Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Tamils

Thinking about the “G”-word

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 16 2015

Colman's Column3

“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’”

The purpose of language is to convey ideas as succinctly and accurately as possible under the aegis of a common understanding. Definition is crucial. We must define our terms logically, sensibly and consistently if we are to have a productive dialogue – otherwise we are talking at cross-purposes.

Way back in the mists of last century, I worked in the child protection field. The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) sent me a report alleging that 50% of girls and 25% of boys under the age of 16 in the UK had been victims of child sexual abuse. This was shocking news. When I analysed the raw data of the NSPCC survey, a different picture emerged. One is horrified at the idea of innocent children being raped. However, one might be less upset at girls encountering a flasher or hormonal boys seeking out pornography. The NSPCC’s definition of sexual abuse of children encompassed consensual sexual relations between teenagers below the legal age of consent and took in the use of obscene language. The NGO was pursuing its fund-raising agenda by propagating sensational statistics, which covered a wide continuum of behaviour. Reading the small print one could see that: “Sexual abuse takes many forms: explicit sexual talk; showing pornography; sexual touching; lack of privacy to bath or undress; masturbation; and sexual intercourse.”

The Northern Provincial Council of Sri Lanka passed a resolution alleging that successive national governments of Sri Lanka have been following a policy of genocide against Tamils in Sri Lanka.

What is genocide? The etymology is hybrid, coming from genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and -cide (Latin for killing). Has the entire race of Tamils in Sri Lanka been killed? Has there been any official plan or policy to exterminate Tamils in Sri Lanka? Is Humpty Dumpty a member of the NPC?

The word “genocide” did not exist until 1943. This does not mean that there was no genocide before that date. Many Irish people believe that Oliver Cromwell engaged in genocide. The ground for Cromwell’s actions was prepared under the Tudors in a manifesto written by the poet Edmund Spenser. In his “View of the Present State of Ireland” (1596), Spenser argued that starvation was the best way to control the fractious Irish. Spenser described how the starving Irish population would “consume themselves and devour one another”.

The Irish quite naturally resisted . Cromwell re-conquered Ireland with a death toll of possibly 40% of the entire Irish population. There was wholesale burning of crops and killing of civilians and many were sent to the West Indies as indentured labourers. A recent book, God’s Executioner by Mícheál Ó Siochrú, is a forceful restatement of the prosecution case that Cromwell’s campaign was genocidal. Cromwell’s programme achieved the almost complete dispossession of the Catholic landed elite. The native ruling classes were destroyed and replaced by the Protestant Ascendancy.

There was a plan. Hitler, Mengele and Baldur von Shirach might have learnt a thing or two from Sir William Petty (1623-87) – mathematician, mechanic, physician, cartographer and statistician – who devised a public-private partnership for “fusing science and policy”. Petty explored the idea of breeding the “meer Irish” out of existence by deporting 10,000 Irishwomen of marriageable age to England every year and replacing them with a like number of Englishwomen.”The whole Work of natural Transmutation and Union would in four or five years be accomplished.” Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal to lampoon Petty’s ideas. Swift suggests that impoverished Irish might profit by selling their surplus children as food for the rich.

Because of the famine that followed the potato blight of 1845, Ireland’s population fell by 25%.  One million people died of starvation and typhus. It may be that dead children were eaten. Millions of Irish people emigrated over the following decades. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses where more than 200,000 people died. In his book Three Famines, Thomas Keneally, the Australian novelist who wrote Schindler’s List, quotes a contemporary observer: “Insane mothers began to eat their young children who died of famine before them; and still fleets of ships were sailing with every tide, carrying Irish cattle and corn to England”. The 1911 Census showed that Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, about half of its peak population.  Broadcaster and historian Robert Kee suggested that the Irish Famine of 1845 is “comparable” in its force on popular national consciousness to that of the “final solution on the Jews,” and that it is not infrequently thought that the Famine was something very like, “a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people”.

Kee mentioned the horror that is the benchmark for genocide in the 20th Century. There is no doubt that Hitler had long had a plan to exterminate all the Jews in Europe and he succeeded in killing six million of them. It is an affront to logic to give the name of genocide both to what happened to the Jews under the Nazis and to what happened to Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Raphael Lemkin (June 24, 1900 – August 28, 1959) coined the word “genocide”. Lemkin was a Jewish Polish lawyer who immigrated to the United States in 1941. He first used the word in print in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress (1944), and defined it as “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.”

By Lemkin’s original simple definition, it would seem obvious that many Sri Lankan Tamils are using the word genocide incorrectly and mischievously. Whatever heinous crimes may have been perpetrated against Tamils in Sri Lankan the “ethnic group” has clearly not been “destroyed”. According to the 2012 census, there were 2,270,924 Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka, 11.21% of the population. Sri Lankan Tamils constitute an overwhelming majority of the population in the Northern Province and are the largest ethnic group in the Eastern Province. The current Chief Justice is Tamil and Tamils occupy many senior positions.

Lemkin took an interest in the subject of genocide while studying the killing by Turkish forces of 1.5 million Armenians. In 1913, a triumvirate of Young Turks, consisting of Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal, assumed dictatorial powers and concocted a plan to  create a new Turkish empire, a “great and eternal land” called Turan with one language and one religion. On 24 April 1915, Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople. There had been prior preparations. In fact, one argument for defining this as genocide is that it had been brewing for at least a century. In 1913, Turks disarmed the entire Armenian population. About forty thousand Armenian men served in the Turkish Army. In the autumn and winter of 1914, all their weapons were confiscated and they were employed as slave labour  to build roads or  used as pack animals. There was a very high death rate. Along the way, they were frequently set upon by Kurdish tribesmen, who had been given license to loot and rape. Kurds are seen today as victims of the Turkish state but they played a major role in the persecution of Armenians.

It is still dangerous in modern Turkey to talk about the genocide. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was accused of having violated Section 301 of the Turkish penal code, which outlaws “insulting Turkishness.” An optimistic feature in today’s Turkey is that many non-Armenians are prepared to speak out and many Kurds in particular are taking reconciliatory measures to atone for the crimes of their ancestors.

The simple definition of genocide – the attempt to exterminate an entire race-  has been expanded to cover a continuum that undermines the usefulness of genocide as a concept. Tamils who support the NPC resolution say that it fits the UN convention of 1948. According to that  genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:

  • killing members of the group;
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction;
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • forcibly transferring children of this group to another group.

To say that the whole GOSL campaign against the LTTE was a genocide against the Tamil people is just plain wrong. To say that genocide has been going on since 1948 is ludicrous. It does not help victims of real child sexual abuse to bump up the statistics by including minor offences. While dirty talk might be unseemly and inappropriate, it is not the moral equivalent of raping a baby.  Action should be taken against sexual crimes and against violations of human rights. However, racial discrimination is not on a par with the extermination of a race. It does not help victims (Sinhalese and Muslim as well as Tamil) of the GOSL to pretend that Sri Lanka has had a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao or a Pol Pot or a Cromwell or an Ahmed Djemal. (Although a successful Tamil businessman spoke to me vehemently in those terms about Dickie Jayewardene.)

Martin Shaw is a research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals and Sussex University best known for his sociological work on war, genocide and global politics. He is a frequent contributor to the website Open Democracy. I asked Professor Shaw about the question of genocide in Sri Lanka but he hedged and prevaricated. Commenters on Open Democracy have been critical of his writings on genocide. “What Shaw and his post-modernist ilk contend is that we should move in the opposite direction and expand definitions to points ad infinitum.”

Dr Rhadhika Coomaraswamy has been described as a brilliant scholar and there is no doubt that she is a doughty champion of human rights. She was the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict until 13 July 2012.  She wrote in response to the NPC resolution: “some Tamil nationalist lawyer has suddenly woken up to the fact that if we use the “G” word then there is a legal case for a separate state. This of course is a delusion of theoretical lawyers… Accountability for war crimes and human rights violations is a completely different frame of action than the claim for a separate state”. She continued: “We as a community have had enough of all this name-calling- genocide, traitor, nation- all that is just unnecessary hyperbole at this time in our history. There are so many problems that have to be solved through discussion and dialogue that affect people in their everyday life”.

Dr Coomaraswamy argues that it is time to abandon the victim mentality that lies behind the NPC resolution: “Let us regain our self -respect and our self-confidence, stand tall, look our Sinhalese and Muslim brothers and sisters in the eye, start acting as their equals and begin to build lasting partnerships.”

Crosstown Traffic

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

Vote in hope and repent at leisure

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

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

New Labour

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

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

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

The Myth of Political Parties

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

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

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

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

Sri Lankan Party Theory

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

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

Crossovers in Sri Lanka

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

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

Fissiparous Alliances

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

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

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


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

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

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

There is no forgetting in the Blogosphere

This article was published in The Nation on Sunday, 04 March 2012


Post-modernist theory suggests the past is unknowable. There is no objective fact that we can call ‘history’. There is no way of deciding whether one representation of the past or another is true. Up to a point. Much of what we know is a garbled version of what historians have written. We might make mistakes in our search for the truth about the past, and new discoveries are always being made. That does not mean that the concept of truth itself is relative.


The narrative of what ‘happened’ can attract layers of interpretation and develop into nationalist myths, which are exploited by demagogues. This happened in my own country where the true story of oppression gained accretions of myth, leading to further suffering and violence.


Fortunately, Irish historians are questioning the foundation myths of Irish nationalism. For example, Roy Foster: “The construction of ‘advanced’ Irish nationalism at home relied on buttressing from abroad, and so did the creation of Irish identity.” The Irish diaspora kept alive the fairy tales. Sinister men rattled collection boxes in north London pubs ‘for the boys’.


Nationalists in Ceylon such as AE Goonesinha were stimulated by accounts of Parnell, Davitt and the Irish freedom movement and closely followed Irish events in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sinhalese Buddhist thinkers such as Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama Thero and the Tamil disciple of William Morris, Ananda Coomaraswamy, wrote of an ancient, highly developed Lankan civilisation. Another Sinhalese, Anagarika Dharmapala, wistfully dreamed of a dazzling past: “We must wake from our slumber… We were a great people”. The Tamil political leader, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, wrote in his diary: “Thought much of the unhappy conditions of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”



When I was still living in Ireland, I was relentlessly spammed by Sihala Urumaya. Some of the terminology carried disturbing echoes of Nazi propaganda. Phrases like ‘race extinction’ ‘dark conspiracy’; words like ‘motherland’; calls for public executions.


Someone calling himself Thanga wrote this recently on the Colombo Telegraph: “The question whether Prabhakaran is alive or dead is immaterial. Prabhakaran is part of Tamil history and part of Tamil psyche. He will be remembered by generations and generations to come. And liberation movements never die with their founders… Prabhakaran was a brave, self-less and dedicated leader who lived by example. A leader who never slept on a mat or used a pillow!”


Another blogger wrote: “While you are at the praying mood also pray that the Transnational Tamils will be merciful on the Sinhalese when they are done with the ground work for a bigger and more deadlier struggle against you, your racist Sinhalese sisters and brothers led by your majesty the King Mahinda”.

From the Sinhalese side, someone made this comment about one of my articles for Le Monde diplomatique: “Tamils have not faced any ‘discrimination’ in Sri Lanka. Wanting colonial era privileges to be maintained for them, in the home of the Sinhalese into which they were brought like slaves, which they achieved through unwavering servitude and sucking up to their colonial white masters, is UNACCEPTABLE! Do some research before regurgitating terrorist propaganda.”


Is the politics of memory a good thing? We are warned that we will repeat past mistakes if we ignore history. Forgetfulness brings impunity, which is both morally outrageous and politically dangerous. Recollections that are shaped from the trauma of war and suffering, may be remembered in radically different ways by people who experienced similar events. The selectivity may also serve a political purpose, for example to justify the claims of one group over a competing group.



“Revenge doesn’t know how to choose between the guilty and the innocent”. Slavko Goldstein wrote that in his book, 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning. Goldstein is a Croatian Jew and describes the ethnic tensions during the Second World War in former Yugoslavia. Reviewing the book, the Serbo-American poet, Charles Simic relates it to the insane fight for a Greater Serbia in the 1990s: “Once more, the culprit was nationalism, that madness of identifying with a single ethnic group to a point where one recognises no other duty other than furthering its interests even if it means placing its actions beyond good and evil.”.


There comes a time when reconciliation has to take the place of endlessly rehearsing grievances from centuries back, as the Irish were prone to do. In Sri Lanka, the grievances are still present and sharp and will take skilful and sensitive action to manage.


Kamaya Jayatissa wrote recently in The Island about the need to: “define a common identity, one that will incorporate our socio-economic differences but also our religious, political, cultural and geographical similarities and differences, one that will ultimately give us a stronger sense of solidarity and tolerance through multi-ethnicity… to build an inclusive and homogenous identity, one that will include our diversity – both as individuals and as a nation.”



That will be difficult if the deafening and soul-numbing volume of hate-speak is not turned down.

Foreign Interference and Dirty Bottoms

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday September 18 2011


Lynda Snell

There is a UK radio soap that has been  going strong since 1950. Guest actors have included Princess Margaret and future (never?) Queen Camilla. It was originally billed as “an everyday story of country folk”, but is now described on its Radio 4 web site as “contemporary drama in a rural setting”. Lynda Snell is a character everyone loves to hate. She is a nouveau riche blow-in from Birmingham who is constantly trying to organise the yokels in amateur dramatics and other improving projects. The BBC website says: “The sight of Lynda Snell approaching on her trusty bicycle has sent many a villager scurrying for cover as they wonder what project she’s about to cajole them into”.


When the USA and the UK were criticizing the Sri Lankan military’s conduct at the end of the successful war against the LTTE, President Rajapaksa remarked: “Why should we listen to people who don’t wash their bottoms?”

I assure readers that, although I am a westerner, I am  housetrained and my nethers are immaculate.

His Excellency’s remark neatly encapsulates a number of ideas about relationships between the USA, UK, EU and the rest of the world. The former imperial power and the current imperial power look down contemptuously on the brown-faced nations and altruistically wish to bring them freedom, democracy and civilized values. The brown faces are not pleased and regard their critics as culturally uncouth and ignorant. Never the twain shall meet, as the imperial bard Kipling wrote.

It is difficult to avoid going down a tu quoque road on this subject.  I cannot avoid saying to foreign audiences that most people in Sri Lanka, even those who vehemently oppose the government, are apoplectic at the Galle Face and impudence of the US and the UK criticizing other countries when they have themselves committed such appalling atrocities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

On the other hand, there are some Sri Lankans whose resentment of foreign interference is strengthened by living permanently among foreigners, their patriotism intensified by their comfortable distance from the motherland.

Self-Exiled Patriots

When we still lived in Ireland, we were inundated with e-mails exhorting us to support the Sihala Urumaya. When I politely asked the sender to desist, I received a diatribe telling me that I should be ashamed of myself for my ingratitude for the benefits bestowed on me by Sri Lanka – the education system, the health service, the beautiful landscape. At that point, I had never set foot in Sri Lanka. I responded that Sihala Urumaya could not claim credit for any of these as it had never governed the country nor even had any MPs elected. I conceded that the country had bestowed one great benefit upon me – my wonderful Sri Lankan wife. However strong my gratitude for that, I did not see the need to give money to Sihala Urumaya.

Even those days, I was planning to live in Sri Lanka. I have now lived in Sri Lanka for nine years and have not set foot outside it for five years. I was amused to find that my patriotic interlocutor had lived in London for 17 years.

Ajit Randeniya

Last week I received a comment on one of my articles from one Ajit Randeniya. He thinks I am Lynda Snell.

He said:

“Usual arrogance of a blow-in from the British Isles (turned red by Asian and African blood) trying to dictate to us as to how to manage our national affairs. Should the bombers be sent over to Sri Lanka to save Canine Right to sterilization? May be the new hymie friend Zarcoseeeee will also want to join in! Or you can go home to the pure environs of London or wherever you came from.”

This is a somewhat incoherent diatribe but I admire Ajit’s inventiveness in managing to get anti-Semitism into a discussion of dogs!

Preconceived Ideas.

While researching an article about racial stereotypes, I came across an article by Terry Eagleton, Marxist essayist and Professor of English at Lancaster University.

“Just as one of the customs most native to Ireland was getting out of the place, so nothing is more indigenously American these days than otherness. Openness to the other is a rebuke to the parochialism of a nation which finds it hard to distinguish between Brighton and Bogotá; but it is also a piece of parochialism in itself, rooted by and large in the intractable ethnic problems of the US. These home-grown concerns are then projected onto the rest of the globe rather like a cultural version of nuclear missile bases, so that post-colonial others find themselves obediently adopting the agenda of a largely American-bred cult of otherness.

Critics in, say, Sligo or Sri Lanka are to be found busily at work on the ‘other’, partly because it is an important question in its own right, but also because this is the programme peddled for its own private reasons, as it were, by the nation which sets the academic pace in these affairs. When American critics come to write about Ireland or Egypt, what tends to catch their eye are questions of margins and minorities which loom large on the intellectual menu of their own culture, rather than, say, educational policy or religious architecture, which are less glamorous concerns in their own backyard.”

Valid Points

I see where Ajit is coming from but he is making unwarranted assumptions about me. There are valid points to be made about foreign interference. As  an interfering foreigner, I have made those points in these pages.

The foreign press often misses the target about Sri Lanka through simplification of the situation. I do not adopt any entrenched positions. I write in order to learn.  I am always happy to be corrected in the course of civilised debate. By civilised debate I do not mean incoherent racist diatribes.

Everybody has to live somewhere. These days not many people still live where they were born. My Irish forebears were forced to emigrate. Many others are forced to emigrate. I was born in England but have chosen to be an Irish citizen and a Sri Lankan resident. I am sensitive about my position as a guest in Sri Lanka. Do I turn a blind eye and live a passive life or do I engage with the community I have chosen?  Many Sri Lankans, not just the Tiger-supporting Tamil diaspora,  have escaped to other countries they find more congenial. From the comfort of a foreign couch they spout their punditry on Lanka Web and Huffington Post. Perhaps it would be more useful if they could reverse the brain-drain and come back home to join those of us permanently resident in Sri Lanka  and help to rebuild the nation.


Numbers from Thin Air

The hosting of CHOGM (the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) by Sri Lanka in Colombo from November 15 to 17 has given an opportunity for Sri Lanka’s human rights record to be condemned yet again. As part of this, Amnesty International has raised the issue of war crimes towards the end of the war against the LTTE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

I have noticed some discussion of this on Facebook. As I have done a special study of the topic, I was particularly interested in what was said about  the number of civilians killed at war’s end.

As a specimen comment, I will take this one by one Nick Gilbert. Nick says:

“My understanding was…” “Forty thousand I picked out of thin air…”

It is always difficult to get a definitive figure in these situations.


Well Nick, you don’t need to just make figures up to suit your argument. Read the IDAG-S report.

I have had a very long telephone conversation with the author of the report and I am convinced that he is not a government shill. If you don’t want to take the trouble to read it, I will help you by mentioning a few salient points from the report:

Although Eelam War IV has been described as a war without witnesses, the authors of this report had managed, through thorough research, to assemble a logical and well-argued package, with convincing substantiating evidence, which casts doubt on some of the calculations being peddled.

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 made by Tamils, who are by no means supporters of the government.

Dr 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.  His estimate of deaths – “including LTTE cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”.

Dr 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”.

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.

13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying “as many as 2,800 civilians may have been killed”.

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.

In Sri Lanka’s case, controversial estimates of civilian deaths were introduced not as irrefutable facts, but as circumstantial evidence to lay the foundation for an international investigation and ultimately regime change. For all its faults, which are legion, the regime was democratically elected, and, according to a Gallup poll, is supported by over 90% of the population (including Tamils).

The Tamil Question in Sri Lanka Part 2

This article was posted on The Agonist on May 6th, 2010


The rise of Tamil separatist militancy.


Most Tamil militant groups began life as student organisations. In 1970,  Ponnuthurai Satvaseelan formed the Tamil Students League. The Tamil Youth League was founded in 1973. The General Union of Eelam Students was founded in London and gave birth to the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students,  from which split the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front, which, in turn, became the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) which currently has one of its members, Douglas Devenanda as a government minister. The EPDP has a paramilitary wing.
Before 1987, India provided training for the armed militant groups, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).

There were about 30 other minor groups.

In 1972, a group of students formed a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers (TNT). One member of this group was Vellupillai Prabakharan, who was born in Jaffna in November 1954. On July 27 1975, the former mayor of Jaffna, SLFP politician Alfred Durayappah, was assassinated. Prabakharan later claimed that he had fired the fatal shot.

The TNT became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and by means of murder and intimidation became the dominant Tamil separatist group in Sri Lanka. Separatist militancy was further fanned by the anti-Tamil riots, which followed the 1977 general election, in which the UNP came to power. The LTTE were proscribed in 1978, by which time most of its rivals had been eliminated.

Colonel Karuna (nom de guerre of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) the leader of LTTE forces in the Eastern province broke with Prabakharan in 2004 to form the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). The aim of this grouping was to challenge the dominance of the northern Tigers around the leadership of Prabhakharan and to defend the special interests of eastern Tamils. There was a split even in this breakaway group and rivalry between Karuna and a former child soldier Pillayan (nom de guerre of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan) led to some fatalities. Pillayan became leader of the TMVP and when government forces won control of the Eastern province and he was sworn in as Chief Minister of the province on May 16, 2008. At a disarmament ceremony in Batticaloa, on March 9 2009, the TMVP handed over its weapons to the Sri Lankan army. Pillayan said, “We tell the government and the international community that we have given up arms because we believe in democracy.” Also on March 9, Karuna joined the ruling party Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and accepted a ministerial portfolio.

Tamil homeland

The call for a separate Tamil nation in the north and east of the country was not feasible because 70% of Tamils in Sri Lanka live outside the area claimed as a homeland. The land claimed as Eelam was not exclusively Tamil except where the LTTE had carried out ethnic cleansing to drive out Sinhalese and Muslims.

When discussions were taking place on an Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Lloyd George complained that he could not stop De Valera banging on about Cromwell. In more recent negotiations on Northern Ireland, Jonathan Powell made the same complaint about Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. The Sinhala and Tamil nationalists who comment on my articles are armchair warriors and amateur historians who like to teach me lessons in ancient history.

The origins of the”Jaffna Tamils” are shrouded in myth and legend. Such myths play an atavistic role in helping an ethnic group form a sustaining identity. These fictions can turn poisonous and lead to delusion and death. In Sri Lanka, the Jaffna kingdom, which existed in the north and some parts of the east from the 13th century to the early 17th century, has provided the foundation myth of a Tamil homeland, Eelam, which was the Tamil Tigers’ leader Prabakharan’s justification for sending women and children to their deaths.

Many historians have challenged the foundation myths, with their emphasis on ancient animosities between Tamils and Sinhalese. A Sinhalese, Professor CR de Silva, has argued that the Tamil king Elara had much support from the Sinhalese and that Buddhism in the north did not suffer under his rule. A Tamil scholar, Devanesan Nesiah has argued that the two communities had enjoyed friendly co-existence over many centuries and that hostility was a political construct that was kept alive by the Sinhalese leadership and used from time to time for political purposes.

The territory claimed by the LTTE as their sovereign nation of Tamil Eelam covers the Northern and Eastern provinces. The Jaffna Kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of Aryacakravarti, only covered the Northern Province. The kingdom lasted from 1215-1619 CE. The kingdom’s independent existence ended when the Portuguese defeated King Cankili II.

The origins of the kingdom are obscure and still the subject of controversy among historians. Among mainstream historians, such as K.M. de Silva, S.Pathmanathan and Karthigesu Indrapala, the widely accepted view is that the Kingdom of Aryacakravarti began with the invasion of a previously unknown chieftain called Magha, who claimed to be from Kalinga in modern India. He deposed the ruling King Parakrama Pandu of Pollonnaruwa with the help of his soldiers and mercenaries from the Kalinga, modern Kerala and Damila regions in India.

For a brief period, in the early to mid-fourteenth century, the Aryacakravarti kingdom was the chief power in the island of Sri Lanka and other kingdoms were subordinate to it. However, the kingdom was eventually overpowered by the rival Kingdom of Kotte, around 1450.

The Tamil separatists’ claim to the Eastern province is mainly based on a document called “the Cleghorn minute”. Hugh Cleghorn was a Scottish professor of history and part-time secret agent. He helped the British oust the Dutch by buying off a force of Swiss mercenaries manning the Dutch fort in Colombo. He was rewarded with 5,000 pounds and the post of Chief Secretary of Ceylon under the first British Governor, Lord North. The two did not get on and North was soon referring to him as ”that madman Cleghorn”. Cleghorn resigned after 15 months in 1800. The minute on the basis of which separatists claim the north and the east refers to two different nations occupying the island of Ceylon from ancient times, with the Malabars (Tamils) occupying the north and east. Tamil separatists always omit the last sentence in which Cleghorn says the Sinhalese originate from Siam. Critics say this howler invalidates the rest of the minute.

Jaffna District, which is the Tamil heartland, was once home to some 5,500 Muslim families before the LTTE expelled them allowing them only hours to leave. “At five o’clock the LTTE announced for us to come immediately to the Jinnah grounds. The LTTE leader told us that within two hours, all the Muslims must leave the [Jaffna] peninsula,” said Mohammed Yassin.

There are large numbers of Muslims and Sinhalese in the Eastern Province who would not accept a Tamil state. Even eastern Tamils grew tired of dominance by northern Tamils and broke away from Prabakharan. Former Tigers Karuna and Pillayan joined the central government.

Whatever about the myths, the Jaffna Tamils and their ancestors have undoubtedly lived on the island for at least 1,500 years and cannot justly be regarded as alien newcomers or ”blow-ins” as we say in Ireland .

July 1983 and the aftermath.

The immediate cause of the long and bloody civil war was the events of July 1983, ”Black July”. 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. Thirteen soldiers were killed by the LTTE. Anti-Tamil riots ensued and lasted for ten days with property being destroyed and up to 3,000 people being 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 inhabitants 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 to fled abroad, from where they provided ongoing financial support for the LTTE.

There were also reports of incredible courage shown by selfless Sinhalese people trying to protect their Tamil friends and neighbours and even strangers.

The Sri Lankan government did nothing to counter the prevailing impression that it had connived in the slaughter. At a time when it was imperative to appease the Tamil people if there was ever to be any faint hope of keeping them happily within the nation, parliament enacted the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which required all members to disavow separatism. Sixteen TULF members vacated their seats and left a vacuum which was filled by the TNA.

Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian and anthropologist looked back on these events from the perspective of 25 years: ”The militant movement for separation gathered thousands of new Tamil recruits and a rejuvenation of commitment among most SL Tamils, as well a wave of support in international quarters. Sri Lanka also received pariah status on the world stage.”

July 1983 was, indeed a turning point for Sri Lankan Tamils and for Sri Lanka. In the immediate aftermath many fled to Tamil Nadu, where those of a militant tendency were trained and armed by the Indian government. Many who might not want to engage in violence themselves fled to Canada, Australia and Europe. Many of them prospered and supported the armed struggle vicariously by providing funding. Many Tamils who remained in Sri Lanka were disillusioned at the futility of trying to defend their interests by peaceful means within the existing state apparatus.

The LTTE proved efficient at destroying any other Tamil groups that threatened to undermine their dominance. Elements of the international community were able to build a false picture of the LTTE as romantic freedom fighters.

In Tamil Nadu, where thousands of Indians took to the streets to denounce Sri Lanka and to call on Indira Gandhi to do something about what they called genocide. She came to a decision that would have lasting consequences including the death of her own son.

Training Camps in India.

Sri Lankan Tamil militants had been getting training abroad since 1975. A Sri Lankan Tamil called Eliyathambi Ratnasabapathy (Ratna for short) living in London, organised study groups at his Wandsworth home on the guerrilla struggles then going on in various countries. He had links with the PLO and arranged training from them in Lebanon in the use of firearms. There were survival courses and training in a variety of guerrilla tactics. Douglas Devananda, now a minister in the Sri Lanka government complained: ”We were asked to wear boots 24 hours a day. They gave us plenty of cheese and oranges but there was no rice.”

In 1981, retired Indian army officers had helped set up training camps around Madras in Tamil Nadu and trained around 30 men from the TELO and the LTTE.

Tamil youths were flocking to the militant groups for many reasons. One strong reason, according to MR Narayan Swami, Prabhakaran’s biographer,  was, ”a strong rumour had begun to circulate in Tamil areas. India, the giant of south Asia, which so many Sri Lankan Tamils regarded as their cultural motherland, was ready to accept, train and arm young Tamils willing to fight for Eelam.”

Tamil Nadu governments had long provided a haven for Tamil separatist militants from Sri Lanka. The central government under Indira Gandhi connived in this and tolerated the existence of bases and training camps in other parts of India. The origins of these bases go back to before the riots of 1983.

Mrs Gandhi was at odds with Junius Richard ”˜Dickie’ Jayawardene, Prime Minister and later Executive President of Sri Lanka, as he reversed Mrs Bandaranaike’s attempts to establish a socialistic command economy and turned Sri Lanka towards liberal free-market economic policies. The two neighbouring leaders also disagreed about foreign policy, especially Afghanistan and the Falklands. Mrs Gandhi also regarded Dickie as too pro-Western”. He allowed a Voice of America station in Sri Lanka and opened up Trincomalee harbour to Western commercial interests.

Indira Gandhi decided that she would give Tamil militants the support of the Indian government and of the Indian secret service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Word soon spread through the north of Sri Lanka that Mrs Gandhi was prepared to train and arm Tamil guerrillas and hundreds of young men and women left their homes to travel to Tamil Nadu.

Training began in Dehra Dun in Uttar Pradesh in September 1983. Subramanian Swami said that training was carried out at a RAW base at Chakrata north of Dehra Dun. That area was selected because the high mountains and military establishments provided cover for what was going on. From then on hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamil boys travelled by train from Madras to New Delhi and then on to Dehra Dun by trucks and buses. One group was detained by Indian police, who had not been appraised of what was going on, before leaving Tamil Nadu. The police took their names and addresses before RAW intervened.

PS Suryanayarana, in his book, The Peace Trap, quotes Tamil Tiger leader Prabakharan as saying that he first met RAW officials in Pondicherry but did not specify a date. According to MR Narayan Swamy, Prabakharan’s biographer, between 1983 and 1987, RAW trained 1,200 Sri Lankan Tamils in the use of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, self-loading rifles, and 84mm rocket launchers and in laying mines. Some were also given training in diving and under-sea sabotage.

Arms deliveries to various groups began in 1984 and went on almost up to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987. India persistently denied in public that it was training Sri Lankans and disavowed any aim of splitting up the Sri Lankan state. There was comprehensive coverage in India Today of training camps in India and reports appeared in western newspapers in April 1984.

General Vernon Walters, an emissary of the Reagan administration, informed the Indian government on two visits, in 1983 and 1984, that he had evidence of the training camps. He produced photographs and the addresses of Sri Lankan militants living in Tamil Nadu.Former Sri Lankan national security minister, Lalith Athulathmudalali, has said: ”By 1986, Indian diplomats privately admitted that RAW was training people”.

However, India had no real interest in the separatist cause. Douglas Devananda has said: “We realised that they were only trying to use us in their game plan.” Sources in all Tamil groups now assert that India’s motive was to teach Colombo a lesson for being too pro-Western.

It was widely rumoured that Mrs Gandhi was planning to emulate Turkish action in North Cyprus and actually take over at least part of Sri Lanka by military force. Shankar Rajee says an Indian Army officer told him: ”we need a scout force to lead us. You are not going to do the real fighting but be prepared.”
By 1985 the numerical strength of the Tamil militants would have equalled that of the Sri Lankan armed forces. The LTTE’s main bases were at Salem and Madurai.

Delhi Accord

Indian facilitation led to talks in Bhutan in 1985 between the Sri Lanka government and representatives of various Tamil groups. There were no positive results but further talks brokered by India led to the Delhi Accord, which set out a framework for ethnic reconciliation and devolution of power to the provinces. The TULF went along with this but the other Tamil groups were reluctant and eventually TULF had to withdraw their assent.

Despite the accord between the two governments, sporadic ethnic violence continued in the north and east of Sri Lanka and the Indian government made little serious effort to stop its territory being used as a base for Tamil militant activity. Rajiv Gandhi found his options limited because the Sri Lankan Tamil separatist groups all had their supporters among government and opposition parties alike in Tamil Nadu. However, none of these parties were able to keep the peace among the rival Sri Lankan factions.

Part of the accord with India was that Sri Lankan forces in Jaffna would stay in their barracks. The LTTE took advantage of this to mine the roads leading to the barracks and convert makeshift barricades into concrete bunkers. The Sri Lanka army could only be supplied by air and the LTTE effectively took control of Jaffna. The LTTE also set about eliminating their Tamil rivals and attacking soft Sinhalese targets to the embarrassment of the government forces that seemed unable to stop them.

As the Sri Lanka army improved its equipment and training and got help from Pakistan, India reverted from mediation to attacking Sri Lanka’s human rights record. The Sri Lanka government had treated the Delhi Accord as ”a reasonable basis for negotiation and settlement” but India was now condemning the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to combat terrorism at the same time as India harboured those threatening to overthrow the Sri Lankan state.

In 1986, there were three months of complex negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the TULF. The outcome was a set of proposals sent to India in September. There was an obstacle in that Tamil groups in general pressed for a single provincial unit joining the northern and eastern provinces as a single Tamil ethno-region. The Sri Lankan government were against this because of strong Sinhalese, and Muslim, opposition to the idea of the east as a predominantly Tamil region. By conceding the east, the government would allow its electoral base and stability to be eroded.

The main difficulty, however, was that these complex considerations were taking place in a fantasy world. It was akin to the British and Irish government having civilised discussions with each other and the Ulster Unionists and the Social and Democratic Labour Party, while it was the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer force bombing and kneecapping people.

William Clarance of the UNHCR put it thus: ”Essentially, the Accord was an agreement between the two governments, deciding over the heads of the Sri Lankan Tamils, the shape of their political future.”

The Indian and Sri Lankan governments were keen to deal with the TULF as the main representative of Tamil opinion in Sri Lanka but this was divorced from reality. The TULF had voluntarily exiled themselves in Tamil Nadu, thereby effectively cutting themselves off from Sri Lankan Tamils. The LTTE had filled the vacuum left by the TULF. The LTTE was determined to accept nothing less than a separate state of Eelam and were not prepared to recognise the lead role of the TULF.

Rajiv Gandhi’s dilemma now was how to persuade the Tamil separatists to accept what he believed to be a workable framework for an honourable peace. The LTTE alone refused to accept. For the first time the Indian government tried to impose restrictions on the LTTE’s activities in Tamil Nadu. Amid rumours of a unilateral declaration of independence, Sri Lankan forces tried to clear the north and east of LTTE fighters and largely succeeded with the rebels fleeing to the Jaffna peninsula.

Indian Peacekeeping Force

The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed on 29 July 1987. When Rajiv Gandhi was inspecting a guard of honour prior to leaving Colombo for India in July 1987, a Sinhalese naval rating struck him a heavy blow with his rifle. This symbolised the resentment of many Sri Lankans at India’s interference.

The intention was to use the might of the Indian Army to bring a swift end to the ethnic conflict in the north and east of Sri Lanka. India blithely expected the LTTE to hand over its arms to the IPKF but the Tigers refused to go beyond a token handover and firmly resisted IPKF efforts to disarm them. The LTTE was as ready to fight the Indians as it was to fight the Sinhalese.

The Indians at first sent 10,000 troops but unexpected resistance from the LTTE led to an increase to 100,000, some estimate more.

The Tamil Tigers fought the Indians and the Sinhalese were not happy about the Indian intervention. Even the cabinet was split, with Prime Minister Premadasa opposed to it as was security minister Athulathmudalali. The Marxist Sinhala nationalist party the JVP were bitterly opposed as were many Buddhist monks.

Sri Lanka accused India of violating its sovereignty and international law by sending the Indian air force to drop food supplies on Jaffna. The Tamil Nadu chief minister, MG Ramachandran made a well-publicised gift of $3.3 million to the LTTE.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Premadasa had been opposed to the accord from the outset. When he succeeded Jayawardene as president in December 1988, tensions between Sri Lanka and India increased. Premadasa saw the removal of the IPKF as essential to restoring order to the south after the bloody JVP uprising because the Sinhalese nationalist JVP traded on bitter opposition to Indian interference.

Withdrawal was completed in March 1990. Over 1,000 Indian soldiers had been killed and over 2,000 wounded. The financial cost to India of its intervention in Sri Lanka was put at around $1.25 billion.

The cost was, in fact, far higher. Rajiv Gandhi’s mother was the architect of India’s interventionist policy. He oversaw its intensification and he paid the ultimate price. On 21 May, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi attended his last public meeting at Sriperumbudur, about 30 miles from Madras in Tamil Nadu. He was campaigning for the Congress candidate for the area. At 10.10 p.m, a female Black Tiger called Thenmuli Rajaratnam, known as Gayatri or Dhanu approached Gandhi and greeted him. She bent down to touch his feet in the traditional Hindu expression of respect and detonated an explosive belt tucked under her dress containing 700 grammes of RDX. The assassination was caught on film through the lens of a local photographer, whose camera and film were found at the site. The cameraman himself also died in the blast but the camera remained intact.

Judge Thomas of the Supreme Court of India ruled that the killing was carried out because of the personal animosity towards Gandhi of LTTE leader Prabakharan. Four of the conspirators were sentenced, in their absence, to death. Sri Lanka’s President Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE in 1993.

The Indian Position Today

In more recent years, Tamil Nadu state governments have failed to give unconditional support to the LTTE. This has allowed the Congress Party, in power in Delhi since 2004, to take a more hostile position to the separatists. The Tigers lost the image of responsible negotiators they had tried to cultivate during the period of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA).

Radar equipment has been supplied by India to the Sri Lankan government. India’s secret service has discreetly provided intelligence, particularly naval, and training for pilots and radar operators.

The Indian government is now acting as a moderating broker and discussing with the Sri Lankan government the importance of reconciliation and a just settlement for Sri Lankan Tamils. Discussions focus on the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution, which, it is hoped, will provide opportunities for a federal solution to Tamil grievances.

May 6th, 2010

UN representative visits Sri Lanka IDP camps

This was posted on The Agonist September 19 2009.

B Lynn Pascoe, Under Secretary of the United Nations for Political Affairs, visited the IDP camps and met President Rajapaksa and his ministers.

Commenting on his visit to the north, 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 the team also witnessed the rehabilitation work that was underway. He also stated that in Jaffna, they were able to feel that the people were looking forward to getting more opportunities and that there was a feeling that a ”whole era was waiting for them”.

”In the Mannar area, we witnessed crews repairing roads and a school, as well as construction work on a large water reservoir to serve some 2,500 families slated to be resettled next week. We saw work being done in preparing rice fields for planting before the monsoons. We received a briefing and demonstration by the military on progress in clearing mines out of the Mannar Rice Bowl region.

In Jaffna, we visited two IDP camps: (a) The Kopai camp housing about four hundred people uprooted during fighting in the final two months of last year; and (b) the Kaidhely University Hostel, which houses more than 500 people who arrived about a week ago from Manik Farms. Also in Jaffna, we visited a rehabilitation center for former LTTE members, about 150 men and women.

We ended the trip in Vavuniya, at the Manik Farms camp. We witnessed food distribution and had an opportunity to talk to IDPs and camp administrators.”

During the discussions, issues pertaining to the health care services provided to the IDPs, educational facilities including the vocational training were also highlighted.

Secretary, Ministry of Justice and Law Reforms, S. K. Gamlath explained the progress made in the rehabilitation of ex-combatants. He stated that after rehabilitation, some have reintegrated into society, while others have gone overseas for employment arranged under a special rehabilitation programme. He also acknowledged the assistance rendered by the UNICEF in this endeavor.

Director General, Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition, Dr. Ajith Mendis, referred to the improvements and the enhancements that have been made to the existing health facilities provided to the IDPs. He pointed out that the hospitals and the clinics in the welfare centers have been strengthened with additional staff and the drug store has also been supplied with adequate medicines and other medical supplies.

Mr Pascoe was encouraged by what he saw but still had some concerns.

”We have urged the government to take the following steps:

To allow those who have completed the screening process to leave the camps as they choose.

For those remaining in the camps, at the very least, they shouldbe able to leave the camps during the daytime, and to freelyvisit friends and family in other sites.”

Responding to Mr. Pascoe’s observation that International Community has concerns when it hears that resettlement will be done after de-mining is completed, the President said resettlement did depend on the de-mining process. He mentioned that sixteen years after its war, Croatia had still not finished de-mining. “We do not intend taking so much time. I have laid down an initial target of 180 days to resettle at least 70% of the IDPs”. With the new equipment in use, and hopefully more to come, he expected the entire resettlement to be completed by the end of next January. “We have identified areas for resettlement and the people will be sent back as they are cleared”.

On the question of IDPs moving to live with relations outside, the President said that the government had already published advertisements in the media, calling for applications from persons seeking such resettlement. However, only 2000 applications had been received. These notices would be published again and also displayed prominently at the welfare villages.

With regard to freedom of movement outside the relief centers the President said that arrangements are already being made to issue day-passes for IDPs who wish to work outside.

Mr. Basil Rajapaksa, Senior Advisor to the President said that with the experience of 2000 applicants for re-union with relations, and the limited numbers of jobs in the area, it is likely that there will be only a few takers for these day-passes.

Recalling President Rajapaksa’s earlier commendable record on Human Rights, Mr. Pascoe said he acknowledged the need to adapt the role of the security forces, especially after a very long war. President Rajapaksa said the UN must be aware of the changes that had already being initiated at a very early stage after the war.

President Rajapaksa said: “Whether it is the US, China, Britain or any country we are all members of the UN. When the UN says anything about us we take it seriously. Similarly if big countries, try to bully us we will come to the UN about such matters.”

Mr Pascoe said: ”In the end, Sri Lanka is an energetic member of the United Nations, and it is important that we are able to have a constructive dialogue
about our disagreements. The United Nations is here to help, and will do whatever it can to help Sri Lanka move forward. Our commitment is clear, and much remains to be done.”

“This is an opportunity to move beyond simply ending the fighting to solidifying the peace. As the situation currently stands in the camps, there is a real risk of breeding resentment that will undermine the prospects for political reconciliation in the future.”

Mr. Pascoe concluded by telling President Rajapaksa, “You have a better story than is getting out today.”

O Canada!



In April, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, said “Canada didn’t get involved in the Commonwealth to accommodate evil; we came to combat it. We are deeply disappointed that Sri Lanka appears poised to take on this leadership role”.  At one time it seemed that Canada would not be represented at the CHOGM in Colombo in November because of PM Stephen Harper’s criticisms of Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Baird said that the Commonwealth was failing its greatest test by letting Sri Lanka host the November summit. “We’re tremendously concerned about the deteriorating and authoritative trend of the government in Sri Lanka”. He might also have said that he was concerned about the large numbers of Tamils living, voting and donating in Canada.

Douglas Adams, creator of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote that if the USA often behaved like a teenage hooligan, Canada was an intelligent woman in her mid-30s. There was once a rather condescending game: “Name ten famous Canadians”. Huffington Post has a feature on important Canadians which attracted this comment: “The worse is those top 50 or top 25 lists of Canadian inventions. A Swedish inventor, who  taught in Canada, and then moved to the US, where he invented something, counts as a Canadian, just because he briefly spent some time teaching in Canada.” Wikipedia’s list of noteworthy Canadians includes European monarchs who once had jurisdiction over parts of the territory now known as Canada.  More ludicrous still there is a list of “famous” fictional Canadians.

robbie robertson





In all fairness now, there are Canadians of real stature. Canada is the land of The Band – or at least Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel. How could we forget Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young? Many distinguished Canucks go south. JK Galbraith managed the difficult task of writing elegantly about economics. He was six foot eight and Canadian but was US ambassador to India. Marshall “the medium is the message” McLuhan did not write so elegantly but came up with some memorable phrases – “Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness”. He also said:”I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say”.

jk galbraithmcluhan

Canada still retains some of its reputation as a country in North America which is not the USA and which is relatively decent. There are no signs of Mexico achieving even this faint-praise status. However, Canada’s role as a boring but decent human rights champion was always somewhat illusory. In 2012 three UN expert committees rated Canada’s performance on meeting rights commitments — and found it wanting. An Amnesty International report found “a range” of “ongoing and serious human rights challenges,” especially for indigenous peoples. Those “challenges” have been “ongoing” from the time the white settlers first encountered the indigenous population. According to Reverend Kevin Daniel Annett, there was a “Canadian Holocaust” which killed 25 million people. Annett claims that over 50,000 aboriginal children are still missing and unaccounted for.

Canadian prosperity has long been tied to the existence of an “extractive frontier” where population densities were very low, and natural resources were abundant, untapped and essentially free. Inexpensive access to new lands depended upon a policy of keeping Aboriginal peoples separate and unequal, with neither the rights nor the power to demand full value for their labour and materials – or the land which was stolen from them.

Canada is today more than ever confronted by the resource curse. There are large deposits of bitumen under a forest in Alberta and oil companies invested $160 billion to exploit them. The Projects approved so far could excavate a forest area six times the size of New York City. The expected market in the US has been disappointing and the Canadian government has been looking to China. Three notoriously untransparent and environmentally-unfriendly state-owned Chinese oil companies have spent more than $20 billion buying oil sand rights in Alberta.

A secret document leaked to CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) said: “To succeed we will need to pursue political relationships in tandem with economic interests even where political interests or values may not align.” That means “get the cash and forget about the environment and human rights”.

The Economist is not normally thought of as left wing or bleeding-heart. It describes Canadian PM Stephen Harper as a bully with a determined habit of rule-breaking. Political analyst, Lawrence Martin, says that Harper has broken “new ground in the subverting of the democratic process.”

Environmental protection laws, such as the Fisheries Act, have been rewritten to favour the oil companies. National park funding has been cut by 20 percent. CBC has suffered cutbacks as punishment for criticism of Harper.

The leaked document makes little reference to Canada’s traditional peacemaking role or to providing aid in disasters. Canada used to be represented by a highly respected diplomatic corps. Harper appointed the head of his security detail to be ambassador to Jordan. When he first came to office Harper said: “I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide and we do that. But I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values, our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights. They don’t want to sell that out to the almighty dollar. Six years later, foreign policy is little more than a tool to give Canada profit or access to China.

According to the Sunday Observer dated August 18, representatives of Canada were in Sri Lanka on an advance visit to inspect the arrangements for the forthcoming CHOGM 2013. It seems that Harper himself will not personally defile himself by attending but will be sending Baird.

He that fracks tar sands will be defiled.

Forgetting to Forgive – Amnesia, Forgiveness or Revenge?

This article was published a couple of years ago in Lakbima News. As the paper is now defunct it cannot be accessed on their website.


Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.  Oscar Wilde

In cyberspace no-one can hear your virtual scream. There is blood on the blogosphere. I have been contributing to a  US-based blog site for the past three years. Mostly, it has been a pleasant experience because there have been a lot of  smart, cultured and knowledgeable people putting in their  two-cents’ worth. I am trying to extricate myself now because I have attracted the attention of a paranoid stalker who persistently misunderstands and bad-mouths me.

One good thing that has come out of this is that someone I had a  battle with a couple of years back has leapt to my defence and we have become firm friends.

The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in Hollywood movies. “One of  the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. Movies which show returning  harm to those who harmed seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence. ”

Blog-warriors get some satisfaction by keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie.

The poet, Charles Simic, wrote about the genocidal crimes of the Croat Ustashi in the 1940s and the crimes of the Serbs in the 1990s: “Many the world over believe this is the only way; that the survival of their people justifies any crime they commit. They find the scruples of those who cringe at the shedding of innocent blood in pursuit of some noble cause naive and repugnant”.

Events in Sri Lanka in 2009 prompted a friend in the UK to write to me: “Why can’t they forget race and religion and just get on with each other?” People often say similar things about Northern Ireland. Ordinary people generally do want to get along and often succeed in doing so. Unfortunately, there are economic factors  and historical myths stoking conflicts.

The non-violent civil-rights protests in Northern Ireland were hi-jacked by the Provisional IRA who appointed themselves protectors of the Catholic community and hitched the issue to their own nationalist agenda of a united

On a visit to Northern Ireland the Dalai Lama said: “Some differences, some conflicts will always be there. But we should use the differences in a positive way to try to get energy from different views. Try to minimize violence, not by force, but by awareness and respect. Through dialogue, taking others’ interests and sharing one’s own, there is a way to solve the problems”. He put his arms around a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister and tugged their beards.

Irish nationalists have long memories about the crimes of Cromwell. Gloucester builder, Fred West,  and his wife Rosemary murdered an uncertain number of young women in the basement at 25 Cromwell Street. He was charged with eleven murders but there were probably many more. Most of their victims were waifs and strays, but one was from a middle class family, an art student from a loving family who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lucy Partington, the cousin of writer Martin Amis, was waiting for a bus when Fred and Rose offered her a lift.

Lucy’s sister, Marian, writes movingly about Rosemary West: “Her story seems to be about the impoverishment of a soul that knew no other way to live than through terrible cruelty. A life deprived of truth, beauty or love. I imagine that the deviant ignorance that fed her sadistic, egotistical crimes was rooted in her ruined, crooked childhood.”

I don’t know if I could be forgiving in such circumstances. There is a good deal of research which shows that forgiving is good for the health.   When people think about forgiving an offender, it leads to improved functioning in their cardiovascular and nervous systems. The research of Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University  shows that forgiveness can be learned. In Northern Ireland, Luskin found that people who are taught how to forgive, become less angry, more optimistic, self-confident. His studies show a reduction in experience and  physical manifestations of stress, and an increase in vitality.

Harold Good was President of the Irish Methodist Church 2001-2. Both Jonathan Powell’s book Great Hatred, Little Room and Deaglán de Bréadún’s, The Far Side of Revenge, mention Harold’s discreet but vital  role in the Northern Ireland peace process. It was Harold who announced, as spokesman for General de Chastelaine’s decommissioning body, that the war was effectively over and that  the IRA had laid down their arms.

Harold  served the poor in the Dublin City mission in the 1950’s. In the 1960s he was  in Ohio and later served in the largely black Methodist church in Indianapolis. Back in Northern Ireland he witnessed the horrors of the Troubles. “I wasn’t isolated in an ivory tower. I know the pain inflicted by terrorists.”  In spite of this, he has referred, in a personal e-mail  to me, to his “friend Martin McGuinness” , former IRA Derry Commandant and now government minister.

Harold  worked closely with both Republican and Loyalist prisoners with a view to their resettlement. He was the Director in the 1970s of the Corrymeela community, a centre for reconciliation between the communities. He was chair of NIACRO (Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Prisoners) and part-time prison chaplain at
Crumlin Road prison. A key part of the Good Friday agreement was  the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners.

In his acceptance address to the Gandhi Foundation when receiving their 2008 Peace Award, Harold  quoted a child who wrote: “I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight.” Harold commented: “Today our children see sunsets instead of bombs. As a community we have faced and accepted realities; engaged in dialogue; achieved consensus; accepted compromise and witnessed the signs and symbols of peace.”

Seamus Heaney wrote:

“once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.”

My new blogfriend and I  studiously avoid returning to the matter of our previous dispute. We talk about different nuances of American and Asian English. We talk about his experience as a black man in the USA and in the US Marines and the LAPD. If we started to get nostalgic about our old fight, there might be trouble. When I lived in London, I walked to the train station every morning at the same time. Most days I would encounter a mother taking her small son to the kindergarten. One day she was scolding him for  fighting with a little girl. He defended himself by saying: “she hit me back first”. My blogfriend and I don’t want to go into who started it. I doubt if he will accept that he was wrong and I sure as hell know I was damned right. Forget about it!

Is amnesia more conducive to reconciliation than truth?

Reconciliation in Rwanda

Divide and rule

I have said before (and will certainly say again) that the road to hell is paved with false analogies. Nevertheless, one cannot help but note that in the colonial project it was not uncommon for the imperial power to take advantage of, or even create, ethnic conflicts in pursuit of a divide and rule strategy. Britain did this with Jews and Arabs in Iraq, Tamils and Sinhalese in Ceylon, and in Kenya, Kikuyu and Luo.

Rwanda was colonised first by Germany and then by Belgium. The Berlin Conference of 1884 assigned the territory covered by Rwanda and Burundi to Germany as part of German East Africa. The territory was administered as a German colony from 1897 to 1916.

Early explorers had found a monarchical society governed by a class of people who seemed so clever and sophisticated that they did not fit existing European stereotypes of Africans. These were the Tutsi, who made up about 15 percent of the population and ruled a land where the large majority was of another group, the Hutu. Europeans took this as proof of simplistic  racial theories that were then in vogue. Gerard Prunier writes that Europeans were “quite smitten with the Tutsi,” finding them a “superior race” of people who were “meant to reign,” possessed “a refinement of feelings which is rare among primitive people,” and had “an absolutely distinct origin from the negroes.” The Hutu, by contrast, were seen as “less intelligent, more simple, more spontaneous, more trusting…extroverts who like to laugh and lead a simple life.” Ignorant of the complex web of mutual obligation that had bound Tutsi and Hutu together for generations, European colonizers placed one group in direct control of the other.

The Germans did not significantly alter the social structure of the country, but exerted influence by supporting King Kigeli Rwabugiri and the existing hierarchy and delegating power to local chiefs. Tutsi patrons ceded cattle, and therefore privileged status, to Hutu or Tutsi clients in exchange for economic and personal service.

Both the Germans and the Belgians promoted Tutsi supremacy, considering the Hutu and Tutsi different races, a view not universally accepted today. When the Belgians took over they used detailed physical measurements  that they believed would allow them to place every Rwandan in a racial category. In 1933 they made the fateful decision to issue identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. While it had previously been possible for particularly wealthy Hutu to become honorary Tutsi, the identity cards prevented any further movement between the classes (or races). Scholars disagree on the origins of and differences between the Hutu and Tutsi; some believe that they are derived from former social castes, while others view them as being races or tribe. In 1994 these ID cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them.

In the 1950s, as the decolonization of Africa was approaching, the Belgians changed their Rwanda policy. Moved in part by new egalitarian impulses that made them see Tutsi domination as undemocratic, and also by fears that educated Tutsi were turning toward Marxism, they encouraged a rising sense of Hutu grievance. Finally they decided, in the words of John Bale, author of Imagined Olympians, “to switch their support to the educated Hutu.” After ruling for generations through the Tutsi, they reversed themselves and made the Hutu masters of Rwanda just before granting the country independence in 1962.

Hutu militancy increased, as did opposition to the monarchy. The existing system of Tutsi supremacy  was challenged. It was now Hutu who increasingly felt they could re-write history.  They represented Tutsi as Aryan “immigrants” or “invaders.”  The power base had shifted to the Hutu elite. This was a turning point in the political history of Rwanda.  One can thus view the subsequent ethnic cleansing and genocide as horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s.

Belgium continued to rule Rwanda as a UN Trust Territory after World War II with a mandate to lead the nation to independence. Tension escalated between the Tutsi, who favoured early independence, and the Hutu emancipation movement, culminating in the 1959 Revolution. Hutu activists began killing Tutsi, forcing more than 100,000 to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, including Uganda. In 1962, the now pro-Hutu Belgians held a referendum and elections in which the country voted to abolish the monarchy. Rwanda was separated from Burundi and became  independent in 1962. Cycles of violence followed, with exiled Tutsi attacking from neighbouring countries and the Hutu retaliating with large-scale slaughter and repression of the Tutsi.

After independence, government-sponsored Hutu gangs carried out periodic massacres of Tutsi. Many Tutsi fled the country. Those who remained were given a subservient status much like that imposed on blacks in South Africa. They became second-class citizens and were denied full rights to education, employment, and travel. Whenever extremist or corrupt Hutu politicians needed a scapegoat, or wished to divert attention away from their misdeeds, they attacked the Tutsi minority.

In 1973,  Juvenal Habyarimana seized power in a military coup. Pro-Hutu discrimination continued, but there was greater economic prosperity and violence against Tutsi diminished.


In 1994, during  100 days, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu were killed in well-planned attacks ordered by  the interim government which took power when  President Habyarimana was assassinated on 6 April. In January 2012, the key findings of a four-year-long expert investigation, commissioned by French judges Marc Trévidic and Nathalie Poux, were released to the world’s media. Most commentators thought the findings vindicated  the ‘official version’ of the Rwandan genocide, which holds that the plane shooting was the opening move by Hutu extremists in their carefully planned genocide of the  Tutsi population. Barry Collins, a writer on African affairs and author of Obedience in Rwanda: A Critical Question,   disagrees. [i] The Tutsi RPF gained  control of the whole country by mid-July. When the RPF took over, two million Hutu fled Rwanda,  in particular to Zaire (now Congo) fearing reprisals.

This definitely meets the criteria of genocide. Victims were chosen because they were Tutsis or Hutus sympathetic to Tutsis. The true numbers of dead will never be known  – some estimates go as high as five million but the figure generally used is 800,000.

The killing of Tutsis by Hutu tends to eclipse the massacres and reprisals carried out against Hutus by the RPA in Rwanda and in IDP camps in the Congo.

How has Rwanda dealt with the aftermath of genocide?

The new government had the  huge logistical problem of dealing with the vast number of  people accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The government carried out more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand arrests by 1997. By 2001, Rwanda’s prisons and communal jails were bursting at the seams with 120,000 alleged genocidaires. Rwanda’s courts were shut down for more than two  years after the genocide.  Amnesty International estimated that after the genocide there were only ten lawyers left in the country.  The government calculated that it would take another 110 years to prosecute all the prisoners.

Philip Gourevitch wrote: “Nobody ever talked seriously about conducting tens of thousands of murder trials in Rwanda. Western legal experts liked to say that even the lawyer-crowded United States could not have handled Rwanda’s caseload fairly and expeditiously”.

From time to time, the government conducted mass releases. After  2003, between fifty and sixty thousand inmates were set free and  on February 19, 2007 eight thousand prisoners were released. Those  released are seldom welcomed back into their communities.

A good start was not made to the process of reconciliation. Punishment and retribution  was the reason, in 1998, for the public execution of 22 prisoners, some of them high ranking officials. The executions drew huge crowds overtaken with blood lust. This was not a way to end the cycle of revenge.

Gacaca court system

To speed things up, Rwanda implemented the Gacaca court system,  often translated as “justice on the grass”. This is a method of transitional justice designed to promote healing and a new start, with justice to some extent being placed in the hands of the victims. Cases have usually  involved cows or land or water and could be remedied by reparations or a heartfelt apology.

The man who inspired Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, wrote:

“The two aggrieved men were required to share a gourd of banana beer as a sign of renewed friendship …. Whether you were the victim or the aggressor you had to strip yourself of pride and recognize the basic humanity of the fellow with whom you were now sharing a banana beer …. Everyone who showed up to hear the case was invited to sip the banana beer too, as a symbol of the accused man’s reconciliation with the entire people.”[ii]

Genocide survivors and the bereaved face the accused and acknowledgement and apologies are encouraged. Confessions are only accepted if they give all information about the crime, including incrimination of co-conspirators.

The system has been criticised because of  survivors being targeted for giving evidence. There have been false accusations as well as intimidation of witnesses. The acquittal rate has been 20%, suggesting a sizable number of cases have not been well-founded. There is a strong chance that witnesses’ memories will be unreliable. Also, there is less protection for defendants than in conventional courts because there are no lawyers – suspects will have to represent themselves. Back in 2005,  Alison des Forges of Human Rights Watch wrote: “Obviously the problem of delivering justice after the genocide is an overwhelming problem. Gacaca may not be ideal but there is at this point no alternative.” Lists of suspects compiled in preparation for Gacaca, indicated that almost as many took part in perpetrating the genocide as were killed.

The courts are based on a traditional way of resolving disputes, in which villagers elect “people of integrity” to hear the evidence and reach a verdict. There are nine judges for each court, and they have the power to impose penalties of up to life in prison. They will deal with major crimes including murder and assault, though rape will still be dealt with by conventional courts.

Jeanette Ayinkamiye, a 23-year-old seamstress, lost her mother, her father and seven brothers during the Rwandan genocide. When interviewed by French journalist Jean Hatzfeld she said: “We forget the details, confuse the dates, mix up the attacks, make mistakes… Over time we still have very precise lists of memories; they become more and more truthful, but we hardly know anymore how to order them in the right way.” According to psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, the accounts of ‘truth’ given by victims and survivors are not about facts. They are about the impact of facts and “the continuing trauma on their lives created by past violence”.

Stephen Kinzer wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2007: “Political and religious leaders are urging people to forgive those who attacked them. An amazing number say they have”. “In a remote and dusty village in Mbyo district, near the border with Burundi, I met a man and woman who were longtime neighbors. In 1994 the man, Xavier Nemeye, hacked to death the husband and four children of the woman, Rosaria Bankundiye. He tried to kill her as well, but she escaped with machete wounds in her skull. She told me that an itinerant Protestant pastor convinced her to forgive Nemeye.  “Through God, we had the blessing of being able to reconcile with those who committed these acts,” she said, speaking slowly and with evident pain. “I don’t wish anything bad for him. If someone kills him, it will not be me.”  There was a long silence after she finished. Then her assailant began his account. “Considering what I did, if I had to sentence myself, even killing me would not be enough,” he said. “This was collective crime. I am guilty, and the government was guilty. The government planned the killing. I killed.”

International justice

Gacaca was Rwanda’s own approach to the aftermath of genocide. There was also international intervention. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was set up in November 1994 by the UN Security Council in order to judge people responsible for the genocide and other serious violations of international law in Rwanda or by Rwandan citizens in nearby states, between 1 January and 31 December 1994. The new Rwandan government came to view the tribunal as an assault on both its legitimacy and sovereignty

From 1995,  ICTR has been sitting at Arusha in Tanzania. Through several resolutions, the Security Council called on the tribunal to complete its investigations by end of 2004, complete all trial activities by end of 2008, and complete all work in 2012. These targets were found to be unrealistic and the Security Council called upon the tribunal to finish its work by 31 December 2014 to prepare for its closure and transfer of its responsibilities to the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals which will begin functioning on 1 July 2012. To judge from the ICTR website, like all areas of  modern life, genocide provides lucrative employment for western ‘consultants’. Each of the ICTR’s  few convictions has cost more than $60 million.

There has been much animosity within Rwanda against the ICTR for its slowness, incompetence and alleged rampant corruption. The UN has a bad name in Rwanda because of its failure to intervene during the genocide.

The retributive nature of the ICTR discourages honesty from the accused in the dock. Georges Rutaganda argued that “It is not Hutus who are guilty of this so-called genocide. We are convinced there was no genocide. It was a situation of mass killings in a state of war where everyone was killing their enemies …. There are a million people dead, but who are they? They are 800,000 Hutus and 200,000 Tutsis. Everyone was killing but the real victims are the Hutus. So they’ve got this so-called genocide all wrong”.

Kohen, Zanchelli and Drake[iii]  argue that restorative justice initiatives have moved Rwanda  closer toward reconciliation than retributive measures, such as those taken by the ICTR. However, they also suggest that the Rwandan government has not shown a serious commitment to healing the wounds that persist between either individual Rwandans or groups. They argue a  case for the importance of pairing a comprehensive search for justice with a commitment to truth-telling and accountability by the victims and perpetrators of the genocide, as well as by current government officials.

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch says: “Accurate accounts of the genocide must establish in all their complexity the roles of the leaders, the followers, and the dissidents within Rwanda as well as the parts played by various international actors. This is essential both for assessing fairly the behavior of individuals and for creating strategies for the future. We must find ways to increase the numbers and effectiveness of resisters against such crimes, whether within or outside the society at risk. We must understand how local and international protest can resonate back and forth to create the swell of outrage that will prevent or halt future genocides.

This work is one of the many that must come to establish the historical record, to lay the groundwork for justice for Rwandans and accountability for all others who failed to respond to the bonds of our common humanity. The story must be told.”

What is Rwanda like today?

Rwanda is a small country with 8.8 million people packed into a land about the size of Maryland. The population is young and predominantly rural, with a density among the highest in Africa. The climate is moderate, there are  few jungles, and slave traders never penetrated into Rwandan territory. Rwanda is landlocked, and for much of its history it was isolated from the world; the first European did not arrive until 1892. It has neither great mineral wealth nor space for large-scale agriculture.

The capital of Rwanda, Kigali,  is considered by many observers to be the safest city in Africa today, and Rwanda one of the safest countries in the world. An international school opened for the  children of  foreign investors and entrepreneurs flocking to the country. Rwanda has low corruption compared with neighbouring countries. Many outsiders believe that no other poor country is embarked on such a promising campaign to improve itself, and are thrilled with what President Kagame is doing.

“How can I forgive, when my livelihood was destroyed and I cannot even pay for the schooling of my children?”[vi] Many have argued that poverty fed the violence. Kagame is addressing the problem of poverty.

During the 2000s Rwanda’s economy, tourist numbers and Human Development Index improved rapidly. Between 2006 and 2011 the poverty rate reduced from 57% to 45%, and child mortality rates dropped from 180 per 1000 live births in 2000 to 111 per 1000 in 2009.

In 2007, Stephen Kinzer reviewed  several books on Rwanda and discussed his own experience of the country in the New York Review of Books. Kinzer quoted Josh Ruxin, the former director of a health programme at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, who was  so enthusiastic about Rwanda’s prospects that he moved there to run  a “Millennium Village” project in a rural part of the country. “I’ve worked in fifty countries and I think this is the only country on the planet that stands a chance of migrating from extreme poverty to middle income in the space of the next fifteen years.”

Human rights

Despite the apparent success in recovering from the genocide, the Rwandan government has been criticized by human rights groups. Before the 2003 presidential election, the man who would have been Kagame’s principal opponent was jailed on corruption charges. Political parties are prohibited from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. The authorities have used these limitations to imprison critics.

Philip Gourevitch has written extensively about Rwanda (and Sri Lanka) in the New Yorker and elsewhere.[iv] He defended himself in the Columbia Journalism Review against charges that he was pro-Kagame. The were some interesting comments on the article from bloggers. An anonymous commenter  wrote: “Gourevitch has never been a shill or sycophant. Gourevitch is right to press his criticisms of the international aid community and the botched humanitarian efforts that have enabled killers as much as rescued victims and survivors. What is even more surprising is how France remains marginal to the  story even though they, more than any outsider, were the chief enabler of the Hutus and who continue to bungle its involvement and the events on the ground”.

The editor of an independent Rwandan newspaper, Shyaka Kanuma, said  that for years he saw Kagame as “a power-hungry, self-serving guy.” However he acknowledges that: “Some of the things he did to suppress opposition were necessary. We have people in our country who would do absolutely anything to get power.”

“Media have had a destructive role in the history of Rwanda. The use of the media by powers especially in the preparation and execution of genocide has had harmful effects on their credibility in our society. We still have in mind the notorious Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines, as well as Kangura newspaper. How can we make of media instruments of peace and not hatred?”[v]

Human Rights Watch has pointed out the deficiencies of the Gacaca system. “Many individuals accused of very serious crimes—such as multiple murders—can now be tried by Gacaca in seeming contradiction to its original purpose.”  HRW concedes that the present iteration seeks to establish offender accountability while also serving the government’s goal of catalyzing the slow-moving genocide trials.” The government had to do something about the huge prison population. Human rights campaigners were complaining about cruel and inhuman treatment. Releasing prisoners and using the Gacaca system means that a lot of guilty and dangerous people are on the loose. It is unsurprising that the government does what it can to impose a firm hand and regards western ides of human rights as a luxury in this situation.

Kagame argued that some Westerners define “human rights” too narrowly, defending rights of personal expression but underestimating the importance of stability and economic progress. Kagame’s defenders argue that too much democracy too soon will split Rwanda apart again. Texan agronomist Tim Schilling told Kinzer: “It’s necessary to have a little repression here to keep the lid on” while Kagame’s economic development program takes hold.

Foreign intervention

Another Rwandan  reader of Gourevitch’s CJR article commented: “What Rwandans need to ask themselves, what Africans need to ask themselves, is for how much longer will we base our apparent differences on things written from a western perspective? How much longer will we hate each other because of things written by the west? Because it is only them who write historical facts about how different we are!”

Another commenter, Mikhaila Cupido wrote: “Currently the good guy seems to be Hutu. And no one takes into consideration how hard the country is working on getting rid of these colonial references to the Rwandan people. And these rantings remind me of the colonialists  and their once great love of the Tutsi and when they couldn’t benefit from it anymore they swapped sides to the Hutu.”


Rwanda is covered with memorials to the genocide. Some killing sites were left intact with the bones of victims on display. Because the country is densely populated, Rwandan citizens see these memorials every day. There is a national day of mourning every year in April and the president leads a ceremony which is broadcast nationally.

In spite of this enforced “remembering” there are also “silences”. No history is taught in schools because there is no consensus on what to put in the national curriculum.[vii] There has been a pragmatic failure to investigate crimes committed by the RPA. This has given fuel to Hutu ideologues attempting to raise ethnic consciousness.

Kohen et al: [viii]“The lack of honest, public discussion about ethnicity in Rwanda poses serious problems for the process of political reconciliation. If these ethnic terms are wholly suppressed, it seemingly becomes impossible for the victimized group to forgive the offending group. For if the government was to undertake the difficult work of identifying prominent victims who might offer forgiveness to the Hutus as a group—or if Kagame, himself a refugee of Hutu-led violence, were to act as Rwanda’s Mandela—these statements would be in direct contradiction of policies of ethnic re-education. Further, the loose interpretation of terms like ‘genocidal Ideology’ and ‘divisionism’ discourage any sort of public dialogue on the role that ethnic identity can or should play in Rwandan society. This discourse could potentially be very useful in setting the stage for political reconciliation, as it could establish a common understanding between Hutus and Tutsis collectively. Taken together, these policies not only move Rwanda further from a comprehensive attempt at political reconciliation, but make it virtually impossible for Hutus and Tutsis to begin rebuilding the trust that was so violently broken by the genocide.”

The world might see the Hutus as monsters in the genocide but they can still see themselves as victims. Kohen et al:“The continued emphasis on Hutu victimization encourages offenders to view their participation in the genocide as legitimate action in the face of their own potential victimization while clearly discouraging an apology to those Tutsi whose families were murdered or who were themselves in grave danger. This feeling of  victimization is furthered by the perception amongst Hutu that members of the RPF are not held accountable for crimes they committed, as neither the ICTR nor the gacaca courts have jurisdiction to try these crimes.”

Govier[ix] points out, “A group’s acknowledgment of its own victimization poses dangers of a cult-like and ceremonial sharing of group pain. In the ‘we-ness’ cultivated under the ethnic tent, a sense of victimhood may be created all too easily, and may too readily displace efforts to understand the complexities of the past.”  Jeremy Sarkin[x]  suggests what is needed is  “a properly constituted, totally independent, non-government appointed commission in Rwanda,” without which “anger, resentment, hatred, and revenge might be the order of the day.”

[ii] Rusesabagina’s  autobiography entitled An Ordinary Man was the basis of the film Hotel Rwanda. Rusesabagina has called Kagame a war criminal and alleges “Rwanda is today a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis…Those few Hutus who have been elevated to high-ranking posts are usually empty suits without any real authority of their own. They are known locally as Hutus de service or Hutus for hire.” He has also criticized Kagame’s election to president.

[iii] Personal and Political Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda. Social Justice Research March 15, 2011

[iv] We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, Gourevitch (1998)

[v] Institute for Dialogue and Peace

[vi] Ervin Staub , Healing, reconciliation, forgiving and the prevention of violence after genocide or mass killing: an intervention and its experimental evaluation in Rwanda Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 24, No. 3, 2005, pp. 297-334

[vii] Eugenia Zorbas Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda, Journal of African Legal studies.

[viii] Personal and Political Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda, Ari Kohen, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Michael Zanchelli, Washington, D.C. ,Levi Drake Washington, D.C.

[ix] Govier, T. (2002). Forgiveness and revenge. London: Routledge.

[x] The Tension between Justice and Reconciliation in Rwanda: Politics, Human Rights, Due Process and the Role of the Gacaca Courts in Dealing with the Genocide, Jeremy Sarkin, Journal of African Law, Vol. 45, No. 2 (2001)

Jeremy Sarkin, Journal of African Law, Vol. 45, No. 2 (2001)

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