Outcomes from my Think-Piece … and Thoughts on Pictorial Imagery

Michael Roberts, 24 July 2011

Pic courtesy of Ministry of Defence — note that this image can be read in different ways according to subjectivity and degrees of partisanship.

The May 2011 “Think-Piece” posted a few days back in this site resulted in several  articles within the same site and/or in other web sites and newspapers. These are now listed below together with a listing of crucial sets of photographs in my Flickr site.

Critical to any overview of the last stages of the war are whatever authentic images one can recover. I was first led to the value of this kind of data when working on what is conventionally referred to as “communal violence” in South Asia. In particular, two photographs depicting obscene acts of aggression at Borella Junction in Colombo on the 24/ 25th July night in 1983 captured my attention. These appeared initially in the Tamil Guardian and it was only subsequently that I discovered Chandragupta Amarasinghe, the brave cameraman who recorded these atrocities. The images featured in my “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, 1983,” which has appeared in two outlets in 1994 and 2003 respectively.[i]Guided by cultural knowledge I surmised that the naked Tamil victim highlighted in one picture had been killed when I presented the image initially. Chandragupta later confirmed that my surmise was correct. It was this inspiration that led me to seek images of ethnic violence from outrages in India, USA and Europe as part of my quest towards “Understanding Zealotry.”[ii] Some of these findings are available in the side-panel in http://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com.

In my view a great deal of the reportage and analysis of Eelam War IV has not utilized pictorial evidence to the degree that is advisable. Obviously images can be mis-read or misused or twisted with the aid today of modern technological wizardry. In the circumstances of an ongoing propaganda war one must therefore exercise extreme caution in accepting video and photographic sources. However, even propaganda efforts have empirical value when carefully assessed.

   The Moon-Darusman review does utilize photographs, but in a selective, partial and patently biased manner. As for Channel Four’s documentary video, it is compromised by several fabrications, not least the execution scene which I considered a cruel psy-ops from the very moment the first video appeared in 2009. But each segment of pictorial imagery in Killing Fields has to be examined piece by piece, for there may be scenes within this presentation that have solid grounding.

I am puzzled by the deployment of some fabrications by the cluster of forces behind that documentary. I believe there would have been civilian deaths in January to May 2009 because the context for such a disaster was engineered by the LTTE operation. It would seem to have been a simple matter for such visual imagery  to have been collected. The insertion of fabrications suggests that the “civilian” [true civilian that is] deaths may not have been as widespread as claimed; or that the LTTE machinery was breaking down and did not collect such data..

   Of course, the short answer directed against my puzzlement is that the Machiavellian hands behind the document were not interested in “truth,” but in effect. That effect has been secured among a wide spectrum of educated Westerners attentive to the Sri Lankan scene; and also among Lankan migrants who are not diehard Sinhala patriots or ultra-Tamil nationalists. When individuals such as Michael Atherton are swayed into the anti-Lanka camp by the viewing of Killing Fields, one can conclude that the video struck deeply and wrought its psy-ops objective.

   In the face of this result, I must perforce shift my puzzlement and direct it against these readings by well-intentioned people, including Michael Atherton.[iii] Why did they let their emotions override sceptical and rational viewing of the scenes, several of which may have been harrowing, but were suspect in their very detail and further in doubt because of the patent propaganda operation that was behind the whole Channel Four venture.

    In brief, I say here that many of these people, some of them my friends in NGO and INGO outfits, have been extremely gullible. They should carefully review some of the documentary challenges to the Channel Four’s ‘work of art-with-subterfuge’, including Noel Nadesan’s recent questioning. Among several queries Nadesan identifies one cluster of pictures depicting killing activity, that which dwells on a poor bloke tied to a tree and then as bloodied corpse, as an LTTE act because one of the allegedly army soldiers in one scene was wearing flip-flops.[iv] When I viewed the documentary, I had missed this clue, but had nevertheless considered this set of images “suspect” because the victim (who certainly looked Tamil to me) was tied to a tree – an unlikely procedure for an army with overwhelming manpower advantages and having command of the battle situation. Nadesan’s reading provides further support for my doubts and raises the accusation of fabrication to “probable” status.

    But, from the perspectives of the charter of any school for chicanery this is a beautiful concoction is it not! This event served a dual purpose for the LTTE at some point in 2008 or so: they killed a Tamil dissident, or a weakling who had gone AWOL, and created a film of GOSL cruelty! When allied with a series of other images in Killing Fields, interspersed with commentary from Jon Snow or earnest human rights canvassers, the total impact of such concoctions seems to have been like a juggernaut that overwhelmed many viewers.

  Moreover, in buying into these questionable pictorial sources, moral crusaders, whether Sri Lankan or non-Sri Lankan, compromise their ethics. This is why I have criticised Gordon Weiss for permitting his righteousness to override judgment to the point where he oversimplified a complex story to the point of distortion and revealed a certitude that the confused picture of the last stages of war did not justify.

  Let me present one recent example of fabrication that combines print and photograph. In May 2011 one Paul Newman presented an article that targeted Ban-Ki-Moon of all people: “Ban Ki Moon’s double standards in dealing with Sri Lanka on war crimes.” Newman describes himself as “[holding] a Doctorate of Philosophy on ‘Internal Displacement and Human Rights situation in Northern Sri Lanka’ from Bangalore University [and as] one of the four public speakers at the Permanent People’s Tribunal on War Crimes against Sri Lanka.” His essay ended with the following words: “The Tamil population [in Sri Lanka] is being systematically eliminated. Is the Sri Lankan Tamil issue a problem of the Tamils alone or is it a problem of humanity? Ban Ki Moon has to do a lot of soul searching.”[v]

   For our interests here what is significant is his presentation of two photographs of corpses, one a single body and the other a whole row of dead bodies. This imagery had the following caption: “War crime? Bodies of Tamils killed in an alleged chemical attack by Lankan forces (Photo courtesy: Save Tamils Movement).”

  Unfortunately for Newman the second photograph is one I have vividly imprinted in my mind because I had recently assembled it from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence’s web site as part of my quest for pictorial evidence that many Tiger fighters had gone into battle in ordinary clothes and not in their military attire. Indeed, you will probably find it in the Flickr web site reference I detail below. Newman’s effort is an incompetent one, but its brazenness is evidence of the degree of chicanery to which the Tiger lobby abroad has descended.

I stress here that the Channel Four video also deployed a few photographs grabbed from the Ministry of Defence propaganda enterprise marking triumph in battle. A photo here and a photo there of dead bodies in civilian attire interspersed among the series of other shocking images were meant to spread alarm among those emotional. Someone should undertake a careful decoding of this work, frame by frame, with the help of the government web-site. I will in due course pen an essay on the issue of the battlefront dead, but video decoding must perforce be undertaken by those with the technological e skills and equipment [and relative honesty] requisite for the purpose.

Such practices should not be a surprise. Anyone familiar with World War Two will tell you that the best British and American brains devoted their soul to psy-ops in aid of the war effort; and that guile and concoction were key instruments within such activities directed to defeating the Axis enemies. Morality and truth were not ingredients in this process, though appeals to public morality were central – invariably guided by the cultural premises of the target population.  That Tiger agents and sympathisers should continue to indulge in this type of work  is par for the course. Some LTTE personnel abroad are still committed to their goal of Thamililam; and all Tiger and Tamil sympathisers are so embittered that vengeance dominates their thinking. War crimes allegations are one of their favourite paths of retribution.

   So, here retribution wears the garb of “truth” and feeds human rights truth-seekers. Given such circumstances it is the body of moral crusaders that one must hold up for inspection rather than the LTTE networks. The LTTE personnel are doing what one expects from them as devoted ultra-nationalists. The moral crusaders, in all their variety, however, are a more complex case.

     How is it that so many of them have swallowed some questionable material so readily and even become point-men in a Tiger war strategy? Moral righteousness is obviously one of their ideological imperatives. However, my contention here is that where they allow themselves to be seduced by questionable pictorial sources, the moral crusaders, whether Sri Lankan or non-Sri Lankan, compromise their ethics. That is why I have criticised Gordon Weiss for permitting his righteousness to override judgment to the point where he oversimplified a complex story to the point of distortion and revealed a certitude that the confused picture of the last stages of war did not justify.[vi]ARTICLE OUTCOMES

 The LTTE’s Last Redoubt in Nandikadal East two years back, May 2009 = http://thuppahis.com/2011/06/07/the-landscape-of-the-ltte%e2%80%99s-last-redoubt-may-2009/

 Readiing “devastation”: Botham, CMJ, Ban Ki-Moon, 10 June 2011 = http://thuppahis.com/2011/06/10/reading-%e2%80%9cdevastation%e2%80%9d-botham-cmj-ban-ki-moon/

People of Righteousness target Sri Lanka, 27 June 2011http://thuppahis.com/2011/06/27/people-of-righteousness-target-sri-lanka/

Mis-Reading Prabhākaran: European Catspaws beyond their Depth, 22 June 2011


 Tiger Dead & Vestments = http://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626922473698/ 

Tent City in the Last Redoubt of the LTTE = http://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626826325831/with/5828587480/

Indian Reporter Pics at NFZ-14-to-18 May 2009

 Mullivaikkal Hospital in NFZ Last Redoubt

 TIMES Aerial Images, NFZ Last Redoubt, 23 May 2009

Final Battle, NFZ Last Redoubt, 13-19 May 2009




[i] Roberts, “The agony and ecstasy of a pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994 and then in Nēthra, April-Sept 2003, 6:  199-213.
[ii] http://thuppahis.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=293&action=edit

[iii] http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/1394

[iv] http://noelnadesan.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/media-and-the-suffering-of-the-tamil-people/
[v] See http://www.theweekendleader.com/Causes/491/Moon%E2%80%99s-man.html. The photo graph of Newman in this article indicates that he is an Asian, and thus probably a Tamil from either Tamilnadu or Sri Lanka. It is probable that he is a descendant of a Christianized Tamil lineage going back to the work of American or British missionaries in the Jaffna Peninsula during the 19th century.
[vi] http://thuppahis.com/2011/06/27/people-of-righteousness-target-sri-lanka/

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