The fog of war in Sri Lanka
Reporting of the civil war in Sri Lanka has tended to distort various aspects of the violence that ensued, particularly in terms of the number of civilian casualties and the causes of their deaths.
By Michael Roberts and Padraig Colman
Although Western media have been critical of both sides in the conflict between the Sinhala-dominated government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), they tend to see Tamils (and thus the LTTE) as underdogs.
Sri Lankan Tamils have been emigrating since the fifties. There is a substantial body of intelligent and prosperous Tamils abroad alienated from Sri Lankan politics and governments. The patriotism of expatriate Tamils increased when the government defeated the LTTE in 2009. They are receptive to the propaganda of Tiger activists.
Tamil nationalists or sympathizers now hold key positions in the west. Sri Lankan government PR is ineffective in comparison with the coordinated campaign of the Tamil diaspora using such outlets as the BBC, ABC, Sky, Channel Four,New York Times, Der Spiegel and their like.
The result has been distortion.
- Western media erroneously describe it as “a war without witnesses” even though a restricted number of foreign reporters were transported to the rear battle front on several occasions.(1)
- The received wisdom is that at the end of war there was “merciless shelling” and “extermination” and that subsequently some 300,000 civilians were “interned” in “concentration camps”. Both claims are exaggerations, the latter being quite gross.
- Ban Ki-Moon’s Panel of Experts (Darusman Report) said that “a number of credible sources have estimated that there “could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths”. Despite the questionable methodology pursued by this panel, (2) its guesswork became a definite figure of at least 40,000 civilian dead; and, in the indelible words of a British parliamentarian named Lee Scott, 40,000 “slaughtered”.
- It was difficult to distinguish between civilians and combatants;
- The LTTE often fired on Tamil civilians;
- US Ambassador Butenis confirmed the government’s claim that they made a conscious decision to prolong the war and risk more SL Army casualties in order to protect civilians. Red Cross representative Jacques de Maio, Robert O Blake of the US State Department and Jim Grant of UNICEF echoed this in their secret memoranda during the height of the war;
- The Sri Lankan authorities knew that USA and India were tracking the battles on satellite and would spot any inordinate use of force;
- Satellite imagery indicates that most of the craters in the Last Redoubt were from mortars not artillery;
- While a wide range of estimates of civilian dead have been presented in the past few years the most grounded of these are from Narendran Rajasingham (3) and IDAG-S[iv] and yield a range of dead from 10,000-18,700. The number of survivors – 295,873 civilians and LTTE – is astounding considering the circumstances.
For the Tiger high command, the mass of their people served as a:
- pool of labour for defensive works (bunds, ditches) and logistical support;
- source of new conscripts: and a
- human shield
The LTTE strategy was to utilize the Tamil civilian, a body of some 320,000 or so people, to stay within their territory – eventually only the Vanni Pocket - as a bargaining tool for international intervention. The “impending humanitarian disaster” that was proclaimed by Human Rights Watch, a host of other civil rights organizations, sympathetic journalists and politicians was a creation of the LTTE. The secular fundamentalism and simplistic black and white thinking of INGOs made them useful idiots for the LTTE, as were several Western ambassadors.
The thinking of British politicians, including Prime Minister David Cameron, is one-sided and directed by sound bites that totally discount the temporal-spatial and strategic backdrop shaping the last phase of the war.
After Cameron’s return from CHOGM, Ed Miliband tried in the Commons to outdo him in condemnation of Sri Lanka. Labour backbencher, Siobhan McDonagh, consistently tries to please Tamil voters in her Mitcham and Morden constituency. Despite having voted in favour of the Iraq invasion and against an inquiry against it, she calls for an inquiry into alleged Sri Lankan war crimes.
WikiLeaks revealed that in May 2009 David Miliband said that he was spending 60% of his time on Sri Lanka because there were many Tamils living in marginal constituencies. Miliband and his aides wrote about “ratcheting up” the case for humanitarian relief efforts.
In a statement to the Senate subcommittee on the Middle East (West Asia) and South Asia Robert O Blake said: “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.”
The editor of the English Catholic magazine The Tablet wrote on December 7th 2013: “Why has the Prime Minister been so obsequious to the Chinese…? He made it plain for all to see that China’s indifference to most of the values that define a civilised society was of little or no interest to him, provided the British economy benefited from an increase in trade and investment. This was in strong contrast to his performance in Sri Lanka last month, when he made much of that Government’s treatment of Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war…The reason appears to be that Sri Lanka is not one of Britain’s major trading partners, whereas China is. This takes political pragmatism too far.”
Simon Jenkins was one of the few western journalists who recognised that a ceasefire was a one-sided benefit to a warring force on its last legs. He noted that “in Sri Lanka a rudimentary study of the past three months of fighting would have told Miliband that a ceasefire would be pro-Tamil, not just “pro-humanitarian” (2009). The Fourth Estate in the West had been thoroughly alienated by the intimidation, abduction and killing of several local journalists in Sri Lanka in the years 2006-09, actions which could be credibly assigned to the government’s intelligence services or its paramilitary Tamil allies.
Jeremy Page of The Times told the world that 1,400 people were dying every week at the Menik Farm camp. There was no evidence because it was simply untrue. Within the space of his short article 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 Channel 4 News documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, contained 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”). This effect is similar to a term coined by Stephen Colbert, namely, Veritasiness or “truthiness”, common sense, received wisdom, truths that are self-evident in the gut regardless of reality. Thus, Stephen Sacker was full of truthiness in his Hard Talk haranguing of Rajiva Wijesinha. Everybody knows the SL Army was shelling hospitals so why are you denying it?
Many journalists rely on Gordon Weiss’s book The Cage, even though Weiss makes the disclaimer that he was not a witness. Guardian Asia correspondent Jason Burke, writing in the Literary Review, describes this book as a “comprehensive, fair and well-written work”. Weiss was and is a major player in the numbers game. When he was working for the UN in Colombo, he said 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, returned to Australia and began writing his book, he increased the figure to 15,000. Then he upped it to 40,000, a figure that a whole range of media outlets, including BBC and NDTV, ran with.
BBC journalist Waseem Zakir coined the neologism “churnalism” to describe the type of sensationalist reportage that is now in vogue. Nick Davies, in his book, Flat Earth News, presented an overwhelming weight of evidence that the British press lies, distorts facts and breaks the law. Davies’s research proved that in The Times, in 70 per cent of “news” stories, a claimed fact passed into print without any corroboration at all. It is interesting to note that Britain only has 47,800 PR people to 45,000 journalists.
The LTTE propaganda machine took global advantage of this state of affairs as well the liberal currents of thinking that tagged the Tamils of Sri Lanka as a minority that had been put upon. The Sri Lankan government’s own propaganda effort has been inept in spite of taxpayers’ money draining away to PR firm Bell-Pottinger for no return on the investment. Even critics of Sri Lanka like Patricia Butenis and Robert O Blake have acknowledged that the LTTE fired on their own people as they tried to flee; while Tamil civilian testimonies indicate that on the odd occasion in early 2009 the LTTE officers even directed artillery fire on their people as an aspect of the grand strategy of demonstrating an impending humanitarian disaster. It is a pity that this message has not been disseminated. For whatever reason, the Western governments chose to be blind then. The Western media was mostly deaf, dumb and blind then and remains comprehensively mute now.
Michael Roberts is a historian by training and has taught at the Department of History at Peradeniya University (1961-76) and the Department of Anthropology at Adelaide University (1977-2003). His major works are in agrarian history, social mobility, nationalism and ethnic conflict. Based on his interest in the Tamil liberation struggle and the sacrificial devotion mustered by the LTTE, he has written extensively on suicide missions. Michael Roberts has also edited several volumes on sri Lanka entitled Collective Identities. In 2004, he retired as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Adelaide University, but continues to write articles.
Padraig Colman is an Irish citizen who has been living in an ethnically diverse community in Uva province, Sri Lanka, for over ten years. He writes prolifically about various aspects of Sri Lanka and his work is regularly published in Sri Lankan magazines and newspapers. He has also done work for the Centre for Poverty Analysis, the Public Interest Law Foundation, the Marga Institute and the Kandy Association for Community Protection through Animal Welfare.