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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Sri Lanka’s defeat

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on March 27, 2013

The lessons the Government won’t learn from the vote at the UN Human Rights Council

UNHRC voteThe UN Human Rights Council sessions ended last week with the passage of another resolution on Sri Lanka. It was a victory for the United States, which secured 25 votes in favour compared to 13 against, with eight abstentions and the representative from Gabon being recorded as AWOL.

Life having continued as normal in Colombo, the Government is bound to learn all the wrong lessons from the experience.

For a start, it will think that it can continue to allow the Bodu Bala Sena to run around inciting hatred against Muslims, since Muslim countries overwhelmingly backed Sri Lanka. Half of the votes the Sri Lankan delegation could muster were from Muslim countries – Pakistan, the Maldives, Indonesia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Mauritania – as well as half of the abstentions. Only Libya and Sierra Leone – both recent ‘beneficiaries’ of Western military intervention – voted with the United States.

The Bodu Bala Sena, which is entirely comprised of people who consider any comment on what goes on in Sri Lanka by non-Sri Lankans as tantamount to an invasion, will pretend that it hasn’t noticed. Since it claims not to notice much more obvious things – such as that Sinhalese not only aren’t in danger of being wiped out but are actually increasing their share of the population in Sri Lanka, even without the help of retrograde bans on contraception – this should come as no surprise. Noticing the voting pattern in Geneva would make it difficult to continue with its ridiculous and totally destructive campaign, and that would mean going back to obscurity.

Unfortunately, the Government is not much more intelligent.

Muslim countries may not choose to express their concern via the Human Rights Council – or not yet, anyway – but they are certainly worried. They said as much in a very carefully worded letter to the Government just days before the vote in Geneva.

Mahinda Rajapaksa must take note, before Sri Lanka is completely isolated internationally.

Dayan Jayatilleka’s new book – ‘Long War, Cold Peace’, launched in Colombo at the weekend – is a timely reminder of why international isolation is not just the Government’s problem.

As he puts it, ‘When the war ended in May 2009, the Eelam movement was more globalised than ever. The struggle between Sri Lanka and the Tamil separatist project would continue in the global arena, on an international scale, and the country’s future in the next stage would be greatly influenced if not decisively determined in the international theatre. This included the preservation of the military gains on the ground. There had to be a shift of national emphasis and priority, to the international front. Just as the country and state matured to the point where it shifted to the correct policy stance on the war, overhauled its military machine and placed the right personnel in the right places, the same or a similar task would have to be undertaken in the domain of Sri Lanka’s external relations.’

Separatism would have been dead and buried if Mahinda Rajapaksa had done what he promised and followed the military defeat of the LTTE with a generous political settlement. But he chose to delay, if not drop the idea altogether.

As a result, Sri Lanka is in trouble.

Anybody who doubts it should ask themselves how else there could once again be self-immolations taking place in Tamil Nadu.

Protesters haven’t only just heard allegations of war crimes. They were made even while the fighting was taking place, and a call for an international investigation was included in the resolution that the European Union wanted to pass in the Special Session of the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka in May 2009. What has changed is the global consensus on what to do about them.

The Government no longer occupies what Dayan calls the ‘moral high ground’.

During and immediately after the conflict, the world compared its actions to those of the LTTE and took decisions accordingly. It got away with a lot because it was up against a ruthless terrorist organisation that killed both Tamils and Sinhalese, ordinary villagers, human rights activists and political leaders as well as members of the armed forces, and in particular also the leaders of other countries.

With the annihilation of the LTTE, the Government ran out of excuses. Globally, the consensus is that it is not living up to expectations.

This is what last week’s vote in Geneva confirmed.

The Government will no doubt be tempted to treat it very lightly, since it is the second resolution that the United States has succeeded in passing on Sri Lanka.

Indeed, the only difference is the result of changes in the composition of the Human Rights Council. In 2012, 24 countries voted in favour compared to 15 against, with eight abstentions. This became 25 in favour and 13 against in 2013, with eight abstentions and the absence of Gabon. Meanwhile, Russia and China had left the Human Rights Council, while in the Eastern Europe group two small actual or aspiring members of the European Union had joined, and Japan and South Korea had joined the Asian group.

It was on the first occasion that Mahinda Rajapaksa should have understood the need for a change of approach.

That is when the major shift took place. The Sri Lankan delegation had secured 29 votes in favour compared to 12 against, with six abstentions, in the Special Session of May 2009.

The tendency in Sri Lanka is to focus on the role of India, which played such a crucial role in support of the Government at the May 2009 Special Session, only to vote with the United States in 2012. Indeed, India is the most important single country for Sri Lanka’s external relations, as its only neighbour and the regional superpower with such long-standing ties in so many fields. However, India was but one of many countries that deserted the Government in 2012.

Crucially, the majority of both the Latin American group and the African group joined India in siding with the West.

What needs to be done to recover this natural constituency is as usual best summed up by Dayan Jayatilleka: ‘No one, even among Sri Lanka’s friends, would countenance either an insensitive or slow alleviation of the problems of IDPs and related humanitarian questions or an absence of an immediately post-war political solution based on autonomy and equality for the Tamil people. The lesson was that the Sri Lankan state had to catch up, get with the new calendar and new times, and learn to speak a new language. ‘Bush-speak’ had no acceptance outside the USA even during his administration and now it is rejected within the USA itself and has no resonance anywhere in the world. Sri Lanka’s dominant discourse had to change or it would lose the global struggle by simple default. With the victory of Obama, macho nationalism, religious majoritarianism, unilateralism and ‘anything goes in the struggle against terrorism’ were out. The attempt to combine ethics and power (‘ethical realism’) was in.’

Looking at what has happened since then, it would appear that the experience had the opposite effect on Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Government has moved more recklessly than ever in exactly the same direction.

If Muslim countries were to abandon Sri Lanka, the descent into hell would surely be even further accelerated.

A notable feature of this year’s sessions of the UN Human Rights Council was the emergence of a number of pressure groups within the country. For example, there were media events by an organisation claiming to be working on behalf of relatives of the disappeared, which focused on disappearances carried out by the LTTE. There was also a major demonstration in support of the Government in Jaffna. Whether these efforts are genuine or managed is not the point – they show what lies ahead. Before long somebody is bound to call for an investigation into the war crimes of the IPKF.

Such initiatives are very much part of normal life in Colombo.

That too is a defeat for Sri Lanka, which should now be focusing all of its attention on rebuilding the country, both physically and psychologically.

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

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Not so quiet on the Indian front

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on March 20, 2013

On the politics of Tamil Nadu and the efforts of its politicians to influence the rest of the country

KarunanidhiIn the third week of the UN Human Rights Council sessions, Karunanidhi played what he hopes will be his trump card. Unless India not only votes against Sri Lanka but also ensures that the resolution includes a commitment to a war crimes investigation, his party will quit the coalition government.

Whether or not he gets what he wants in this instance, he knows that there is a limit to what can be achieved by means of threats alone. Threats couldn’t have persuaded Manmohan Singh to intervene to stop the war in 2009, for example. That’s why Karunanidhi didn’t make any. Instead, he launched a fast that lasted from breakfast until a slightly late lunch, at which point he professed to be completely convinced that the Sri Lankan military had stopped using heavy weapons in the No Fire Zone.

And that was at a time when Karunanidhi was rather more powerful than he is today, having since lost an assembly election rather badly.

Today, to get anything more than a resolution in Geneva, he is going to have to mobilise public opinion.

How easy this is in Tamil Nadu is obvious from the way in which Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have been competing on Sri Lankan issues of late, and the result is an awful lot of blind hatred. Protests regularly spin out of control – it is not just that they become violent, but that they also pick illegitimate targets, such as Sri Lankan tourists and most recently a monk archaeology student (‘Buddhist monk is roughed up by a group of Tamil nationalists in Tamil Nadu’, Colombo Telegraph, 16th March 2013) and a monk pilgrim (‘Another Sri Lankan Buddhist monk is attacked in Chennai Central’, Colombo Telegraph, 17th March 2013). They are terrorist, albeit so far yet to do any serious damage.

Where this is heading should be a matter of grave concern for New Delhi.

Leaving that aside for the moment, public opinion in the rest of India bears very little resemblance to that in Tamil Nadu – a fact that some people have clearly noted as a problem, judging by their increasing efforts to reach out across state boundaries.

Last week, I was presented with an opportunity to experience some of this outreach in the form of a documentary screening and meeting on ‘War crimes and genocide in Sri Lanka’ at Jawaharlal Nehru University, organised by a group called Students for Resistance in collaboration with the Save Tamils Movement.

The documentary itself was fairly extraordinary.

Almost everything in it was said by nameless, faceless people sitting in unidentifiable rooms in unidentified places. Frankly, they might not even have been Sri Lankan. Whether they were or ever had been in Sri Lanka was also not obvious. Viewers were simply asked to trust the producer, which of course a lot of them did, the audience being almost entirely comprised of young activists.

Readers would eventually be able to judge for themselves, as the video would no doubt find its way onto the internet – it is called ‘Buried Justice’.

Since there was no attempt to present actual evidence, the claims made could go beyond all previous efforts. The number of dead, for example, was inflated to 200,000 in the last few months of the war alone.

Most interesting from the point of view of understanding the provenance of the documentary was the assertion that the LTTE never used force against its own people. One of the nameless, faceless interviewees acknowledged that some people dressed in LTTE uniform did come around when they were hiding in bunkers in the No Fire Zone threatening to shoot them if they tried to get away, but he claimed that they weren’t speaking ‘our Tamil’, implying that they were infiltrators sent by the Army – probably associated with the ‘traitor’ Colonel Karuna.

I noted in my last column the way in which some Sinhalese are pushing conspiracy theories that blame the LTTE for everything bad that has ever happened in Sri Lanka, including the burning of the Jaffna library and even the Black July riots. In parallel – as always – some Tamils are trying hard to absolve the LTTE of responsibility for the crimes that it did actually commit.

As always, it is not clear whether it was the Tamil chicken or the Sinhalese egg that came first.

Far more revelatory than the documentary were the comments by the three speakers – none of whom were from Tamil Nadu – and the response from the audience.

While appalled by what was said to have taken place in Sri Lanka, nobody exhibited any very special concern about it. As one of the invited speakers put it, ‘All states behave like that.’ He also pointed out that ‘similar things’ are happening in India today.

They were interested in the Geneva resolution only to the extent that it could be used to force a war crimes investigation on India too.

In other words, their reaction was very different to that of Western audiences to the much more measured documentary by Channel Four. (No doubt this is because Western governments direct the worst of their violence towards people in places as far away from their constituencies as possible, preferably in countries that their voters can’t even locate on a map.)

Also unlike in the West, a member of the audience expressed surprise at the tremendous amount of ‘information’ that was available. He attributed this to Sri Lanka being a small state that had to accept the presence of NGOs, which are much more strictly controlled and limited in India, and this prompted a discussion on how to replicate the kind of ‘solidarity movement’ that Tamils have established to engage with the wider world. Nobody suggested that what had happened in Sri Lanka was a ‘war without witnesses’, since they believed that they had in fact witnessed an awful lot more than they considered to be the norm in such situations.

As is often the case with young activists, they were sympathetic to the idea of armed uprising. However, they weren’t as hypocritical as many of their counterparts in Tamil Nadu – they were clearly more interested in armed uprisings in their own country than in somebody else’s.

They were also ready to criticise. One of the invited speakers made a point of denouncing the LTTE both for its practice of targeting civilians and for silencing competing voices from its own community.

In addition, a member of the audience who had studied in Tamil Nadu highlighted the futility of talking about the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka while paying absolutely no attention to the way in which Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are treated in India.

The Save Tamils Movement is certainly guilty as charged. I first encountered them during a stint in Chennai in 2011 when I was researching an article about the refugees (‘Stuck, for a generation‘, 31st July 2011), where they demonstrated every interest in discussing my opinion of the LTTE – which had by then ceased to exist – and none at all in anything else.

And the refugees are still in exactly the same condition today.

In Tamil Nadu, none of this matters. The refugees certainly don’t matter, since they are largely from the poorer segments of society, and worse – in the eyes of politicians and their hangers-on sitting comfortably in Chennai – they ran away from the struggle. The crimes of the LTTE don’t matter either.

Frankly, Tamils don’t matter to these people.

I believe that the only thing that really concerns them is the future of Tamil nationalism – more specifically, how the cause of Tamil nationalism can best be advanced while causing the least disruption to their own lives.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of India is not very sympathetic.

Students for Resistance, who are the regular partners of the Save Tamils Movement at Jawaharlal Nehru University, represent the very fringe of student activism, in a campus that is a long way from the centre ground of Indian politics. But even they know better.

What Manmohan Singh decides to do about Sri Lanka must eventually take this into account, whatever Karunanidhi’s games.

This article was published in The Island on 20th March 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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And the cold war goes on

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on March 13, 2013

Why a war crimes investigation will have to wait

Student Fast in ChennaiPressure for a war crimes investigation continues to mount. With the sessions of the UN Human Rights Council entering their second week, activists descended on key national capitals, urging governments to pass a resolution that calls for international action.

As usual, India has been the site of the most extreme interventions. As Karunanidhi’s DMK held a meeting of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation in Delhi and called for a general strike in Tamil Nadu, a member of Seeman’s NTK self-immolated and eight students of as yet unidentified affiliation launched a fast-unto-death in Chennai. Then a group of thugs ransacked an office of Mihin Lanka in Madurai, and Vaiko’s MDMK laid siege to the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission, burning effigies of Mahinda Rajapaksa and shouting about genocide.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International gave Manmohan Singh a petition with 14 lakh signatures.

I argued in my last column that all of these efforts to raise the issue of war crimes are targeting the wrong people – it is not the Indian government that needs to be convinced of the need for an investigation but Sri Lankans.

Predictably, a lot of readers wrote to say that the international community has to step in because there is no chance of justice being done in Sri Lanka.

I should start by saying that I believe that war crimes took place. I believe that the LTTE committed them in abundance and I believe that the Army committed some too, and I believe that one set of wrongdoings cannot be weighed up against another, especially when those wrongdoings involve a third party – the ordinary people of Sri Lanka. Readers need not bother to ask for proof, since I have already said that these are only beliefs, albeit beliefs that have been formed on the basis of experience and common sense and information that is in the public domain.

But suppose somebody in the defence establishment decided that Prabhakaran’s 12-year old son shouldn’t be left alive in case he ever decided to front what they are so fond of calling the LTTE rump. Justice would require him to be punished.

Suppose the Army deliberately shelled civilians to force them to brave LTTE reprisals and break out of the No Fire Zone. Justice would require them to be punished too.

We may understand why such things are done and even sympathise with and feel gratitude towards the people who take on the responsibility to fight on behalf of others, especially when they have to face an opponent as ruthless as Prabhakaran, but they are not right. We should not pretend otherwise.

We must be able to distinguish between war crimes and the awful consequences of war. We must recognise that war crimes do not just happen – they are the result of conscious decisions by individuals.

In the end, this is how to protect those who need protecting.

What kind of punishment those who need punishing should receive is open to discussion, but this is contingent upon them being punished at all.

As of now, very few Sri Lankans are willing to discuss even much more straightforward incidents than these two scenarios.

This brings us back to the question of how justice could possibly be done in Sri Lanka.

In fact, I believe that it is highly unlikely. And in the immediate future, there is absolutely no chance whatsoever.

That is not the point. My question to all of the people who argue that the international community must step in is why they think that their strategy has any more chance of succeeding – how exactly is India or the United States or any other country going to deliver justice?

It is my contention that the international community is even less likely to get the job done.

I am quite sure that Mahinda Rajapaksa is far too wily a politician to have ordered any war crimes, but he is not about to give up anybody who did either.

And look at what the international community has achieved in other countries.

Charles Taylor of Liberia is the only leader to have been convicted of war crimes, but these were committed in Sierra Leone not in his own country. He fled to Nigeria in 2003 when it became obvious that he was losing the second of Liberia’s civil wars, and in 2006 the newly elected president called for his extradition. The Special Court for Sierra Leone sentenced him in 2012.

Meanwhile, Muammar Gaddafi was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2011 as NATO prepared to bomb Libya in support of a group that was waging a civil war against him. He lost and was murdered before he could be brought to a court.

Slobodan Milosevic too lost a war. He was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in 1999 while NATO was bombing Serbia to force it to sacrifice Kosovo. They claimed that this would make Serbian troops behave better, although the exact opposite has since been discovered to have been the case. Having lost the war, he went on to lose an election, but even the man who beat him didn’t want to send him to The Hague. It was done against the wishes of the president by the cabinet in the face of threats to withhold aid, for which Serbia was heavily dependent on the West. Even then, Slobodan Milosevic died in 2006 before a verdict could be reached, and the following year the International Court of Justice concluded in a case brought by Bosnia that there was insufficient evidence to link him to war crimes, although he didn’t do enough to prevent them from happening.

Finally, there is Omar al Bashir of Sudan, who is the only incumbent to have been targeted. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have died in Darfur in the violence that followed the negotiated end to Sudan’s second civil war, and a warrant for his arrest was issued by the International Criminal Court in 2009. However, this move was strongly criticised by the African Union, the Arab League and the Non-Aligned Movement, amongst others, and he remains in charge of his country to this day.

To sum up, the international community has not even been able to punish leaders who lost their wars, except in one case for war crimes that were committed in another country.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is simply beyond their reach.

Meanwhile, as I sat down to write this column, a neighbour of mine from Kenya pointed out that her country has just elected Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto as president and vice-president, both of whom have been charged by the International Criminal Court. They are accused of crimes against humanity in the aftermath of a disputed election in 2007, and even the BBC says that the indictments may actually have swung the vote in their favour.

In other words, even people who have done nothing very much in comparison with Mahinda Rajapaksa have benefited from being pursued by the international community.

And he must know it.

For these reasons, the very best that we could expect from this pressure for a war crimes investigation is that the Government decides to sacrifice a few junior officers, while heavily compensating their families. And this would really not constitute justice.

Meanwhile, the worst that we can already see happening is the ever greater polarisation of debate on the issue.

Those who dismissed the LLRC as a whitewash are now beginning to understand exactly what a whitewash looks like. It is not just a matter of the Government ignoring recommendations to investigate specific allegations, which has long been its standard operating procedure. The Army’s Court of Inqury has now also rolled back some of its conclusions, including most significantly the admission that there were ‘considerable civilian casualties’ in the final phase of the conflict, and not only at the hands of the LTTE. More extraordinarily still, various individuals are beginning to challenge well established and accepted narratives of the war, such as the burning of the Jaffna library and even the Black July riots.

Very soon we will be told that it was actually the LTTE who shot JFK.

In such circumstances, it is going to be a constant battle to prevent the cold war from getting hot again.

Of course the crazies in Tamil Nadu will not care about that. They don’t have to live in Sri Lanka, so they are free to take entirely abstract positions without cluttering their minds with anything so mundane as facts. Reality doesn’t matter to them.

I just hope that it matters to some people.

Whether the Government wins or loses the vote in Geneva is not very important. It certainly deserves censure, for all of the reasons that I have discussed in these columns over the last year. However, if this is done using the threat of a war crimes investigation, it will be to the detriment of the ordinary people of Sri Lanka – the third party in whose name all of this activism is being done.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 13th March 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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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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Calling in the marines

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 30, 2013

Why struggles for justice and the independence of the judiciary cannot be outsourced to the international community

20130130_Calling in the marinesAs I said last week, it is easy to become disheartened with the way that things are moving in Sri Lanka. One disappointment follows another, and each is more extraordinary than the last.

The impeachment of the Chief Justice was particularly disturbing. It demonstrated just how little space there is for dissent. Even the mild disturbance created by Shirani Bandaranayake when she ruled that the Divi Neguma bill had to be referred to the provincial councils or passed with a two thirds majority was intolerable to the administration. She had to go. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence of actual wrongdoing on her part. She was removed on the grounds that she might try to cover up the corruption of her husband, which is what Mahinda Rajapaksa claims to have done himself!

Since very few of us are willing to agree with everything that the Government says all of the time, it was appalling to see the lengths to which it is ready to go to impose its will.

No doubt that was the objective of the exercise.

Our distress was compounded by the failure of the Opposition under Ranil Wickremasinghe, who appeared to be far too busy plotting his next move against Sajith Premadasa to bother with something as mundane as the independence of the judiciary. Having successfully ousted his rival from the deputy leadership of the party – whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen – he finally managed to pen an article on the impeachment for the Sunday Times this week, but readers may not have had the stamina to get past the rather laborious exposition of his knowledge of the history of English country houses and meetings of the Commonwealth to locate his point.

Once again, the widespread information campaign that was so badly needed to counter the propaganda put about by the Government has been left to others.

Worse, by focusing our attention on the Commonwealth and the sanctions that it may impose on Sri Lanka as a result of the impeachment, the UNP leader is pushing us into the same old trap of ‘internationalising’ what must be a national struggle.

Honestly, who cares about the Commonwealth?

If Ranil Wickremasinghe tries very hard, it may decide to move the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting away from Sri Lanka. But what use is that? I don’t believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa would be in the slightest bit upset.

Quite the reverse, he is at his most comfortable when under fire from abroad.

No doubt the Government is totally hypocritical when it calls people traitors for taking their problems to international fora. We all know that Mahinda Rajapaksa did the same thing in the late 1980s, when the UNP administration was butchering Sinhalese youth.

It is also wrong. There is nothing traitorous in informing the world about what is happening in Sri Lanka.

It can even be useful in some circumstances.

I don’t believe that it had any impact on the anti-JVP campaign. The architects were either convinced that Sri Lankans would never prosecute them for their excesses or too desperate to care about what might happen once it was all over. On the whole, they were right – not morally but factually. If they were punished, it was almost exclusively by extra-judicial means.

Even today, as the JVP calls for an inquiry into the discovery of a mass grave from that era in Matale, there is little chance of it being granted and no chance whatsoever of that resulting in jail time for the politicians who ordered such activities.

The JVP will not push on the issue, for to do so would be to remind people of its own role in the slaughter.

But imagine what would happen if it did. Imagine it calling on the international community to investigate, as many people are doing today with regard to the deaths of Tamils in the Government’s war against the LTTE. Would justice be done?


Even after the passage of more than twenty years, and with an SLFP-led coalition in power, there is nothing the international community could do about it.

Why? Because the international community doesn’t get to vote in elections in Sri Lanka.

It is the opinions of Sri Lankans that matter to Mahinda Rajapaksa. So long as they aren’t bothered about the mass grave in Matale, he won’t be either. Likewise, so long as they don’t want an investigation into the anti-LTTE campaign, even Ranil Wickremasinghe wouldn’t do it.

The international community has zero moral authority, as everybody in Sri Lanka is very well aware.

We know that other countries have dirty wars of their own. Indeed, if we needed reminding that some things remain the same even after the replacement of George Bush by Nobel Peace Prize winning Barack Obama at the top of the world’s greatest democracy, Dirty Wars is the name of a documentary that premièred at the Sundance Festival in Utah last week.

Sri Lankans love to blame the Western media for focusing on abuses in this country while remaining silent about what their own governments get up to, but this is rather myopic. Everything we know about the crimes of Western nations has been brought to our attention by Western journalists.

According to an interview with the producers, the documentary looks at how the War on Terror, which started overtly in Afghanistan and Iraq, has now become covert. We know everything there is to know about the night raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which has even been made into a rather captivating Hollywood film, but there were 30,000 other night raids in Afghanistan that year. Nobody talks about them. The documentary recounts the story of one in which an elite squad of American soldiers killed a senior policeman and his family while they were in the middle of a birthday party, and tried to cover it up. While the survivors watched, they dug the bullets out of the bodies, then announced to the world that they had stumbled onto the aftermath of an honour killing.

How very honourable!

The American ‘kill list’, which had only seven names on it after 9/11, now includes thousands. That is thousands of people that Barack Obama has said that it is perfectly acceptable to murder, never mind whether they are holding up white flags.

It also talks of the American drone programme, which allows them to do so without getting close enough to see a white flag. Indeed, George Bush established a policy, which Barack Obama has endorsed, of dropping bombs on people even when they aren’t on the ‘kill list’. In certain areas of Pakistan and Yemen – countries with which the United States is not at war – all young men are assumed to be terrorists and can be killed as and when convenient.

This is also top secret. Barack Obama personally intervened to stop the Yemeni government releasing a local journalist who photographed the remnants of American cruise missiles that he says regularly kill civilians.

American funded warlords in Somalia are shown on camera saying in a completely matter-of-fact manner that they execute foreign prisoners on the battlefield.

The War on Terror goes on in another equally repugnant form.

Given this well known background, if the international community tried to use its economic or other power to force prosecutions in Sri Lanka, the public would rally behind the Government, and Mahinda Rajapaksa is very good at encouraging such a response.

There really is no short cut.

To succeed in the pursuit of justice, it is the minds of Sri Lankans that have to be changed. If they start to want prosecutions, it will happen.

It is a national struggle, and trying to involve the international community can only make it harder.

Likewise, ‘internationalising’ the effort to restore the independence of the judiciary is also going to create more problems than it solves.

Mahinda Rajapaksa showed how uninterested he is in the opinion of the international community by announcing the impeachment of the Chief Justice just days before Sri Lanka faced its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Deceiving ourselves may make us feel better, at least for a while, but it isn’t going to result in any actual change.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 30th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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