have improved here. I do not have Channel 4’s resources and have no chance of making a good career from arguing with Mr Macrae. I urge my readers to watch all his Channel 4 programmes and to read The Uncorrupted Truth. I will now move on and devote my time to writing poetry and erudite articles about philosophy and nature and posting pictures of cute puppies and kittens on Facebook.

Before retiring from the fray, I would like to pose the question: what is the purpose of these Channel 4 programmes? Is this regular drip-feeding of horror stories likely to make the lot of any individual Sri Lankan, Sinhalese or Tamil, any better? What would satisfy Mr Macrae? If the government punished individual soldiers for specific crimes, would that suffice? I doubt it. Does he want Gotabhaya Rajapaksa or Sarath Fonseka to stand trial? Would he be satisfied only if President Rajapaksa were put in the dock? As this is not likely to happen, are we to look forward to programmes on The Killing Fields in perpetuity?

Is South Africa’s TRC an example to follow?

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 9 2011.

Colman's Column3

I was interested to read in the March 30 2014 issue of Ceylon Today that “senior lawyer, Gomin Dayasri is to head TRC”.

President Rajapaksa had told the South African High Commissioner in Colombo that he was planning to set up a Sri Lanka Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of the South African TRC. South African High Commissioner, Geoffrey Quinton Michael Doidge, promised President Rajapaksa South African expertise and technical assistance. The President invited suggestions for a head of the TRC and eventually plumped for Gomin.

At the CHOGM in November last year South African President Jacob Zuma offered his country’s support if the Sri Lankan Government decided to appoint a TRC. A Sri Lankan delegation led by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva visited South Africa to discuss the proposed Commission with the South African authorities.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) captured public attention, provided a model for other countries and generated a vast bulk of scholarly literature. TRC hearings started in Cape Town in 1996. The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as to promote reparation and rehabilitation. South Africa’s TRC seemed to break new ground in that it went beyond truth finding to promote national unity and reconciliation.

To avoid victor’s justice, no side was exempt from appearing before the commission. Apartheid’s servants still dominated the state, so Nuremberg-style trials were not an option if the country was to achieve democracy without a coup. The commission heard reports of human rights violations and considered amnesty applications from all sides, from the apartheid state to the liberation forces, including the ruling African National Congress. Perpetrators had to face the individuals they tortured or the families of those they killed. There had to be some acceptance of the ostrich tendencies of the white middle class who did not want to admit complicity in systemic torture. Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarked, “It’s very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep.”

 
Did the South African process live up to its reputation? Hugo van der Merwe, project manager with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation was not enthusiastic. “Despite all of its flowery language around reconciliation, it really had very limited impact in terms of providing healing and justice for survivors and providing reintegration into communities for perpetrators. Those dynamics are ones which stay with society and that require further engagement by government and civil society.”

 
Together with Audrey R. Chapman, van der Merwe edited a study of the TRC entitled, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Did the TRC Deliver? Chapman and van der Merwe spent eight years compiling this and had access to a wealth of quantitative and qualitative data. Most of the contributors concluded that the TRC did not deliver. Chapman contends that truth commissions are best suited for establishing “macrotruth,” which involves assessing contexts, and patterns of human rights abuses with a view to identifying structural causes and intellectual authors of political violence. Nearly all truth commissions take this as a central goal. Many also seek “micro-truth.” – to gather evidence on individual cases. A number of commentators have observed that the TRC’s final report down-plays and even obfuscates the question of how apartheid operated as a system, focusing instead on extreme acts of violence committed by individual actors.

A study by Jay and Erika Vora indicated that the TRC proceedings reminded people of the horrors that had taken place in the past when they preferred to forget such things. Some viewed the proceedings as flawed because many people lied to get an amnesty. There was a feeling that the process discriminated in favour of high profile victims. A 1998 study by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation & the Khulumani Support Group found that most believed that justice was a prerequisite for reconciliation rather than an alternative to it, and that the TRC had been weighted in favour of the perpetrators of abuse.

William Kentridge, a South African lawyer and director of Ubu and the Truth Commission, said, “As people give more and more evidence of the things they have done they get closer and closer to amnesty and it gets more and more intolerable that these people should be given amnesty.” Steve Biko’s family described the TRC as a “vehicle for political expediency”, which “robbed” them of their right to justice.

The story we believe today is that South Africa became a democracy in a peaceful transition. The violence on both sides has been airbrushed out of the picture. This was part of the deal agreed. There would be no punitive justice.

John Pilger criticised the TRC for allowing the easy transition from white exclusive capitalism to multiracial capitalism, and for failing to cause the trial of criminals, particularly murderers. In 1994, South Africa chose a neoliberal path. There was no redistribution of resources. The white minority still controls 80 percent of the best agricultural land and owns the country’s mines. Racial inequality has grown since 1994. An OECD report says: “South Africa faces a number of long-standing economic problems that still reflect at least in part the long-lasting and harmful legacy of apartheid”. A report by Statistics South Africa shows two-thirds of young people live in households with a per capita income of less than 650 rand a month (around £47). White South Africans still take home six times more pay than blacks do.

A survey covering 1998–2000 compiled by the UN, ranked South Africa second for assault and murder per capita and first for rapes per capita in a data set of 60 countries. South Africa was tenth out of the 60 countries in the dataset for total crime per capita.

South Africa’s national budget is USD 167 billion. In the fiscal year 2011-2012, USD 103 million was lost to financial misconduct. Only 13 per cent of the money lost to corruption is recovered. While 88 per cent of people tried for financial misconduct are found guilty, only 19 per cent are dismissed. Forty-three per cent get final written warnings. Many escape by resigning and getting another government job offering the opportunity to carry on stealing.

Jacob Zuma made a State of the Nation address on February 12 2014, stressing the high points of his time in office ahead of elections on May 7. An Ipsos poll published on February 12 found his approval rating has fallen from 77 per cent in 2009 to just 46 per cent today. In 2009, 54 per cent of South Africans felt the country was moving in the “right direction” – today just 34 per cent feel the same.

President Zuma was charged with rape in 2005, but was acquitted. He fought a long legal battle over allegations resulting from his financial advisor Schabir Shaik’s conviction for corruption and fraud. Zuma still has allegations hanging over his head that he received 783 corrupt payments totalling Rand 4.1 million (nearly £300,000). Two wealthy Indian brothers known to have close ties to Mr Zuma borrowed the country’s biggest military airport to fly in guests for a family wedding. A report by the public watchdog criticised Zuma for spending £12.9 million of public money on “security” upgrades to his private estate.

This year’s parliamentary elections in South Africa will be the first in which children born after the 1994 transition to democracy become eligible to vote. How has that reconciliation thing worked for them? Children born 20 years after the end of apartheid will be faced with a two-tiered education system — a functional one for the wealthy and a dysfunctional public system for poor blacks. In Limpopo province 1.7m children in were deprived of textbooks for almost a year because of local government corruption.

Emulating the apartheid regime, police killed 34 striking miners and then charged the miners themselves with murdering their colleagues. There is an average of 32 protests each day, mainly over a lack of basic services. The number of police-related deaths in 2012 totalled 797, more than double levels ten years ago, according to figures from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. Deaths of police personnel on active service totalled 92.

How do you like that for truth and reconciliation? Can Sri Lanka learn from the South African experience? How does the South African experience compare with the Sri Lankan experience? The most obvious fact is that in the old South Africa, the majority was oppressed by the minority. That is not the case in Sri Lanka. Whatever injustices there may be, there is less apartheid in Sri Lanka than there is in Louisiana. Ask yourself, Dear Reader, where you would rather live today – Sri Lanka or South Africa?

 

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