Indi Samarajiva, courtesy of The Nation, 18 March 2012
Channel 4’s new doc is still malicious agitprop, wrapped around a seed of truth. People suffered and died, but Channel 4 – like Kony 2012 to a degree – is too quick to use that suffering to further a simplistic agenda. They completely ignore the history and context of Sri Lanka’s civil war and instead offer up war porn, strategically staged by the LTTE, proposing the decapitation of Sri Lanka’s elected government and military as a solution.
Summary: I think the Channel 4 doc is disingenuous – it takes human suffering the LTTE packaged to provoke an international response and basically does what the LTTE wanted, only 3 years later. While I think many of the abuses happened, and the government did lie about them, they happened within a proportional campaign (to end the war) and – due partly to international pressure – the government has acknowledged much of the suffering, notably in the LLRC report.
By wrapping human suffering so tightly around an agenda (prosecuting Sri Lanka’s top military and government leaders, incidentally the LTTE’s agenda, to prosecute wouldn’t be the word) Channel 4 cheapens and prostitutes the human suffering involved. I think it’s a bad film, but that doesn’t change the fact that the end of the war was plenty bad.
• No Sri Lankan sources (either people from, or in the country)
• I repeat ALL WHITE PEOPLE. This just looks bad. There isn’t a single non-white ‘expert’
• No direct, credible sources (all UN or US reports)
• Foregone conclusion (Mahinda and Gota should be prosecuted)
• No questioning how so many civilians ended up in a closed area where they didn’t live (the LTTE herding them)
• No discussion of proportionality (ie, ending the war at a civilian cost vs. not ending the war at all)
Opposite of criticisms
• People were killed and suffered. You can say it’s the LTTE’s fault and be right, but that still doesn’t make it right.
• The government did lie during and immediately after the war
• The civilians were not as much of a priority as killing the LTTE
• The government’s reconciliation efforts have only slowly proceeded from denial to something vaguely akin to sense. Efforts like Channel 4’s do pressure them, but the effect may be a net negative.
My running commentary: It’s a long video, so my commentary is long. I’ve tried to break it up. It’s loosely chronological.The start of Killing Fields 2 is about Killing Fields 1 and how awesome it was and how many international bodies and governments it influenced. There is no talk about how it influenced or improved Sri Lanka, because it didn’t.
Pic of scene at nandikadal Lagoon in May 2009 from Island
Ignoring how thousands of civilians got someplace they didn’t live: The major error they make is saying that government forces drove the Tamil Tigers and hundreds of thousands of civilians into an ever-smaller area. That isn’t true. The LTTE herded those people at gunpoint, and they used these people as a human shield to avert general threat in front of them. The strategy was to provoke international response based on sympathy and terror to preserve a terrorist group. This is the strategy that Channel 4 has unwittingly become a part of. Even dead, Prabhakaran is playing.
Pic 1 -Water distributed c. April-May – from Dailty News
Pic 2 — Makshift Clinic at Menik Farm – April 2009 — Pic by Donnie Woodyard of Medical Transparency International
Pic 3 — Telephone facilities in Menik Farm, October 2009
Without this context, of course, the Sri Lankan government looks terrible, firing on innocent civilians. Yet it is vital to remember that the LTTE set this up as a ploy to achieve its strategic objective of continuing the war – a far worse fate. Based on this omission alone, I think the Channel 4 video is deeply compromised.
These are scenes that the LTTE cynically set up for international consumption, and Channel 4 is eating it up. Making pointing at photographs look more serious than it is. Then there is the magic reliance on forensic pathologists to look at photographs and tell you what they see. In all, there are so far no voices of people from Sri Lanka (even saying this happened to me, which I have heard), brown people are either shown as monolithic bad guys or helpless victims, and it is all about the white man’s burden, ie, ‘the international community failed them’.
Kernels of truth:
Anyways, these are Channel 4’s indictments.
1. Shelling of a UN compound within the no-fire zone
2. Denial of food and medicine
3. I somehow missed the third one
4. The killing of Prabha’s 12 year old son.
Again, all of these things happen during war, which is why war is horrible. In the case of shelling, the LTTE promptly moved into any designated zone to mix with civilians and fire from there. That was their strategy since Kilinochchi fell. Food and medicine also had to generally go through the LTTE, who would take if for their cadres and dole out as they pleased. That said, the government did downplay the number of civilians in there, particularly Mahinda.
But that’s not even the issue here. The issue is that these are all situations that the LTTE set up. Thus the choice wasn’t do or not do, it was either do and end the war, or not do and let the terrorist force get away with it and continue to wreck havoc for God knows how many more years, or decades. That was the brutal calculus which the myopic video never addresses – yet it was the decision most vital to the people of this island.
I still think these allegations are serious and bear discussion, within context. They just don’t lead to the clear indictment that Channel 4 presumes.
Still ignoring the LTTE: At one point Jon Snow simply says it wasn’t a hostage operation, but they never question why people were simply shuffled around a war zone without being allowed out. Because it was the LTTE not allowing them out, and there is evidence of them literally herding people at gunpoint. I’ve spoken to people who were there at the final moments and they couldn’t leave. It ended when they crossed to the government side, which is what the LTTE prevented. If there was international pressure at that point it should have been on the LTTE to let people out, but instead they gerrymandered the emotionomics to turn scrutiny in the opposite direction.
White man’s burden: Throughout the video Channel 4 uses austere announcement and words like ‘analyze’ and ‘evidence’ to describe video they got from un-cited sources and people sitting around and looking at photographs or giving opinions from abroad. It’s driven by agenda, not actual facts and analysis, and certainly not context. They go for a few cases and emotional impact, but it’s not the reality. It’s just war porn, staged by the LTTE and distributed by Channel 4 with foreign announcers. They use a lot of cinematic tricks like filming documents and computer screens to cover up for the fact that they talk to no one in or even from Sri Lanka. It’s all second-hand data and third-hand analysis when there are people on the ground who actually can talk – even through a difficult government to do media work through.
Channel 4 uses infographics and voice-over to substitute for actual journalism, however hard it is to do. It’s all UN documents, UN reports, US cables, TamilNet-style videos, it’s innuendo around a distant truth. They even setup fake desks with rotating fans and video backgrounds to cover up for the fact that they don’t have direct evidence.
Government was dishonest, true: At the same time, however, the stuff the government was saying during the war was complete spin. No civilians were killed (Mahinda) no heavy weapons were used (Keheliya), all shameful lies. They were simply losing this foreign media war to the LTTE at the time (I posit because the LTTE successfully assassinated the only coherent Foreign Minister earlier) and they’re barely competing now. The LLRC report does acknowledge this base reality, but the stuff coming out of government mouths at the time was completely offensive.
The killing of Prabhakaran’s young son I think is pretty damn bad, but in the video they have an anonymous source saying that his info led to Prabhakaran’s whereabouts. I dunno. Then they get into the legitimacy of how Prabhakaran was killed, which is a bit like asking about Bin Laden’s assassination by the US. I mean, really?
I think Channel 4 is also wrong to brush over the LLRC report as not being substantive. I thought it would be eyewash and it wasn’t, it actually did correct a lot of the original lies. That, however, didn’t fit into the Channel 4 narrative so they largely leave it out.
Story over history: Throughout it all there’s this underlying agenda that this latter phase of war shouldn’t have been fought at all, that the LTTE should have gotten away with their hostage maneuver, and that – in effect – the war should have gone on. I disagree, but it’s also a shame to wrap this agenda in a humanitarian flag. That was the deception the LTTE tried to pull, and it’s what Channel 4 is continuing, I think through decent if arrogant intentions.
The problem with Channel 4 is that they put their agenda before the trial, and ultimately before the facts. They frame a five-year phase of war as if it was the war, ignoring the history that brought such a brutal impasse to pass. They frame the LTTE’s human shield as if it happened naturally, which it didn’t. Thus they completely ignore the context of 30 years’ of war and terrorism and the wholesale suffering it caused, making the terrible last phase of the war still proportional, which is the horrible calculus of a just war. Not whether suffering happens (it does), but whether it achieves a worthy objective – most notably ending war.
What about the good of Sri Lanka? What of the people in the middle, like the people that died in the war and continue to live here? So within that context, this documentary is bad. Channel 4 put their predetermined agenda ahead of inconvenient circumstances and facts, and it does a disservice to Sri Lanka. They’ve made a lazy doc, using agenda and ‘experts’ to fill in for complexity and actual research. I still think we need to talk about the subject, but this documentary sucks.