Tisaranee Gunasekara, in the Sunday Leader, 14 August 2011
“Now that they are on the last lap of the war and the LTTE had taken their position in the midst of the innocent people, using them as human shields, the casualty rate has increased many fold… We can’t expect the LTTE to conform to any norms but the forces can… The situation is disastrous and deteriorating day by day and your intervention cannot be delayed anymore. When the truth comes to light one day, the whole world will condemn us, the Government and the People.” V. Anandasangaree (Letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa – April 2009)
‘Lies Agreed Upon: Sri Lanka Counters Channel 4’ is a faithful reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of its maker – the Rajapaksa administration. The documentary is at its strongest and most compelling when it deals with the manifold atrocities of the LTTE. The Tiger-crimes need no embellishment; just the bare facts suffice. By sticking to the proven facts and by presenting these with surgical precision, the documentary manages to make a cogent and convincing case against the Tiger.It should have stopped at that.
‘Lies Agreed Upon’ has another mission to fulfil: to convince a disbelieving world that the Rajapaksa regime conducted the Fourth Eelam War as a humanitarian operation based on a policy of zero-civilian casualties. The documentary labours hard to ‘prove’ that there was no humanitarian crisis, the No Fire Zones were not targeted, Lankan soldiers did not commit any atrocities, civilian-deaths were miniscule and the IDP camps were unexceptionable places which made their inmates feel safe and even happy.
And it is a Labour of Sisyphus; unsurprisingly. When the documentary deals with Tiger-vices it is rock-steady because it is on firm-factual ground; but when it is dealing with Rajapaksa-virtues it sounds inauthentic, and even shifty, because it is basing itself not on undeniable facts but on obvious and implausible fabrications. ‘Lies Agreed Upon’ indeed, to justify the unjustifiable, to prove the impossible, to defend the indefensible. It is a documentary the LTTE would have been quite proud of.
The Fourth Eelam War was commenced by the Tigers. The LTTE used the Third Peace Process to prepare for ‘the Final Offensive’ which was supposed to usher in the state of Tiger Eelam. With this object in mind, the LTTE resorted to child conscription, arms smuggling and political murders with outstanding assiduity, all the while piously denying any wrong-doing. By the time the peace process wended to its violent end, the Tigers had made themselves utterly objectionable to a major part of the international community (the proscription of the LTTE by the EU andCanadain 2006 being cases in point).
Given this context, the war was unavoidable and defeating the LTTE was necessary, even desirable. The Rajapaksa administration should have stopped at reiterating these self-evident truths. It did not. Instead it decided to rename the Fourth Eelam War a humanitarian operation. This preposterous claim necessitated and was premised on an equally outrageous lie, that of zero-civilian casualties. In a vain attempt to sustain this colossal fabrication, the regime imposed a blanket censorship, insisted on language-rules (the local media, including anti-government ones, had to religiously call the war ‘the humanitarian operation’), banned non-embedded journalists from visiting the war-zone (except on very infrequent guided-tours) and eventually ordered all humanitarian organisations including UN agencies out of Tiger-controlled areas.
The lies were unnecessary and the excessive measures taken to sustain them needless. Truth, with all its scabs and warts, would have served Sri Lanka better. The International Community (with probably the sole-exception o fNorway) had come to the (reluctant) conclusion that the time was apposite for the Tiger to exit the stage. FromDelhi to Ottawa, fromWashington to Brussels, there was no serious opposition to imposing a crushing military defeat on the permanently recalcitrant Tiger, so long as the regime offered a political solution to the ethnic problem and made serious efforts to minimise civilian casualties. The Rajapaksas consented, and did the opposite. The search for a political solution was turned into an exercise in deception aimed at time-buying and deflecting Indian/international pressure. More damagingly, the lie of ‘zero-civilian casualties’ was maintained, against all logic and reason.
Assuming perfection was unnecessary; claiming infallibility was unconvincing. These poses were, in the final analysis, far more damaging than acknowledging mistakes and apologising for misdeeds. As a civilian stated, “If the Government openly admitted that it had crushed and injured these people, it would be easier to accept than what it does now. It claims that it rescued the civilians without a single casualty, is caring for them, feeding them, resettling them and looking after all their needs. That kind of lie is the lowest thing you could inflict on another human being” (UTHR Special Report No. 34 – 13.12.2009).
‘Lies Agreed Upon: Sri Lanka Counters Channel 4’ effectively debunks the Channel 4 claim that the demonstration by Tamil civilians, begging the final batch of UN staffers not to leave was a spontaneous one. The statements by the heads of the Washermen’s and Barber’s associations that the LTTE orchestrated the demonstration ring true. That was how the Tiger operated.
Sadly that is the sole satisfactory counterclaim ‘Lies Agreed Upon’ manages to make. The facile sophistication of the presentation apart, the documentary is a rehashing of many an old threadbare lie. For instance, the Rajapaksas always insisted that there was no humanitarian crisis in the Vanni, the trapped civilians were not bombed or shelled and did not suffer from hunger and sickness. The documentary repeats these same impossible claims. But the reality of a humanitarian crisis was attested, time and again, by impeccable sources, such as the UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman who stated, “Children and their families caught in the conflict zone are at risk of dying from disease and malnutrition” (BBC – 18.3.2009). The U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator, Neil Buhne, announced after returning from Vauniya, “I saw infants with dysentery, malnourished children and women, untended wounds, and people dressed in the ragged clothing they’ve been wearing for months” (AP – 25.4.2009). The government insistence on underestimating the number of people caught in the war zone (by almost 200,000) made matters worse, because it prevented the UN from sending adequate food and medical supplies to the conflict zone, thereby exacerbating the suffering of the people.
The LTTE declared it wanted to save Tamils from the steadily advancing Sinhala Army; the Rajapaksas insisted that they wanted to liberate the Tamils from the clutches of the LTTE. Neither side bothered to count the cost – to the Tamils. Caught between their merciless saviours, Tamils suffered and died.
The Tigers adopted a policy of shooting any civilian who tried to flee into government controlled area, and persisted in conscripting children to the bitter end. Defence Secretary and Presidential Sibling Gotabhaya Rajapaksa announced, “Nothing should exist beyond the no-fire zone… No hospital should operate in the area” (Interview with Sky News – 2.2.2009). 24 hours later Director of the Media Centre for National Security said, “The government cannot be responsible for the safety and security of civilians still living among the LTTE terrorists” (The Independent – 3.2.2009). The results were instantaneous. As the ICRC stated, just one day later, “PuthukkudiyiruppuHospital, in the northern Vanni region, has been shelled repeatedly in the last 24 hours, forcing patients and staff to flee towards the north-eastern coast… (to) an area that lacks clean drinking water, which puts the displaced patients and medical staff at even greater risk” (ICRC statement – 4.2.2009).
No Fire Zones became meat-grinders to civilians caught between two equally implacable forces. As the UTHR – J (University Teachers for Human Rights – Jaffna) reported, “One of the most damning features of the war was that civilians caught up in a shrinking area, were subject to relentless shelling, and particularly in safe zones so declared by the Government… The Government had the technology to avoid hitting civilians; the fact that it did so almost daily points to a deliberate intention. Several witnesses consulted by us confirm that one shell from the LTTE or even its firing small arms into the air brought indiscriminate return shelling multiplied scores of times. This was the pattern throughout” (Special Report 43 – 13.12.2009).
While the civilians died, the Tigers and the regime tried to surpass each other in grotesquery. The LTTE political chief Nadesan took umbrage at the term ‘trapped civilians’: “it is not appropriate to use the word ‘trapped’… They are not trapped; they are still struggling to get their life back in their land with dignity” (Interview with the CNN – 22.3.2009). Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa became incensed when queried about civilian casualties: “If you want to believe me, believe me, no civilian casualties. We have taken all the precautions to avoid civilian casualties… The world has to appreciate this, if somebody doesn’t appreciate this – bad luck” (Interview with Amos Roberts for ‘The Australian’ – 23.3.2009). The two equally preposterous claims obviously emanated from very similar mindsets, characterised by inane cynicism.
The truth occasionally (and inadvertently) peeped out, from this profusion of lies. For instance, Defence Spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told a media briefing on April 22 that the Army was using small arms exclusively (no heavy weapons) because this is a ‘hostage rescue mission’. Less than a week later, during a meeting with UN Undersecretary General Sir John Holmes, President Rajapaksa pledged to stop the use of “heavy calibre guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties” (‘Sri Lanka to stop air strikes, shelling of rebels’: AP – 27.4.2009).
On May 9, the ICRC chartered ferry made its final journey to the conflict zone to evacuate injured civilians. The subsequent ICRC statement is self-explanatory: “As the fighting draws ever closer, thousands of people trapped along a narrow coastal strip north of Mullaittivu are forced to take cover most of the time in improvised trenches and shelters in order not to be hit by exchanges of fire between government troops and fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The civilians also suffer from a lack of food, drinking water and proper medical care” (ICRC Statement – 12.5.2009).
The Tiger culpability for this colossal tragedy was undeniable. Had the LTTE not forced civilian Tamils to act as human shields, the deaths and the suffering could have been minimised. But the regime’s countermeasures were no better. It was the government which ordered the expulsion of those international organisations which were providing the civilians in the Tiger-controlled areas with many basic facilities. True, the LTTE made off with a large quantity of the aid provided (just as politicians in the South misuse public funds and public goods for personal advantage). But to deprive the desperate civilians of their sole support structure simply because it was being abused by the Tigers was as unconscionable asIsraelimposing a blockade onGazato prevent the Hamas from smuggling weapons.
For more than two years, the Rajapaksa administration insisted that the war was won without killing a single civilian. Last month the regime did a volte face, and announced that civilian casualties were unavoidable and some civilians did indeed die. The task of ‘Lies Agreed Upon’ is to prove this new Lie, and to disprove the Channel 4 claim of 40,000+ civilian casualties.
In May 2009, the UN made an announcement placing the number of civilian deaths at 7,000+. That was the time the Rajapaksas were insisting on their zero-casualty myth; in consequence, the UN’s estimation was rejected angrily. The current Rajapaksa myth is ‘a few civilian casualties’, and the documentary resuscitates the old UN claim as proof. The presentator then states that the UN subsequently admitted that this figure was based on unreliable sources, hinting that the actual figure might be lower. Actually 7,000 ‘is the UN estimated death toll to the end of April’ (The Guardian – 29.5.2011). Thus the actual death toll is likely to be higher and not lower, even by the conservative estimates of the UN.
The documentary then uses mathematics to disprove the 40,000+ casualty figure. It claims that the maximum population in Vanni was around 300,000; since 293,800 people registered in the IDP centres, the total death toll of combatants and civilians could not have exceeded 7,000. Ergo, “the 40,000 figure is not credible; it is impossible.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to numbers, the regime has a proven history of being dead-wrong. During the penultimate stage of the war, the authorities claimed there were only 100,000 people in the NFZ. By March, around 37,000 civilians had reached government controlled areas and the regime announced that only 70,000 civilians remained in the conflict zone. Humanitarian agencies and journalists who placed the number of civilians remaining in NFZ at or beyond 100,000 were accused by the authorities of being Tiger propagandists.
Then between April 20 and 22, around 103,000 civilians escaped the Tiger clutches and fled to the government controlled territory, proving the ludicrous inaccuracy of the regime’s numbers. As the documentary admits, 293,800 people eventually entered the IDP camps, 193,000 more than the total figure insisted on by the regime for months. This suffices to prove the total unreliability of the regime when it comes to counting, be it the dead or the living.
A far more reliable source would be the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR), with its impeccable anti-Tiger credentials. One of its founder members, Rajini Rajasingham Thiranagama was killed by the Tigers in 1989. Through unceasing waves of violence, by the LTTE, the Lankan state, the IPKF and anti-Tiger Tamil groups, the UTHR continued to speak out, against every crime, every act of injustice, in the best tradition of bearing witness. It investigated, recorded and revealed innumerable acts of horror committed in the name of a plethora of worthy goals: national liberation, national reunification, anti-terrorism. For those who wanted to know what was really happening to the people of the North and East, the periodic reports by the UTHR were indispensable.
After considering several sets of figures, the UTHR places the number of dead and missing at around 40,000, warning that some of the numbers may have bribed their way out of the Menik Farm: “A government should leave no stone unturned to measure the scale of a distress in various aspects; such as the numbers dead, disabled, widowed, psychiatrically affected and children impaired or handicapped in a variety of ways. This is the key to rehabilitation” (Special Report No. 34). Instead the regime is still playing the old numbers games with the dead and the alive alike, interested only in brushing up its increasingly flaky image.
Torture? Rape? Murder?
The documentary deftly sidesteps the Channel 4 allegations that some members of the Lankan forces tortured, sexually abused and executed prisoners by arguing that Issaipriya was a Tiger cadre and Col. Ramesh was an unreconstructed terrorist. Issaipriya would have been a Tiger cadre (who sang paeans to Black Tigers) and Ramesh was indeed a murderer. But torturing one and sexually assaulting the other and murdering both cannot be justified on those or any other count. The issue is not whether the victims were innocent or not; the issue is whether some Lankan soldiers engaged in torture, abuse and murder. If they did, as Channel 4 alleges and its searing footage convincingly indicates, such acts are moral outrages which shame every one of us; they also violate both national and international law and thus merits immediate and credible investigation.
A point repeatedly made by the UTHR is that most Lankan soldiers treated the fleeing civilian Tamils with kindness. Though there are allegations of rape and torture, these are being made not against a majority of the soldiers but against a very small minority. Therefore, carrying out a credible investigation of these charges is important not only in the name of justice but also to save the honour of the Lankan army. A few murderous sociopaths should not be allowed to dishonour an entire force.
The Rajapaksas claim that the Lankan Forces are highly disciplined; they are correct. During the Third Peace Process, the LTTE tried, time and again, to provoke the forces into firing at civilian demonstrators – and failed. The Lankan Forces refused to take the Tiger bait, masked their obvious unhappiness at the rampant appeasement of the Wickremesinghe administration and obeyed the civilian authorities unquestioningly. From 2002 to late 2005 the Tigers could not provoke the Lankan Forces into retaliating against civilians.
This began to change in late 2005; probably the first such incident was a Navy assault on a group of displaced civilian Tamils in Victorian Hundred Housing Schemes in Mannar, subsequent to a Tiger attack on the Navy in the vicinity. The killing of five students in Trincomalee followed soon after. From then on, acts of violence by the Lankan forces against civilian Tamils increased exponentially. Did this change happen because of a sudden breakdown in discipline? Or did it happen because the political authorities adopted a more permissive attitude? If the alleged torture, sexual abuse and murder of Tiger prisoners did take place, were they caused by indiscipline? Or did they happen because the political masters sanctioned revenge?
A key weakness of ‘Lies Agreed Upon’ is the lack of credibility of most of its star witnesses – because they are not free agents. Take, for instance, the case of the doctors who served in Tiger-controlled territory, struggling to provide some relief to the countless injured. When they entered the government controlled area, they were promptly arrested and brought to Colombo. “Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told the BBC they are being detained at the Criminal Investigation Department on ‘reasonable suspicion collaborating with the LTTE’… He said the investigation could last up to a year but there might be extensions to that” (BBC – 4.6.2009). A month later the doctors appeared at a government-organised press conference and denied all the claims they had made during the final stages of the war about civilian casualties and privations. ‘Lies Agreed Upon’ uses footage from this press conference extensively, blissfully unaware of the Orwellian flavour of the entire exercise. Less than two months after the press conference the doctors were released, and reinstated in their profession. According to a Wikileaks cable, “The doctors had been pressured to give the press conference…where they recanted all the statements they had made from the No Fire Zone” (The Guardian – 16.12.2010).
The documentary relies heavily on statements by former LTTE cadres in rehabilitation camps and civilians still in camps. Their fluent declarations seem like heavily-coached and stage-managed performances. De facto prisoners themselves, it is obvious they have little choice but to say whatever the authorities want them to say. One incident is particularly revealing. A former Tiger cadre undergoing rehabilitation talks about being given the opportunity to resume his studies; his word-perfect testimony ends with a sentence which stands out for its obvious authenticity and spontaneity: “We are eagerly awaiting our release”. It does not take oracular powers to figure out that this eagerly awaited release would have been delayed if he did not comply with orders.
Defending the Camps
The documentary is redolent of that curious Rajapaksa mix of cynicism and naivety. The regime’s cynical belief that it can fool most of the people all the time stems from its naïve belief in its own capacity to dissemble. This mindset is the only possible explanation for the documentary’s defence of the indefensible: the incarceration of more than almost 300,000 people in open air prison camps masquerading as welfare villages. The presentable presentator of the documentary argues that though the camps were not heavenly they were not hellish either, the implication being they were satisfactory in an ordinary way.
According to the leader of the TULF and an outspoken critic of the LTTE, V. Anandasangaree, the conditions were ‘good’ in some camps and ‘horrible’ in many others: “Health, water and sanitation situation is horrible. Many people have skin diseases as they don’t get a chance to have a shower for days because of water shortage… Pregnant mothers and newborn babies go through a harrowing time in the camps due to scorching heat” (Tamilweek – 3.6.2009). In one of his final addresses as Chief Justice, Sarath N. Silva spoke about the abysmal conditions in the ‘welfare camp’ he visited: ten people to a tent in which standing up is impossible except at the middle, yards long queue to the single ‘toilet’. He also stated that the inmates of these camps do not have any recourse in law as they exist outside the law (Sirasa News First – 3.6.2009). In the meantime, a top official boasted, on record, that the government turned down an offer of several hundred used blankets by a Five Star Hotel, because the ‘First Class Citizens’ in the camps do not need second hand things.
If a prison is a place where a person is kept in captivity, the camps were prisons. The men, women and children in these camps were not de jure prisoners because they had not even been charged with any crime. They were de facto prisoners, whose sole ‘crime’ was living in ‘enemy territory’. As the then Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said everyone in the camps had to be “carefully screened” because “it was quite likely that even many elderly people were with the LTTE at least mentally” (BBC – 4.6.2009). The camps represented the extra-judicial internment of almost the entire population of the Northern districts which were under Tiger control during the last phase of the war. It was ethnically motivated collective punishment.
‘Lies Agreed Upon’ makes an impeccable criticism of the LTTE and proceeds to spoil it by trying to prove that the Rajapaksas waged a sinless war. No better explanation is needed as to why the regime has failed to turn its military victory into a political victory. And whySri Lanka, having won the war, will lose the peace.