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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