Tekwani reviews Channel 4’s ‘documentary’ and THE CAGE in the midst of an ongoing propaganda war

Shyam Tekwani, courtesy of Tehelka, where the title was The long afterlife of war in teardrop isle”


Tamil civilians pass checkpoint

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?

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’.

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, inColombo’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 inSri Lanka, Weiss tries to translate the most sensational event of the past two years inSri 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 areIndia; 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.

II: In Lanka, balm travels further than bread

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 aSaigon streetwon 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 byColombo. Decapitating the group’s leader at any cost becameColombo’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.  

Following the gathering outcry againstSri Lankathat ensued upon publication of the UN report and the screening of Channel 4’s film,Colomboresponded 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 dead end 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 thatColombo 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 theUnited 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 ofColombo’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 humiliateSri 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, Shyam Tekwani, and do not necessarily represent the official position of the United States Department of Defence. Shyam Tekwani may be reached at shyamtekwani@hotmail.com







Leave a comment

Filed under Eelam, gordon weiss, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, life stories, LTTE, news fabrication, power politics, power sharing, prabhakaran, propaganda, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, truth as casualty of war, war crimes, world events & processes

Leave a Reply