Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Sri Lanka Army

Padma Rao’s Sri Lanka

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

 

 

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Rao cover

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

Tsunami Today

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

 

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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.

 

 

 

Channel 4 – Once Again!

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

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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?

Channel 4 and Sri Lanka

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 22 2014. It can be found on page 7 of the E-paper at:
http://www.ceylontoday.lk/e-paper.html
It was also reproduced by Sri Lanka Guardian:
http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2014/10/there-is-no-room-for-truth-in-world-of.html

There is no room for truth in the world of sound bites.

For some bizarre reason the article is credited by Sri Lanka Guardian to Upul Joseph Fernando rather than me.

No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka

I was most dismayed to read an article by my friend and colleague Sulochana Ramiah Mohan on the front page of Ceylon Today on Wednesday 15 October. Sulochana reported that Channel 4’s No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka is one of four documentaries nominated for the International Emmy Awards 2014. This news comes at a time when I am considering making a submission to Sandra Beidas, at OIHCR. Her remit is “to coordinate work and activities and act as the main interlocutor with stakeholders and oversee report writing and documentation,” in relation to a UN inquiry into alleged war crimes in the last seven years of Sri Lanka’s war.

Channel 4 first screened The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka in 2011. Why is it being nominated for an Emmy in 2014? Is the nomination timed to coincide with Beidas’s investigation?

The Allegations

The main charges covered in the programme are:

  • The Sri Lanka army and air force targeted hospitals and civilians in the NFZs (no-fire zones) leading to 40,000 civilian deaths
  • Withholding of food and medical supplies from the north
  • Summary execution of prisoners
  • Rape of female combatants and civilians
  • Imprisoning of Tamil civilians in concentration camps.

Numbers

Jon Snow introduces the Channel 4 programme by citing the “Panel of Experts” report commissioned by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon. Callum Macrae, director of Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields said: “Channel 4 has been reporting on this throughout the past two years and the documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields represents the culmination of all that. Although the release comes not long after the Panel of Experts (Darusman), report was published, that was a coincidence and we were clearly researching at the same time. However, I think it’s significant that we both reached virtually identical conclusions.”

It would not be surprising that they reached similar conclusions if they were both using the same tainted evidence. The Channel 4 effort resembles the Darusman Report in the way it presents in a tendentious manner allegations posing as fact. The Marga Institute deconstructed the Darusman Report.[i]

When Gordon Weiss was UN representative in Sri Lanka he went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. This became the official figure quoted by The UN General Secretary’s New York spokesperson,  Michelle Monas, who told Inner City Press reporter Matthew Lee, “We have no way of knowing the exact count”. When Weiss left the UN and returned to Australia, he increased the figure to 40,000.

In his book, The Cage, Weiss quotes a press release by Navi Pillay in which she says as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 40,000 and Frances Harrison to say 147,000?

Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator challenged even Gordon Weiss’s lower estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, Holmes stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified. In spite of this, Weiss throughout The Cage routinely talks of “between 10,000 and 40,000”, which is meaningless.

A detailed discussion of numbers of civilians killed can be found in The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice, by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka.[ii] I summarised that report on the Transconflict website and attended a seminar on it at the Marga Institute.[iii] There was a strong theme at the seminar of the need to acknowledge the size of the catastrophe. Those who are citing inflated figures are making a demand for reckoning based on the assumption that Sri Lankans did not care. That exaggeration in turn prompted a bunker mentality among the victors who were reluctant to admit to a figure of civilian dead for fear of a litigious reaction. After careful consideration, the IDAG-S concluded that the civilian death toll was probably between 15,000 and 18,000. This itself has been challenged by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who points out that “only 6000 injured were taken off by the ICRC ships over four months, along with bystanders, suggesting that the figure of the dead would have been less.” The 18,000 figure includes civilians killed by the LTTE, the IDAG-S says, although “it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small”. The IDAG-S estimate is, despite the ire of some critics, somewhat higher than some other calculations, even by Tamils.

Rajasingham Narendran talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere. He said: “My estimate is that the deaths — cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute said “[approximately] 12,000 [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “.Dr. Noel Nadesan: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”. Note that Nadesan includes fighters and natural deaths. In any population, a number would die from natural causes of ill health or medical misadventure at child birth or operation. On 13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data “primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net”, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.

IADG-S considers that those who claim that 147,000 civilians were killed have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity / morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”

A more recent publication by the Marga Institute and the Consortium of Human Rights Agencies also deals with this issue. [iv]

 

Shelling Hospitals

Viewers would not realise that the LTTE possessed and used a wide range of artillery and mortars, including 152mm long-range guns, 130mm artillery pieces, 122mm artillery guns, 120mm mortars, 81mm mortars, 60mm mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers. There is an odd statement in paragraph 94 of the Darusman report where it is acknowledged that the LTTE fired artillery from the vicinity of Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital (PTK) but that they did not use the hospital for military purposes. Channel 4 chose not to mention that LTTE fired from within the no-fire zones, often from the vicinity of hospitals and that the Sri Lankan army had fired back in response. They did not mention clear evidence that the LTTE shelled hospitals and shot their own people. Their own star witness Gordon Weiss says in his book that PTK hospital was hit by artillery fire on several occasions and that “a number of strikes appeared to be from Tamil Tiger positions”. Channel 4 gave the false impression that any government shelling within the no-fire zone was unilateral and unprovoked.[v]

 

Channel 4 suggests that was SLA’s policy to drive hundreds o thousands of civilians into harm’s way when the reality is that soldiers risked and often lost their lives trying to get civilians out of danger. Channel 4 repeatedly ignored the fact that the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the last weeks of fighting had been forced into the combat zone by the LTTE, who then brutally prevented them from leaving.

 

Rape

In Lakbima News June 26 2011, Namini Wijedasa interviewed Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. She put it to him that the Channel 4 programme called on viewers to make many inferences from the footage used. “It suggests, for instance, that women were raped, although it is not possible to determine from the bodies whether sexual abuse had, in fact, occurred.” The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made an accusation that GOSL were employing rape as a policy. She later withdrew the allegation.

Heyns’s response to Namini’s question was : “I think the video has to be seen in the context of all the available evidence, which includes what has been investigated and published by NGOs and the panel of the Secretary General. The cumulative effect of the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern about what both sides did during the war, and in particular what happened in the final stages, when the government gained the upper hand, and that there were no outside witnesses”.

“In the context of all the available evidence” seems to mean that if enough dodgy allegations are gathered together, they gain some credibility purely from their critical mass. This is something akin to those urban myths that gather moss on the internet. If a rumour appears on a lot of websites or blogs, it is quoted repeatedly and the mere accumulation is seen as proof.

Withholding Supplies

Channel 4 alleges that GOSL deliberately withheld food and medical supplies from the north. It is a little-known (in the west) and perhaps surprising fact that throughout the conflict, the central government tried to maintain a government structure even in LTTE-held territories. It continued to send food and medicine even though it knew that much of this would be siphoned off by the enemy. The doctors working in the embattled hospitals in the north attested that they had ample supplies.

Authenticity of Tapes

Another UN Rapporteur, Philip Alston, said his experts (Peter Diaczuk, an “expert in firearms evidence”, Daniel Spitz, a “forensic pathologist”, and Jeff Spivack, an “expert in forensic video analysis”) could prove the authenticity of the images used by Channel 4 showing abuses by SLA soldiers. Alston conceded that there were some “characteristics of the video which the experts were unable to explain” but asserted that “each of these characteristics can, however, be explained in a manner entirely consistent with the conclusion that the videotape appears to be authentic.”

Alston’s “experts” do not inspire confidence. Spitz’s father, who had held the post before him, appointed him Medical Examiner for Macomb County. Spitz achieved notoriety by ruling that an execution-style death was suicide, not noticing a bullet hole in the neck and a bullet in the jaw. Fredericks had no training in photogrammetry and has no more expertise than a layperson. He lied in court about his company’s ties to Taser, and supported a police cover-up. Spivack was a not very successful self-employed private investigator (he filed bankruptcy in 2003), with little verifiable work experience, and flaky credentials.

Unreliable Witnesses

An important witness in the Channel 4 programmes is referred to as “Vani Kumar”. The Channel 4 commentary at no point mentions that her real name was Damilvany Gnanakumar and that she was a Tamil Tiger whom Castro ordered to work in Mullivaykkal hospital. In London, she was women’s co-ordinator for the Tamil Youth Organisation, an LTTE front. In Kilinochchi, she was assigned to work with foreign media and was described by a former colleague called Prabakaran as a “news correspondent”. He said she had been trained to use firearms and wore a cyanide capsule around her neck. As long ago as September 2009, Gnanakumar was discredited. Channel 4 must have known about her past.

Semiotics

I am not an investigative reporter or an expert on authenticating videos. I have communicated with Siri Hewavitharana, the expert who questioned the authenticity of the tapes. I have had a lengthy telephone conversation with the lead author of The Numbers Game, which gives a detailed rebuttal of the figures used by Channel 4. I have participated in Marga Institute seminars on the topic. I do have some knowledge of semiotics and linguistic analysis. When I first saw the Channel 4 programme, many things about it jarred.

The title, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, is a major distortion as there is no comparison between Pol Pot’s ambition to send Cambodia to Year Zero and the efforts of a democratically elected government to deal with terrorism within its own sovereign borders. The director manipulates viewers’’ emotions throughout the film by means of images and music, as well as voice-over commentary.

Jon Snow introduces the programme by saying that at the war’s end “as many as 40,000, and possibly far more, civilians were killed”. That is meaningless. How can one say “as many as” and “possibly far more” in the same sentence?

Alston employs strange language to defend the authenticity of the videos. The unexplainable characteristics can be explained in a manner consistent with the conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Alston is not saying the “experts” have said the video is authentic. The unexplainable can be explained to fit a conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Even if they came out and said directly that the video was genuine and had not been tampered with, this is not proof that it shows Sri Lankan soldiers killing Tamils.

IDP Camps

The Channel 4 programme includes a solemn sequence about the brutality of life in the IDP camps. The director manipulates our emotions with sinister soundtrack music. The Emmy nomination allows Channel 4 to continue to peddle untruths about the camps. Here in October 2014, we know that the predicted mass deaths from disease or a policy of genocidal extermination did not happen. Today the camps are empty.

Even in 2009, Channel 4 should have known that these were not concentration camps. The camps had banks with ATMs, shops and schools with children studying for and passing exams. B Lynn Pascoe, UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs, visited the IDP camps in September 2009 and said, “You have a better story than is getting out today.” Mr. Pascoe stated that he was “impressed by the work done by the Army, the demining teams, the UN staff and the civil society” and that his team also witnessed the rehabilitation work that was underway.

Conclusion

Channel 4 used Gordon Weiss as one of its major “witnesses” but chose to ignore what he had written about the (generally) exemplary conduct towards Tamil civilians of the SLA. There is testimony from many surviving Tamil civilians about the risks that soldiers took to protect civilians. The Red Cross and Human Rights Watch also said this. Weiss, Tamil survivors, the Red Cross and HRW also made it clear that the LTTE were firing artillery from hospitals, using civilians as human shields and shooting those who tried to escape. Channel 4 mentions none of this. The first programme devoted only 49 seconds to LTTE abuses.

A book called Corrupted Journalism[vi] produced by a collective known as Engage Sri Lanka covers these issues in far more detail than I can do here. They have the good judgement to cite me on several occasions. Channel 4 spokesperson, News Editor Ben de Pear, attempted to rubbish the book but did not, in any way, address the detailed concerns raised in it. In fact, he makes it clear that he has not even read it. “I do not have this weighty tome in my hands, so I can’t react to everything it says.” This “weighty tome” is a paperback of 222 pages. It is also available online. Engage Sri Lanka’s argument is supported by 625 detailed footnotes, an eight-page bibliography and 12 pages of appendices. De Pear’s flippant response clearly indicates that he does not want to employ joined-up thinking and address detail.

De Pear hides behind a ruling by the UK regulator, which dismissed a complaint about the programme. “All three times Ofcom found in our favour, found our journalism to be balanced and objective and dismissed all Sri Lankan complaints. All other complaints made by the government were ignored by Ofcom.”

No, they did not. This is what Ofcom said:”While all subjects in news programmes must be presented with due impartiality and reported with due accuracy, in other non-news programmes there is no requirement in the Code for issues to be treated with due accuracy.” Ofcom, despite what de Pear claimed, did not find in Channel 4’s favour in the sense that it decided that they had reported the truth. Ofcom decided not to require Channel 4 to respond to the “detailed and lengthy concerns” raised in the complaint simply because it would be too expensive for them and it might discourage broadcasters from making controversial programmes.

Engage Sri Lanka commented: “a company generating a billion pounds of revenue and employing 800 people couldn’t afford the cost of responding to a legitimate complaint. Channel 4 then added that to have to respond to the complaint posed a ‘serious threat to the future of…current affairs television’ and had the potential to be ‘highly chilling of free expression’”. At the annual Hugh Cudlipp lecture a few weeks before the complaint, Jon Snow praised Ofcom.

 

At the Marga seminar I attended, Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, opened the proceedings by answering the question: “Do numbers matter”. He acknowledged that, while even a low number of casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures raised issues of the proportionality of the military response and the ethical position of the line of command. Continual recycling of spurious figures can only inhibit the healing process.

Civilians die in war. In a “civil” war where one side deliberately holds its own people hostage there are, regrettably, bound to be civilian casualties. It is clear from the testimony of even those critical of GOSL, such as Gordon Weiss , that SLA soldiers behaved well towards Tamil civilians and there is no evidence that they were under orders to be brutal. It would have been surprising if there had not been some atavistic and brutal reaction from some soldiers who witnessed horrible things happening to their comrades and lived under traumatic fear themselves. The IDAG-S conclusion states clearly: “Nothing in this survey denies the probability and the evidence that some extra-judicial killings of high-ranking LTTE officers occurred during the last days of the war. These actions need to be impartially investigated by an independent body, and where possible criminal indictments pursued against the perpetrators.”

There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils. Bludgeoning them with inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.

Engage Sri Lanka make an excellent point in their conclusion. “Channel 4 seems oblivious to the fact that their dubious allegations about the conflict in Sri Lanka are artificially sustaining what remains of the LTTE, one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organisations, and elements of the Tamil diaspora that continues to support it in pursuing unrealistic expectations”.

 

 

[i] www.margasrilanka.org/app/webroot/…/files/Truth-Accountability.pdf

 

[ii][ii] https://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-Justice

 

[iii] http://www.transconflict.com/2013/06/the-numbers-game-and-reconciliation-in-sri-lanka-136/

 

[iv] https://www.dropbox.com/s/tdxwntf7wu5andq/The%20Last%20Stages%20of%20the%20war%20in%20Sri%20Lanka.pdf?n=66191473

 

[v][v] LTTE artillery can be seen on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=lFDm5KVibmE

 

[vi] http://www.corruptedjournalism.com/

 

Sri Lanka’s PR Part1

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday September 3 2014

Colman's Column3

One often reads horror stories about Sri Lanka in the foreign press. Despite the vast amounts of money paid to foreign public relations firms, these stories are never effectively countered. There was a recent example in the Calgary Herald.

Black July

Sri Lankans will not need to be reminded of the horrors of Black July 1983 but my foreign readers may not know the significance of the term. Many Tamils had felt that Sinhalese dominated governments had discriminated against the Tamil minority. Over many years, there had been incidents where ill-disciplined police or military had carried out savage reprisals, rather in the manner of the Black and Tans in Ireland, on innocent Tamils. July 1983 was a paradigm shift in terror. The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) killed thirteen soldiers of the Sri Lanka Army. Anti-Tamil riots ensued and lasted for ten days with property destroyed and up to 3,000 people killed and 200,000 displaced.

From President Jayewardene’s residence, shops could be seen going up in flames but no curfew was called and police disappeared from the streets. Marauding gangs armed with axes and cans of petrol went around Colombo with electoral rolls identifying Tamil homes and businesses. The occupants were doused in petrol and set alight.

A Norwegian woman tourist recalled seeing a mob setting fire to a bus with about 20 Tamils inside it. Those who climbed out the windows were pushed back in and the doors were sealed while they burned alive, screaming horribly. In another incident, a mob chopped two Tamil girls aged 18 and 11 with knives; the younger girl was beheaded with an axe, the older one raped by 20 men and then doused in petrol.

These horrific events left an indelible mark on the Tamil psyche. Atrocities were perpetrated on innocent Tamils all over the country and many fled to the north for refuge. Those who could afford it fled abroad, from where they provided ongoing financial support for the LTTE.

The Memory Lingers On

According to the Calgary Herald, one family in particular is still enduring horrific suffering because of those events of 31 years ago. In an article by Manisha Krishnan dated August 25 2014, Ryan de Hoedt claims that his family has been troubled since Black July because they gave shelter to Tamils from the murderous mobs. He has, reportedly, been trying to get his sister out of Sri Lanka and into Canada because he fears for her life.

He says that his grandmother used their house to shelter Tamils, hiding them in closets and under beds and this “fuelled suspicions of an association with the Tamil Tigers.” He claims that his father lost his job because of this and police bullied his parents and brother.

Carmen Cheung, a lawyer with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association told the Calgary Herald: “Here is a man who is trying to help his sister get out of what appears to be an incredibly dangerous situation”.

Sheltering Tamils

De Hoedt’s family are Burghers. Many Sinhalese and Burghers and Muslims took great personal risks to protect Tamils who were being victimized and brutally killed. The article does not give his sister’s name or age. Ryan himself was eleven years old at the time of Black July. I suspect that his sister was even younger. I find it difficult to believe that a Burgher woman living in Sri Lanka in 2014 would be in “an incredibly dangerous situation” because of her tangential involvement when she was a small child in incidents that happened 31 years ago.

I personally know Sinhalese people who sheltered Tamils in 1983. They may have been in danger then from the bloodthirsty mob itself and their courageous action is to be commended. I doubt if they feel any sense of danger of recrimination 31 years on.

Responses

I canvassed opinion about the Calgary Herald article among my many Sri Lankan contacts, in Sri Lanka and abroad. One, who is a Sinhalese Christian, told me: “There were many people like my family who helped Tamils in Sri Lanka during and after the 1983 riots. There are people I know who represent Tamils in human rights cases. Some of them are my friends. No authority has ever attacked them. …. The writer of this article is delusional. Maybe she has got the country wrong or she is a downright liar.”

Another respondent referred me to an article on Munchhausen’s Syndrome: “a psychiatric factitious disorder wherein those affected feign disease, illness, or psychological trauma to draw attention, sympathy, or reassurance to themselves”.

Here is a selection of other responses: “sounds like a lot of de Bull to me”. “Not really believing what I’m reading.” “I saw it but am at something of a loss. Doesn’t quite make sense”. “Good grief. Why would she be in any danger?” “A sob story if ever there was one”. “It all sounds very strange”.

My list of contacts included many who have been strongly critical of the Sri Lankan government- in print as well as privately.

Some respondents wrote at more length:

“I met a Sinhalese guy back in around 2008 who was trying to get refugee status here in Australia on humanitarian grounds…His story was that his family owned a successful business that had some branches in the North-East, and during the ceasefire the LTTE extorted money from them. After the war started again in 2006, he alleged that the govt started harassing and threatening him and his family because the LTTE had forced them to ‘donate’ money … When I asked him if it was true, he seemed very reticent and mumbled ‘Yes’ after thinking about it. I met his lawyer as well … he was advising the guy to tell the Immigration Dept that he was tortured and he told him to be convincing about it in his body language. The fellow cut off all contact with me shortly afterwards and I haven’t heard from him since.”

Another Riot

Some of my respondents seized upon another aspect of Manisha Krishnan’s article. “A few years ago, said de Hoedt, her tenants were implicated in a riot and she was charged with harbouring terrorists. She lost her job and was stalked by soldiers and villagers, who cut off her hair, beat her and repeatedly attempted to rape her.” My contacts reacted thus: “Sounds more like they have some kind of land dispute or something like that.” What riot? What terrorists? Sounds like a cooked up sob story.”

Visa Applications

According to Manisha Krishnan’s article, Ryan de Hoedt: “claims her seven attempts to obtain a visitor’s visa to Canada and a permanent residency application made through her parents on humanitarian grounds were all rejected”. Two things are being mixed up here. Was she refused a visitor’s visa seven times? Application for permanent residency is a totally different thing and should not be included in the same sentence. The rejections were not the fault of the Sri Lanka government. The article does not tell us why the Canadian government rejected seven applications. The article does say: “She didn’t apply for refugee status because she was afraid to leave the country, which is one of the requirements.” Why was she afraid to leave Sri Lanka when her brother claims she is in mortal danger if she stays?

Human Smuggling

Ryan de Hoedt has lost his own Canadian passport. In April 2013, he was caught in Japan trying to help his sister to enter Canada using false documents. Although at one point de Hoedt says his sister was afraid to leave Sri Lanka, she did meet her brother in Malaysia and got involved with a human smuggling gang who took the sister’s Sri Lankan passport. They ordered de Hoedt to meet them in Laos where they were to provide the sister with a fake Canadian passport. Ryan and his sister were stopped while boarding a flight in Tokyo’s Narita Airport and the sister was sent back to Sri Lanka.

One of my respondents said: “Maybe if they had resorted to legal means more thoroughly they could have gotten the chance. But since they messed up they are cooking up vivid stories and putting the country’s reputation at risk! But if there is such local problem of harassment it must be duly investigated by local authorities.”

I hesitated to write this article in case it might put de Hoedt’s sister in more danger. “The police warned her they would kill her the next time she did something,” said de Hoedt. However, I have done no more than repeat what de Hoedt himself has placed in the public domain through the Calgary Herald.

I searched the BCCLA web site for Ryan de Hoedt but got this response: “Apologies, but no results were found for the requested archive.”

The full article can be read here:

http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/calgary/Calgary+runs+afoul+trying+rescue+sister+Lanka/10145368/story.html

I wrote to Manisha Krishnan giving her an opportunity to comment on what I have written here. At the time of submitting my copy, she had not replied. I will take up this issue again next week and will report her response if she has made one. I would also be interested to see comments from the Sri Lanka police.

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