Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: war crimes

War Crimes

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on November 27 2019 under the title: “Hurling War Crimes Allegations. The Western Media’s Selective Amnesia”.



The western media has predictably greeted the election of our new president with rehashed allegations of war crimes. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election was reported on Sunday November 17 2019 (over ten years since the LTTE were defeated). On that same date, one newspaper, The London Sunday Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch, led with a story about horrendous crimes committed by British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not all of the information is new. What is shocking is the extent of the crimes and of the tireless efforts of the British government to suppress the facts. The Insight team of the Sunday Times and the BBC Panorama programme have been carrying out a year-long investigation. The Panorama programme was broadcast on Monday November 18. They claim that two thick files have been kept under lock and key behind the barbed wire security fences of the Trenchard Lines military base near Salisbury Plain.

The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) investigated alleged war crimes committed by British troops during the occupation of Iraq starting in 2003; Operation Northmoor investigated alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. The government’s excuse for calling off the investigations in 2017 was that Phil Shiner, a lawyer who had taken more than 1,000 cases to IHAT, was struck off as a solicitor following allegations that he had paid fixers in Iraq to find clients. That does not explain why the files were kept locked up.

Publicity had already been given to some of the cases featured in the Panorama programme. I have myself written about the case of Baha Mousa.

According to Sir William Gage’s report: “Baha Mousa was pronounced dead at 22.05hrs. A subsequent post mortem found that in the course of his detention… Baha Mousa had sustained 93 separate external injuries. He was also found to have internal injuries including fractured ribs.”

Baha Mousa was a receptionist at the Ibn al-Haitham Hotel in Basra who was captured in a raid by Britain’s finest on 14 September 2003 after a cache of arms and uniforms was found in his workplace. The army had found weapons including grenades, rifles, bayonets and suspected bomb-making equipment. Along with nine others, he was taken in  for “questioning”.

Corporal Donald Payne killed a man. That’s what soldiers do. Here is how Payne killed Baha Mousa. Payne violently assaulted Baha Mousa, punching and kicking. This ended with Baha Mousa lying inert on the floor. According to the Gage Report: “I find that from the outset of their incarceration in the TDF (temporary detention facility) the Detainees were subjected to assaults by those who were guarding them and, in particular, by Payne. I find that they were also assaulted from time to time by others who happened to be passing by the TDF. The assaults by the guards were instigated and orchestrated by Payne. He devised a particularly unpleasant method of assaulting the detainees, known as the “choir”. It consisted of Payne punching or kicking each detainee in sequence, causing each to emit a groan or other sign of distress. Baha’s father was a senior police officer, permitted by the British to carry a pistol and wear his blue uniform. Colonel Mousa believed the real reason his son was killed was he had seen several British troops opening the hotel safe and stuffing currency into their pockets.

At a court martial Payne was charged with manslaughter, inhumane treatment and perverting the course of justice. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in prison.

Panorama has re-examined the evidence in a number of alleged war crimes cases. One such case  was the shooting of an Iraqi policeman by a British soldier on patrol in Basra in 2003. Raid al-Mosaw was shot by a British soldier in an alleyway as he left his family home. Major Christopher Suss-Francksen confidently concluded that the soldier was legitimately acting in self-defence. IHAT detectives spent two years investigating the case and interviewed 80 British soldiers, including the soldier Suss-Francksen claimed had witnessed the shooting. The soldier told IHAT: “This report is inaccurate and gives the impression that I was an eyewitness. This is not true.” This soldier and many others confirmed that they only heard one shot which means that Raid al-Mosaw could not have fired first. The Sunday Times states bluntly that Suss-Francksen faked evidence.

IHAT detectives say they found evidence of widespread abuse at Camp Stephen, a British army base in Basra run by the Black Watch and used as an unofficial detention centre. One of the detectives told Panorama that the physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, most of whom were innocent, was “endemic” at the base. There was nothing spontaneous about the many horrendous crimes committed Camp Stephen. The culture of abuse was sanctioned at senior levels. The open layout of the camp would have made it obvious to officers what was happening. There is a stinking fetor of complicity and cover-up.

Detectives working on Operation Northmoor investigated a night raid in Helmand province, Afghanistan on October 18, 2012 during which a special forces soldier killed four males aged 20, 17, 14 and 12 in the guest room of a family home in Loy Bagh village. ​They were merely drinking tea. Relatives had to mop up teeth, bone and brain flesh from the heavily-stained carpet. Investigators expected the soldier to be charged with four counts of murder and referred the case to the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA). They also wanted to prosecute the commanding officer, along with his superior, for falsifying a report and for perverting the course of justice. Military prosecutors decided not to bring charges.

Predictably, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab refused to be drawn on whether these claims were new to him, and said that prosecuting authorities for the British armed forces are “some of the most rigorous in the world”. It is instructive to contrast Raab’s attitude with the response of Enoch Powell to the atrocities at the Hola Camp in Kenya in 1959.

Former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald (now Warden of Wadham College, Oxford) has examined the evidence gathered by the Sunday Times and concludes: “In 2002, the International Criminal Court was set up, with Britain’s enthusiastic support, to prosecute crimes against humanity where individual nations were too cowardly, incompetent or unwilling to bring their own citizens to justice in the face of compelling evidence of the gravest international crimes. Now, as that court turns its eyes towards us, we are forced to confront the unnerving possibility that one of those derelict nations might be our own.”


Motes and Beams

This article was published in Ceylon Today on Thursday July 5 2018

A number of Sri Lankan news items came to my mind while reading about Howard Jones’s book My Lai: Vietnam, 1968 and the Descent into Darkness. These are the news items. The US government announced that it is withdrawing from the UNHRC because that body was a “protector of human-rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias” and therefore the US “should not provide it with any credibility”. One of the first foreign policy decisions of the Sirisena government was to co-sponsor UNHRC Resolution No.30/1 of 1 October 2015. How does that stand with the US absent from the UNHRC? Another news item that took my notice was that the departing US ambassador said that his government would prevent Gotabaya Rajapaksa being elected president of Sri Lanka because of his abuses of human rights. Yet another item concerned “civil society representatives” opposing the appointment of Dayan Jayatilleka as ambassador to Russia because he successfully defended the Rajapaksa government’s actions when he was ambassador to UNHRC.

At the risk of being accused of “whataboutery” I cannot resist exclaiming: how can the nation that was responsible for My Lai (and countless other atrocities) have the gall face to criticize the actions of the Sri Lankan Army against the LTTE? The Ministry of Defence published a defence explaining how “the Government of Sri Lanka engaged in a military strategy against the LTTE, why Security Forces used the level of force they did, and how at each stage in the operation Sri Lanka took extraordinary steps to respect and protect the lives of civilians.”


On 16 March 1968, between 347 and 504 unarmed Vietnamese were slaughtered by soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division. Victims included civilian men, women, children, and babies. Women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated. On 14 March a patrol of C Company had triggered a booby trap that killed two men, tore the legs off two more and injured another two. Soldiers angry at the casualties saw a woman working in the fields. Private Greg Olsen, a Mormon, wrote to his father describing what happened: “They shot and wounded her. Then they kicked her to death and emptied their magazines in her head. They slugged every little kid they came across. Why in God’s name does this have to happen? These are all seemingly normal guys; some were friends of mine. For a while they were like wild animals. It was murder, and I’m ashamed of myself for not trying to do anything about it. This isn’t the first time, Dad. I’ve seen it many times before.”

The My Lai massacre was not a momentary lapse of reason. The slaughter lasted for several hours and at least 40 of C Company’s 105 men took an active part. The US army in Vietnam in 1968 was pervaded by a culture of cruelty. Phil Caputo wrote in his memoir of life with the US marines in Vietnam, A Rumour of War. “Many had petty jealousies, hatreds and prejudices. And an arrogance tempered their ingrained American idealism.” The overwhelming majority of US forces felt a cultural disdain for Vietnam’s inhabitants.

Twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, was convicted and given a life sentence. He only served three and a half years under house arrest. There were whistle-blowers. US servicemen who had tried to halt the massacre and rescue the hiding civilians were shunned, and even denounced as traitors Commanders ignored a report made by a helicopter pilot called Hugh Thompson, who for the rest of his life received hate mail and death threats. In March 1969 Ronald Ridenhour, a helicopter door-gunner, wrote to thirty members of Congress, describing atrocities that he had heard described in vivid detail by those who had participated in them. Private Tom Glen, a 21-year-old from Tucson wrote to Creighton Abrams, the US army’s commander-in-chief, describing the dreadful deeds that he had been told other units in his division had committed. Major Colin Powell, then 23rd Division staff officer and later US secretary of state, produced a whitewash report.

The ultimate function of soldiers is to kill. That is what they are trained and paid to do. In her profound book, The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry wrote: “the act of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation.” It is inevitable that armed conflict generates moral compromise. Nations emerge from wars with many moral questions. There is a kind of PTSD for nations as well as individuals.



The Numbers Game and Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking and Ethics

I have long gained deep intellectual satisfaction from the application of critical thinking. Critical thinking has been defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”[i]

A number of writers have analysed the obstacles to successful critical thinking. I have been assisted by reading the works of philosophers such as Nigel Warburton, Stephen Law, Jamie Whyte, AC Grayling, Raymond Williams, Alec Fisher and Anthony Weston. These writers describe the strategies often used to undermine critical thinking. I have also taken an interest in writings on ethics and have been guided by Bernard Williams, Peter Singer, Henry Sidgwick, Simon Blackburn, Sissela Bok and the Lord Buddha. I try to lead an ethical life.

Enemies of Reason

With this background, I would have expected to be able to engage in calm and rational discussion on most topics. Sadly, this has not always happened. I try to avoid any discussion of the policies and actions of the Israeli government because I know that my Zionist friends will eventually call me an anti-Semite. Similarly, it seems to be impossible to discuss Sri Lankan politics without encountering bizarrely false assumptions about my character, beliefs, allegiances and associations. I have been called a government stooge, a Sinhala-Buddhist Chauvinist (despite my Irish Catholic upbringing) and a Tiger sympathiser sent by sinister foreign agencies to undermine the state. Discussions about animal welfare can also be very fraught as there are many warring factions among animal lovers.

Kenan Malik

My taste for critical thinking with an ethical and humanist background led me to the writings of Kenan Malik, an Indian-born writer, lecturer and broadcaster who was brought up in Manchester. He studied neurobiology (at the University of Sussex) and history and philosophy of science (at Imperial College, London). He has lectured at a number of universities in Britain, Europe, Australia and the USA. He writes: “My main areas of academic interest are the history of ideas, the history and philosophy of science, the history and philosophy of religion, the philosophy of mind, theories of human nature, moral and political philosophy,  and the history and sociology of race and immigration. “

Malik has long campaigned for equal rights, freedom of expression, and a secular society. He has defended rationalism and humanism in the face of what he has called “a growing culture of irrationalism, mysticism and misanthropy”. Like me he campaigned for the Anti-Nazi League. He is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association and a trustee of the free-speech magazine Index on Censorship.

Unlike me, (although I was a subscriber to the paper Socialist Worker and accompanied them on many a protest march) in the 1980s, he was associated with a number of Marxist organisations, including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP).  Nick Cohen, the Observer columnist and author of What’s Left: How the Left Lost Its Way (2007), has called RCP “a vicious movement” and “the smallest and nastiest of the Trotskyist sects”. Malik stood for Birmingham Selly Oak in the 1992 general election, coming last out of six candidates with 84 votes. Malik wrote for the RCP’s magazine Living Marxism, later LM. Although the RCP has since disbanded, Malik has written for later incarnations of LM, and for its on-line successor, the British web magazine Spiked. Jenny Turner wrote in the London Review of Books about “the LM network’s habit of supporting freedom of expression for all sorts of horrible people: BNPers and child pornographers and atrocity deniers. Of course it’s only the right to speak that is supported, not what is said: members of the LM network are always careful to stress that they’re no less opposed to racism, sexual exploitation and mass murder than everybody else, it’s just that they think unpleasant opinions should be not banned but ‘battled’ with, in open debate.”[ii]

Opinion without Knowledge

The Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte wrote: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.” Voltaire wrote, “prejudice is opinion without judgement”. Opinion without knowledge, truth or logic can also foster prejudice.

Kenan Malik Comes to Sri Lanka

Mr Malik took the opportunity of his visit to the Galle Literary Festival in January 2016  to recycle the fictional figure of 40,000 plus civilian casualties at the end of the war against the LTTE.[iii] I have given this matter of “the numbers game” a great deal of thought. I have attended think tanks and seminars, had a long conversation with the author of the IADG report[iv], reviewed Gordon Weiss’s book on the subject,[v] had a dialogue with Callum McCrae and published several articles. I do not think that Mr Malik has studied the matter in so much depth.

I have no desire to whitewash the Rajapaksa government or the Sri Lankan military. I have looked at this matter in a perfectly calm and logical manner which is what I would have expected of a public intellectual with Mr Malik’s reputation. My conclusion is that the figure 40,000 cannot be correct and it is not helpful to any reconciliation process to continue to bandy it about.

Darusman Report

Mr Malik responds to criticism by Professor Michael Roberts by citing what he calls “The 2011 UN report on the final stages of the war.”[vi] In reality, this was not an official UN report but a report by a “panel of experts” called by the UN General Secretary as a preliminary to further investigation and action. The panel did not carry out any investigations of its own (and recognized that it had no mandate to do so) but had to rely on second-hand “evidence” that was not evidence in the normal sense of the word. The Marga Institute evaluation of the report said that this forced the panel “into an adversarial stance with the Government” in which it assumed the role of prosecutor. “The Panel’s dismissal of the Government’s position prevents it from making a more searching assessment of the military necessity claimed by the Government. It prevents the Panel from analyzing the crucial elements of intentionality and proportionality as should have been done in any investigation of war crimes in the Sri Lankan situation.”[vii] The Darusman report was also challenged in the report of the Paranagama Commission.[viii]

This is not the place to go into a further detailed analysis of the shortcomings of the Darusman Report. Mr Malik claims to have “done his homework” before coming to Sri Lanka but seemed to be unaware of the vast amount of research that has been done. Professor Michael Roberts has given an extensive list of citations on Mr Malik’s blog. Suffice it to say that the Darusman report is dishonest in the way it pumps up a previous UN figure of 7,221 civilian deaths and in the way it elides “credible allegations’” into self-evident proven war crimes.

In one of my articles I say: ‘Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.’ The Darusman report arrives at its figures by a process of recycling hearsay.

Moving the Goalposts

My sole point in my original critical comment on Mr Malik’s blog was that it was not helpful to cite the figure of 40,000 deaths upwards as if it was incontrovertible fact. I believed that he should have mentioned that there were many closely argued interpretations that set the figure much lower. In his response he shifted his ground and brought in the idea of “apologists for the Sri Lankan Army.”

“The question of numbers dead in the final phase is not central to the argument I was making. The figures I have come across vary from around 9,000 to around 100,000. I rejected the figures that came from either side in the war and took instead figures from independent third parties, such as the UN and ICEP. It may be that, as you say, these figures, too, are myths, and I have no reason to dispute your research (though I have not seen it in full). However, where the figures are disputed, it makes sense to settle for the more those provided by more objective collectors of those figures, which is what I did.”

I would contend that the figures I cited were even more objective as many of them were calculated by Tamils, including Navi Pillay of the UNHRC and the Tigers own website. To argue that, “The question of numbers dead in the final phase is not central to the argument I was making” is disingenuous. His argument now seems to be that the SLA deliberately targeted Tamil civilians. The true number of civilians killed is crucial to that very argument. If one takes a spectrum from the zero casualties ludicrously asserted by the government at one time, to the 147,000 claimed by Frances Harrison, zero casualties would demolish the contention that the SLA was targeting civilians (unless their aim was very poor). If it is true that 147,000 were killed the case for deliberate targeting becomes very strong. The numbers do matter.

Hypotheticals and Counterfactual History

I have never been a fan of counterfactual history or hypotheticals so I was not keen to take up the thought experiment posited here by Mr Malik:  “Suppose that I had written something critical of the actions of the Syrian government in the current civil war, and particularly of its mass killings of civilians. And suppose a respondent had suggested that the real problems lay not with the actions of the government forces but those of the al-Nusra Front and of the Islamic State, and that it is rebel activities that drives the Syrian government to take the actions that it does, an argument that can be heard quite loudly in certain parts of the media today. Would a robust response not be justified? And if it is justified in that case, why not in this case? (Before anyone jumps on me, the analogy I am making is not between the conflicts in Syria and Sri Lanka, but between the attempts to use insurgent actions as a means of justifying unjustifiable government actions).”

That seems to me to be rather feeble and unnecessary. He is assuming before he enters the discussion that the government actions are “unjustifiable”. He is explicitly comparing the situation in Syria with the situation in Sri Lanka at the same time as saying that he is not comparing. Why bring Syria up at all? I have coined an aphorism which I repeat in a most tiresome fashion at every opportunity: “The road to hell is paved with false analogies”. I most often use it when people try to compare the Irish peace process with what was happening in Sri Lanka. Martin McGuinness came here to tell us that a military solution to the Tiger problem was not feasible and that we must achieve a political solution through negotiation. I used to think that myself. I made the decision to come and live in Sri Lanka when Ranil Wickramesinhe, in his previous stint as prime minister, was maintaining a cease fire with the LTTE. I was very dismayed when Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated him in the 2005 presidential election. I was severely dismayed when the Rajapaksa government decided to try to defeat the Tigers militarily. I realize now that I was seriously mistaken.

Never mind about hypotheticals; why not keep it simple and concentrate on what actually happened in Sri Lanka? The LTTE used cease fires to regroup and re-arm. Peace talks had failed over many decades because Prabhakaran had no intention of compromising. Eventually, the legitimately constituted armed forces of a democratically elected government of a sovereign unitary state decided to make a determined effort to defeat a group that was systematically slaughtering civilians in order to set up a separate state.

War Crimes Apologist?

Mr Malik is putting words in Professor Robert’s mouth when he says he was arguing that “that the actions of the LTTE somehow justified the actions of the Sri Lankan Army”. I have read and re-read Professor Roberts’s words and he is saying nothing remotely like what Mr Malik attributes to him. This was not about revenge or what-aboutery. The actions of the SLA may legitimately be discussed and if necessary condemned but they did not behave badly because the LTTE behaved badly and Roberts is not arguing any such thing. Malik claims “You do not, as far as I can see, contest the empirical claim that the Sri Lankan Army fired into what it had declared to be No Fire Zones or on hospitals or civilian areas.” Michael Roberts[ix] and many others have indeed contested that claim.[x]

Universal Expertise

In his helpful book Thinking from A to Z, philosopher Nigel Warburton lists alphabetically the many tropes used to manipulate argument. One trope is “truth by authority”. Warburton writes: “Unwary members of the public may make the unreliable assumption that because someone is a recognised authority…in a particular area he or she must be capable of speaking with authority on any other subject”.

The problem is that when one covers a vast array of subjects, one exposes oneself to the danger of being downgraded from polymath to dilettante or to jack-of-all trades. There is no doubt that Noam Chomsky has a huge brain but his speciality is linguistics. Because he speaks with the authority of a specialist on that subject (although many other linguists disagree with him even about linguistics) that does not mean he speaks with equal authority on the many other issues on which he chooses to intervene.

I could never hope to have such a huge brain as Kenan Malik but there are some subjects on which, in all humility, I think I can speak with more authority than him because I have studied them in more detail than him.(Isiah Berlin’s essay about the hedgehog and the fox springs to mind.) I have assembled a good deal of evidence and opinion that convinces me that the oft-cited mantra that over 40,000 civilians were killed in the last days of the defeat of the LTTE is factually incorrect. Disagree with me if you wish but do so from a position of knowledge and do so with specifics and civility.

Tropes Employed by Online Commenters

My main interest here is, rather than going over the casualty figures yet again, is to discuss the manner in which my argument has been dealt with by Mr Malik and others. Some interesting tactics were employed. I found it impossible to get anyone to actually deal specifically with the different estimates of numbers killed.

One Facebook commenter chose to place his trust in the UN. He wrote: “I doubt if the UN plucked this figure out of thin air”. He ignored the many analyses which showed in detail why it seemed that the UN figure was plucked out of thin air. He then brought in some assumptions based on anecdotal ‘evidence’. “I personally had contact with several intelligence agencies from Canada, US, UK as well as Sri Lanka and Amnesty International”. At no point does he look at the various calculations of casualty figures and explain why he thinks they are incorrect. He does not explain why he does not accept criticisms of the Darusman Report but relies on faith: “The UN report was done by eminent legal personalities and it is doubtful if they would quote numbers which they cannot defend in a court of law. If not their reputation would be in tatters.”

Immunising Strategies

In his book Believing Bullshit philosopher Stephen Law uses the term “immunising strategies”. He shows how Young Earth Creationists counter the arguments of evolutionists by claiming that, however much evidence is presented, they will still claim it is provisional and incomplete. Those who claim high figures of civilian casualties dismiss contesting calculations with responses like: “It was a war without witnesses” or: “No-one can know without forensic evidence”. Well-argued estimates have been made which could be refuted or accepted. “Comparing high-resolution satellite images of the second No-Fire-Zone between February and April 19, indicates that the No-Fire-Zone as a whole did not witness anything like the scale of sustained bombardment required for there to have been more than 40,300 fatalities”. [xi]There were witnesses.[xii] Murali Reddy wrote in the Tamil Nadu magazine Frontline: “It must be said that the ‘journalistic team’ associated with TamilNet did a marvelous job of relaying the scenes of the last hours of Eelam War IV as they unfolded. Obviously, they were in regular touch with LTTE leaders in the war theatre. The news, nuggets and nuances that reflected in the TamilNet reportage, minus the blatant propaganda that both sides excelled in, gave a fairly good idea of the last hours and minutes as experienced and relayed by the last batch of Tiger cadre and the LTTE top brass.”

Guilt by Association

I asked one Facebook commenter to give his opinion on the many calculations which gave a lower figure of civilian casualties. I pointed out that many people had demolished the Darusman Report. He responded: “Those demolitions are in my humble opinion by personalities who are no match to the legal personalities who authored the report. All reports could be demolished, but on legal scrutiny I would suggest that the demolishers will get demolished”.

When I pressed on this point, he brought in Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin and said the calculations of one or two of the people estimating were “buddies of Gota”, the defence secretary and brother of the president. I responded : “I am not talking about Hitler, Mussolini etc. I am talking about different people’s views of how many civilian deaths there were in the final days of the defeat of the LTTE. I am merely asking you to specifically address those views. It is a common trope on comment threads to avoid discussion by saying ‘He’s not worth considering because he has an agenda or he is close to so and so or his father did blah’. You are not even being specific about which person is close to Gota. You cannot dismiss all the arguments because, according to you, some unnamed person is a buddy of Gota.”


He wanted to avoid dealing with the specific points that I was making by citing his superior inside knowledge. However, the very fact of his inside knowledge prevents him from naming names.  “I don’t want to be specific because both are known to me, one being a close friend for several decades. I repeatedly warned him to stay away from Gota. I accept that different views must be considered, but surely you should also be able to assess if certain views are even worth considering. I would seek enlightened views and discount pedestrian views “

I asked  why would Sir John Holmes (of the UN) , Navi Pillai (of the UNHRC), Tamil Net (website of the LTTE), Rohan Guneratna (of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research), the Voice of the Tigers (the LTTE media organisation) , the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Rajasingham Narendran , Muttukrishna Sarvananthan (of the Point Pedro Institute of Development), Dr Noel Nadesan, the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka, all come up with lower figures? Are they all buddies of Gota? Have you read any of their arguments?”

Do Numbers Matter?

The aim of the SLA was to defeat the enemy (at that point the most vicious terrorist group ever known) with as little harm to civilians as possible. It was not to punish Tamil civilians for the crimes of the LTTE. I do not believe that the aim was genocide of the Tamil people. I do not believe that civilians were targeted as a matter of policy. I do believe that the aim was to limit the number of civilian casualties as far as possible in a situation where the enemy was using its own people as human shields. Mr Malik has  every right to disagree with me about this, even though he is less well-informed than I or Professor Roberts. To state these beliefs does not make myself or Michael Roberts an ‘apologist’ for any atrocities that might have been committed by the Sri Lankan army. To use that loaded word is rather manipulative and dishonest.

In this context, the number of dead being cited is of crucial importance if one is making the assumption that the government deliberately engaged in the punitive “mass killing of civilians”. Mr Malik, having raised the issue brushes it aside when challenged as “not central to his argument”.


[i] Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.









[viii] file:///C:/Users/HP/Downloads/Maxwell_Paranagama_Final_Report.pdf








The President and the Press

Colman's Column3


As soon as the president was elected, he tried to co-opt into his project cabinet members and military officers of as wide a political variety as would cooperate with him. He used presidential patronage to gain the loyalty of newspaper owners, editors, and journalists. He enlisted many from the media to jobs as ambassadors, revenue collectors, postmasters or presidential aides as part of his strategy to save the unitary state from secession. The president gave one editor’s son a naval commission, making it unlikely that his paper would oppose a war in which his son was fighting. The president helped another editor to set up a new paper, which was given juicy government advertising. The editor was also given a senior and lucrative government post.

It was hard to manage the press in wartime. The president had to deal with the complaints of some journalists because some of his generals hated to have reporters anywhere near them. Some generals cultivated journalists in order to undermine the president.

The president felt compelled to curb some civil liberties because of war and had no compunction about silencing reporters who knew too much about troop movements. The president tried to stay out of squabbles his generals were having with journalists but many government departments joined in actions to restrict or censor newsgathering. The president generally just let this censorship happen, without taking the blame. Those who tried to bypass the censorship could end up in prison. When one editor was jailed for treason, other editors protested and the president re-opened the paper and released the editor but deported him.

The president could charm those who had been personally insulting to him or who had tried to undermine his conduct of the war. One previously hostile editor received a visit from the president and said: “Few men can make an hour pass away more agreeably. “ The president would make himself comfortable with his feet on the desk, recounting anecdotes , impressing with his knowledge of local politics and leaving behind new friends who could help him in the future.

All this is covered in a new book by Harold Holzer, Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion. Harold Holzer has been an authority on Abraham Lincoln for decades, served as a script consultant to the Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln, and wrote the official young readers’ companion book to the movie.

The book aims, Holzer writes, “to show how the leading figures in the intractably linked world of politics and the press waged a vigorous, often vicious, competition to determine which political belief system would emerge with more popular support and thus shape the national future.”

In 1861, 200 newspapers and their editors were subjected to scattershot menacing by federal agencies, civilian mobs or Union troops. A number of Democratic editors were imprisoned at Fort Lafayette in Brooklyn, which came to be known as the American Bastille. In 1864, more than 30 papers were attacked by mobs.

Lincoln believed that “with public sentiment nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” The telegraph, the new invention that made instant reporting possible, was moved to the office of Secretary of War Stanton to deny it to unfriendly newsmen.

From his earliest days, Lincoln was an avid reader of newspapers. As he started out in politics, he wrote editorials and letters to argue his case. Sometimes he wrote anonymously and sometimes his wife wrote on his behalf. In 1841, he was challenged to a duel after two had collaborated on a series of scurrilous letters from a fictitious “Rebecca” that vilified James Shields, a rising candidate in the Democratic Party. Lincoln spoke to the public directly through the press. He even bought a German-language newspaper to appeal to that growing demographic in his state. Lincoln massaged, pummelled, and manipulated the three most powerful publishers of the day: James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, Henry Raymond of the New York Times and Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune.

Even after so many years, there are those who are reluctant to believe that the civil war is over and wish to continue refighting the battles that Lincoln won. The mission of the Southern Sentinel ( is “Don’t settle for what the victors or the media give you as truth, get the other sides of the story before you believe. Be proud of who you are and where you come from. I am here to help teach and learn the Truth, especially when it comes to Southern Heritage, God, and my Family.”

Like the Global Tamil Forum, Southern Sentinel believes the president was guilty of many crimes. Here are some of them:

  • Lincoln waged a war that cost the lives of 620,000 Americans. He murdered 50,000 innocent Southern civilians.
  • He arrested thousands of Marylanders suspected of Southern sympathies, and imprisoned many without trial for several years.
  • He unconstitutionally suspended the writ of habeas corpus.
  • He illegally shut down the presses of critics and imprisoned journalists.
  • He re-instated and promoted an Army officer who had been cashiered for war crimes.
  • He issued an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice when he refused to back his illegal actions.
  • Chief Justice Roger B Taney ruled that Lincoln’s actions were illegal, criminal and unconstitutional.
  • He ordered Federal troops to interfere with Northern elections.
  • He had his Generals burn US cities full of women and children to the ground.

In The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, Thomas DiLorenzo argued that Lincoln instigated the American Civil War not over slavery but rather to centralize power in his own hands. DiLorenzo criticizes Lincoln for the suspension of habeas corpus, violations of the First Amendment, war crimes and the expansion of central government power. He asserts that, during the Civil War, Lincoln repeatedly flouted the law and often suspended the Constitution altogether.

To critics, General Sherman‘s “March to the Sea” was a marauding rampage of robbery, rape, and slaughter. Lincoln’s troops razed the South and doomed to poverty generations of Southerners for many years to come. According to critics, Northern armies targeted civilians and private property as a matter of official strategy.

Native Americans were dealt with harshly as well as militant separatists. Up to eight hundred white settlers were butchered during the first four days of a rampage by indigenous people. Minnesota statehood in 1858 had pushed the Dakota off their native lands. The Dakota were dependent upon government gold annuities that were promised by the land treaties, and upon the foods and sundries peddled by white traders. Government agents paid annuity moneys first to the traders who had given credit to the Dakota for goods purchased at highly over-inflated prices. Those Dakota who refused to give up their traditional ways were in an even worse position and spent many winters in near-starving conditions. In 1862, the financial cost of the Civil War was forcing austerity measures on the federal government, and there were persistent rumours that the Dakota would not get their annuity. After the US Army suppressed the uprising, it established a commission that condemned 303 Dakota men to death in trials that were clearly unjust. The commission had conducted 392 trials, including 40 in one day.

Federal law required the president’s approval of the death sentences. This was wartime; if Lincoln overturned all the convictions, his clemency could have led to mob violence in Minnesota. In the largest mass execution in American history, 38 were hanged on a mass gallows before thousands of spectators. In the next year, there was a punitive expedition against those Dakota who had escaped.

Lincoln is often viewed as a secular saint. It should not be forgotten that he was a consummate politician. He was also Commander in Chief in time of war. He won a brutal war. Harsh measures had to be taken. It is a mistake to think of any politician as a hero. Politics is a rough old trade calling on reserves of compromise and brutality that most of us would shudder at in ordinary life. That is even more so in wartime.


The Numbers Game. Marga Institute Seminar

This article was published in the Sunday Island on June 1, 2013


On May 16 a seminar was held at the Marga Institute to launch a publication by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka (IDAG-S) – The Numbers Game: Politics of Restorative Justice. I was at the seminar and will here attempt to provide an impression of the ideas generated in the discussion. This is in no way intended to be a formal record or set of minutes.

The members of the panel leading the discussion of the publication were Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, Chairman Emeritus of the Marga Institute, Asoka Gunawardena, Marga’s Executive Governor, and Raja Korale, an international statistics consultant. The open forum was moderated by Dr Nimal Gunatilleke.

The IDAG-S Report

Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, opened the proceedings by answering the question: “Do numbers matter”. He acknowledged that, while even a low number of casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures raised issues of the proportionality of the military response and the ethical position of the line of command. Continual recycling of spurious figures can only inhibit the healing process. Dr Dayan Jayatilleka agreed that the numbers do matter because the truth is a moral issue.

The Marga Institute had taken up this publication because it seemed authoritative enough to provide ammunition to persuade the UN to revisit its position on the numbers of civilian casualties in the final months of Eelam IV.

The provenance of the report encouraged confidence in its impartiality and competence. The IDAG-S is a think tank of academics, professionals and analysts from the Sri Lankan diaspora in Europe, North America and Australia. The lead author is an aerospace engineer who was able to bring a wide range of multidisciplinary skills to the task.

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 which casts doubt on some of the calculations being peddled. Dr Gunatilleke found the high-resolution satellite images included in the report impressive. These had not been published so comprehensively elsewhere. These satellite images show that shells fired by the SLA from February to May mostly avoided concentrations of civilians and in the final weeks had used hardly any artillery.

Remembrance and Amnesia

There was a strong theme at the seminar of the need to acknowledge the size of the catastrophe. Those who are citing inflated figures are making a demand for reckoning based on the assumption that we did not care. That exaggeration in turn prompts a bunker mentality among the victors who are reluctant to admit to a figure of civilian dead for fear of a litigious reaction.

Ernest Renan observed that nation-building requires amnesia as well as invention. In some countries memorials and commemorative days are seen as part of the healing process. Elsewhere, remembering is felt to be dangerous. In Rwanda, 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. Remembering might inflame old hatreds. Cambodia celebrates a Day of Remembrance on My 20 each year. It used to be called the National Day of Hatred.

How do we strike a balance between remembering and the infantile abuse that too depressingly often passes for comment on the websites of newspapers. How do we contrive a discourse that notes the mistakes of the past without allowing the armchair conflict junkies from forcing further mistakes to be made?

Victory parades are not a helpful form of commemoration despite claims that that there are no longer any minorities, only Sri Lankans. Michael Roberts warns against “hegemonic incorporation” of this nature. “Constitutional fiat cannot transform minds, especially entrenched mindsets. Multiple strategies are required. Political imagination is called for, both from President Rajapaksa and his advisors as well as eminent minds attached to this their land.”

Accountancy and Accountability

The war arose from a constellation of issues, not just as a reaction to grievances. The government’s foreign service and highly-paid PR consultants have dismally failed to convey this and to let the world know the true nature of the LTTE and the kind of war it fought. GOSL needs to convey the truth about battle. Jim Grant of UNICEF had commended the government for still continuing to provide services in conflict zones. The world was not aware of this. The government has allowed the LTTE rump to convince some sections of western opinion that GOSL was following a policy of extermination. GOSL has not made the case that it took 11,000 LTTE prisoners alive and rehabilitated many of them.

On the other hand, there was a consensus that civil society must engage with the GOSL focusing on the LLRC recommendations on the process of collective atonement and that leadership on this needs to be given by the President.

It would have been surprising if there had not been some atavistic and brutal reaction from some soldiers who witnessed horrible things happening to their comrades and lived under traumatic fear themselves. The IDAG-S conclusion states clearly: “Nothing in this survey denies the probability and the evidence that some extra-judicial killings of high-ranking LTTE officers occurred during the last days of the war. These actions need to be impartially investigated by an independent body, and where possible criminal indictments pursued against the perpetrators.”

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

In 2009, the Banyan column in the Economist said: “It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.”

IDAG-S consider that some critics , such as Frances Harrison and Alan Keenan have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity / morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”

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.

Way Forward

At the conclusion of the seminar, the question was posed: “How can we engage in the international debate and how can civil society encourage the implementation of LLRC recommendations on issues relating to humanitarian law and civilian casualties?”

Pradeep Jaganathan stressed the need to raise public consciousness and make people realise that we are all responsible and accountable for what took place during the last 30 years – through sins of commission and omission, hate, apathy, failure to speak up.

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka proposed establishing a group to review the study and make necessary recommendations to GOSL which could be used in the international debate. Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke thought it important that we address the moral responsibility and accountability of all actors in the conflict, including the TNA, and not solely the state. What is the universalist framework for an understanding of this whole tragedy of war and human suffering?


The Fog of War – Channel 4 and the Fog of Words

This article was published in the Sunday Island on August 27, 2011


“You are hearing it through the crackling radio and it’s the fog of war stuff and it is difficult to make crystal-clear perfect decisions all the time.”



The Lambeth Borough Police Commander, Nick Ephgrave, said he “bitterly regretted” not containing the Brixton riot. The same words were used to excuse the slaying of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian gunned down by police at Stockwell tube station, also in Lambeth.



Reports are coming in of British soldiers mutilating Taliban corpses and sexually abusing under-age Iraqi boys.


The fog of war?



Factoids and Churnalism



In Lakbima News June 26 2011, Namini Wijedasa interviewed Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. She said the Channel 4 programme called on viewers to make many inferences.



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



Heyns says “there were no outside witnesses” but is confident “the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern”. This evidence includes allegations made in the report of the Moon advisory panel. Most of the panel’s material came from the NGOs that Heyns also mentions. Heyns is making a case which  seems to be strengthened by the fact that allegations are being made by Channel 4, several NGOs and Moon’s advisory panel. In actuality, they are all drawing on the same unreliable source material and churning it up.



Jon Snow introduces the Channel 4 programme by saying that at the war’s end “as many as 40,000, and possibly far more, civilians were killed”. That is meaningless. How can one say “as many as” and “possibly far more” in the same sentence?






The government produced experts who attested the original video was a fake but these experts were not expert enough for the critics.  UN Rapporteur  Philip Alston said his experts (Peter Diaczuk, an “expert in firearms evidence”, Daniel Spitz, a “forensic pathologist”, and Jeff Spivack, an “expert in forensic video analysis”) prove its authenticity . Alston conceded that there were some “characteristics of the video which the experts were unable to explain”  but asserted that “each of these characteristics can, however, be explained in a manner entirely consistent with the conclusion that the videotape appears to be authentic.”



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



The Experts



Experts have a great deal of influence. Forensic experts put the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four in jail for 15 years for crimes they did not commit.



Who are these experts who convinced Philip Alston and Stephen Sacker?



  • Spitz  was appointed Medical Examiner for Macomb County, Michigan by his father who had the job before him. He achieved notoriety by ruling an execution-style death as suicide missing the   bullet hole in the neck and the bullet in the jaw.



  • Fredericks  is not trained in photogrammetry and has no more expertise than a layperson. He lied in court about his company’s ties to Taser, and supported a police cover-up.



  • Spivack is a not very successful self-employed private investigator (he filed bankruptcy in 2003),with little verifiable work experience, and flaky credentials.



Unreliable Witnesses



The Channel 4 commentary does not make it clear who Damilvany Gnanakumar is. She was a Tamil Tiger who was ordered to work in Mullivaykkal hospital by Castro. In London, she was women’s co-ordinator for the Tamil Youth Organisation an LTTE front. In Kilinochchi she was assigned to work with foreign media and was described by a former colleague called Prabakaran as a “news correspondent”. He said she had been trained to use firearms and wore a cyanide capsule around her neck. As long ago as September 2009, Gnanakumar was discredited. Why is Channel 4 still treating her as an independent witness?






Rape is a terrible crime. Rape as a systematic policy and weapon of war is even more appalling.



The Darusman Report says on Page 152:



“Rape and sexual violence against Tamil women during the final stages of the conflict and in the immediate aftermath are greatly under-reported. Cultural sensitivities and associated stigma prevented victims from reporting such crimes even to their relatives”.



What does under-reported actually mean? It can only mean that some rapes were unreported because of stigma. One might ask how the panel can be confident that such crimes occurred  if they were unreported. One might say that rape is bound to happen in war but such assumptions cannot be offered as “evidence”. The report continues: “There are many indirect accounts reported by women of sexual violence and rape by members of Government Forces”. There is a double distancing here which makes it difficult to understand what actually happened or what is being alleged. What does indirect accounts mean? Can it mean anything other than hearsay? It seems to be saying women who had not been raped themselves heard stories from other people who also had not been raped that some other women had said someone had been raped.



Credibility and Truthiness



Heyns’s phrase: “In the context of all the available evidence” seems to mean that if enough dodgy allegations are gathered together their critical mass bestows credibility. If a rumour appears on a lot of websites or blogs, the mere accumulation is seen as proof.



The word “credible” is used often in the Darusman Report but there is no substance behind the currency. The report uses a lot of fudging words like “if proven” and reiterates many charges that have been presented without substantiation for over two years. Allegations become “credible allegations” and morph into “credible evidence”.



Channel 4 deploys a great number of factoids (a term coined by Norman Mailer and defined by the OED as “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact” –  something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but, in fact,  is not a fact.  Stephen Colbert calls it Veritasiness –  “truthiness”, common sense, received wisdom, truths that are self-evident in the gut, regardless of reality. “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”. Stephen Sacker was full of truthiness in his  Hard Talk haranguing of Rajiva Wijesinha. Everybody knows the SLA was shelling hospitals so why are you denying it? Experts have deemed the Channel 4 footage genuine, so who are you to deny it?



There is no room for truth in the world of soundbites.


David Miliband – War Criminal

This article was published in the Sunday Island on September 17, 2011

Edward Pearce wrote thus of David Miliband on his London Review of Books blog: “Miliband, as foreign secretary (not the job it was, but the sort of empty chair that still rates gilt legs), responded to the killing in Gaza a year ago, largely by artillery, of 1200 men, women and children, with another silence…In truth, the man is a beautifully modulated void. Moderately young, pleasant spoken, nicely null, he has worked in politics, from outer office to the FO, all his graceful, inconsiderable life.”

David Miliband is clearly one of yesterday’s men but does not appear to realise it. After peevishly slinking away following his defeat by his baby brother, he has taken to advising the USA, in the New York Times and at MIT (one of his alma maters).
Simon Jenkins in the Guardian mocked his interference in Sri Lanka at the end of the war against the LTTE: “a rudimentary study of the past three months of fighting would have told Miliband that a ceasefire would be pro-Tamil [Tiger], not just ‘pro-humanitarian’. He compounded his demand by damning the ‘indiscriminate’ shelling of Tamil civilians. How he could do this while supporting the bombing of Pashtun civilians along the Afghan border is a mystery….The conflict was not ended by this rhetorical intervention. No lives were saved, no British interest served.”

I first became aware of the Miliband band sitting under the imposing dome of Manchester Central Reference library, ploughing through Parliamentary Socialism, a seminal work by the dad of the Miliband boys, Ralph Miliband. In 1967, Ralph wrote in the Socialist Register that “the US has, over a period of years been engaged in the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children, the maiming of many more” and that the United States’s “catalogue of horrors” against the Vietnamese people was being done “in the name of an enormous lie”. He went on to say that the US Government “made no secret of the political and diplomatic importance it attached to the unwavering support of a British Labour Government”.

What would Miliband pére have made of Tony Blair’s adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan? What would he have made of little David condoning torture? Andy McSmith of The Independent noted that the elder figure had a “nobility and a drama” that was lacking in David and Ed’s “steady, pragmatic political careers”.

Gareth Pierce is a distinguished human rights lawyer who helped free Irish people wrongly convicted by the British government. She wrote: “Torture is the deliberate infliction of pain by a state on captive persons. It is prohibited and so is the use of its product. The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment emphasises that there are no exceptional circumstances at all justifying its use” According to Pierce, the British, during the Mandate period in Palestine, in Kenya and Northern Ireland mastered the art of the “lesser” tradition of stress torture, forced standing, forced sitting and choking with water, exposure to extremes of heat and cold, and suspension. “These tortures were clean and allowed for plausible denial not because they are less painful, but because they leave less of a visible mark.” Nonetheless, these tortures produce agonising muscle pain. The kidneys eventually shut down.

When Miliband became foreign secretary in June 2007, there were already allegations about possible British involvement in overseas torture by other countries’ intelligence services. Ironically, the UK’s involvement in the revolution in Libya has brought to light evidence of its dirty dealings with Quadaffi. Libyan Islamist Sami al-Saadi, also known as Abu Munthir, claims that in 2004 he and his family were detained by MI6 and handed over to authorities in Libya, who tortured him. Documents show that MI5 gave Tripoli reports on Libyan dissidents living in Britain and identified at least one organisation using UK telephone numbers.

Current foreign secretary William Hague’s response is that this happened under a Labour government and will be investigated by the Gibson Inquiry. According to the Guardian: “torture victims will have no right to put questions to those allegedly complicit in their abuse, even through lawyers. They will not be allowed to know what evidence is given by the security services on their torture and illegal rendition, while the final word on whether any of this will be made public rests not with the judge but the cabinet secretary. In a proper judicial inquiry, Sir Peter Gibson, a former intelligence services commissioner who had the task of monitoring MI5 and MI6, would be appearing not as a judge but as a potential witness.”

Jack Straw, not Miliband, was foreign secretary at the time that Britain was helping Libyans to be tortured. Gareth Pierce wrote about Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian given leave to reside in the UK, in the London Review of Books:

“British intelligence and the Americans and Moroccans for 18 months slashed the most intimate parts of his body with razors, burned him with boiling liquids, stretched his limbs causing unimaginable agony, and bombarded him with ferocious sound.”
Binyam Mohamed claimed Moroccan interrogators tortured him by using scalpels or razor blades to repeatedly cut his penis and chest.
As David Miliband was personal advisor to Tony Blair while Labour was in opposition and played a major role in the election victory of 1997, it seems unlikely that he was unaware of what was happening before he became foreign secretary.

As Philippe Sands writes, he cannot avoid charges of complicity demonstrated by his actions as foreign secretary: “he could have announced that he wanted to establish a proper inquiry. He didn’t do that – and was a senior member of a government that later actively resisted calls for an inquiry. That is not to say he was idle throughout this period; he seems to have put considerable energy into defending a number of claims in the English courts relating to torture against his department.”

A special investigation, published in the 29 August issue of the New Statesman, showed how British troops regularly hand over suspected insurgents to the Afghan authorities with little guarantee that they will not be tortured.

Miliband personally approved some interrogations involving countries with poor human rights records. While campaigning for the Labour leadership Miliband was forced to confront claims he allowed the interrogation of three terror suspects who allege they were tortured in Bangladesh and Egypt. Faisal Mostafa, a chemistry lecturer from Manchester, who has twice been cleared of terrorism offences in court, was detained in Bangladesh. He claims he was hung upside down and electrocuted while interrogators interrogated him about two Islamist groups.

Philippe Sands was Binyam Mohamed’s lawyer. He discussed a letter sent to him by Miliband: “Was it wise to defend cases in circumstances where he had seen documents that showed that MI5 officers knew a British resident had been tortured yet continued to provide questions via the CIA? Miliband fought and lost a series of cases that can and should have been resolved by other means. That raises a question of judgment. The evidence now available, much of which emerged from those cases, indicates a colourable case in support of claims that Britain was complicit in torture after 9/11. Responsibility for such complicity could lie at the feet of rogue intelligence officers, who may have been off on a frolic. Or it could lie with those ministers who signed off on the relevant guidance, assuming they did…Many would not be surprised if all roads led to Tony Blair (who described Guantánamo as ‘understandable’ in his memoir)…It is not unusual to hear the suggestion that Miliband’s actions may have been motivated in part by a desire to protect the reputation of his colleagues… His attitude to the Iraq war is equally unhappy, invoking the refrain that ‘if I knew then what I know now I would have voted against’. This recognises that the war was the wrong decision but falls well short of an expression of regret”.

Ralph Miliband died in 1994, before New Labour came to power. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery close to Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer (Marx and Spencer!) and is probably rotating in his grave. Hilary Wainwright wrote in Red Pepper that Ralph Miliband displayed: “a notable modesty, refusal of sectarianism and a combination of deep socialist conviction with constant interrogation of established views, including his own. Such characteristics meant, incidentally, that the only kind of leadership in which he was ever interested was teaching and encouraging others, in every possible form.”

She continued: “An ironic side effect of the distinctly tarnished campaign for the Labour throne (tarnished by the toxic record of New Labour – a group of privatisers, torturers and warmongers as far removed from the founders of the Labour Party as fire from water) is that Ralph’s thinking has once again been able to shine.”
Gareth Pierce on the UK’s hypocrisy: “We inhabit the most secretive of democracies, which has developed the most comprehensive of structures for hiding its misdeeds, shielding them always from view behind the curtain of ‘national security’. From here on in we should be aware of the game of hide and seek in which the government hopes to ensure that we should never find out its true culpability.”

The UN Convention requires that wherever the torture occurred and whatever the nationality of the torturer or victim, parties must prosecute or extradite perpetrators to a country that is willing to prosecute them.

Could a Sri Lankan lawyer build a case to prosecute David Miliband for condoning torture?

Why does Everybody Hate Sri Lanka?

A Facebook friend asked me to explain why the Sri Lankan government has come under such criticism. A recent example was David Cameron’s November 2013 visit to Sri Lanka for CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of government Meeting). “Can you tell me why you think the country is coming in for criticism? Did the Tamil Tigers manage to get favourable international media coverage? Can you fill me in a little on how they were defeated and why Sri Lanka gets criticised for that?”

I have written about this in the past and, after receiving that question, canvassed the views of my Sri Lankan contacts.

“No one likes us, we don’t care”

In the late 70s, Millwall football fans in the Cold Blow Lane stand  used to sing this to the tune of Rod Stewart’s (We Are) Sailing (written by the Sutherland Brothers). This was in response to sustained criticism of their behaviour and the media assumption that Millwall fans were the worst kind of hooligans. Various commentators, including Rod Liddle, have questioned why the name of Millwall became synonymous with hooliganism, creating a siege mentality amongst ordinary, law-abiding Millwall fans.

South London writer Michael Collins wrote: “At the end of the 19th century around the time Millwall FC was formed, middle-class journalists used to descend on the area like Baudelaireian flaneurs, to report on the urban working class as though they were discovering natives from the remote islands of the Empire.”

It is interesting that Rod Liddle is one of the few English journalists to have criticised David Cameron’s flaneurist behaviour in Colombo recently. Liddle wrote in The Spectator back in 2005 about a riot at a game between Liverpool and Millwall after which three Liverpool supporters were jailed. The FA exonerated Liverpool and fined Millwall. Liddle commented: “the FA wished to make a political point and saw Millwall – a small club, unfashionable and not especially popular as an ideal target.”

Here is the title of Liddle’s recent article on the London Sunday Times blog about Cameron’s behaviour in Sri Lanka: “That s the president of Sri Lanka, PM, not one of your fags”. American readers should note that “fag” refers in this instance to the system of servitude in English schools for toffs like Cameron. A fag at Eton would be bullied by the Bullingdon Club.

Genuine Concern

I will have a look at the simplest answer first. What if criticisms of Sri Lanka are fair? What if Cameron, William Hague and Alistair Burt are acting from a genuine concern for human rights? What if Stephen Harper and Barack Obama genuinely want to see justice done in Sri Lanka?

There are certainly many things that could be improved in Sri Lanka.

  • The 18th amendment to the constitution was a bad idea.
  • The impeachment of the Chief Justice showed the government in a bad light.
  • It is not good for the army to shoot dead unarmed protesters.
  • For ordinary people the never-ending grind of rising prices is debilitating.

One of my respondents said: “I think, perhaps the UK is concerned that more civilians have been killed than they were assured would be, and they feel some guilt for not having intervened in 2009”.

Unfortunately, Cameron, Harper and Obama invite the charge of hypocrisy by focusing on what happened in the final months of the military action that defeated the Tamil Tigers. People in Sri Lanka are likely to say what about Iraq, Kenya, Guantanamo, drone strikes?

Cameron’s thinking seems to be directed by simplistic sound bites that totally discount the realities of war.


The Sri Lankan government was proud of its victory and keen to share its experience with the world. The Ministry of Defence organised seminars to which it invited foreign observers. The third of these was held in September 2013. There were many calls from human rights organisations to boycott the seminars. US Defense Attaché to Sri Lanka, LTC Lawrence Smith, attended the 2011 seminar and questioned the credibility of surrender offers made by senior LTTE leaders. He got in trouble because of it. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “My understanding is that the defense attaché was there as an observer and a note taker. His comments reflected his personal opinions. There’s no change in the policy of the United States, and his remarks do not reflect any change in our policy.”

In his article in The Atlantic dated 1 July 2009 entitled To Catch a Tiger, Robert D Kaplan acknowledged the success of the Sri Lankan government in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Kaplan admitted that tiny, cash-strapped Sri Lanka, generally thought of as ”third world” or ”developing”, has succeeded where the mighty USA has failed. The man who dominated Sri Lankan life for the worse for thirty years, Vellupillai Prabakharan, leader of the Tamil Tigers, was dead, while Osama Bin Laden was, at the time, still living, a free man.

Kaplan asks if the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s success but answers:

”These are methods the U.S. should never use.”

My detailed critique of Kaplan is here:

The gist of my critique is that the US has, indeed, used methods far worse.

A respondent in Colombo says: “as you know, the Sri Lankan side refused  to carry out the wishes of the UK and US embassies during those last hours of the ending of the war. They now think that we should be taught a lesson for being naughty. It’s stupid and shows a total misreading of the realities on the ground of that time.”

Domestic Electoral Considerations

Many of the Sri Lankans that I canvassed for this article made the point that western politicians were motivated by electoral concerns.

A respondent who lives in Toronto, a hot-bed of pro-LTTE activity, told me: “The only answer that I can give would be the ‘local politics’ in any country…It is a fact that the elite and the influential and the rich, English-speaking Tamils live either in Colombo or in England /Canada…“All these English politicians have figured out that the diaspora is a deciding factor in winning elections.  … They need the diaspora which has money to spend on them and get them to power. The Tamil diaspora is pretty much active in Toronto, unlike the Lazy/divided/ Sinhala Buddhist diaspora”.

A Sri Lanka resident echoed that view: “LTTE supporters among the Diaspora are part of the electoral constituencies of some of the political leadership in the UK, Canada and the US and are exerting pressure on them.”

The release by WikiLeaks of a batch of diplomatic cables endorsed this view.  Then UK foreign secretary, David Miliband visited Sri Lanka towards the end of the war against the LTTE, pressing for a ceasefire and negotiations. Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa scolded him and reminded him that Sri Lanka was no longer a British colony. The cables reveal that Miliband exerted his influence to get Sri Lanka’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games rejected: the UK did not want Sri Lanka to be given legitimacy for its actions in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Another cable revealed that Miliband supported US efforts to delay an IMF loan to Sri Lanka.

In a cable dated 7 May 2009, the British Foreign Office “Sri Lanka team leader”, Tim Waite, wrote that, with UK elections soon due, and with many Tamils living in marginal UK constituencies, the UK government was calling for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka and would later pay close attention to the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. Miliband said that he was spending 60% of his time on Sri Lanka. Miliband and his aides wrote about “ratcheting up” the case for humanitarian relief efforts: “[That] cable,” said one Sri Lankan writer, “exposes how a matter of a few thousand British votes took priority over the fate of a small state battling against a ruthless terrorist enemy”

Before the November 2013 CHOGM, Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh had warned Cameron that UK participation in Colombo would be nothing but endorsement of the massacre of civilians. McDonagh represents Mitcham and Morden in the  south London Borough of Merton (an area in which I lived for ten years). She likes to present an image of left-wing libertarianism and sell herself as a champion of human rights. However, her voting record in the House of Commons tells a different story. Siobhain McDonagh voted very strongly FOR the Iraq invasion, very strongly AGAINST an investigation into the Iraq war, very strongly FOR Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, very strongly FOR introducing ID cards, very strongly FOR a stricter asylum system. Her libertarianism and concern for human rights seems very selective.

The Wimbledon Guardian, which I fondly remember as being full of rapes and perverts (how unlike the Wimbledon I knew and loved) reported that McDonagh was given a petition signed by 196 residents at Morden’s Civic Centre on October 10 2008. “Representatives from the British Tamil Forum met Siobhain McDonagh to ask for support in tackling human rights abuses. They asked her to join the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, a group of MPs campaigning to highlight the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka.”

The subtext is that McDonagh recognised that the support of pro-LTTE campaigners might be useful to her in her constituency. Hers is by no means a safe Labour seat. She won it from Conservative Dame Angela Rumbold on her third attempt. It would require a 16.4% swing for her to lose it. McDonagh had a majority of 13,666 in 2010. A Tamil with Muslim support, Rathy Alagaratnam, was an independent who ran against her in 2010 and 2005. McDonagh’s parliamentary work-rate is not impressive. She is below average for the number of times she has spoken in debates, and for her written questions. She is well below average for the number of times she has voted in the Commons.


Robert O Blake was US ambassador in Colombo at war’s end. Later, he moved to the State Department. Blake caused some alarm in Sri Lanka when he made a statement before the Senate subcommittee on the Middle East (West Asia) and South Asia. His address included a telling phrase. This was the first time he had  gone on record to publicly state, “Positioned directly on the shipping routes that carry petroleum products and other trade from the Gulf to East Asia, Sri Lanka remains of strategic interest to the US.”

Once in Sri Lanka, he tried to soft-pedal. ”In my official meetings today, I assured the Sri Lankan government that the US is committed to a strong long-term partnership with Sri Lanka and that reports of our alleged support for ‘regime change’ have no basis whatsoever. I expressed support for the government’s efforts to recover from its devastating civil war, and encouraged further steps towards reconciliation, and a peaceful, united, democratic Sri Lanka. I think the government has made some positive progress. It is very important that this progress be sustained. ”

One of my respondents noted “a certain amount of concern with regard to SL’s lean towards China, and away from India, the latter being ‘one of us, as it were”.

Profit and Globalisation

A respondent who had migrated to Australia but is now back in Colombo told me: “UK is hell-bent on criticizing us to make the LTTE rump in UK happy. Their dream was to see the creation of an Eelam here. Many Western nations are angry with us because they profited from this war by being able to sell arms but today it is not possible thanks to peace. No matter what we do, UK will think that we are still their colony!”

Another respondent who lives in Sri Lanka told me: “The neo-colonial powers want to push through globalisation, which reduces national sovereignty, and hence the power of governments to interfere with global corporations. Weak governments are made weaker by separatism. Western criticism of the GoSL was muted while JR (President Jayewardene) was in power, although it began to get shriller after Sri Lanka strayed into India’s ambit. However, the real escalation of criticism took place after Sri Lanka became part of China’s zone of influence.”

Arrogance and Hypocrisy

When David Miliband became foreign secretary in June 2007, there were already allegations about possible British involvement in overseas torture by other countries’ intelligence services. Ironically, the UK’s involvement in the revolution in Libya brought to light evidence of its dirty dealings with Quadaffi. Libyan Islamist Sami al-Saadi, also known as Abu Munthir, claims that in 2004, he and his family were detained by MI6 and handed over to authorities in Libya, who tortured him. Documents show that MI5 gave Tripoli reports on Libyan dissidents living in Britain and identified at least one organisation using UK telephone numbers.

In the London Review of Books, Gareth Pierce wrote about Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian given leave to reside in the UK. “British intelligence and the Americans and Moroccans for 18 months slashed the most intimate parts of his body with razors, burned him with boiling liquids, stretched his limbs causing unimaginable agony, and bombarded him with ferocious sound.” Binyam Mohamed claimed Moroccan interrogators tortured him by using scalpels or razor blades to repeatedly cut his penis and chest.

As David Miliband was personal advisor to Tony Blair while Labour was in opposition and played a major role in the election victory of 1997, it seems unlikely that he was unaware of what was happening before he became foreign secretary.

Philippe Sands was Binyam Mohamed’s lawyer. He wrote that Miliband cannot avoid charges of complicity demonstrated by his actions as foreign secretary: “he could have announced that he wanted to establish a proper inquiry. He didn’t do that – and was a senior member of a government that later actively resisted calls for an inquiry. That is not to say he was idle throughout this period; he seems to have put considerable energy into defending a number of claims in the English courts relating to torture against his department.”

A special investigation, published in the 29 August issue of the New Statesman, showed how British troops regularly handed over suspected insurgents to the Afghan authorities with little guarantee that they would not be tortured.

Miliband personally approved some interrogations involving countries with poor human rights records. While campaigning for the Labour leadership Miliband was forced to confront claims that he allowed the interrogation of three terror suspects who allege they were tortured in Bangladesh and Egypt. Faisal Mostafa, a chemistry lecturer from Manchester, who has twice been cleared of terrorism offences in court, was detained in Bangladesh. He claims he was hung upside down and electrocuted while interrogators interrogated him about two Islamist groups.

Sands wrote: “Many would not be surprised if all roads led to Tony Blair (who described Guantánamo as ‘understandable’ in his memoir)…It is not unusual to hear the suggestion that Miliband’s actions may have been motivated in part by a desire to protect the reputation of his colleagues… His attitude to the Iraq war is equally unhappy, invoking the refrain that ‘if I knew then what I know now I would have voted against’. This recognises that the war was the wrong decision but falls well short of an expression of regret”.

The British adopted a rather superior tone about the Americans in Iraq. They claimed that British  experience in Northern Ireland made them experts at counter-insurgency in urban areas. News reports now coming out suggest that their methods included under-cover agents shooting unarmed civilians.

Gareth Pierce on the UK’s hypocrisy: “We inhabit the most secretive of democracies, which has developed the most comprehensive of structures for hiding its misdeeds, shielding them always from view behind the curtain of ‘national security’. From here on in we should be aware of the game of hide and seek in which the government hopes to ensure that we should never find out its true culpability.”

The Press

Professor Michael Roberts makes the point that western journalists felt a sense of solidarity with beleaguered Sri Lankan journalists and were unlikely to give the Rajapaksa government the benefit of any doubt. I have dealt in detail elsewhere with the distorted churnalism that emerged as a result of this.

Professor Roberts cites the example of an article in the London Times in early July 2009, by Jeremy Page. Page told the world that 1,400 people were dying every week at the Menik Farm IDP camp. No evidence was provided to support this. No evidence could be provided because it was just not true. Page quickly moved on to deal with the Eastern province where there were no camps and the war had ended two years previously. The government had asked the Red Cross to scale down its operations in the east because the situation was under control. Page elided this with the canard about deaths at Menik Farm to give the impression that the government was callously booting out the Red Cross while people were dying.

The LTTE propaganda machine took global advantage of this.The western media were and are prone to see the Tamils (and thus the LTTE) as underdogs. My Toronto respondent said this: “ The LTTE collected millions during their tenure so that money still can be used to fight a different kind of war…. Many media organizations have been bought by the diaspora to work from them for example CP24 here in Toronto has connections , and the money can buy publicity easily while the truth takes a long time to emerge of its own.”

Displacement and Diversion

My Toronto respondent continued: “The US/UK  are getting hit for their own human rights blunders so they need something to hold on to. Even at the UN, while Syria was burning, they paid attention to Sri Lanka where there is peace now. They will make a big issue next time to play the cover up game of their own for sure. This will not stop for another generation until such time our kids grow up as they are the only diaspora that was not affected by war. They get the education they deserve and will one day work against it.”

Siobhan McDonagh tried to explain her support for the invasion of Iraq and her opposition to an inquiry: “Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do.” That seems to distance herself from any direct personal responsibility. McDonagh declared: “We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs.” How about deposing that murderous tyrant Prabakharan? What about the Sri Lankan soldiers who fought in good faith?

Confirmation of the hypocrisy of the US, UK and EU always plays well in Sri Lanka; and the WikiLeaks cables revealed what everyone already knew about the use of cluster bombs and abuse of civilians by the US and UK. Freedom of speech is an important issue for the West when it deals with Sri Lanka, and there was much legitimate concern about the murder of the Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. Yet western politicians have called for Julian Assange to be assassinated and the whistleblower Chelsea (Bradley) Manning has not been  treated kindly.

Rod Liddle

I will leave the last word with Rod Liddle:  “Ah, off you go, Dave. The reason that you can go to Jaffna at all is that this Rajapaksa-wallah, over the course of three years, eliminated the terrorist threat of the Tamil Tigers. The country is now at peace, not merely economically stable but with a rate of economic growth that would inflame the loins of George Osborne. I dare say Rajapaksa has been a ruthless authoritarian, that not everything he has accomplished would earn the approval of the European Court of Human Rights. But for 26 years the murderous, maniacal Tamil Tigers waged war in Sri Lanka  -assassinations, suicide attacks, using children as hostages, planting bombs. And they were able to do so thanks to the money that flooded in largely from the UK via the Tamil diaspora in, mostly, London.

For decades we turned a blind eye to the relentless fundraising for these terrorists and the Tamil Tigers were themselves only proscribed as a terrorist organisation (rather than lauded as freedom fighters) in 2001, a year, incidentally, when we all opened our eyes to terrorism. So maybe after ticking off this gentleman for the way he runs his country, a short apology from Cameron might not go amiss.”

Long War, Long Book


Reflections on Long War, Cold Peace by Dayan Jayatilleka.

This review appeared in the Sunday Island on June 30 2013.

As the paper’s website does not allow comments, I am posting it again here.

Varied Career

As well as being a diplomat, Dr Jayatilleka has been an urban guerrilla, political activist, active politician and academic political scientist. His book on the political thought of Fidel Castro was published by Pluto Press in London. His latest book  brings much inside knowledge to  a detailed narrative of Sri Lanka’s war and links it to issues of global significance.

Realism – Justification of War

Other reviewers  have drawn out a particular emphasis on the ethics of violence and the concept of a just war. Jayatilleka  argues that violence is common in the real world and it is  often necessary for the state to sanction  violence to protect itself and its people. This does not justify ‘‘terrorism targeting unarmed, non-combatant civilians; torture and arbitrary execution of prisoners; executions within the organization; and lethal violence against political prisoners’’.

When he was Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva he was able to fend off international criticism of the way Sri Lanka had won its war. In the book he rehearses the argument he made in Geneva.

“Sri Lanka was fighting a war within its internationally recognised and uncontested borders. Sri Lanka was not founded on occupation, dispossession and disenfranchisement of the indigenous. Both major Sri Lankan communities had been present on the soil for millennia. Sri Lanka had not economically embargoed the Tamil people and had not merely sent food but run schools, hospitals and paid the salaries of public servants in separatist terrorist occupied areas.”

Hearts and Minds- Myths about Insurgency.

Many repeated the old mantra that a guerrilla insurgency arising out of genuine grievances and nationalist aspirations could not be defeated by military action. This view was reinforced by vague memories of Michael Collins in Ireland and Collins’s ‘pupil’ General Giap in Vietnam.

General Westmoreland did not share this view – “Grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”. His notable lack of success has somewhat discredited the military option.  The Vietnam War was not ended by negotiation. It was ended by the USA being defeated militarily by the Viet Cong. The LTTE had gone beyond guerrilla warfare and possessed an effective navy and a rudimentary air force. It was no longer relying on small-scale attacks and suicide bombers but (and this is one of the factors contributing to its defeat) was fighting large-scale conventional battles.

Why Not Negotiate a Peaceful Settlement?

Jayatilleka supports my own Irishman’s view that, despite well-intentioned visits to Sri Lanka by John Hume and Martin McGuinness, there was no useful parallel to be drawn between Northern Ireland and the fight for Tamil Eelam.  The Provisional IRA had Sinn Fein as a parliamentary proxy but successful candidates did not take up their seats at Westminster.  TNA MPs did take their seats and served as a parliamentary proxy for the LTTE. They  did not  emulate Sinn Fein and negotiate with the Sri Lankan government. Dr Jayatilleka notes that in the 2004 election, EU observers were highly critical that  TNA members had  the protection of the LTTE under the slogan that the LTTE was the sole representative of the Tamil people

The LTTE left no room for negotiation. “Tamil Eelam was an axiom, thus non-negotiable. His [Prabhakaran’s] commitment was absolute, fundamental. No alternatives were admitted as possibilities. Philosophical and psychological closure had been effected from the outset. The mindset was hermetically sealed…Only the modalities of secession were up for genuine discussion. The talks , the negotiations, the third party mediation, the path of peace that Prabhakaran mentioned … was just the small change- to buy time, to neutralise opinion, to divide and deceive the enemy, to secure the withdrawal of troops…”

Consequences of concessions

When the CFA was signed on February 22 2002, there were no pictures of a shared signing ceremony. “Mr Prabhakaran treated himself to a separate table, a separate office, a separate signing ceremony, and as conspicuous wall decor, a separate map showing his projected separate state on it in a shade of colour separate from that of the shrunken Sri Lanka depicted there…”

The CFA was lopsided because it disarmed those Tamil groups that accepted the unitary state but did not even entertain the issue of phased, internationally supervised demilitarisation of the Tigers. Unlike Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka was not to have its General de Chastelaine.

Under the CFA, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe conferred legitimacy on the LTTE, as did President Kumaratunga, and allowed them to operate a de facto state in the aftermath of the tsunami. The Tigers continued to kill SLA soldiers after an accord was signed but were allowed a preponderance in the regional committee set up to deal with the tsunami. “No state could afford not to monopolise the means of significant armed violence, and therefore the Tigers had to be disarmed as well as rendered bereft of the capacity to re-arm.”

Why Not Allow Secession?

Jayatilleka argues that allowing the LTTE a separate state was never an option. “Colombo could not trade Tamil Eelam, i.e. the North and East, for peace, because, even if such a Faustian bargain were struck, peace would not be the result. The Sri Lankan state would not have been able to withdraw into its southern cocoon and lived in tranquil prosperity.”

He continues: “An independent state of Tamil Eelam could legitimately secure any kind of weaponry it wished to and build up one of the strongest fighting forces in the region, thus upsetting the entire power balance and strategic environment. The geo-strategic salience of Trincomalee, which would have fallen within Eelam, would have endowed a Tamil Sparta with a military and economic value of extra-regional significance, again a seriously destabilising prospect”.

Sri Lanka’s Strengths

Dr Jayatilleka writes that Sri Lanka was not powerful or influential, but it had strengths: “One of these was the resiliency of its multiparty democracy under conditions of extreme duress, its eschewal of military rule and totalitarianism of the Right or Left. Another was the maintenance of comparatively decent labour standards and social indicators. Yet another was the synergy of civil society and state that made its recovery from the tsunami more impressive than those in Indonesia (Aceh) or post-Katrina Louisiana (according to Joel Schumacher of Refugee International).”


The story goes that, although Jayatilleka was a success in Geneva, he was rewarded with removal because he was too vocal in his support for the 13th amendment and devolution. He still maintains that it is necessary to have a Sri Lanka “which remains unitary but contains an irreducible autonomous political space for the Tamil people of the North and East”.  This continues to draw fire from some critics who choose to regard him as a puppet of India. In this book, he does not hide India’s complicity in the growth of the LTTE but recognises India’s difficulty in coping with Tamil Nadu.

Human Rights

Jayatilleka argues: “Human rights are not a Western invention or booby-trap, to be decried and shunned like the devil. Though there is a constant attempt to use human rights as an instrument to undermine national sovereignty, the answer is not to shun human rights or to pretend that these are intrinsically inscribed in our culture and therefore automatically observed, but to protect them ourselves and to maintain verifiably high standards of human rights observance nationally”.

The Future

Towards the end of the book, Jayatilleka declares that Sri Lanka’s future is “best defended by a Sri Lankan state which represents all its peoples, acts as neutral umpire guaranteeing adequate space for all ethnicities on the island. Sovereignty is secured by a Sri Lankan identity which accommodates all the country’s communities, paving the way for a broadly shared sense of a multiethnic yet single Sri Lankan nationhood.”


Other reviewers have taken issue with the author’s gratuitous tagging on of profundities from Marxist writers. I did not find the Marxism too much of a distraction. Indeed, the author comes across as protean and pragmatic. His brand of realism stresses the world as it is rather than the world as it ought to be.

In this book Jayatilleka claims that his position has been consistent, even though to an outsider it looks as though he has  changed direction a number of times. After being associated with revolutionary politics, the SLMP, the NEPC, the Premadasa government, he served with distinction as ambassador for President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is now writing articles critical of aspects of the Rajapaksa government and seeing virtues in Premadasa’s son. It will be interesting to see where the author goes from here. Quo Vadis, Dr Jayatilleka?


The Cage by Gordon Weiss

While I was reading the new publication from the International Diaspora Group on counting the dead in Sri Lanka,[i] I cast my mind back to what Gordon Weiss had to say on the subject in his book, The Cage.

Bad Writing

Jason Burke[ii], writing in the Literary Review, describes this book as a : “comprehensive, fair and well-written work”. I beg to differ about the well-written bit. It is a good read, but not a good write. As seems to be the custom with contemporary authors in any genre [iii], Weiss provides a lengthy list of acknowledgements to those without whom etc….

Weiss is readable enough but it is a pity that some of those who “helped” did not draw his attention to several examples of inelegant English or lack of clarity.

I am not sure if it is helpful  or logically sound to describe Sri Lanka as “this endemically violent country”.[iv] I will leave it to those with more expertise than I possess in linguistic analysis and Sri Lankan history to argue that one.

“Most ominously of all, there is good evidence that at least on some occasions the Tigers fired artillery into their own people”.[v] Notice the jarring disjunction between the firm “good evidence” and the slippery and logically meaningless “on at least some occasions”. The way that he expresses it make it seem like a minor peccadillo on the part of the Tigers, perhaps no more than clumsiness.

“Yet, contrary to the ICRC, the very breadth of this mandate makes for inherent contradictions, so that  the UN often finds itself   at loggerheads with itself”.[vi] It is that “contrary to” that buggers up the sentence. I think he means that the UN has a broader mandate than the ICRC.

“Hunger, however, is a great leveller, and erodes at notions of freedom, turning a resistant mood”. [vii] What?!

Navi Pillay, UN Commissioner for Human Rights,  is described as “an ethnic Indian Tamil of South African origin”. [viii]Would it not be better to say “A South African of Indian Tamil origin”?

Factual Errors

In his review on Groundviews, Sanjana Hattotuwa, pointed out some errors and even sternly scolded about “irresponsibly written and edited content”.[ix]  Sanjana points out that it was an armour-plated BMW 7 Series that saved Gotabaya’s life, not a Mercedes. When the war ended, there was a “big, riotous party” in Colombo (and indeed in Badulla) rather than ”little of the air of celebration” that Weiss claims. Sanjana points out that Weiss gets his Peirises mixed up – Prof. GL was never Attorney General.

Some of Weiss’s statements raised an eyebrow with me. “In what they called Eelam (a Tamil word implying separation) a small portion of the Tamil inhabitants of Sri Lanka began to enjoy the fruits of an independence long denied by the Sri Lankan state, including the right to use their own language”.[x] Did Tamils living under Prabakharan in Killinochchi really have a better life than those living in Wellawatte?

Am I alone in finding Weiss’s use of his Jewish forebears’ victimhood vicarious and somewhat distasteful? Weiss claims that during the Second World War his own grandfather “and dozens of other relatives were killed because of their ethnicity”. He is blasé about the LTTE’s racism. Would Weiss be in the appeasement camp had he lived in Europe in the 1930s?

On page 203 he says the Chinese built a port in Laem Chabang in Myanmar. Laem Chabang is in Thailand not far from Pattaya Beach, where I once went on holiday.

“In relative terms, and in the course of a long and bloody civil war, the number of civilians killed by terrorist acts attributed to the Tigers was somewhat modest compared with estimates on the overall death toll inflicted on the Tamils”.[xi] Discuss. What does “in relative terms” mean? The “overall death toll inflicted on the Tamils” includes, of course, Tamils killed by the Tigers. Perhaps he should have clarified that.

Weiss says on page 65 that Alfred Durayappah, Prabakharan’s first victim, was appointed mayor of Jaffna by the prime minister. He was elected not appointed.

On page 237, Mano Ganesan, is described as “the TNA party leader”. I asked Mano about this. “What to say? Gordon is a known friend. It is an oversight. No issue. haha. I am comfortably the leader of Democratic People’s Front, the party of the Voiceless, the party which conducts democratic struggles for all the people of all the regions.” [xii]

In his survey of Sri Lankan history, Weiss criticises D S Senanayake for settling Sinhalese in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa,  “part of Tamil majority ‘dry zone’ as opposed to the Sinhalese majority ‘wet zone’”.  Sinhalese view those areas as the cradle of their  ancient civilization rather than part of a Tamil homeland.

Lack of Expertise

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

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

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

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

Praise for Sri Lankan Army

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

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

He repeats similar sentiments later but drops the begrudgery. “During the course of research for this book, dozens of Tamils described the Sinhalese as inherently kind and gentle people. The front-line soldiers who received the first civilians as they escaped to government lines, those who guarded them in the camps and the civilian and military doctors who provided vital treatment distinguished themselves most commonly through their mercy and care.”[xiv] We will forgive the dangling participle. Only a pedant would point out that Tamils were not doing the research.

Hang on – weren’t these internment camps? “If a civilian survived the crossing , they faced an uncertain future in government internment camps (of the existence of which they were well aware)” .[xv] I was tempted to file that under Bad Writing.

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

Numbers Game

Weiss introduces a caveat. “I have not dealt in close detail  with the matter of figures of dead and wounded, how they are calculated and how reliable those sources  might be. I make the point in the text that it is for others to get closer to that particular particle of truth”. [xvii]  A strange way of putting it. Despite this disclaimer, throughout  the book , Weiss  repeats the mantra that 10,000 to 40,000 civilians were killed.

Weiss was and is a major player in the numbers game. When he was  working  for the UN in Colombo,  he went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. This became the official figure quoted by The UN General Secretary’s New York spokesperson,  Michelle Monas, who told Inner City Press reporter Matthew Lee, “We have no way of knowing the exact count”. When Weiss left the UN and returned to Australia and began writing this book he increased the figure to 15,000,  which he then upped to  40,000, a figure that a whole range of media outlets, including BBC and NDTV, ran with. Journalists confused the issue by failing to make clear whether information came from “an employee of the UN”  or  “a former employee of the UN”, rather than “the UN”.

“From this confusion of information, and despite the prospect that the Tamil Tigers might be forcing the Tamil doctors or the UN staff, to give inflated figures of the dead and wounded, the accumulation of events and casualties seemed consistent”.[xviii] Having raised the possibility that figures were inflated, he gives himself licence to inflate further.

“From this point on, the death toll could only grow”.[xix] Does this mean that more people would be killed or that estimates of the dead would become more inflated? Earlier on the same page, a press release by Navi Pillay is quoted which says that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 40,000 and Frances Harrison  to say 147,000?

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

Convoy 11

In his Groundviews review, Sanjana Hattotuwa writes that The Cage is: “A mind-numbingly harrowing account of violence that supports what the UN Panel of Experts says are credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Weiss takes pains to emphasise that the appalling details are based on reports by two men who each had significant experience in active combat.”

Sanjana  chastises Weiss for naming names which the Darusman Report withheld: “Justifiable caution over and confidentiality of sources in the UN Panel’s report is ruined by the revelations in The Cage, attributed by Weiss to specific individuals. ..After reading The Cage, it is a matter of simple extrapolation that the sources were in fact Col. Khan and Col. Du Toit.”

Rajiva Wijesinha recalls meeting ”the shady South African Chris du Toit”[xx], whom he says was an intelligence officer for the apartheid regime. Weiss also claims that Du Toit had trained and commanded proxy guerrilla forces in the illicit wars fought by South Africa in Angola. Du Toit was most probably involved in the training of Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA guerrilla group who committed horrendous crimes against humanity in Angola.

Wijesinha questions Du Toit’s method of calculating civilian casualties. “He said that there were three elements taken into consideration, first the dead bodies … seen by UN staff, secondly reports they received, and thirdly extrapolation. Pressed on the number of those seen by the UN, he said it was something like 39, over the previous month. Given what he then said about the numbers calculated on the other methods, I believe the figure that was being floated around was excessive. The implications of the methods he employed, for speculation that is now treated as gospel by the panel, need to be reviewed in greater detail”.[xxi]

Wijesinha continues: “Under close questioning, he had to admit that, while there had been firing on areas near where he had been sleeping, he could not say with any certainty from which direction the firing had come. He had brought with him large pictures of craters caused by shells, and he took out one and said that was the only shot the direction of which they could be certain of, and that had come from the direction of the LTTE forces.”

The UN officer who was actually with the convoy was Retired Colonel Harun Khan. He is said to have managed counter-insurgency operations in Bangladesh,[xxii] most probably against the Buddhist Chakma hill tribes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts where horrific crimes against humanity were committed.[xxiii]

Weiss says Harun Khan took photographs of the carnage, but the only example he provided seems to be questionable. This is what Groundviews said: “The problem is that this photo, part of what Weiss claims is ‘many other images of the wounded and dead from these days in late January 2009’ taken by Col. Harun was actually taken 22nd August 2008 at 5.08pm, and not in late January 2009. This emphatically does not help any advocacy, domestic and international, to hold those responsible for alleged war crimes accountable for their actions and calls for independent investigations to determine the veracity of these very serious allegations. It is possible that Weiss was careless, and posted the wrong photograph. It is possible he and the UN, as we noted in our review of his tome, have the originals of these images, where similar scrutiny under any photo editing programme can very easily determine whether they are in fact from late January or earlier.”[xxiv]

I do not know the truth of what happened but there is a lot of churnalism here. Weiss’s account cannot “support” the Panel’s view because he was not there and they were not there. I gather from Weiss’s account that Du Toit was not with the convoy either but was back in Colombo.


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

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

Weiss puts his own spin on this: “The choice between strategies when fighting  an insurgency is relatively straightforward”. There’s that word again; relative to what? Weiss believes that liberal democracies choose the “hearts and minds” strategy. I am reminded of General Westmoreland’s maxim: “Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”. See how the liberal democracy that is the United States conducted “counterinsurgency” in Vietnam[xxv]. Weiss sermonises: “Counterinsurgencies are fought by liberal democracies in places like Afghanistan. Their leaders and decision makers understand that they are ultimately answerable to constituencies that might, like the French in the Algerian war of independence, withdraw support if they become too murderous”.

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

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


Jason Burke is generally positive about The Cage but finds something lacking in the coverage of President Rajapaksa: “His various political victories are not the result of electoral fraud. The end of the war in Sri Lanka has sparked an economic boom that is forecast to double the wealth of Sri Lankans – if not of northern or plantation Tamils – within a few years and possibly triple it within a decade as foreign investment and tourists flow in. If that is so, his continued rule seems assured.”

[iv] The Cage pxx

[v] The Cage p109

[vi] The Cage p139

[vii] The Cage p191

[viii] The Cage p205

[x] The Cage p8

[xi] The Cage p81

[xii] Personal communication via Facebook.

[xiii] The Cage p181[xiii]

[xiv] The Cage p186

[xv] The Cage p209

[xvi] The Cage p216

[xvii] The Cage pxxvii

[xviii] The Cage p135

[xix] The Cage p205

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