Kath Noble

Sweeping thugs under the rug

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 31, 2013

Why campaigns for justice have to be honest if they are to be successful

Khuram ShaikhAn awful lot of effort is being put into bringing the killers of Khuram Shaikh to trial. The British aid worker died in Tangalle in December 2011, having been set upon by a group of men at a party in the hotel in which he was staying. His girlfriend was raped.

Of course the people who did it should be punished. His brother is doing what is both right and natural in using every opportunity to press the Government to move ahead with the investigation. And his MP, Simon Danczuk, should be congratulated for taking his job as a representative of the British people seriously – in addition to speaking and writing about the case, he has now visited Sri Lanka a number of times, most recently last week as a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation.

It is also virtually guaranteed that they are correct in thinking that without this pressure, very little would happen. The main suspect is the Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha – a member of the UPFA.

But what is everybody else doing?

The British government is pretending to think that this incident suggests that Sri Lanka is a dangerous place for foreigners, having incorporated it into their travel advisory in an extremely dubious manner. It says, ‘Organised and armed gangs are known to operate in Sri Lanka and have been responsible for targeted kidnappings and violence. While there is no evidence to suggest that British nationals are at particular risk, gangs have been known to operate in tourist areas. A British national was killed during a violent attack by a gang in a tourist resort in December 2011.’

All of these sentences are factually accurate, but they don’t go together – Khuram Shaikh died because he got between some drunkards and a woman, as happens on a regular basis throughout the world, including in Britain.

What is specific to Sri Lanka is that when they have political connections, they expect to get away with it.

This is what the British government would say if it were genuinely interested in justice.

It is what the international media should say too.

The case has generated significant coverage, particularly in British newspapers. They are most concerned about what they describe as the extraordinary delay in the prosecution of Sampath Chandra Pushpa Vidanapathirana and his associates – 18 months on, proceedings have yet to get underway in the High Court.

Actually, this is completely normal in Sri Lanka. But nowhere do journalists attempt to put the incident in the proper context.

Last week, a short film on the murder of Khuram Shaikh was published by The New Yorker. Mysteriously, it spent most of the 15 minutes suggesting that his parents are racists, on the basis that they didn’t attend his brother’s marriage to a white woman, while his family have avoided telling them that Khuram Shaikh spent his last minutes trying to defend his girlfriend – another white woman. Surely there are better ways to raise such issues than exposing people who have lost a child to violence!

In the brief interlude in which it touched on the actual case, the documentary implied that cover-ups are a result of the war victory, whereas Sri Lankans know very well that this is hardly a recent phenomenon, even if it has been getting worse under Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Why worry about these details? Why not just be happy that the Government is being forced by all this attention to take action against at least one set of thugs?

Well, dishonesty begets dishonesty.

The Government is really quite stupid. It should have realised from the beginning that doing nothing was not an option, given that Khuram Shaikh was British.

But now that it has understood the situation, it is certain that the trial will go ahead eventually. What is not at all sure is whether the perpetrators will be found guilty, what sentences they will be given, under what conditions these will be served and whether they will at some point be given pardons – the traditional method of getting out of such fixes.

Finally, this is also what is going to happen with regard to war crimes.

When the Government realises that it is going to be impossible to avoid the issue altogether, it will decide which handful of incidents are the least problematic for it to look into, a few scapegoats will be identified and prosecutions will commence. If they are lucky, the accused may even be offered some kind of compensation for the inconvenience.

This is not justice.

Nor does it help to ensure that exactly the same fate doesn’t befall somebody else.

At some point, the international community will either get distracted or profess to be satisfied with what is bound to be an unsatisfactory outcome if the real nature of the problem is not exposed, and that will be the end of the matter.

In this way, something can actually be worse than nothing.

Khuram Shaikh’s case is the tip of a huge iceberg – politics in Sri Lanka is riddled with thugs, and the Government’s tolerance of their antics is legendary. Keeping up with developments in Kelaniya alone is enough to drive a person to despair. Most recently, we have been informed that former DIG Vaas Gunawardena extorted several million rupees from Mervyn Silva’s parliamentary secretary – who is apparently at the top of the Police hit list of drug traffickers – to refrain from pursuing him on drugs and firearms charges. Meanwhile, still ongoing is the investigation into the murder of Pradeshiya Sabha member Hasitha Madawala, allegedly by the same parliamentary secretary’s nephew, using a gun supplied by his uncle. Mervyn Silva’s coordinating secretary is also alleged to have been involved.

Surrounded by such characters, no wonder the man is so keen to attack journalists!

And like almost all Sri Lankan politicians, he is as at home in the UNP as in the SLFP, having served as an MP under Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremasinghe as well as Mahinda Rajapaksa.

What politicians and their hangers-on get up to in the North and East is rarely even brought to our attention.

This is the proper context to the murder of Khuram Shaikh, without which there is no hope of doing anything more than encouraging thugs to check the passports of the people they are thinking of beating up to be sure that they are not British.

He deserves a better legacy, and that is not the responsibility of his family.

This article was published in The Island on 31st July 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.


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The way forward

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 24, 2013

On the potential of the upcoming election to the Northern Provincial Council

WigneswaramFor the first time in a long while, I feel hopeful about the future of Sri Lanka. Everybody accepts that the main challenge at this juncture is reconciliation – uniting the country in spirit now that it has finally been united in body. And despite the many appalling failures of the Government – together with the complete inability of the Opposition to make any impact whatsoever on even absolutely mundane issues – there is suddenly reason to feel positive.

The Northern Provincial Council election is going ahead.

It is of course a reflection of the dismal state of post-war Sri Lanka that this very basic democratic requirement should be considered an achievement. Still, after months of frenzied campaigning by Sinhalese extremists, the fact that candidates are being nominated and preparations made is a huge relief.

Denying residents of the North the right to elect their representatives as people living elsewhere in the country do as a matter of course would have given the Tamil separatist project a tremendous boost.

This is no doubt what parties like the JHU want, since there would be no point to their existence if Sri Lankans could get along. Udaya Gammanpila somehow managed to keep a straight face while announcing that the JHU is boycotting the Northern Provincial Council election, as if there were any practical difference between contesting and not contesting when nobody in the North is going to vote for them. If Sri Lanka were to become a genuinely inclusive society, there would have to be a lot more such theoretical boycotts by the JHU.

Even more important than the poll itself are the personalities emerging, in particular Justice C.V. Wigneswaran and Daya Master.

The Government is yet to declare its Chief Ministerial candidate, but the hype in recent weeks has all been about Daya Master rather than Douglas Devananda. If it were planning on fielding Douglas Devananda, the Government could and should have given him the key role in its Uthuru Wasanthaya development programme from the beginning – he might have had some kind of a chance that way. Instead, the President chose to forget EPDP’s contribution to the defeat of the LTTE and put his brother in charge. The future of the Rajapaksas – or more charitably that of the SLFP – was considered more important.

Although this would appear to be tough luck for Douglas Devananda, he really only has himself to blame. He should have distanced himself from the Government long ago, at least to the extent that the SLMC has done by contesting elections alone.

I think that it would be no bad thing for Daya Master to lead the UPFA campaign. Anyway, his participation on the Government side puts an end to the old divide of Sri Lanka’s ‘War on Terror’. This is different to the experience in the East with Pillayan and Karuna, since they broke away from the LTTE and helped the Government to finish the war. Daya Master, KP and Thamilini, who are all now said to back the UPFA, were part of the LTTE until the final showdown.

Given the destructive nature of the ‘patriots versus traitors’ discourse in Sri Lanka, having the LTTE’s senior leaders represent the Government is very healthy. Fingers crossed that when the UPFA declares its list of candidates this week these characters all figure prominently.

Last week’s announcement by the TNA of Justice C.V. Wigneswaran as its Chief Ministerial candidate was already great news.

Finally, the party has understood the need to make a break with the past, nominating somebody with no connections – or even a vague hint of sympathy – with the LTTE.

My fear with regard to the Northern Provincial Council election – other than the distinct possibility of it never taking place – was that the TNA would be pushed by the Government’s desire to make devolution as meaningless as possible to do exactly what people who oppose the 13th Amendment suspect is their real objective and use the platform to push for separation. The more difficult the Government makes it for elected representatives to implement their plans – by failing to sanction funds, blocking initiatives via the Governor and so on – the less involved they will be in governance and the less stake they will have in reconciliation and building a Sri Lankan identity.

Obviously the answer is for the Government to behave sensibly, but we know from experience that it usually doesn’t.

We also know that Tamils will regard interference with the functioning of the administration in Jaffna as discrimination, even if it is actually motivated by a general eagerness to centralise. In the circumstances, I wouldn’t blame them.

Justice C.V. Wigneswaran clearly can’t solve all of these problems by himself, but his nomination is an indication that the TNA wants to at least try to find a way to work with the Government.

I wrote a piece after last year’s election to the Eastern Provincial Council looking forward to the prospect of an administration run by the TNA in the North, on the basis that the Government has become far too comfortable in power. Thanks to the ongoing woes of the UNP – which is yet to grasp the very simple concept that image matters in politics – the Government doesn’t need to bother about what people think of its actions. It runs the country exactly as it pleases, controlling all of the elected bodies and enjoying a special majority in Parliament.

The SLMC’s decision to go into a coalition with the UPFA in the East enabled the Government to keep believing that it could rule unchallenged forever, although it may be rethinking that assumption now that its members are refusing to participate in sittings in protest at what they describe as the high-handedness of the Chief Minister and the Governor.

In the North, there will be absolutely no space for doubt.

That will also be very healthy – authoritarianism isn’t good for anybody.

It is much too soon to say whether these encouraging developments will translate into lasting change, and there are plenty of reasons to suspect otherwise. The impeachment of the Chief Justice demonstrated that anything can happen in post-war Sri Lanka – the Government is ready to go to any lengths to get its way and the Opposition won’t really bother to object. Still, given all the country has been through in recent months, I feel that even the slightest indication of progress must be welcomed enthusiastically.

This article was published in The Island on 24th July 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A genuinely credible estimate

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 10, 2013

Getting a little closer to the truth of what happened in the No Fire Zone

mullaivaikkalLast week, I discussed a report on civilian deaths in the final phase of the war called ‘The Numbers Game’.

As I said, it shows how the most popular method of estimating the body count – calculating the discrepancy between the population figures given by local officials at various times from October 2008 and the number of IDPs registered in June 2009 – falls apart when one compares the population figures. They simply can’t all be accurate or even vaguely close to the mark.

But this approach opens up the possibility of much higher totals, so people like Frances Harrison are still perfectly happy to describe its results as ‘credible’.

The author notes that there may well be good reason to doubt the credibility of the other method – based on specific reports of casualties as recorded by the network of informants set up by the United Nations – since at least some people may have died without being seen or without their death being recorded. Not all bodies would have been transported to medical facilities. The author says that this was most likely to have been the case in January and February, when the population was still quite dispersed, and also in May, as fighting became very intense.

To get over this problem, the report works from data on the number of injuries, on the basis that the injured would have all sought help.

The calculation is not straightforward, and readers interested in making their own assessment of the assumptions made should refer to the full document, which is available online. However, since going through a 150 page report with its numerous linked references is not likely to be everybody’s idea of a day well spent, I shall attempt to summarise.

The author starts by estimating ratios of the number of deaths to the number of injuries during the various stages of the final phase. The calculations begin from January 20th, when the Government first declared a No Fire Zone, and it is assumed that the situation became worse as time went on until the end of the conflict on May 19th, in particular with the Army’s incursion into the No Fire Zone on April 20th and from May 9th as the operation to capture the No Fire Zone commenced. The author uses a ratio of dead to injured from serious injuries of between 40% and 50% – worse than the 33% to 50% range that was accepted by the Panel of Experts appointed by the United Nations Secretary General – and a ratio of between 20% and 40% for lesser injuries, based on the findings of the University Teachers for Human Rights from their interviews with eyewitnesses.

The resulting average ratios of dead to injured range from 60% in January to 90% in May.

These estimates are then combined with another conclusion of the University Teachers for Human Rights, that at least 50% of the injured were shipped by the ICRC between February 10th and May 9th, to give the totals shown in the following table.




January 20th – 31st



February 1st – 28th



March 1st – 31st



April 1st – 19th



April 20th – 30th



May 1st – 8th



May 9th – 14th



May 15th – 16th



May 17th – 18th







Figures for the periods up to February 10th and after May 9th were calculated by comparing eyewitness accounts from various sources.

The author checks this approach with three case studies – a report by the head of the TRO about shelling on March 9th and 10th, the Army’s incursion into the No Fire Zone on April 20th as described by the TamilNet correspondent and staff of the ICRC, and interviews by the international media of local doctors when a mortar hit the admissions ward of a makeshift hospital on May 12th.

In all of them, calculating the number of deaths from the number of injuries results in overestimation.

When compared to other estimates of the total body count at various points in the final phase, this method also comes up with higher figures.

As the author notes, this makes sense because we are now including people who died unobserved.

The total body count is around 15,000.

Although the report does not attempt a breakdown according to perpetrator, it reminds us that both sides were responsible.

It points out that this does not mean that both sides had equally noble intentions, and its other important contribution to the debate on the final phase of the war is what it has to say about the targeting of civilians. The LTTE did it openly and is condemned for it by all other than its most ardent supporters in the diaspora, but what about the Army? The Panel of Experts appointed by the United Nations Secretary General did not give much credence to the Government’s claims of a ‘humanitarian operation’, which is not very surprising given that they were accompanied by efforts to persuade the world that not even a single civilian had died at the hands of the military. But that does not mean that its intention was to kill as many people as possible, or even that it was absolutely careless of how many deaths occurred.

Everybody accepts that individual soldiers risked their lives to help civilians to escape. It is also commonly acknowledged that more than 100,000 people got out of the No Fire Zone because of the Army’s incursion on April 20th, which cost numerous military lives yet need not have been attempted if the objective was purely to finish off the LTTE.

Still, following intensive campaigning about ‘genocide’, the United Nations has now decided that evidence from satellite images suggests that civilians were indeed targeted.

The report claims that this is not honest.

It analyses the available satellite images to arrive at a number of very interesting conclusions. It says that the vast majority of craters in the No Fire Zone that appeared in the final days of the conflict are from mortars, which are not classified as heavy weapons, requiring the Army to get closer to the fighting and well within range of the artillery and other munitions of the LTTE – it reported the deaths of 40 to 60 soldiers a day from such attacks. At the same time, the number of casualties from mortar attacks is generally expected to be lower, since the explosive yield and barrel velocities of the shells are lower. The author also draws attention to the clear difference between the state of the No Fire Zone and that of the area surrounding Anandapuram, where the last major engagement between the Army and the LTTE took place, resulting in the deaths of many of its senior leaders. This demonstrates what ‘carpet bombing’ really looks like.

The analysis shows that contrary to the assertion that the Army continually adjusted its batteries to target the No Fire Zone, what it was actually doing was supporting its advancing forward defence lines, while the vast majority of its fire bearings missed concentrated pockets of IDPs.

It also notes the way in which research commissioned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch from the American Association for the Advancement of Science following the initiation of the operation to capture the No Fire Zone on May 9th, in which there was talk of indiscriminate shelling, is now completely ignored because it did not support this conclusion.

Unfortunately, this is almost certain to be the fate of ‘The Numbers Game’ too.

This article was published in The Island on 10th July 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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This is no game

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 3, 2013

What’s wrong with the various estimates of civilian deaths in 2009 

numbers gameSome months ago, my attention was drawn to a report on civilian deaths in the final phase of the war. The author – as yet unnamed – claimed to have something important to add to the debate that began in 2009 as the Army closed in on the LTTE in Mullaitivu.

I must admit that I didn’t feel very inclined to read it. Of course it is disturbing that estimates of the number of people killed between January and May that year vary from almost zero to 147,000. But there are many things to be disturbed about in Sri Lanka – the Government is pursuing a thoroughly regressive agenda on just about every front. Should we ignore its failure to tackle extremist groups, even if only for a moment? What about its effort to roll back the 13th Amendment? How could we justify focusing on a subject that is clearly no longer urgent? In 2009, the LTTE had surrounded itself with an unknown number of people, and the question of how the Army was responding was of obvious importance – lives were at risk.

Today, taking time to uncover the truth of that painful episode seems like a luxury. That alone is a tragedy.

When the report is called ‘The Numbers Game’, it is even more difficult to persuade oneself to proceed. Whatever the body count, we are talking about the violent end of somebody’s relatives.

Still, history is being made, with or without our participation.

In the last four years, global certainty about mass killings by the Government has increased substantially. Soon after the end of the war, the US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues was quoted as saying, ‘The Army could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths.’ (Unlike our policy, he obviously didn’t add.) It would be almost unimaginable for an official from the United States to make such a statement today. Yet what new evidence has actually emerged?

Isn’t it the case that we don’t know anything more now than we did then, as regards civilian deaths?

Of course the United States is not generally very concerned about proof. If it has decided on a course of action – for whatever reason – it will find a way of justifying it. But that’s the United States.

One of the key contributions of the report is its explanation of where the various estimates come from.

The author shows that in essence two different methodologies have been applied. The first works on the basis of specific casualty reports, as recorded by people who were present in the Vanni, while the second calculates the discrepancy between the size of the population in the Vanni before the final phase and the number who were registered as IDPs afterwards.

Initially, more attention was paid to the first method.

The United Nations had a network of informants to monitor civilian deaths from January 2009. This included more than 200 of its local staff and the local staff of international NGOs – who had been prevented by the LTTE from leaving with their foreign colleagues in October 2008 – plus various medical officers, government agents, clergy, education department staff and community leaders.

While the conflict was going on, they compiled reports from around the Vanni for the purpose of keeping the international community informed of the ground situation. These figures were leaked to the media at the time – 17,810 civilian deaths up to May 13th, of which 7,737 had been verified by more than one source. (Verification was considered important to account for the pressure that was being brought to bear on the informants by the LTTE, which was keen to present as appalling a picture as possible so as to provoke an R2P intervention.) After May 13th, this monitoring became impossible due to the intensity of the fighting. At this point, the United Nations extrapolated on the basis of what it believed to be the daily body count to reach around 11,400 civilian deaths in five months.

Later, on the basis of information about a single incident, the United Nations decided to increase their daily body count for May, bringing the total to 20,000.

At the time, the United States was careful to add a caveat to these figures. The State Department said in its Report to Congress on Incidents during the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka, ‘The UN did not rigorously seek to exclude the deaths of possible LTTE conscripts.’

In other words, it suspected that the number of civilian deaths was lower.

However, with the Government ignoring calls for a comprehensive survey listing who died and how – which could also have attempted to separate civilian deaths at the hands of the Army from civilian deaths at the hands of the LTTE – space opened up for this conclusion to be questioned using a far more doubtful methodology.

It was the University Teachers for Human Rights who first came up with the figure of 40,000, in December 2009.

This and all subsequent estimates, up to and including 147,000 – suggested by the Bishop of Mannar in his evidence to the LLRC in January 2011 – were based on the number of people supposedly unaccounted for in the Vanni. The figure of 40,000 corresponded to 330,000 minus 290,000, or the population in the No Fire Zone at the end of February 2009 according to an Assistant Government Agent by the name of Parthipan minus the number of IDPs who had been registered by the Government in collaboration with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs by the end of May 2009. That of 147,000 corresponded to 429,000 minus 282,000, or the population of the Vanni in October 2008 according to the Kachcheris of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi minus the number of IDPs in July 2009.

The figure of 70,000 – currently preferred by the United Nations – corresponds to 360,000 minus 290,000, or the number of people in the Vanni in January 2009 according to Government Agent for Mullaitivu Imelda Sukumar minus the number of IDPs at the end of the conflict.

The report questions these calculations from both angles.

It points out that the 290,000 IDPs were not the only people to come out of the Vanni. In May 2009, another 12,000 people were being held by the Government on suspicion of being LTTE cadres, while an unknown number paid to escape the camps.

More crucially, it exposes serious discrepancies in the population figures.

They all come from the same source, essentially speaking – they were provided by government officials. What happens when we compare them?

The report notes that there is a very obvious problem with the figure for October 2008. If it is accurate, 69,000 people had vanished into thin air by January 2009.

Also, the same Assistant Government Agent Parthipan who estimated the population in the No Fire Zone at the end of February 2009 as 330,000 said that it was 305,000 at the end of March 2009 and 150,000 at the end of April 2009. Meanwhile, the number of registered IDPs had increased from 36,000 to 57,000 and 172,000, implying that 4,000 people went missing in March and 40,000 in April.

If such huge numbers had been killed, this would have been captured by the informants.

Even TamilNet – the mouthpiece of the LTTE – claimed only 2,600 civilian deaths in April and 1,700 in March.

The report notes that the population figures were put together from lists maintained by Grama Sevakas, whose involvement in inflating the numbers for their own private gain or to serve the LTTE agenda had long been accepted.

It also points out that while the University Teachers for Human Rights stated that even if the counts had been conducted in good faith, they definitely included LTTE cadres, none of the other individuals or agencies who have used this second method have taken this fact into account. The University Teachers for Human Rights claimed that the LTTE maintained a strength of 15,000 until the very end by means of absolutely ruthless conscription. They said, ‘They were conscripted and used briefly like disposable objects, were brought by the dozens, about 50 a day on average, on trailers of tractors and buried unceremoniously, about three in the same hole, one above the other, covered and forgotten.’

Exactly how many people were killed in this way, nobody has bothered to ask.

Regular readers of this column would be familiar with my opinion of the LTTE. In particular, they would know that I regard its decision to fight to the very end – from behind a human shield – as by far the biggest crime of the final phase.

Next week, I will discuss the contribution that the report makes to the discussion on the intentions of the Army as it tried to deal with this situation.

I will also explain the author’s own estimate of civilian deaths, based on a third method.

Meanwhile, it is for those who use the various numbers to study the report and respond to its criticisms of their positions. The author makes particular reference to Frances Harrison – perhaps because of her industrious marketing of her book, ‘Still counting the dead’. Without reading it, I would refrain from comment, except to say that she has a responsibility to engage with information that would appear to contradict her conclusions. For example, the report says that if she had looked at the available satellite images, she would have understood that her story of the doctor – who talked of indiscriminate bombing of the hospital in which he worked by 2,000 shells in a matter of just ten days – could not possibly be true.

What else can be seen in the available satellite images will also have to wait for next week.

This article was published in The Island on 3rd July 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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