Meanwhile what are the allegations which we have to endure, allegations based not on evidence but on shrill pronouncements, accompanied at predictable moments by the release of strange pictures with no discernible parentage? Essentially we are accused of having conducted a war without witnesses, in the course of which thousands of civilians were killed. Whenever any of these allegations is disproved, far from there being an apology or even an acknowledgment of a mistake, immediately the goalposts are shifted, the bottom line being that the alligators, if I might thus name those predatory creatures, will not be satisfied unless we allow an external inquiry, which they claim will be independent and impartial, qualities beyond the capabilities of mere natives.

Let me give you a list of later admitted falsehoods –

a)      Gareth Evans, head then of what is termed the International Crisis Group, a collection of old men of both sexes, in dry month, being read to by boys waiting for rain, declared when the conflict in the North was just beginning that Sri Lanka was a country in which his oft touted doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect should be activated. Needless to say, he was offering himself to us as the Protector, claiming unashamedly that he would do a much better job than the Norwegians. His argument was based on the fact that there had been genocide and ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka. The fact that the attacks on Tamils, which did not amount to genocide, but were certainly disgraceful, had taken place in 1983, and that the ethnic cleansing was by the terrorists, not the Sri Lankan government, way back in 1990, did not figure in his thesis. Indeed, in a stunning exposition of the basis of ignorance on which such worthies pronounce, he did not know why he had used the words ‘ethnic cleansing’, and had to ask his young man to explain. Gratifyingly, he seemed surprised to hear that the reference was to 1990. However, having offered to respond to a lengthier critique of his talk, he did not answer further letters and, in what I take to be an extravagant compliment, explained when I next met him that I was a dangerous person to deal with.

b)      Human Rights Watch, again at around the same time, issued a press release in which they claimed that the Sri Lankan armed forces had engaged in indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in retaking the East. The report on which this claim was based mentioned only one incident in the entire campaign to regain the East in which civilians had been killed, and the Sri Lankan armed forces had already regretted that incident in explaining that it had occurred because of mortar locating radar. The HRW report in fact noted that the terrorists had been flaunting guns in the centre for the displaced at which the incident occurred, and that bunkers had been built there, though they claimed that the terrorists had not used heavy guns from the site. How they were so sure of this they did not explain, and refrained from answering letters after the first, in which they had tried hopelessly to justify their extravagant claims. They have since refused sedulously to engage, even cancelling a meeting at the British House of Commons when the Sri Lankan government asked me to attend.

c)       Amnesty International, which has generally been more circumspect, has however a couple of jokers in the pack, one who had worked earlier for Human Rights Watch, another who is obsessed with Cluster Bombs. Having ranted about this in the belief that the United Nations had said Sri Lanka had used cluster bombs (a claim made initially by an underling on the strength it seemed of sounds he had heard over a phone), when the UN withdrew any such claim, he declared that perhaps the Sri Lankans had captured cluster bombs from the terrorists and then used them.

d)      The Guardian declared that thirteen women had been found with their throats cut next to the main welfare centre for the displaced. Its correspondent, a man called Chamberlain resident in Delhi, admitted later that his source was unreliable and that he would not be using that source again. However he refused to publish a retraction.

e)      The Times claimed that 20,000 civilians had been killed, a figure for which it provided three different justifications, all of them equally nonsensical. First they claimed 7,000 had been killed upto the beginning of May, and 1,000 a day thereafter. Then, when it was pointed out that there was no evidence for the 7,000, contrary to the claim that this was a UN figure, and none at all for the claimed average for May, they declared that they had extrapolated on the basis of something like four for every dead body found. Finally, they declared that the figure was based on the graves seen by overhead satellites.

How they came to this conclusion was never revealed, and it is the more surprising since the British Ministry of Defence was throughout much more balanced than its counterparts in the Foreign Office who had to dance to the Miliband tune, and indeed made it clear that they cannot and will not substantiate Foreign Office claims. Fortunately the Foreign Office too is now in the hands of a less hypocritical dispensation, with a government even willing to look into the  horrifying allegations that led to the dismissal of the British Ambassador to Uzbekhistan, when he reported on these.

f)       Various British Members of Parliament have made the most outrageous claims, one for instance believing that education in terrorist controlled areas had been conducted solely by Save the Children and collapsed when they left, and that the only health facilities available had been provided by Medecins sans Frontieres. The latter, it should be noted, had only one even remotely qualified medical person in situ when they withdrew, and she was I believe a qualified midwife whose contract was about to expire anyway. Rather, as proof of the exalted lifestyles these humanitarian agencies enjoyed, it should be noted that the personnel withdrawn included several cooks, drivers and peons. Typically, MSF refused to issue a correction, whereas the Save the Children office in Colombo, being manned largely by Sri Lankans, promptly pointed out that their work was only to supplement the services provided by government.

g)      The last interaction I had with such an MP involved him telling me that the Red Cross had not been present in the North during the conflict. He had obviously swallowed wholesale what one of his constituents had told him, and not bothered to check the ICRC website. That would have revealed that the ICRC had been in the combat area till May, and had with the assistance of the Sri Lankan government and navy personnel taken away about 14,000 people to government run hospitals in the course of the conflict.

This last figure is particularly significant because under 7,000 of those were in fact sick, the rest being described by the ICRC as bystanders. If we assume that the terrorists did not deliberately keep back the sick, so as to send out bystanders, for whatever purpose, we can deduce that at very most there were 8,000 injured during the last few months of the conflict. Since the ratio of wounded to dead is generally more than 3 to 1, we can deduce, even given a more extreme ration of 2 to 1, that not more than 4,000 people died altogether. As might be noted I have throughout looked at worst possible case figures, and if to these again on the same basis we add possible dead during the last few days of the conflict, after the last ICRC boat took the sick away, we get a figure of at most 5000 to 7000 killed altogether, combatants as well as civilians.

Since obviously the wounded taken to care by the ICRC and our navy included actual combatants too, we can see then that the number of civilians who died during that period, until the first week of May, was much less than the figure now bandied about. And since we know too that the terrorists were coopting civilians to fight all the time, driving them to man bunkers, and also that the terrorists killed several civilians who tried to get away, the conclusion is inescapable that the civilians actually killed because of government action was not more than two or three thousand in the whole period.

When you compare that with what is termed collateral damage elsewhere, and also bear in mind the crowded nature of the field of battle given the desire of the terrorists to use civilians as human shields, it is clear that the Sri Lankan armed forces behaved with greater concern than any force engaging in comparable or even far less intense operations. Further evidence of this comes on the first day in which Tamilnet reported a high number of casualties, January 26th 2009. That morning the UN rang us up to say there were reports that our forces were firing into the No-Fire Zone we had designated. My Minister checked, and the army denied the story and said they had to deal with heavy firing from the terrorists. This was corroborated when the Bishop of Jaffna issued a public release that day requesting the government to expand the No-Fire Zone, which he would obviously not have done if this was a ploy to entrap civilians. Contrariwise he urged the terrorists to stop using their heavy weaponry in the zone. That evening the UN sent us an sms to say that they believed most of the firing that morning had been by the terrorists.

The record then is of a piece with the extreme caution exercised throughout by government. For instance, in the period upto the end of 2008, the claims by Tamilnet, which one assumes would be the worst possible case, are only of 78 civilians killed by army action. There are only 29 such allegations as to civilian deaths because of air force raids, and of those 22 were from incidents in which one or two civilians only were alleged to have been killed. Since the air force kept records of all raids, and had clocked up well over 450 during this period, their record clearly is one of the best in the world, certainly much better than those we read about all the time in areas in which the West, with its ‘othering’ tendencies, has taken the lead. I should note that I compared my records with those of al-Jazeera, and theirs were substantially the same, clear evidence that there was no targeting at all of areas in which there were civilians, and any casualties were on the basis of collateral damage with isolated civilians being in the wrong place by misfortune – if indeed they had not been forced there by the terrorists to labour for them.

I should note that I know all this because, at the Peace Secretariat, we monitored such activities, and asked the forces for explanations of any such allegations, since these were our people, and we had to ensure maximum care for their safety. The army did not always respond, given the range of activity which was not always under central control, but given the figure of 78 for that whole period, we had no doubt that there was never deliberate targeting of civilians. The airforce, with its tighter supervision, always responded, with maps of the particular targets they had taken out, and their explanations always rang true. Certainly this was the case with the one raid about which the terrorists had initially tried to make much, on what Sri Lanka said was a training centre at Sencholai. Initially the terrorists claimed that this was an orphanage but, with an efficiency I did not think our bureaucracy possessed, we were able to show that the orphanage had been moved some years previously. Then it was claimed that this was a training centre for first aid, but the pictures of the poor trainees in military fatigues soon put paid to that. Finally, the two survivors, who were in the care of my staff, made it clear when they gave evidence that they had been forced as children into military training.

I say two survivors with some sadness, because initially there had been three, and they had been taken to a hospital in Kandy. However one of the so-called humanitarian agencies decided that they had to be near their parents, and they were taken back to Vavuniya, whereupon one of them died. Sri Lanka then decided it could not afford any risks, and the remaining two were rescued and kept safe near Colombo, where their parents were able to visit them with elaborate arrangements to ensure secrecy. Of course the death may have been coincidence, but this I was told was the healthiest of the girls.

The Island – 31 October 2010

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