This article is taken from the FOR THE RECORD section of the Reconciliation Website, www.peaceinsrilanka.org which subsumes the old site www.peaceinsrilanka.lk used by the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP). The articles in FOR THE RECORD are intended to counter those who promote division.  Though problems should be raised, and addressed, there must be balance, so as to avoid the perpetuation of bitterness.

It was I think Aristotle who said that the roots of injustice lay in comparing like things with unlike things, and unlike things with like things. Sadly, Aristotle is no longer well known in the West, not even intuitively, with Platonian certainties seeming a better way of dealing with current problems.

I am generalizing, of course, but I suspect Aristotle does not figure large in the general awareness of the bright young lady[1] who interviewed me with regard to un undergraduate project she was preparing, comparing Nazi Germany and Rwanda and Sri Lanka with regard to war crimes. The topic seemed dictated by the belief that what had happened with regard to the first two countries could provide guidance to what she termed the International Community as to the role they should play ‘in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war’. She did note the possibility that they ‘should not play’ any role, but the whole approach seemed designed to beg the question – including the exaltation of terrorists into combatants in a civil war.

She did not seem to have considered for a moment the salient differences between the Sri Lankan situation and that of the others she was considering. I made things easier for her by also throwing in the other two countries often cited when those who think they know best in the world at large suggest how we should proceed about reconciliation. They cite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and the Tribunal going into Cambodian atrocities during the Pol Pot regime. But she took a very long time, and some Platonic questioning, to grasp, that in the four countries mentioned, the problem lay with an administration that had been defeated, and that there was universal agreement that that administration was associated with grave crimes against innocent and helpless groups[2]. Indeed, in three of the above cases, there is no doubt that government committed atrocities in accordance with policies they freely asserted[3].

This is emphatically not the case in Sri Lanka. It is certainly true that some legislation in Sri Lanka discriminated against minorities, but there was nothing like the laws against the Jews, or the whole official dogma of apartheid, or the decrees that militated against entire groups in Cambodia. And remedies were put in place long ago, though unfortunately most of those who shout loud know nothing of this. A couple of British MPs visiting Sri Lanka recently for instance, both members of the Tamil group of the British Parliament, asked me why we could not make Tamil an official language. Their interlocutors in Britain had evidently failed to tell them that Tamil became an official language nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Other evidence that discrimination in Sri Lanka was never institutionalized is also ignored. The idea of a Jew as a decision maker in Nazi Germany, of a Black – or an Indian – at any level of authority in South Africa before reform, is unthinkable, but we have had Tamil Ministers (including the Foreign Minister), a Leader of the Opposition, a chief Government Whip, an Army Commander and, as late as the nineties, a Chief of Staff, an Inspector General of Police and several Deputies, a few Chief Justices and Attorney Generals, Secretaries to Ministries, Mayors, etc, etc. These facts are unfortunately suppressed, and indeed the Tigers did their best to change them by killing Tamils who had integrated successfully, in particular in the security sector.

Sri Lanka then is not a country where any government can be classified with those of Hitler or Pol Pot or South Africa over several decades. It could be claimed that something similar to what happened in Rwanda occurred in 1983 in Sri Lanka but, with all my anger againt President Jayewardene for having allowed attacks against Tamils at that time, there is really no comparison at all between the appalling behavior of a small number of persons in Sri Lanka, and the mass attacks on Tutsis, as they have been reported, in a fundamentally polarized society. Certainly the West did not think there was much wrong with the Jayewardene government at the time, and foolishly believed that he was their best bet for peace and harmony in Sri Lanka. As usual, what dominated their thinking then was Cold War priorities, and their foolish animosity towards India.

My argument then is that the comparisons thrust upon callow youngsters by supervisors who should know better – and who, even if they know their Aristotle, know far too little about Sri Lanka – are totally inappropriate. They are essential however to lend strength to an argument that is weak in itself, that there were particular atrocities committed during the last few years which justify charges of war crimes. Particular incidents considered on their own do not add up to war crimes, otherwise President Obama and his predecessors, Tony Blair and his successors, including poor innocent David Cameron, would be quaking in their shoes. But in general the assumption is that aberrations by individual servicemen cannot be thrown on the shoulders of their superiors, certainly not those of the political leadership[4].

But focusing only on particular aberrations would not serve the purpose that current broad allegations about war crimes are intended to achieve. In the first place, there are simply not enough such aberrations to build up any case about systemic violations. Repeated requests for substantiated allegations have met with deafening silence. The argument is that people are frightened to make allegations, but this has not prevented wild generalizations by individuals who simply cannot provide any serious evidence.

Thus, two years after the last phase of the fighting began, all we have is one video broadcast on Channel 4, way back in 2009, with a follow up over a year later that was claimed to be a continuation. Channel 4 has forgotten that in 2009 they claimed the incident portrayed took place in January 2009, whereas a year later they claimed it was in May. They have consistently ignored the fact that the meta-dating indicates the video was made in July 2009, a factor that even the so-called experts hired by Philip Alston found hard to explain[5]. Philip Alston’s experts also found it difficult to explain how the leg of a supposedly dead man moved, and came up with the brilliant idea that he might have been inebriated or sleeping, all this while people were being shot in the head all around him.

Alston, cunning creature, did not admit that he had not been provided a copy of the video they broadcast by Channel 4. It was left to one of his experts to confess that the copy he had looked at had been obtained by Alston from a shadowy organization of journalists, one of whom had to leave Sri Lanka when it was found that he had appropriated some of the funds he had been given by gullible idealists of the so-called international community. To date none of the purveyors of allegations, the journalists, Channel 4, Philip Alston, has been able to give us a clue as to where the purported incident took place, and as for when, all they can manage is contradictions.

With this practically all there is, as to detailed allegations of atrocities, one wonders why the canard is so persistent. But to consider that, we will need to go into greater detail.


[1] Though she is termed a ‘Periclean Scholar’ for Sri Lanka, another gracious nod to long forgotten roots

[2] I am accepting here the widespread belief about what happened in Rwanda, that its then government connived at the massacre of Tutsis by Hutus. I believe there is more to the story, given allegations about the manner in which the then Hutu President died, and the suggestions that Louise Arbour for instance connived at concealing evidence about complicity on the other side. But the basic fact, that Tutsis were killed in cold blood on a massive scale by those who thought they had official sanction for their behavior, cannot be gainsaid.

[3] Not entirely ironically, those countries which now shout loudest, connived at the behavior of one of those governments, and countenanced the other after it was overthrown, given that in those days the Cold War loomed largest in their radar, and morality was not something to be taken seriously. I do not think we can hold such governments accountable now for their support for abominations that contributed to the suffering of vast numbers of people in the countries they saw simply as tools for their own purposes. People and regimes change, and if they change for the better and adopt a more moral approach to international relations, so much the better. But any serious approach at truth and reconciliation must deal also with the way in which the West contributed to continuing violations of basic rights. Recriminations are unnecessary, but sanctimoniousness based on sweeping responsibilities under the carpet should not be countenanced.

[4] Albeit there could be an argument that Donald Rumsfeld should at least be questioned by a suitably constituted tribunal. There is no chance however of that taking place until he is as old as the characters from the Pol Pot regime who are now being held accountable, when they cannot recall the support they received through the eighties from friendly countries who privileged anyone opposed to what they saw as a terrifying Evil Empire.

[5] The splendid claim of one of them was that the person taking the video had changed the date deliberately so as to ensure that he could not be identified.

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