Michael Roberts, 28 June 2011……… from the Island, 22 June 2011, after an initial draft appeared in transcurrents on 20 June 2011. Readers are encouraged to visit the transcurrents site to see a number of caustic (and puerile?) comments. A more significant reaction from Radhika Coomaraswamy is inserted as Epilogue to this entry.
The war crimes accusations levelled against the Sri Lankan government at the moment are driven by a complex coalition of forces. Though the principal engines are Tamil migrants in the Western world bent on vengeance, there are Western people of righteousness in the vanguard as well. Such a man is Gordon Weiss. His demeanour as he addresses television audiences is that of a crusader. The iconic picture of himself adopted in his very own website, benignly overseeing a mass of African children, reminds one of a missionary.Weiss is not alone. The advocates of human rights today are reminiscent of the nineteenth century missionaries inSri Lanka and India whom I confronted when researching my dissertation as a postgraduate. To these dedicated people the world was at their feet. They interpreted this scene underfoot through an either/or philosophy. As onward Christian soldiers they would save the poor benighted “natives” and rid them of idol worship.
Today, the moral crusaders are of a different cast. They pursue a different agenda, generally secular in sentiment — with some threads centred upon human rights. But they too adhere to an either/or evaluation of the worlds before them. For this reason I see them as secular fundamentalists. Drawing upon my 35 years experience of Australia I see them marching forth to cleanse the world of “evil” in the form of carbon pollution, smoke inhalation, et cetera. Human rights extremism is one product of this era of secular fundamentalism.
For Sri Lanka these people of righteousness have a clear picture. They are the new knights unveiling the facts in honest fashion. In this view Eelam War IV was a brutal war involving atrocities from both sides in the conflict, government and LTTE. This seeming even-handedness shrouds (surprisingly for moral people) a double standard in the choice of targets for their war crime courts: only the Rajapaksas and their unsavoury henchmen in the Sri Lankan government are targeted, while LTTE functionaries abroad are exempted.
The last stage of Eelam War IV was, these people of righteousness stress, “a war without witnesses.” This iconic phrase was widely deployed in 2009 and is routinely utilised today by the people of righteousness, one instance being the Weiss interview for ABC in May 2011and another the recent simpleton statement by David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner in the New York Times. So, they, then, are the supreme witnesses. Their witness includes statistics on “civilian” deaths. This is no cause for surprise. We are dwelling in an era captivated by the magical wand of statistics and the impression of precision generated by the imprint of number. So Gordon Weiss told us earlier that his computation of civilian deaths ranged from 15,000 to 40,000. Invariably this sound bite gets twisted in world reportage and is presented categorically in several outlets as “40,000” persons, with the Global Tamil Forum in the forefront of this particular voice. Facts are sacred but statistics are not.
The spokespersons of righteousness themselves trot out testimony from witnesses, from (a) Tamil “civilian” victims of war; (b) Colonels du Toit and Kahn, UN men of righteousness who were part of Convoy 11 bearing humanitarian aid, and (c) others whose names cannot be revealed in order to protect them. Some of this testimony is cogent and pertinent, but what the phrase “war without witnesses” means is that there were no Western reporters at the battlefront and thus no reliable reportage.
Does this mean that such a claim is colour blind or colour conscious? Does it mean that only people of a certain colour could provide untainted reportage? Anyone residing in Sri Lankawould be aware that local media personnel provided reports from the rear of the frontlines. Some TV reporters were gung-ho patriotic in disposition; and one would certainly have to treat their presentation as tainted and filtered. But does this mean that all their tales are to be discounted? As an analyst it would be puerile for anyone to discard such reports as those penned by Sheran & Roshini Fernando and Vidura for the Sunday Leader on the 3rd and 17th May 2009 respectively.
But that is what the insistence on “a war without witnesses” does. More to the point it renders a part-truth into a whole truth. The Sri Lankan government certainly restricted the entry of foreign media personnel; and some, such as Jeremy Page and Nick Paton-Walsh, were unceremoniously bundled out for practicing dishonesty. However, the Hindu correspondent, Muralidhar Reddy, was able to visit the frontlines periodically from October 2008 to May 2009. Kanchan Prasad of Prasar Bharati did so from the 25th January onwards. In late January as well as mid-April they were among a contingent of foreign media personnel taken to Kilinochchi and the front. Both Reddy and Prasad were also accorded the privilege of being permitted to visit Kilinochchi on the 13th May and to then visit the army-controlled section of the No Fire Zone on the eastern side of Nandikadal Lagoon on every day from the 14th May to 18th May inclusive. There, in that last battle arena, they had the freedom to travel its length and breadth.
My analysis thus far would suggest a measure of colour prejudice in the voicing of “a war without witnesses.” That is too simple an explanation for the manifest bias. Rather the people of righteousness are prejudiced towards their own kind, people without nationality, people of the universe, people humane. Thus, in my analysis, it is ideological prejudice that encourages such selectivity.
Invariably, however, when campaigning in an imperfect world their righteous war crimes movement draws unto itself a coalition of various interests. It is not a pure White movement in composition because it attracts people of Asian colour as well: Tamil, Sinhalese, Burgher and Moor people of righteousness; Tamil ultra-nationalists and former Tigers posing as humanists; Sinhalese journalists victimized and endangered by the authoritarian Rajapaksa regime, some now bent on revenge.
Thus, the people of righteousness who are giving witness to the viciousness of Eelam War IV are also Reporters Sans Frontieres, siblings of MSF. To repeat my opening lines: they are universalist-world-citizens, people without nationality. They prosecute for Virtue, driven by a mixture of universalism and righteousness. True, some of them become entwined in the work and join an array of legal types who are part of a vast underbelly of organisations for whom the issue of human rights is also a vested interest and a business. However, one should attend to the degree to which righteousness impels many, in part or whole, and is emblazoned on their foreheads. It is the ramifications arising from this spirit that I am focusing on today.
So it is that their reportage is expressed in either/or terms. It is a tale of a Sri Lankan government juggernaut versus Tiger terrorists. In this view both were equally horrid and the Tamil civilians were caught in the middle as poor victims in the anvil of war. While it is recognised that the LTTE held the Tamil people of the Vanni area as hostages, this tale is highly simplified. This is where the either/or epistemology dominates.
In speaking to the world for the world, the picture presented by the crusaders hides, or fails to stress, two critical facts about Eelam War IV: namely, (I) that in the years prior to the outbreak of war and from its onset in August 2006 the LTTE trained many civilians in peoples’ militia known as Mākkal Padai;[vi] and (II) that, during Eelam War IV, and especially in 2008/09, the Tigers mostly fought in shorts, trousers or sarong. In other words one of the critical aspects of the vicious war was the blurring of the distinction between the “civilian” and the Tiger army person (whether infantry, catering, engineering or supply corps).
In their simplified and bureaucratic evaluation from some humanitarian cloister, the people of righteousness seem to expect an army infantry platoon crawling through a booby-trapped no-man’s land, usually at night, to have the magical capacity to sort out who was Tiger and who was “civilian.” Worse still, they implicitly consider it good policy for infantrymen to refrain from the conventional practice of throwing a grenade into a bunker in front of them; that is, they ask the infantrymen to poke their heads into the opening first so as to discern if there were “civilians” or Tigers inside.
Such crass idiocy and a failure to exercise analytical empiricism are further complicated by the manner in which the people of righteousness fail to recognise their own complicity in the awful story of the months January-May 2009. By 2009 the LTTE had perfected its strategy of taking aseaofTamilpeople with them as a shroud of protection, a labour pool and a bargaining chip in geo-political diplomacy. This monstrous act was, as far as I am aware, unprecedented in the history of the world. It could match 9/11 in scale and implication, especially if it becomes part of the armoury utilised in the future by states or pseudo-states in extremis. As such, it remains remarkable that this outstanding act/event has received limited emphasis then and now.
This Machiavellian strategy on the part of the LTTE was predicated on the presence of three sets of (overlapping) forces whom, the Tigers felt, would come to their aid and save their bacon: namely, (A) the Western states (Canada, Australia, Britain, USA and EU) directed by their own specific agendas, including constituency pressures in some places; (B) people of righteousness both within agencies in Sri Lanka and abroad and (C) those for whom human rights is a professional business.
In other words, the people of righteousness, whether White, Weiss, Brown or Black, were seen as allies by the LTTE. Allies they became during that crucial stage of the war January to May. Allies they remain for Tiger branches abroad, embittered Tamil migrants as well as Tamils and Sinhalese of humane disposition. The war of manoeuvre in word and thrust continues.
Postface, 28 June 2011: When I circulated my expanded version (one that appeared in theIsland), I received a few responses, generally favourable. One was an angry response dated 23 June 2011 from a good friend from years back, namely, Radhika Comaraswamy: “Michael, I think you have lost it. Please don’t send me any more of these really offensive articles- people have suffered so much and you are still on with your bogey of imperialism. I have been to so many conflict areas and voices like yours are just so crass and insensitive. Maybe you should meet one victim form any war before you speak. Please don’t e-mail me again. RC.”
This unsolicited, knee-jerk reaction indicates that the sentiments that I have depicted as “secular fundamentalism” encourage a form of tunnel-vision in some instances, a perspective that cannot see the wood for the trees. The use of the missionary metaphor in my article, clearly, was a means of stressing the main point: the either/or modalities of evaluation. This mode of assessment, I further claimed, led to a number of errors of judgment. Coomaraswamy’s reaction to this argument now reveals an error of comprehension rooted in the ideological cloisters that I have called “secular fundamentalism.”
In revealing to the world Radhika Coomaraswamy’s erroneous reading from her powerful position inNew Yorkas the Under-Secretary General of the UN entrusted with the role, “Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict,” I am, clearly, consolidating a split in friendship initiated by her angry note. War and confrontation does have ramifying effects as we all know. They increase polarization.
The trope “poles apart” is kin to the concept of “polarization” and captures the meaning graphically. But it also can hide the complexities in such circumstances. Metaphorically, one must not restrict one’s picture to a “north pole” ranged against “south pole.” For the Sri Lankan situation one has to insert ‘west pole,” east pole,” and further indicators that mark a whole range of positions that in turn encourage all manner of alliances – a topic that also entered my essay albeit briefly.
[ii] Addition, 28 June 2011: Again there is a narrowing of temporal focus to the last stages of this war; and a strange failure to encompass the whole span of the conflict, inclusive of the three other stages in the period 1983 to 2002 when army/navy reprisal attacks (several would be documented in the UTHR reports) certainly constituted “atrocities.”
[iii] “The Silence of Sri Lanka,” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/21/opinion/21iht-edmiliband21. html?_r=1&emc=eta1 and http://thuppahi.wordpress.com
[iv] See Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts, on Accountability in Sri Lanka, 31 March 2011, section 82 and also Weiss, The Cage, . It seems that these two foreign observers left LTTE territory at the end of January.
[v] S. and R. Fernando, “Coping with the IDP Tsunami,” Sunday Leader, 3 May 2009 and Vidura, “The Great Escapes,” Sunday Leader, 17 May 2009.
[vii] See http://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/72157627005320170/ AND Figure 17 in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics,Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010.
[viii] See “Tiger Dead and Vestments” in http://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/ 72157626922473698/. Also see Figures 19a and 19b in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics,Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010.