Kath Noble

The fog of war

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on February 27, 2013

Questioning the target audience of the campaign for the investigation of war crimes

Balachandran PrabhakaranLast week, we were once again forced to think about what happened at the end of the war, with Channel Four releasing a preview of its latest documentary, ‘No Fire Zone’, and the director, Callum Macrae, promoting it in interviews with newspapers and television stations around the world.

In principle, this should be a good thing.

Nobody should be left to think that getting rid of the LTTE was easy. The Government made a huge mistake in presenting its military campaign as a ‘humanitarian operation’ with ‘zero civilian casualties’. In the first place, this was a propaganda disaster, since everybody who had to be persuaded that the war shouldn’t be abandoned knew that it couldn’t possibly be true, on the very obvious basis of experience throughout the world and throughout history. It simply goaded people like Channel Four to try to catch them out.

It is a mystery to me why people claim that the Government was brilliant at propaganda. In fact, its spokesmen often said absolutely ridiculous things. If they had toned down their rhetoric and explained that despite the massive difficulties posed by the tactics adopted by the LTTE, they were doing their level best to avoid unnecessary death and destruction, they would have avoided an awful lot of trouble.

Whether or not that is true is another matter.

But secondly, in the process of their totally foolish attempt to deceive one group of people, they actually managed to convince another.

Hence there are now Sri Lankans who don’t even need to look at photos of Prabhakaran’s 12 year-old son or senior commander Colonel Ramesh to be completely sure that they have been faked – their forces couldn’t possibly be responsible for excesses. They have developed a kind of superiority complex, since they are equally sure of the failings of other countries (particularly America).

Ironically, it is the existence of such a body of opinion that motivates the well-meaning among the international community to keep pushing for an investigation into war crimes.

Of course the international community is not all well-meaning, but even people with ulterior motives have to keep up appearances. They have to present arguments that make them look as though they have the best interests of humanity uppermost in their minds, for their actions require at least a veneer of legitimacy.

(America is particularly good at that.)

This motivation was clearly visible in the interview given by Navi Pillay to The Sunday Times this week. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that a war crimes investigation was needed to achieve reconciliation and to prevent impunity. In essence, she argued that Sri Lankans won’t be able to live together without addressing war crimes allegations and that ignoring war crimes allegations increases the risk that both they and others will be subject to excesses in future.

Telling such people to get lost is no doubt tremendous fun for Wimal Weerawansa, but the rest of us could probably manage a slightly more thoughtful response.

Are we really for impunity and against reconciliation? Because this is how it looks.

It is my contention that under normal circumstances, Sri Lankans would be far more concerned about these issues than Channel Four or anybody else. The country has undergone two bloody rebellions in the South and one in the North and East, in the process of which several hundred thousand people have been killed. In the North and East, memories are fresh, but they have not faded much in the South either – virtually everybody over the age of 30 or 35 saw the bodies with their own eyes, often including those of their own family and friends. They know about war crimes, unlike people in Britain, most of whom have not lived through anything even vaguely comparable.

They must also have noticed that these things keep happening to them. They are the ones who have to worry about precedents being set, since precedents are far more likely to affect what goes on in their country than what goes on in London.

They know that they have to live together or die together.

However, wartime is abnormal, and it is hardly surprising that the majority put these thoughts out of their minds when the LTTE was around.

What Channel Four and others fail to see is that the way in which they conduct themselves results in the perpetuation of this wartime mentality, so that every new revelation achieves the exact opposite of what it should.

Take the photos of Balachandran. From the clip of ‘No Fire Zone’ that was played for MPs in Delhi on Friday, it was not clear whether there is proof that his murderers were from the Army. I expect that there isn’t, since the article in The Independent that first drew attention to them doesn’t mention it. However, there is very little doubt that he was murdered by somebody.

This is appalling.

But nobody in Sri Lanka is appalled, or if they are they don’t want to admit to it, despite the fact that he was a 12-year old child.

Neither are they appalled by the much stronger evidence regarding the death of Colonel Ramesh.

Why? Because ‘No Fire Zone’ is perceived as being part of an effort aimed not at achieving reconciliation and preventing impunity, but at punishing Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Namini Wijedasa said as much to Navi Pillay. She pointed out that the documentary is being released to coincide with the sessions of the UN Human Rights Council, as has become the pattern. She asked whether it would be fair to describe this as a ‘conspiracy’ against the Government, to which Navi Pillay gave the standard well-meaning answer, that it is not a ‘conspiracy’ but a ‘campaign’, and that there is nothing wrong with campaigning.

There is indeed nothing wrong with campaigning, but if that ‘campaign’ or ‘conspiracy’ comes across as being aimed at dislodging Mahinda Rajapaksa, it is rather foolish to expect Sri Lankans to support it, since they are still very grateful to him for finishing the generation long conflict. And if Sri Lankans don’t want to get rid of Mahinda Rajapaksa, he is not going anywhere.

To be clear, if Mahinda Rajapaksa is responsible for war crimes, he should be punished. But the only people who can punish him are Sri Lankans.

So long as calling for a war crimes investigation makes Sri Lankans want to rally behind the Government, there is absolutely no point in doing it. Indeed, it is counterproductive.

It is not simply a matter of looking at the evidence.

If the Army Commander or the Defence Secretary ordered the murder of Prabhakaran’s 12-year old son, Colonel Ramesh or anybody else, I don’t know whether there can ever be justice, but I am very sure that it will not be Navi Pillay who decides. This is in fact how it should be. Justice is not so straightforward. If Navi Pillay got her way and a war crimes investigation were launched against the will of the majority, Sri Lanka would be thrust even further into chaos than it has meandered by itself.

Practically, the only way to move things in the right direction is to demonstrably have no ulterior motives.

Callum Macrae should think about it.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 27th February 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Enough is more than enough

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on February 20, 2013

Why our response to attacks on journalists has to be smarter

Faraz ShauketalyWe don’t seem to have learnt anything from the long list of journalists who have come under attack in Sri Lanka in recent years. Whenever an incident takes place, we do exactly the same things, and on each and every occasion, our response does nothing to prevent a recurrence.

The first step is condemnation. But why? Surely everybody agrees that it is wrong? Could anybody argue that the people who shot Faraz Shauketaly of The Sunday Leader on Friday did the right thing? No, so let’s not waste our time and energy. That such violence is appalling should be treated as so obvious that it simply doesn’t need to be said.

Then comes our dutiful reporting of what the President says about it, no matter how disingenuous his statement.

During the weekend, all newspapers in Sri Lanka were careful to inform the public that Mahinda Rajapaksa had ordered a special investigation into Friday’s shooting. How very nice of him. Has he instructed the IGP to appoint a special team? That’s reassuring. I can’t remember the last time he did that. Oh no, silly me, that’s what he does every time. That’s what he did when Lasantha Wickrematunge of The Sunday Leader was murdered in January 2009, when Poddala Jayantha of Dinamina was beaten up in June 2009, when Keith Noyahr of The Nation was attacked in May 2008, when Lal Mawalage of Rupavahini was knifed in January 2008 and when Prageeth Ekneligoda of Lanka-e-News went missing in January 2010. Every time.

And how many times have these extra special efforts brought results? That’s right, none at all.

Still, even The Sunday Leader decided to use the President’s declaration as the headline of the first piece that it posted on its website.

Let’s undertake here and now not to report any further such comments by any member of the Government until the perpetrator of at least one attack has been convicted and is rotting in jail for the rest of his miserable life. The headline should be ‘Nobody convicted for violence against journalists under Mahinda Rajapaksa’ not ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa orders a probe’. Come on, friends at The Daily Mirror and Ceylon Today, both of which followed the pattern set by The Sunday Leader!

Probes obviously have to happen when somebody is shot. They aren’t news, and they certainly aren’t worthy of mention in a headline.

The next step in our form book on responding to attacks on journalists, which at least some of us always seem to reach, is to raise the possibility that there was some other motive than stifling the freedom of the press.

This time, The Nation on Sunday has surpassed all previous efforts to suck up to Mahinda Rajapaksa, brazenly using the headline ‘Motive for attack shrouded in mystery’, while making sure to refer to Faraz not as a journalist but as a ‘journalist cum businessman’ with a ‘part-time journalistic career’. The funny thing is that his byline has appeared in Sri Lankan newspapers an awful lot more often than those of the ‘full-time journalists’ who produced that copy for The Nation on Sunday!

They went on to suggest that the shooting was actually the result of a land dispute.

However, they have absolutely no evidence of any such thing. Police sources just had to mention it is a possibility, and these ‘full-time journalists’ enthusiastically copied down what they said. The real mystery is why our colleagues at The Nation on Sunday don’t have time to run businesses, if that’s all there is to journalism! In case they hadn’t realised, everything is possible for exactly as long as we avoid looking for facts. There are several billion people who could possibly have shot Faraz. Even aliens will have to prove that they weren’t in Mount Lavinia on Friday before we can definitively rule them out.

That’s the whole point of a probe.

Until somebody is convicted, we can’t say for sure why it happened. So let’s not give credence to any more totally unfounded rumours that are so extraordinarily convenient for the Government.

If the Government really wants us to believe that press freedom isn’t a problem in Sri Lanka, it can very well prove it in a court of law. Why do we try so hard to help them?

Even years later, we are still at it.

The killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge of The Sunday Leader was a watershed moment for Sri Lankan journalists. He was one of the best known editors in the country and a personal friend of both Ranil Wickremasinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his was an English newspaper that was read by the diplomatic community and indeed throughout the world. But his assassins very easily got away with it.

If further attention was needed to his case, it was surely to expose the individuals who were responsible. But instead we are busy preparing their defence.

A month or so ago, Uvindu Kurukulasuriya published an article claiming that Lasantha Wickrematunge was targeted not because he ran a newspaper that regularly lambasted the Government but because he was an Indian spy! The mind boggles.

Apparently we don’t need proof when we accuse the dead. When the person isn’t around to defend himself, instead of proving that he was an Indian spy, we can just say that he was seen entering the house of an Indian diplomat, as if we didn’t know that it is both normal and necessary for journalists to interact with all kinds of people. That is how facts are uncovered! More extraordinarily still, when he can’t say otherwise, we can argue that he was killed because he told the Indian diplomat a ‘secret’ that was shared with him by Mahinda Rajapaksa, not only once again without proof but also without any idea what that ‘secret’ could be or why Mahinda Rajapaksa was so foolish as to tell it to an Opposition-supporting newspaper editor who could equally well have published it.

Lasantha Wickrematunge isn’t accused of being a Government spy, although he was also seen going to Temple Trees, because it obviously isn’t true.

The same piece slyly mentions that Poddala Jayantha was regarded by the American embassy as a key contact in Sri Lanka, implying once again with absolutely no basis that he too was more a spy than a journalist.

Now in the extremely unlikely event of anybody ever being tried for attacking either one of them, the accused might well claim that they were legitimate targets.

With enemies like these, the Government really doesn’t need friends!

Seriously guys, let’s smarten up.

Journalism is an absolutely miserable profession in Sri Lanka. If a journalist is honest, he earns little or nothing, and if he does his job well, he will at a minimum have to face near constant abuse from those who don’t like what he writes. And when he is a bit too successful and gets attacked, his friends and colleagues will dedicate themselves to discussing his faults, real and imagined, to convince people that he was never exactly a journalist anyway.

Frankly, only total lunatics need apply.

However, Sri Lanka needs journalists, and we need each other. So let’s try to stick together.

Given recent history, we are perfectly justified in assuming that Faraz Shauketaly was shot for his journalism. What’s more, we should make a point of looking back at his work and doing whatever we can to share it as widely as possible. We can hope that he will continue with it once he recovers, but he could no doubt do with some encouragement and support.

To that end, let’s turn to his most recent articles, several of which have focused on Lalith Kotelawala (17th February, 10th February, 27th January, 30th December). Faraz notes that when the Golden Key Credit Card Company collapsed, resulting in average losses of Rs. 2.7 million for more than 9,000 people, Chairman Lalith Kotelawala promised that they would be reimbursed very quickly. Indeed, this was the basis on which he was released from prison in 2009. However, although he somehow continues to live a life of luxury and his wife swans around upmarket areas of London, these unfortunate investors have still received no more than Rs. 200,000 each. The Central Bank under Ajith Nivard Cabraal, which for some reason disbanded an investigation into the company in 2006, claims that it had fulfilled its duty to the public by simply not including the company in the list of accredited financial institutions that it occasionally published.

Faraz has also written about a doctor in a private hospital who is alleged to have encouraged his patients to opt for unnecessary procedures, with the involvement of an unregistered foreign practitioner (February 3rd).

Prior to that came a series of pieces on coal imports, in which Faraz blames Ceylon Shipping Corporation Chairman Kanchana Ratwatte and former Minister of Power and Energy Champika Ranawaka for the loss of $10 million on a shipment that couldn’t be unloaded due to bad weather and was instead handed over without the necessary guarantees to a company that subsequently delivered a replacement that didn’t meet the quality standards of the Ceylon Electricity Board (6th January, 22nd December, 9th December, 24th November, 17th November, 10th November). He threatened to register a complaint with the Bribery Commission if action was not taken.

In addition, there have been articles on former National Savings Bank Chairman Pradeep Kariyawasam regarding the purchase of shares in The Finance Company for which he is already being investigated by the Bribery Commission following his wife’s falling out with the Government, and with regard to another incident during his tenure as Chairman of the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation in 2010 (1st December, 10th November).

It is these issues that we should be discussing now.

We also have to remind the public of all the violence that journalists have faced in Sri Lanka, and how few consequences there have been. People have short memories, and letting them forget is simply not an option.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 20th February 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A problem of power

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on February 6, 2013

On the reshuffle and what it tells us about how the country is being run 

Harry JayawardenaThat MPs have lost interest in democracy was clear from the impeachment of the Chief Justice. But even the rewards given to those who played important roles in that process reveal just what a state Parliament is in.

Last week’s reshuffle was very limited in scope. The major changes were the elevation to the position of Minister of Petroleum Resources of Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who headed the Parliamentary Select Committee that investigated the charges against Shirani Bandaranayake, and the promotion of Pavithra Wanniarachchi, who led the group of five MPs who handed over the impeachment motion to the Speaker, as Minister of Power and Energy.

They have been rewarded for their service to Mahinda Rajapaksa. But just look at their rewards! The only way in which these positions can be considered rewarding is in terms of the potential they offer for corruption – bribes and jobs for hangers-on.

In every other sense, they are god-awful jobs.

The incumbents are blamed for the regular and egregious failures of the institutions within their purview, which are brought to public notice whenever the prices of electricity and fuel are increased, and then again when these price increases are used to justify increases in the prices of pretty much every other necessity. But the ministers are usually near powerless to make any important changes.

Both sectors are totally mired in corruption, of a kind that only a concerted effort by the Government as a whole could hope to tackle.

When the ministers are from the SLFP, they don’t even get to decide who to appoint to key posts such as the chairmanships of the CEB and the CPC. The President gives the orders, and the appointees know it. They don’t bother about what their ministers say.

Susil Premajayanth, who lost the portfolio of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources last week, faced a lot of criticism over the import of substandard oil, which is estimated to have cost the country hundreds of millions of rupees. Perhaps he was indeed to blame. But it is rather more likely to have been the work of the CPC Chairman at the time, Harry Jayawardena.

Ravaya has alleged that this same man used his position to extract a similarly large amount from the CEB – he withheld oil from the CEB so that it could not operate its own power plants and instead had to purchase electricity from private power producers.

Coincidentally, he is the director of a company that generates as much as 10% of the country’s total power requirement!

Appointing people with such obvious vested interests demonstrates the complicity of the President.

Champika Ranawaka was slightly better off at the Ministry of Power and Energy, as he did at least get to pick his own people. But in a rather unique development in the history of trade union agitation, he was compelled to withdraw them following a strike by engineers.

While this is the kind of activism that the Government is usually very eager to crack down on, including with the use of the military, it for some reason felt that this was a special case.

If the minister is not even in a position to decide who should be the CEB Chairman, what chance does he have of tackling the endemic corruption in the sector, which Ranawaka said when he was appointed was his main priority? (He also claimed that he was determined to make Sri Lanka an energy hub, but we can pretend that we have forgotten that since it was a very silly idea.)

Engineers are now ruing his departure, interpreting it as a sign that the Government is planning on privatisation.

The UNP claims that the reshuffle was done at the behest of India, since Ranawaka was seen as the main obstacle to starting work on the Sampur coal power plant. He probably was delaying it, but there is a bigger story here.

It was not only with regard to Sampur that Ranawaka was raising objections. Ravaya has also reported that he was opposing the handover of the Norochcholai coal power plant to China.

Although China built Norochcholai, it is the Government that owns and operates it. China lent Sri Lanka the money to pay for it, but that loan will soon have to be repaid. The suggestion is that rather than repaying, the Government could hand over the plant instead. As far as China is concerned, this would be great news, since it would have employed its own people, equipment and materials in building a plant that would not need to concern itself with the cost of its output since it would be to Sri Lankans and not Chinese that it would be sold. Meanwhile, its company has positioned itself very nicely to secure a whole range of other projects, many of which may be happening only because it has ‘somehow’ managed to convince officials that they would be a good idea.

It has already been given a maintenance contract for Norochcholai because there didn’t seem to be any other way of stopping the plant breaking down on a regular basis, so it is not hard to imagine the Government deciding that it would be easier still to let China have the whole thing.

The trouble with the power sector is that there is always a lag between when foolish mistakes are made and when the public feels the impact. Price increases of recent years are the result not of what this administration has done but of what its predecessors did or failed to do, in particular the decision to allow private power producers and the terms of the agreements signed with them.

Such concerns are behind opposition to the handing over of Norochcholai to China. It may give relatively cheap power now, but who knows what it will ask for later.

As a joint venture, Sampur is less of a problem, but Ranawaka told the Sunday Times last month that India was demanding an excessive return on its investment and also an excessive rate of interest on the loan that it is giving the Government for its part of the project.

Whether it is to private power producers or foreign countries, relinquishing control of a strategic sector like power is inherently risky.

Just a week before the reshuffle, Minister of International Monetary Cooperation and Deputy Minister of Finance and Planning Sarath Amunugama spoke in favour of privatisation, and Ranawaka shot him down. But now Ranawaka is gone.

Time will tell if that too is a coincidence.

It would seem that his successor at the Ministry of Power and Energy, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, has no particular views about anything, which is fortunate for her, since she would anyway not be allowed to act on them!

The reshuffle has been criticised for adding to the already unbelievably heavy burden Sri Lanka has to bear due to the proliferation of ministers, which is certainly fair. Surely no other country in the world has a cabinet consisting of nearly one third of MPs! The cost is far more than the Rs. 32 million that the Government admits to spending monthly on each one, since this amount is only to pay their salaries and allowances and to provide them with basic facilities.

But while ministers are proliferating, power is continuously being concentrated and centralised. They are there literally only to make up the numbers in Parliament.

The question is when MPs will remember that their emasculation is possible only because they agree to it.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 6th February 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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