Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Tamil Tigers

Liberalism – Lexical Ambiguity

This article appeared in Lakbima News on December 4 2011.

Liberalism has got itself a bad name in many and different quarters. Suren Raghavan, writing in the Colombo Telegraph, was one of the many criticising NORAD’s analysis of Norway’s contribution to Sri Lanka’s “peace process”. “The Peace Process was hegemonised by a naive liberal peace discourse. It gravitated around the liberalism II model of minority rights, right to self-determination and ethnic federalism etc. By which it pre constructed solutions at the cost of analysing the depth of the actual problem.”

So then, it was “liberalism” as much as the LTTE terror or Sinhalese or Norwegian politicians to blame.

Recently Rajpal Abeynayake had a look at liberal democracy as it is preached by  the West and practised by the West – not always the same thing. : “Look at how the man who was touted as one of the most liberal and left wing members of the US senate turned out to be! Once he became president, he turned out to be a fine old Republican, in an articulate liberal’s clothing. Liberal democratic values never had so much premium however, because they are supposed to be what the Arab Spring and all that is all about. But then they go and kill Gaddafi, and people are wondering what the hell that was all about — that baying democratic pack of people ushering this new brand of tolerance?”

So here liberal and left-wing are conflated.

In North Carolina, a rich man called Art Hope, CEO and owner of Variety Wholesalers, a discount store conglomerate – that means he makes his fortune by selling to the very poor in North Carolina, products made by the very poor in China and elsewhere – has worked very hard to make sure the governance of the state suits his own extreme right-wing agenda. John Snow, (not the Channel 4 chappie with the silly socks, or the cricketer, or the man who discovered how cholera spread) a retired judge who had represented the Democrats in the state senate for three terms, found himself under vicious attack from the right. Snow’s deep-seated conservatism suited his constituents. He often voted with the Republicans – hardly a dangerous radical. ”My opponents used fear tactics. I’m a moderate, but they tried to make me look liberal”.

In the USA, it seems, liberal means radical, immoderate.

According to the right-wing think tank Freedom Center: “Liberalism just isn’t very popular in America”. The semi-annual Gallup political identification poll found a declining percentage of Americans, just 21%, adopting the ‘liberal’ label in 2020. By way of comparison, 42% of respondents called themselves ‘conservative’. Gallup noted in June that if the trend continued for the remainder of 2010, conservatives would boast their largest annual share of the American public since the survey started in 1992.

The word “liberal” has become a code word in certain circles in the USA for all the kind of things that right-wing conservatives detest. Right-wing Americans see ‘liberalism” as an obscenity and basically alien to the American Way. Left-wing Americans are afraid of “the L-Word”.

What we have here is a good example of “Humpty-Dumptyism”.”When I use a word, it means just what I want it to mean- neither more nor less”, said Humpty Dumpty. The posh term for this ploy is “stipulative definition”. Some philosophers call it lexical ambiguity.

Some definitions would be helpful.

According to Raymond Williams in Keywords: “Liberal has, at first sight, so clear a political meaning that some of its further associations are puzzling. Yet the political meaning is comparatively modern, and much of the interesting history of the word is earlier”. Williams was writing in 1976 and the situation has become more confused since.

One standard dictionary definition is “generous, noble-minded” which is clearly not apt for any context involving politicians. “Liberal democracy” is defined as “a state or system which combines the right to individual freedom with the right to representative government”. Surely, not even the Tea Partiers and Christian fundamentalists could object to that!

According to Professor Will Kimlicka in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “A liberal state does not seek to resolve these conflicts (different beliefs about the meaning of life), but rather provides a ‘neutral’ framework within which citizens can pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life. Liberalism, on this view, is the only human response to the inevitable pluralism and diversity of modern societies”.

Who could possibly object to this benign philosophy?

Raymond Williams notes that there is a long history of ‘liberal’ being used as a pejorative from all sides. Marxists in particular have used liberal as a bad word with connotations of weakness and sentimentality and lack of intellectual rigour. Because liberalism is based on individualist theories of man and society, it is in fundamental conflict with strictly social theories. Liberalism is anathema to strict socialists because it is the highest form of thought within bourgeois society and is the philosophy of capitalism.

Yes, that’s right capitalism.

Douglas Massey argues in Return of the “L” Word that sometime in the 1970s, liberals in the United States lost their way. After successes like the New Deal, they became arrogant. Faced with the difficult politics of race and class, liberals used the heavy hand of government to impose policies on a resentful public. Conservatives capitalized on this with a staunch ideology of free markets, limited government, and conservative social values.

In an interview with Mother Jones magazine, Massey argued that markets are essentially human constructions, and liberals should not seek to oppose markets with big government, but rather, ensure that these markets are working in the public interest. “The time has come,” he writes, “for liberals to tell the public that markets are not ‘free,’ but human-created institutions that citizens have a right to supervise and manage for their own benefit. Liberals need to abandon their lingering hostility toward market mechanisms, embrace them, and substitute a new rhetoric of ‘democratic markets’ for the false metaphor of the ‘free market’.”

Hang on! Didn’t ”liberal” used to mean laissez faire? Today, the dominant religion is liberal economics, which the Financial Times defines as “Another term for the classical theories of economics emphasising the concept of the free market and laissez-faire policies, with the government’s role limited to providing support services.” Neoliberalism, John Williamson’s Washington Consensus, which seeks to transfer control of the economy from public to the private sector and deregulate markets, has been the dominant religion of globalisation.

What Massey seems to be talking about is Keynesianism rather than liberalism as it is generally understood. Keynesianism is defined by the FT as: “optimum economic performance could be achieved by influencing aggregate demand through government fiscal (public spending and taxation) policy, not through the free market philosophy characterised by the classical and neo-classical schools.” FDR’s New Deal was Keynesianism in practice.

What the American right wing, as typified by such great intellects as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, mean by “liberal”, does not have to mean anyone as dangerous as a real communist or socialist of any kind. Let the unfortunate John Kerry stand as an emblem of liberalism. The right hated him because he spoke French, liked fine wines and had an extremely rich wife. He represented the hated élite, unlike GW Bush, who was also rich and privileged but affected folksy ways and was of limited accomplishment or intellect. Perhaps more important for these rightniks is cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Conclusion

Let Professor Kimlicka have the last word:

“Dire warnings about liberalism’s inability to contain the centrifugal tendencies of individual freedom can be found in every generation for the last three centuries, yet it appears that liberal societies have managed to endure while various forms of monarchy, theocracy, authoritarianism, and communism have come and gone… the basic language of liberalism – individual rights, liberty, equality of opportunity – has become the dominant language of public discourse in most modern democracies.”

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.

THE SILENCE WITHIN

 

 

 

Written after a ten-day retreat at Dhamma Kuta meditation centre in Sri Lanka.

 

Bhikkhu – a Buddhist monk

Anicca (pronounced anitcha) – Pali word meaning impermanence, all things must pass.

 

 

A bhikkhu sneezes. Anicca. Bless you.

Inside the meditation hall, buttocks squirm,

Noses sniffle, throats tickle and phlegm.

Geckos squeak. Outside, temples and mosques

Decibel their faithful to prayer. Sirens police the roads.

Helicopters take the air highway to the war.

Semtex gouges rock from the earth. Rifles shoot wild boar.

A demon hectors on my left shoulder, mocking

My ambition of equanimity.

 

Dawn finds the valley obscured by clouds.

By noon mountains have materialised. Anicca.

Dusk reveals human dwellings climbing the valley,

Lights on top of mountains, the lit pathway to the top

Of Adam’s Peak. Sleep douses the lights. Anicca.

 

The angel on my right shoulder tells me

I cannot silence a sneeze, tame a gecko,

Much less stop the war. Phenomena beyond control.

Anicca. Observe the turmoil without, the flux within.

Search for the jewel of silence at the heart.

Bless us all. May all beings be happy.

 

 

Disturbing Images, Disturbing Views

This article was published in the Nation on Sunday, 18 March 2012

 

On March 9, 2012, the Colombo Telegraph published ten photographs of three young women who appeared to have died violently. Their clothing was in disarray, indicating brutal sexual assault.

 

http://colombotelegraph.com/2012/03/09/disturbing-images-of-war-crimes-rape-and-killings/?replytocom=10679#respond
There was no text accompanying the photographs but context was provided by the title of the post: Disturbing Images of War Crimes: Rape And Killings and the tags: “Photographic evidence of sexual abuse – SL army, Rape and Killings By Sri Lankan army, War Crimes Sri Lanka”.
The pictures have been in circulation for some time. Some bear the imprint TTNnews.com and can be found on their website and Facebook page. All have a May 2009 date.

 

More Heat than Light in the Blogosphere

 
At the time of writing the post had generated 204 comments. The comments can be categorised as follows:

 

Plain crass – Some macho males find the subject of rape a source of infantile humour.
The victims had no human rights -Some commenters seem to feel that one should not be concerned about what happened to the women because they were terrorists. Chaminda Tilakumara (of Human Rights for Victims of Terrorism) writes: “To have human rights, first you have to be HUMAN. Therefore, LTTE Terrorists do not have human rights.”
The deniers – Enid Wirekoon argued that the pictures were faked because Wanni girls would not be wearing such underwear and their skin would have been darker and the blood does not look real. One of the men in the pictures is wearing a Hindu wristband rather than a pirith nool that a Sinhalese soldier would be wearing. David Blacker argues that pictures do not prove rape and finds it odd that photos circulated so far do not show “a living victim or of the crime being perpetrated?”

 

 

All Sinhalese are to blame – Some commenters take the issue beyond what these particular pictures prove and condemn the entire Sinhalese Buddhist culture. “Absolutely disgusting photos. BUT It is the 2500 year accomplishment of Sinhala-Buddhism. God forbid what the next 2500 years will bring.” First to comment was Donald Gnanakone, supporting the LTTE from California as President of Tamils for Justice (there are some choice abusive comments from Sinhalese on his Facebook posts): “Taste of Paradise by the paradisians and what the British and Russian tourist experienced in Hambantota recently by the Sinhala civilians….”

 

 

The world is watching – Clearly the timing of this publication and further Channel 4 material is related to the UNHCR in Geneva. As well as the usual suspects from the diaspora some foreign nationals have been weighing in. Cynthia Wise scolded: “It disturbs me that so many of you seem to be missing the point. No wonder the world is in the shape it is. May God rest their souls and may we all pray for peace. Please see the underlying issue here; so the next pictures are not your mothers, sisters, girlfriends and wives, etc. If not please at least find something better to do with your time.”
Journalistic ethics – A commenter called Sach asks, ”Isn’t posting photos of raped women naked against the standards of journalism? This looks like journalists rape her again.” Another wrote: “Colombo Telegraph , I’m shocked and ashamed of your decision to publish these pictures and I find it disturbing. Please do not stoop too low in your journalism. I thought you are one of the modern civilised websites not like gutter journalism like certain other websites who only lives in the world of threats and threats and threats but nothing else. Very empty I would say.”

 

 

Ethics

 

The Murdoch empire often used the ‘public interest’ as a defence for their prurient invasions of privacy. What they really meant was the public was interested in the salacious stuff the Sun and the News of the Screws printed. Many well-intentioned people are resisting any press censorship that might come out of the Leveson Inquiry into News International’s misdeeds. Therefore, some would justify publication of these distasteful pictures by Colombo Telegraph as being in the public interest.

 

Susan Sontag wrote, in Regarding the Pain of Others, about the representation of atrocity. Are viewers inured – or incited – to violence by the depiction of cruelty? Is the viewer’s perception of reality eroded by familiarity? Sontag writes we should ask why have we been presented with this picture, who allowed it to be published? What am I expected to feel? “There is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it … or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”

 

The evidence from the Colombo Telegraph comments is that incitement rather than sympathy is the predominant result of the publication of these photographs.

 

 

Some Hope of Sanity?

 

Not all of the comments on the Colombo Telegraph were depressing. A Rivendra commented: “No point in arguing who landed first in the Island or the mistakes of the past. There were discrimination from both sides, Tamils and Singhalese alike. For the sake of our future generations, let us learn from our mistakes and not repeat them…As we all know, humans when they are faced with danger/death, will react differently.” He added: “We should not try to absolve those personnel who would have conducted executions and rape….”

 

 

“Mango” commented: “That GoSL have still not managed to prosecute a few low-ranking soldiers for crimes committed during Eelam War 4 or even say ‘sorry’ is indicative of their head-in-the-sand attitude. It allows Sri Lanka’s detractors to paint its entire armed forces as criminals.”

 

Although I am described in the thread as “GOSL apologist Padraig Colman”, I will repeat what I have said elsewhere: “Rape is a terrible crime. Rape as a systematic policy and weapon of war is even more appalling. Tho

Curse of the conflict junkies

This article was published in The Nation on February 19 2012

 

marriage_2

 

 

Throughout Sri Lanka, many heart-strings will have been tugged; many a tear will have welled in many an eye, at the pictures of the wedding of EMD Sandaruwan and Chandrasekaran Sharmila at Kilinochchi on January 27, 2012. For my foreign readers, I should explain, that this particular wedding attracted attention because the groom was a former member of the Gajaba Regiment of the Sri Lankan Army. He had participated in the defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) which, in May 2009, ended a brutal 30-year war.

 

 
The bride was an ex-LTTE child soldier, who had since been a participant in a government rehabilitation programme. There are many such stories to tell. It is not easy to get the western media to listen to them. It has long been a cliché that bad news sells more papers than good news. My own experience has been that such positive stories are just too boring for western editors. They associate Sri Lanka with blood and guts and oppression of minorities. I have managed to get some positive stories under the net but at the cost of the editor inserting, to reflect the ‘editorial line’, ‘balancing’ material about Sri Lanka’s shortcomings.

 

 
Racist comments

 

 
The reluctance of western editors to deviate from the usual line on Sri Lanka is depressing enough. While not wishing to hide the difficulties still facing the country, it would be good to build on positive steps towards reconciliation. It is even more depressing to read through the comments from Sri Lankans on blogsites. Even on the newspaper report of that fairy-tale wedding, it was possible to encounter some curmudgeons. Some of the comments had a racist tinge.

 

 
I blogged for three years on a US-based site called Open Salon (OS). There was a good deal of civilised and erudite discussion, but there were also crazy trolls who grew courage behind a keyboard, probably fuelled by alcohol. One troll will stand as a specimen for the rest. When one woman disagreed with him, he said she had venereal disease. When the troll got into a dispute with a black, shaven-headed ex-marine, he accused his interlocutor of raping his own mother and said his head would make a good bowling ball.

 

 
The poor level of comments on Sri Lankan sites such as the Daily Mirror has drawn comparisons from one Sri Lankan journalist with the quality of comments on foreign websites. The Daily Beast can get infantile. Even the Internet Movie Database gets blood on its walls when a couple of nerds disagree about some obscure horror movie. One generally gets a decent level of debate on the Independent, the Guardian, the New Statesman in the UK and Slate, Salon, Huffington Post from the US. There is also much silly invective, but the sites do have a comments policy and are moderated. In Sri Lanka, the exchanges on Groundviews and the Colombo Telegraph can be lengthy, thoughtful and helpful. They can also be crass, in spite of the good intentions expressed in the comments policies of the two websites.

 

 
Infantile humour

 

 
Crassness tends to be carried over into foreign websites when the subject of Sri Lanka comes up. On one hand, one might get Sinhalese triumphalism, on the other, threats of Tamil revenge. Too often commenters employ the scourge of anonymity to indulge in personal abuse and infantile ‘humour’.
Emanuel Croake wrote an article in the New Statesman titled Why Has the Left Neglected the Tamils of Sri Lanka?

 

 

 

(http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/12/sri-lanka-war-rights-during)

 

 
This brought out the Sri Lanka diaspora in full force. Out of 79 comments we have, on one side Tamil commenters dredging up spurious history from many centuries ago. On the other side, Sinhalese commenters write about the horrors inflicted by the Tigers and dismiss Tamil grievances. I have long been an avid reader of the writings of DBS Jeyaraj. I was shocked to see the tone of the comments on a series of articles he wrote to counter the accusations of Michael Roberts  that the book purporting to be a memoir of ‘Niromi de Soyza’s time as a Tiger was a hoax. While it is interesting to read different views on such a topic, it is depressing in the extreme to read so much sentimentality about the Tigers and so much nostalgic reminiscing about the ‘good old days of the armed struggle’.

 

 
I am not advocating censorship. Another, more civilised, OS blogger tried to tease out some ideas about blogging etiquette. “One way to think of etiquette is that it’s not a set of arbitrary rules about which fork to use and about who gets introduced to whom in which order; rather, the rules of etiquette are intended to facilitate social interaction, to reduce our uncertainty about inadvertently giving offense. (Or, alternatively, to know how to give offense if you want to.)” This drew a response from another blogger: “this is the wild west and each blogger sets the rules on their own page”.

 

 
Here, I am merely pointing out the ugliness of exchanges which seem to revel in the fostering of hatred. While genuine efforts at reconciliation are being made and being welcomed in Sri Lanka itself, conflict junkies living abroad wish to continue the battle from the safety of their keyboard barricades. What hope of reconciliation with such entrenched attitudes?

Deadly accountancy – Accountability for death

This article was published in The Nation on February12 2012

Timothy J. McVeigh, a decorated US army veteran, was executed on June 11, 2001. Although ‘only’ 168 were killed, the Oklahoma bombing was a great shock to the American people because terrorism on American soil was unusual. Although the perpetrator was not a foreigner, the reaction set in train a series of encroachments of freedom which led to the Bush regime’s use of torture.

Provisional IRA

One might say that ‘only’ 3,000 people were killed during 33 years of the Provisional IRA’s campaign. Each of those deaths was a matter of pain, of grief, loss and bereavement.
Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles is a 1,696 page volume in which three Northern Irish journalists and an academic list 3,638 deaths, directly attributable to ‘The Troubles’, from 1966 to 2000. It depicts the dead as individual human beings, blood and bone and nerve ends, with families and emotions.
League table of death

Neil Tweedie in the Daily Telegraph: “In proportional terms Norway has lost more people than America did on 9/11, and most of them are young, between 13 and 19”. In 2006, Slate contributor Jordan Ellenberg questioned the logic of such comparisons.

“It’s hard for Americans to comprehend what’s happening in the Middle East…What crime in America is morally equal to the killing of eight Israelis?…What event would have the impact on America that the killing of eight Israelis does on Israel? …Unless you truly think Israeli lives are worth more or less than our own, the crime that’s equivalent to the murder of eight Israelis is the murder of eight Americans.”
WTC attack

The fact that 3,000 died at once on 9/11 will always be shocking. The reaction caused more deaths in Iraq (1,033,000 according to Opinion Research Business survey, 601,027 according to The Lancet, 114,731 according to Iraq Body Count Project) and Afghanistan (the US does not release figures; a Brown University study says 14,000 but admits this is a conservative estimate). One of my editors, Nikki Stern, lost her husband on 9/11.

Nikki believes that the US response was disproportionate and says the overriding legacy for most Americans is either anger or apathy. She contends that this is a poor tribute to those killed in the attacks and prefers to remember the days of late 2001, when she observed people reaching out to support one another, despite political and religious differences.
How many dead Sri Lankans?

In Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, Jon Snow doomily intoned that ”As many as 40,000, probably more” civilians had died. Rohan Gunaratna contends that ‘only’ 1,400 civilians were killed in the north east Vanni pocket in the first five months of 2009. He said that this estimate was based on interviews with Tamil coroners.

Professor Michael Roberts considers this ‘astounding and misleading’. Rajasingham Narendran asked: “How many coroners were available during the war in the area for recording deaths? “ Narendran talked to IDPs and estimates deaths “were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”.

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute told Roberts “(approximately) 12,000 (without counting armed Tiger personnel)”.

Dr. Noel Nadesan estimated around 16,000, including fighters and natural deaths.
In the documentary Lies Agreed Upon, it is argued that 40,000 deaths would be physically impossible. The population of the Wanni is estimated at 300,000. 293,800 people were registered at the receiving centres. That leaves a maximum of 6,200 to be accounted for. Around 5,000 SLA soldiers were killed.
No civilian casualties

The Banyan column in the Economist: “It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.”

The government’s position on ‘zero civilian casualties’ has modified over time to a claim that everything possible was done to avoid civilian casualties. However, by failing to come up with its own numbers the government has allowed western critics to take sole possession of the numbers game.

The Cage by Gordon Weiss

This article was published in the Sunday Island on May 11, 2013
It may seem to be a little late to be reviewing Gordon Weiss’s book. It was published a while ago but is still relevant and still misleading people. While I was reading the new publication from the International Diaspora Group (IDAG-S) on counting the dead in Sri Lanka, I thought I would revisit what Weiss had to say on the subject.

 

Numbers Game

 

In this book, Weiss begins with a caveat: “I have not dealt in close detail with the matter of figures of dead and wounded, how they are calculated and how reliable those sources might be. I make the point in the text that it is for others to get closer to that particular particle of truth”.

 

Despite this disclaimer, throughout the book, Weiss repeats the mantra that 10,000 to 40,000 civilians were killed.

 

Weiss was, and is, a major player in the numbers game. When he was working for the UN in Colombo, 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 and began writing this book he increased the figure to 15,000, which he then upped to 40,000, a figure that a whole range of media outlets, including BBC and NDTV, ran with. Journalists confused the issue by failing to make clear whether information came from “an employee of the UN” or “a former employee of the UN”, rather than “the UN”.

 

In The Cage, Weiss writes: “Despite the prospect that the Tamil Tigers might be forcing the Tamil doctors or the UN staff, to give inflated figures of the dead and wounded, the accumulation of events and casualties seemed consistent”. Having raised the possibility that figures were inflated, he gives himself licence to inflate further.

 

Earlier on the same page, a press release by Navi Pillay is quoted saying that 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 4,000 and Frances Harrison to say 147,000?

 
Gordon Weiss’s lower estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, was challenged by Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, who 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.

 

Lack of Expertise

 

“In Sri Lanka, even though I could not bear witness, I was close enough to the levers of action to believe that they [children] were being wounded and killed in large numbers each day”.

 
That’s not what it says on the tin. The cover blurb says: “Gordon Weiss witnessed the conflict at first hand as a UN spokesman in Colombo”.

 

The bibliography is both long and deep. If he has actually read all those publications he is a better man than I am. I wonder how he found the time. The notes are also extensive and informative although open to debate in some instances.

 

Weiss was not a witness. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.

 

Praise for Sri Lankan Army

 

Weiss has good things to say about the Sri Lankan Army. “On the whole, however, the vast majority of people who escaped seem to have been received with relative restraint and care by the front-line SLA troops who quickly passed them up the line for tea, rice and first aid. The faceless enemy, such a source of terror for the young peasant men and women of southern Sri Lanka who made up the majority of the troops, were suddenly given a human aspect, as thin, bedraggled and women clutching children to their breasts and pleading in a foreign tongue fell at their feet”.

 

Note that Weiss cannot say that those who “escaped” were treated with care. It has to have the begrudging modifier “relative”. Relative to what? Relative to the care given by the LTTE from whom they had escaped?

 

He later repeats similar sentiments but drops the begrudgery. “During the course of research for this book, dozens of Tamils described the Sinhalese as inherently kind and gentle people. The front-line soldiers who received the first civilians as they escaped to government lines, those who guarded them in the camps and the civilian and military doctors who provided vital treatment distinguished themselves most commonly through their mercy and care”.

 

“It remains a credit to many of the front-line SLA soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, so often seem to have made the effort to draw civilians out from the morass of fighting ahead of them in an attempt to save lives. Soldiers yelled out to civilians, left gaps in their lines while they waved white flags to attract people forward and bodily plucked the wounded from foxholes and bunkers. Troops bravely waded into the lagoon under fire to rescue wounded people threading their way out of the battlefield or to help parents with their children, and gave their rations to civilians as they lay in fields, exhausted in their first moments of safety after years of living under the roar and threat of gunfire”.

 

Conclusion

 

Weiss quotes Timothy Garton Ash: “Liberal internationalism… means developing norms and rules by which most states will abide, preferably made explicit in international law and sustained by international organisations. It posits some basic rights that belong to every human being on this planet…It seeks to build peace between nations on these foundations”.

 

I am a great admirer of Timothy Garton Ash. I have even set up a Google alert so that I can read all of his articles. Let us not forget, however, that Timothy Garton Ash supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the “Coalition of the Willing”. Remind me what the reason for that invasion was. First of all, Iraq was somehow behind 9/11; then Saddam had WMD; when those excuses proved spurious the invasion was retrospectively justified as being about “basic rights that belong to every human being on this planet”.

 

Weiss puts his own spin on this: “The choice between strategies when fighting an insurgency is relatively straightforward”. Weiss believes that liberal democracies choose the “hearts and minds” strategy. I am reminded of General Westmoreland’s maxim: “Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”. Ask the people of My Lai how the liberal democracy that is the USA conducted “counterinsurgency” in Vietnam. Weiss sermonises: “Counterinsurgencies are fought by liberal democracies in places like Afghanistan. Their leaders and decision makers understand that they are ultimately answerable to constituencies that might, like the French in the Algerian war of independence, withdraw support if they become too murderous”. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was hugely unpopular with British voters but they did not get a chance to vote on it. MPs like Siobhain McDonagh, who endlessly campaigns against Sri Lanka, voted in favour of the Iraq invasion and against an inquiry into it.

 

Despite praising the conduct of most SLA soldiers, Weiss in the end accuses the winning side of exceptional brutality, not fitting in with his sense of how liberal democracies would fight insurgency. As Sanjana Hattotuwa said in his Groundviews review: “Weiss offers no larger analysis of this tragic fragmentation between spontaneous compassion and calculated mass scale atrocity, and its effects on the civilians caught in direct or cross-fire.”

 

Has The Cage had an influence? It generated great interest in foreign embassies in Colombo. As Sanjana told me: “Several embassies had block booked 20 – 30 copies of the book, which resulted in higher than planned demand. This may have given rise to the perception at the time the book was hard to get, which it was, but not because of heavy handed Govt censorship.”

 

More on the subject of deadly accountancy and accountability after the launch of the IDAG-S paper.

 

The Englishwoman Who Invented Iraq

 

 

This article was published in the Sunday Island on October 1, 2011

 

bell

Last week I wrote in the Sunday Island about an Englishwoman (albeit of Irish stock – Siobhain McDonagh) who supported the LTTE’s plan to redraw Sri Lanka’s borders at the same time as supporting her master Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq. Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh wanted the boundaries of Sri Lanka altered along the spurious lines of the minute from “that madman Cleghorn” to please her Tamil constituents. She was happy for Britain to impose “democracy” on Iraq and to allow British soldiers to behave as they pleased. She voted against an investigation into the Iraq war, saying: ” we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere”.

 
Look at a map of Africa and see the unnaturally straight lines that demarcate different nations, without regard to natural features or the ethnic origins of the population. Look at a map of Ireland and note how the northernmost county of the island of Ireland is not located in the artificial statelet of “Northern Ireland” but in the Republic because the Catholic majority would have undermined loyalist hegemony. Map-making is an essential tool of the colonial project. Brian Friel in his brilliant play Translations showed how the army imposed Britain’s will on Ireland by redrawing the maps and translating place names from Irish.

 
Another Englishwoman who had a malign influence on Iraq was Gertrude Bell. Many of the problems of the Middle East today can be blamed on that one woman.

 
She was commissioned in 1919 to analyse the situation in Mesopotamia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. On the basis of her analysis, the nation of Iraq was born, created in 1920 from the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, which were conquered and occupied by the British during World War I.

 
The map was drawn in such a way because it was feared that the Shi’ite majority, with its nomadic, tribal base, was too volatile. Bell had no doubt that the final authority should rest with the Sunni minority, “otherwise you would have a theocratic state, which would be the very devil.” The British thought that by denying the Kurds an autonomous state they would be protecting their oil interests in the Kurdish homeland around Mosul.
The tensions created by these map-drawing decisions still exist today causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.

 
Bell became known to the Arabs as Al Khatun, “The Lady”, from her pre-war travels in the desert lands. Who was this woman who said of her relationship with Faisal, the king of the new nation of Iraq:  “You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain”?

 
Mark Sykes, the MP who negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement with France to determine control of former Ottoman territory in the Middle East, described Bell as a “silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass.”

 
While one could not condone such misogyny and while one might marvel at Bell’s achievements in such a male-chauvinist milieu, it would be a mistake to see her as a proto-feminist. She was honorary secretary of the Anti-suffrage League, firmly believing that women were not ready to be entrusted with the vote.

 
Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 in Washington, County Durham, and raised in Yorkshire. Her father was one of the richest men in Britain. Her grandfather was a friend of Darwin and her stepmother wrote plays about working-class suffering. Bell herself was a devout atheist steeped in radical thought.

 
In 1899 she began serious alpine climbing in Switzerland, conquering seven summits in the Englehorner range, one of which is still named after her. She once clung to a rope in a blizzard for fifty-three hours and contracted severe   frostbite in her unsuccessful ascent of the northeast face of the Finsteraarhorn. She produced a detailed survey of the Abbasid castle of Ukhadair, in Iraq, and wrote a popular travel book.

 
She fell in love, when a virgin of 42, with a married military hero, Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie. In 1913, she toured the Arabian Peninsula, becoming one of few foreigners to survive the Nejd desert and the hostile Arabian tribes, and to enter the remote city of Hail, in north-central Saudi Arabia.

 
The British appointed her as their senior political officer in Basra during the First World War when she was 46. Apart from a few months as a Red Cross volunteer in France, she had never previously had a job. She had an impressive academic record but none of her training was in international affairs, government or management. Yet from 1916 to 1926, Gertrude Bell won the affection of Arab statesmen and the admiration of her superiors, founded a national museum, selected the leadership, and drew the borders of a new state. In her letters, she was remarkably prescient about the difficulties faced in 2003 by the Coalition of the Willing.

 
Unlike the occupying forces of 2003 she was knowledgeable about the area. She was a fluent Arabic speaker and had the experience of a decade of travels in the Middle East and four years in the British mandate administration in Iraq. Yet she never pretended in her letters to be in a position to understand or control events. She emphasised the weaknesses of the previous Ottoman administration; the persistence of the tribal system; the divisions between urban and rural areas. Bell showed how the cultural insensitivity of British soldiers exacerbated hatred.

 
She knew that the occupation could not be sustained but she could not contemplate total withdrawal. She recognised that British colonial control was unworkable and that there must somehow be an Arab government. These themes are strangely familiar in Iraq today.

 
The British did a lot of damage in the Middle East even in the 1920s and 1930s. They sowed the seeds of conflict in Sri Lanka by their divide and rule tactics. They favoured educated Tamils and gave the majority Sinhalese a minority complex for which they later over-compensated. In Iraq the British encouraged urbane, Western-educated, Jews who staffed the civil service, ran the economy and helped lay the foundations of the modern Iraqi state.

 
Iraq’s first minister of finance was a Jew. Sir Sassoon Eskell, KBE, along with Bell and TE Lawrence, was instrumental in the creation and the establishment of the state of Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He himself, founded the nascent Iraqi government’s legal and financial structure. Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems. Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews and the first musical band formed for Baghdad’s nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews.Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy which in many cases led to resentment by the Iraqi population.

 
As friends of the British, Iraq’s Jews, like Sri Lankan Tamils, were an easy scapegoat for anti-colonial fury. This was exploited by Nazi Germany which craved Iraqi oil. Iraqi Jews were portrayed in the Iraqi press and radio as a fifth column, especially after the death of King Faisal in 1933. Faisal’s son and successor, King Ghazi, who styled himself a Pan-Arabist and dabbled in Nazi doctrine, imposed a tax on Jews whenever they left the country. Ghazi befriended Hitler’s ambassador to Baghdad, Fritz Grobba.

 
The British used the ersatz Iraqi monarchy for their own purposes and forced upon it a series of humiliating ‘agreements’ in which the country’s sovereignty was signed away, and British dominance guaranteed. The British tried to keep control of the oil discovered in Kirkuk by forcing the Anglo-Iraq Treaty of 1930 on the King and ensured that foreign policy was directed by British advisers, mainly, notably Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, for whom Bell had an unrequited passion.

 
It seems that Britain does not learn lessons from its long history. By removing the tyrant who was holding the whole shaky enterprise together, they caused the disintegration of the artificial nation, Iraq, they had forged for their own purposes. Italy forged a fragile colonial nation out of fractious tribal territories in Libya. Britain contributed to future problems by removing the tyrant who was holding it together.

 
When Bell returned to Britain in 1925 she suffered from poor health and the economic depression had undermined the family wealth. She returned to Iraq and suffered from pleurisy. It is surmised that while she was in England she was diagnosed with lung cancer (she was a heavy smoker).

 
On July 12, 1926, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
She was buried in the British cemetery at Bab al-Sharji.

 
In February 2011, eccentric German film director Werner Herzog was said to be in “serious discussions” with Australian actress Naomi Watts for his upcoming project about Bell titled Queen of the Desert. At the end of March, it was reported that Ridley Scott was planning a film about Bell and had hired screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, the man responsible for The Constant Gardener, to write the script.

 
Perhaps one day there will be a movie about Siobhain McDonagh.

 

Dayan Jayatilleka’s Long War: The Irish Dimension

This article was published in Ceylon Today on 24 December 2013.

 

Introduction

The road to hell is paved with false analogies.

Dr Jayatilleka’s book has had good coverage in many places, including this paper. I have been thinking about it again after some dialogue with people in Northern Ireland and in Sri Lanka about the question of justifiable violence.

At one point in the book, Dr Jayatilleka remarked about Prabakharan: “He burnt his boats as well as his bridges”.

This reminded me of Deaglán de Bréadún, of the Irish Times, who on a daily basis followed the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement. He wrote about the Northern Ireland peace process in his book The Far Side of Revenge. My favourite quotation in the book is from a Sinn Fein spokesman, asked about the decommissioning of IRA arms. “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it”.

Beware of Irishmen Bearing Advice

Dr Jayatilleka discusses the visit of John Hume to Sri Lanka. By the time Hume received his Nobel Peace Prize (shared with David Trimble) his health had been broken by his long fight for peace, a fight that entailed, in his words “spilling sweat instead of blood”. Hume was horribly wrong about Sri Lanka. I am proud to have coined the phrase: “The road to hell is paved with false analogies”.

Hume’s greatness lay in the fact that stubbornly, over many years, he was prepared to be ostracised for talking to the men of violence. One of those men of violence, Martin McGuinness, also became a man of peace. McGuinness was in the right place at the right time and had the “freedom fighting” credentials to persuade the Provisional IRA to persevere with talks that were frustrating for all concerned and eventually got them to lay down their arms.

Mc Guinness came to Sri Lanka to advise us. My friend, the Reverend Harold Good is not naive about the horrors of terrorism. It was Harold, winner of the Gandhi Peace Award, who announced to the world that the IRA had surrendered their arms to General de Chastelaine. Harold counts McGuinness as his friend, following their partnership in the Northern Ireland peace process. When McGuinness ran for the presidency of the Republic of Ireland, Harold told me: “If elected he would be a circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike president.”

How unlike the LTTE

Can one imagine Prabakharan doing good job as a minister in the Northern province or being a “circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike President” of a united Sri Lanka (or, indeed, chief minister of Tamil Nadu)?

McGuinness made a less than helpful intervention in Sri Lankan affairs when he came here in 2006 and talked with LTTE leaders. McGuinness criticized the EU for banning the Tamil Tigers as a Terrorist Organization. He said, “it was a huge mistake for EU leaders to demonize the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.” He may have meant well, but he was over-optimistic in seeing parallels with the Irish situation. McGuinness told Sri Lanka: “The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation”.

Dr Jayatilleka Explains Why McGuinness Was Wrong.

Dr Jayatilleka is correct in saying: “John Hume’s experience and message had absolutely nothing to offer Sri Lanka as concerns the main aspects of its own conflict in 2002: the war, the LTTE and Mr Prabakharan”. He asks, “In Northern Ireland, who played Prabakharan?”  Provisional IRA leaders tended to be shadowy figures, not cult leaders like Prabakharan. In Sri Lanka, it would have been unlikely that Hume, McGuinness or  the good Reverend Good, would have survived. “Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran were in fact talking to the ‘men of violence’ over a nice cuppa when these men of violence turned rather more violent, pulled out their automatics and blew their hosts away”. “Neelan Tiruchelvam was doing a John Hume and would have picked up a Peace Prize of two but he was blasted yards away from his law offices”. “Many Tamil leaders had been murdered, and not a single one of them (arguably except for Kumar Ponnambalam) by a Sinhalese”.

“Mr Hume finally had US Senator George Mitchell. Our equivalent of a big power foreign mediator was Rajiv Gandhi, pulverised to a pulp in Tamil Nadu by a Tiger suicide killer. Sri Lanka’s Tony Blairs, David Trimbles and Bertie Aherns were all dead or half-blind”.

Why Did the Irish Troubles End?

Peter Taylor, in his book Brits,  provides convincing evidence  to show that  British intelligence had improved to such an extent that the IRA were well aware that they could not possibly win. On their side, the British were sensible enough to know that they could not achieve a definitive military defeat of the IRA. Both sides, (even under Thatcher) were for a long time edging towards compromise.

The Actors

De Bréadún provides pithy pen portraits of key participants. Of Bill Clinton, he says: “A needy man met a needy people”. He quotes George Mitchell: “No-one can really have a chance in a society dominated by fear, hatred and violence…a deadly ritual in which most of the victims are innocent”.

Three Catholic Northern Ireland citizens were essential to the peace process. John Hume, of the Social Democratic Liberal Party, sacrificed his health representing the nationalist community’s aspirations for an end to discrimination. Although Hume was a fervent upholder of non-violence, he was courageous enough to maintain dialogue with the men of violence, chiefly through Gerry Adams.

De Bréadún writes of Gerry Adams, “He failed to match the stereotype of the firebreathing subversive, choosing instead to act as a conduit for the grievances of the grass roots”.

While Adams dealt with the broad strategic sweep, Martin McGuinness proved to be a canny negotiator. According to a senior Dublin civil servant: “The boy revolutionary developed into a mature and skilful politician”. De Bréadún writes: “Mc Guinness got respect in his own right, thanks to his formidable history as an activist and his direct and commanding personality. If Adams was the architect of the republican project, McGuinness was the engineer”.

On the Unionist side, David Trimble had been involved with the right-wing, paramilitary-linked Vanguard in the early 1970s before he joined the mainstream Ulster Unionist Party. As leader of the UUP he could not afford to be too “moderate”. The Reverend Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist party was constantly raising the “No surrender. No popery” ante and Trimble had to be seen to support triumphalist loyalist marches through Catholic areas.

Constructive ambiguity

Many in Ireland regarded the peace process with scepticism, concerned that it would bring men of violence into the heart of democracy. Symbolic issues like policing and decommissioning provided obstacles. In order to carry his party with him, Trimble had to insist that the IRA decommission its arms, even though that insistence was an irrelevant and a frustrating hindrance to negotiation. McGuinness and Adams had great authority with the rank and file of the IRA but could not sell decommissioning, as it would be seen as surrender without achieving the aim of a united Ireland.

To cut a convoluted story short, peace was achieved through a process of constructive ambiguity, which allowed all actors to say they had not surrendered. Talks resumed in 1993, after Clinton listened to Sinn Féin. On April 10, 1998, the British and Irish governments formulated the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. After the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, and 2007 elections, the DUP and Sinn Féin formed a government in May 2007. Paisley became First Minister and McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister,

The nationalists could say that their struggle had entered a new non-violent phase in which progress would be made towards a united Ireland by developing cross-border All-Ireland institutions and co-operating within the EU. Loyalists could claim that they had preserved their membership of the UK. The constitution of the Irish Republic was amended to give up its territorial claim to Northern Ireland. Trimble lost the leadership of the UUP and mainstream parties like the UUP and Hume’s SDLP lost influence to Paisley’s DUP and Adams’s Sinn Fein. A bizarre aspect was that the indefatigable naysayer Paisley became a jovial buddy of McGuinness, who also learnt to smile a lot. They became known as the Chuckle Brothers.

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