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    Posted on 29 August 2011


    The long afterlife of war in teardrop isle

    The happenings of the last days of the Sri Lanka-LTTE war, during which LTTE chief Prabhakaran was killed, are still causing wounds

    • Adele Balasingham, who led the women’s wing of the LTTE

    • Displaced Tamils fleeing

    • Displaced Sinhalese

    • A LTTE gunman around civilians

    • Security checkpoint manned by Srilankan soldier

    • Jaffna from helicopter

    • Jaffna's deserted streets

    • Remains of Jaffna town

    • Photo Courtesy : Shyam Tekwani

    IT IS the first truth of war, however deplorable, that civilians die. The first casualty in war is the civilian. The real victims of war are the civilians. Particularly in civil wars, which are about national survival. In a war zone, they are everywhere, fleeing on foot, on bicycles or handcarts or on somebody’s back, through drenching rain or blazing sun. Wandering around in circles, with no destination, to escape the hail of gunfire and rockets, all with just one question to ask: when would this madness end?

    Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

    In the finale to the war in Sri Lanka, which the Tamil Tigers (in their global appeal for funds from their supporters) called the final war, trapped civilians pleaded for intervention to deliver them from the crossfire. Their pleas were as much in vain this time, as they had been successful on several earlier occasions, since as a human shield they were central to the survival of the Tigers leadership. The unblemished record of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in reneging on negotiations and truces, only to fight even more fiercely, meant that calls for a ceasefire were yet another stratagem to regroup and rejuvenate. Colombo, sensing an impossible victory, was in no mood to risk being cheated of this opportunity as it was by New Delhi in 1987. There was going to be no bail out this time. The retreating Tigers then resorted to a trick that had previously ensured their longevity – herding civilians as their insurance against certain annihilation. Left with no choice but to pursue the concept of total war with the same kind of ruthless determination that Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tiger chief, had demonstrated for 25 years, Colombo went for the kill. The Tigers had finally met their match.

    The prevalent global disregard for international norms and laws following the September 2001 attacks on America provided the enabling environment to eliminate the Tigers. A secessionist group classified as the most sophisticated and deadliest terrorist organisation had been vanquished after a quarter century of bloodletting in a war alternately called ‘Forgotten War’, ‘War without Witness’, ‘Dirty War’, and ‘Unequal War’, as international sympathy and support see-sawed between the Tigers and Colombo. The military victory in the final war was total.

    A euphoric Colombo awaited the deluge of congratulatory messages for having accomplished what even the authors of the global war on terror had not been able to achieve. And when the messages flooded in, Colombo found itself protecting the jugular. Mostly condemnatory, the chorus of messages chided the triumphant victor for unbecoming conduct on the battlefield and included accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. A bewildered Colombo’s immediate response (there were ‘zero civilian casualties’, it was a ‘humanitarian rescue operation’) aggravated the situation. By denying outright all accusations, the ‘information war’ between the critics and Colombo heightened. During the two years of bitter recriminations and allegations that followed, Colombo further countered with accusations of hypocrisy and self-righteousness on the part of the West by citing its proclivity to pick on small hapless nations.

    Dogged efforts by an assorted cast of actors to unearth evidence and implicate Colombo of war crimes steadily increased the pressure on the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and peaked around the second anniversary of the military victory. First, the United Nations released its controversial report of the secretary-general’s panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka citing evidence ‘sufficiently credible to warrant further investigations’ into the charges of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed during the last phase of military operations. The report was followed by The Cage: The fight for Sri Lanka & the last days of the Tamil Tigers, a book by Gordon Weiss, who was the spokesperson and communications adviser attached to the UN team in Colombo during the years that included the end of the war. Then came the sensational British television Channel 4’s documentary Killing Fields (not to be mistaken for the brilliant 1980s film on Pol Pot’s Cambodia). All three claimed to have ample evidence to charge the government of Sri Lanka for crimes against humanity.

    Colombo’s angry reaction to the report and the documentary betrayed the need for a new set of advisers to the Rajapaksa government. It initially challenged the credibility of the video footage shot on mobile phones and the set of images that seemed to corroborate the accusations and dismissed them on the basis of being ‘biased’ adding that the ‘evidence’ was ‘obviously fake’, a ‘fabrication’ and that it was a ‘concerted effort by the western media to discredit Sri Lanka’.

    Dogged efforts by an assorted cast of actors to unearth evidence and implicate Colombo of war crimes steadily increased the pressure on the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and peaked around the second anniversary of the victory

    The documentary, in its attempt to provide a stomach-turning narrative (in the filmmaker’s words, ‘this is the only way to make people to take this seriously’), is on shaky ground. The end result is as similar in tone and tenor as documentaries produced by the LTTE’s information warriors, the Truth Tigers, the camera teams that went into battle to record footage for propaganda and posterity. The Tigers would have been proud of this production. Clearly an effort to sensationalise and shock with carefully selected and edited footage, the documentary weakens its case and invites an investigation into its own credibility and accountability to journalistic norms. The volume of testimony it uses as evidence is not enormous and most of it is derived from leading questions. The slant is pronounced. Somewhere in the documentary, a human rights lawyer says, “The only exception (to attacking a hospital) will be if there was some evidence that the hospital was actually being used for military purposes” and the script glosses over the use by the Tigers of every such medical base.

    WEISS, SPEAKING in the documentary as the then UN spokesperson, believes the UN crew was asked to leave the war zone by Colombo who could ‘no longer guarantee the safety of UN workers’ to ensure there were no international witnesses in the last stages of what was coming. A more crucial reason to expel foreign observers and aid workers, one suspects, could have been the fear of the ‘CNN effect’ (which Prabhakaran chose to exploit with his human shield) that a ‘foreign’ casualty would have had on international public opinion. Additionally, in Colombo’s experience all foreigners (Indian and Western) tended to be Tiger sympathisers. Still fresh in memory must have been the role foreigners had played in prolonging this conflict – one of modern history’s longest civil conflicts – by their passive support of the LTTE’s support network in their countries. Apprehensive of its capacity to continue remaining undeterred by ‘imploring diplomats’ clamoring for yet another stalemate, Colombo’s imperative to bring the war to a hasty end set it on its wanton brutal path.

    The documentary would have benefitted in its crusade and escaped being labelled another propaganda effort by merely following the norms of good journalism. This does not mean that it is entirely without value. Even as a good example of poor journalism, it does raise important questions about the rules of war and accountability of governments, which it could have successfully done without the shrillness of a propagandist desperate to believe in his own merchandise.

    When The Cage appeared a couple of months ago I approached it with caution because, like a like lot of other books on Sri Lanka, I did not wish to be disappointed by another fantastic or insipid account. Additionally, I was wary of reading the work of yet another crusader setting out to salve his conscience at his own earlier impotence in office. The Cage is not the perfect book about the conflict, but it is the only decent one we have where the author makes an effort at tempering his grievance (anger is the author’s word of choice) with some academic rigour. Even to examine the book is to sink into a bog of footnotes – and incidentally this book contains long footnotes than any book on conflict I have read in recent years. The notes section testifies to an attempt at understanding the global and local context for a Total War. To give us the full sense of our ignorance and bias of what is happening in Sri Lanka, Weiss tries to translate the most sensational event of the past two years in Sri Lanka – the military defeat of the LTTE – into humanitarian and war crimes terms. While Weiss is unremitting in cataloguing the savagery of both sides in the conflict, he leaves you with no doubt where his anger is directed. His primary targets are India; his former employer and the ‘Rajapaksa oligarchy’ upon which he unleashes his heaviest artillery. Where the book undermines its purpose is its obvious attempt to work up a vile atmosphere of a government conspiracy to annihilate the Tamils and in some measure it is as successful in this as it is in sustaining the feeling of horror and rage.

    Faults: Yes, several. In parts, Weiss’ studied conclusion (the war was justified but the large-scale deaths of civilians was disproportionate to victory and this calls for a credible judicial investigation into the excesses) is at variance with his narrative style and choice of words, which draw heavily on his moral repugnance of the Rajapaksa victory. His careful effort to be objective falters occasionally in contradictory pronouncements. In his preface he says of the Tigers, “Their ingenuity became a pioneering model for other transnational terrorist organisations emerging in the 21st century”. His post-mortem ruefully notes, “Other insurgent groups present more potent challenges to the international order than the Tigers, who were only (my italics) ever a threat to Sri Lanka”. There are several similar contradictions.

    ANOTHER IMPORTANT letdown is the assertion that images never lie. Ignorance or disingenuousness? It is a truism that images have propaganda value as a result of which newsmakers in times of war continue to experiment with various ways to manage perceptions by controlling photographic images. Images never lie, image peddlers do. You don’t need Photoshop to falsify the truth of an image. By merely placing a picture out of context or inventing a caption and (the most common form of misrepresentation) writing a caption based on scanty knowledge and abundant assumptions – as I witnessed during the 1980s when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) circulated to couldn’t-care-less journalists my photographs of death and destruction from the Sri Lankan Army’s Operation Vadamarachchi, as those from attacks by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) Operation Pawan. A photograph creates another world. It is easy to list a catalogue of images that have lied. Images can also lie by revealing only part of a truth. Eddie Adams’s iconic anti-war image of police chief General Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner on a Saigon street won him the Pulitzer Prize, though he later regretted the impact it had. He later wrote of his famous photograph: “Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths ... What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?” Weiss’s assertion is therefore inexplicable.

    In one of his arguments, betraying either ignorance or bias, Weiss contends that with a ratio of 30 to 1 fighters in Colombo’s favour and with all escape routes sealed, the Tigers leadership would have been easy target and cites the eventual death and capture of the Tigers command as evidence of his observation. That would be a hard story to sell to those who had been outwitted by LTTE leader V Prabhakaran for 25 years. Prabhakaran’s reputation as a wily survivor who always escaped (more often with the assistance of international intervention and also his intimate knowledge of the terrain he was trying to escape from) to fight another day and the mounting international outcry were widely feared by Colombo. Decapitating the group’s leader at any cost became Colombo’s mounting imperative as the war dragged on.

    Surprisingly, Weiss’s effort at doing his homework well fails at the most elementary levels. The late-night assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, according to him, occurred ‘on a hot morning’. Decimated is given a new meaning when he uses it to describe the loss of about 1,200 of 80,000 IPKF troops. Prabhakaran’s death, he avers, ‘brought personal satisfaction to Rajiv Gandhi’s widow’. Privileged knowledge? Similar such shoddy examples are littered across the book.

    Both, book and documentary are produced with a crusader’s zeal. Although profoundly moving and rich with detail, victim narratives cannot replace rigorous large-scale analyses. And all sources can misrepresent facts in a number of important ways. But without in the least questioning the accuracy of the quotes, I would not infer too much from them. While the book tries hard to maintain standards of responsible journalism and as a commendable, well-researched conscientious effort could probably rank as one of the better books dealing with the conflict, the documentary does not even pretend. The untutored could easily be swept by its sheer emotive power.

    The truth about atrocities is often far worse that they are exaggerated and made into propaganda. Truth is the Tigers have a history of killing people they claim to represent and planting the evidence on the enemy for propaganda

    Following the gathering outcry against Sri Lanka that ensued upon publication of the UN report and the screening of Channel 4’s film, Colombo responded against the allegations with Lies Agreed Upon, its own documentary and a publication, Factual Analysis of a Humanitarian Operation 2006-2009. Whoever sought inspiration from Napoleon (‘History is a set of lies agreed upon.’) and advised Colombo should have delved into recent history instead and learnt from the lessons of the Bush administration’s ‘Shared Values’ campaign that was launched soon after the September 11 attacks as part of an innovative public diplomacy strategy. The initiative produced a series of five videos in an attempt to dispel myths about persecution and discrimination of American Muslims. The campaign was broadcast in several Muslim countries before it was quickly abandoned as misguided propaganda. It resulted in a failure to influence world opinion,both at home and abroad due to an unreceptive audience. It will not do for Colombo to write off the evidence, circumstantial or direct, as something fabricated by conspirators. The government’s troubles, past, present and future, arise quite largely from its failure to publicise itself properly and Colombo has incurred unpopularity by doing things that a government, of whatever colour, would have to do in the same circumstances. Understandably, part of the price one pays for the systematic lying of the Tigers is Colombo’s exaggerated claim to innocence and righteousness and denial of atrocity.

    THE TRUTH about atrocities is that they happen and will happen in irregular guerilla warfare, with inexperienced soldiers with much cause for fear in hostile territory, where the enemy wears no uniform, strikes from ambush, and where women and ten-year-olds are adept at killing. I have some direct evidence as eyewitness of atrocities during the years I covered the war in Sri Lanka. I know that some were committed by all sides. There was never a year when atrocities were not committed by one side or the other, and there was barely a single occasion when a side believed in the same stories simultaneously.

    Atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on which side of the river you are. The truth about atrocities is often far worse than that they are exaggerated and made into propaganda. That one hears the same horror stories of rape in every conflict does cause skepticism even though this only makes it more likely that these stories are true. And when one does believe them, it is seldom based on evidence. Yet, it is curious how it is always someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows the victim of sexual violence and how one always reaches a deadend in trying to meet the victim. The UN report points out that ‘there are many indirect accounts reported by women of sexual violence and rape by members of government forces and their Tamil-surrogate forces, during and in the aftermath of the final phases of the armed conflict’. And the Channel 4 documentary, based on the footage, ‘raises a strong inference that rape or sexual violence may have occurred’. It is almost inconceivable that this war did not witness sexual violence. The UN report also concludes, ‘rape and sexual violence against Tamil women during the final stages of the armed conflict, and in its aftermath, are greatly under-reported’. In this context, an investigation should bear in mind a recent study in Foreign Affairs, on covering rape in wartime, which explains why wartime sexual violence has rightly been called a hidden epidemic. It also cautions that amidst reports that Gaddafi’s forces were given Viagra to facilitate their rape of thousands of victims, recent reports by the UN and Amnesty International have been unable to locate a single rape victim, or even anyone who knows a victim.

    By refocussing attention on the LTTE’s brilliant ‘sledgehammer propaganda’ tactics, Colombo has been unable to deflect stinging criticism. The truth, as both the documentary and the book briefly mention, is the Tigers have a history of killing the people they claim to represent and planting the ‘evidence’ on the enemy for propaganda benefits. It is tempting for Colombo, therefore, to dismiss a suggestion of rape or systematic killing by the Army as ‘fabrication’. But that would be ignoring the larger truth that these things really happen. That is the key truth that Colombo needs to acknowledge. They happened even though Adele Balasingham, who led the women’s wing of the LTTE, says they happened. And they need to be examined. For the reason that a survivor of a massacre in another forgotten and dirty war in South Korea’s village of No Gun Ri observed half a century ago, ‘Some say war is war and it’s dirty. But still what’s wrong is wrong’.

    Richard Nixon’s presidential address in 1973 presciently declared just before the My Lai massacres surfaced into public view, ‘North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that’. President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced at the end of the successful war, ‘There would be no more minorities’. Two years later, the results from the Tamil areas of the council elections decisively declared that the unconvinced minorities were united even more than before for a political solution and that the rift between the Tamils and the Sinhalese was in danger of widening and deepening. And that all of Colombo’s promises of economic development could never take precedence over a political reconciliation and unless there was healing there could be no true peace. It’s not a message that can be ignored. It requires, at the least, a mutually agreed process of collaboration with international investigators and increased efforts at a political resolution to pave the way for a finish to the war and a durable peace. Until then, the voices that rephrase Nixon’s prophetic words, ‘Tamils cannot defeat or humiliate Sri Lanka. Only Sinhalese can do that’ could only get deafening, providing those with a ‘hidden agenda’ enough impetus to sustain their capacity at interfering in the affairs of the island.

    The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of the United States Department of Defense.

    Shyam Tekwani is Associate Professor, Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu.
    [email protected]

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    Posted on 29 August 2011



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