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.

I looked earlier at what I believe is the only specific allegation about war crimes brought against Sri Lanka, namely that based on the video broadcast by Channel 4 – though, as noted, the place where the incident was supposed to have taken place remains unspecified, and the time has been specified divergently. Apart from that there are only vast generalizations, and some assertions that were later belied.

The greatest of the generalizations is that of the numbers killed during the last few months of the fighting, where the figure enunciated by the Times, 20,000, is now seen as a base on which to build, and build, and build, regardless of evidence. No matter that the Times gave three different – and contradictory – reasons for its assertion, and that the base on which it built, 7,000, which it attributed to the UN, was denied by the UN. I have gone into all this at length[1] but obviously anything I say would not have anything like the impact of established newspapers, even if they are now obviously identified as politically driven. My Periclean scholar, who had heard of the Times figure, had not read any critique of this. Nor had she looked at the ICRC website with its record of the wounded who had been taken to government hospitals with the support of the navy, just around 6000 of them, suggesting that the number of fatalities (including combatants) was much less.

Other examples of atrocities against truth abound. The appropriately named Gethin Chamberlain, a journalist who had written in the ‘Guardian’ of 14 women found with their throats cut, admitted that he had been misled, but it never occurred to him to publish a correction, still less to wonder why an official with a humanitarian organization should have lied so blatantly. Investigating the motivation of such a liar would surely have been an interesting story, but it did not fit into the preconceptions of journalists like Gethin. Much more recently Jon Lee Anderson, a journalist with the New Yorker, claimed that a priest with 60 children in his charge told him that a soldier said his orders were to shoot everyone; he indicates that the priest, and his children, were taken to safety, but does not comment on this apparent violation of orders he cites as though they were absolute. Media outlets that had complacently cited statistics sent by the LTTE heaped scorn on doctors who said those statistics were false, and they had been forced to lie by the LTTE; though it was granted, long after those original statistics had been repeated without diffidence, that perhaps the LTTE had ensured exaggeration, now it was claimed that the doctors recanted under pressure from the Sri Lankan government. In short, journalists have got away with murder, as the LTTE did earlier, but they cannot be held accountable.

Most bizarre of all perhaps is the White Flag story, which is used to beat government on the head, on the strength now of an alleged statement by Sarath Fonseka, former Commander of the Sri Lankan army. It is forgotten that earlier that story, that troops had been ordered to fire on Tiger leaders carrying white flags contrary to an assurance that had been given by government, was used to beat the government in the form of Fonseka himself on the head. The story had first surfaced in May 2009, expressed most eloquently by the British journalist Marie Colvin, who holds a grudge against the Sri Lankan army because she believes they fired on her deliberately[2]. Subsequently it was asserted in a website run by the Sri Lankan opposition that Fonseka had claimed credit around August for the refusal to accept the surrender, declaring that those ‘in air conditioned rooms’ had been planning this but he had ensured it did not happen.

Why Fonseka changed his story and came out with the opposite, that it was those ‘in air conditioned rooms’, as he declared with a  mealy-mouthedness that seemed out of character, who had ordered the shooting of potential surrendees with white flags will never be known. It doubtless has something to do with his belief that he could win the Presidency by presenting himself as a human rights activist, which would ensure Western support in the election. He seems to have arrived at this belief some time after his resignation from the position of Chief of Defence Staff, because in his letter of resignation he had presented himself as a strong military leader, determined to increase the size of the army and delay resettlement of displaced Tamils, righteously angry with the President for seeming much softer on such issues.

Unfortunately the Fonseka ploy seems to have worked, at least as far as some Anglo-Saxons were concerned, and even the American ambassador[3], if her cable on the subject is anything to go by. Certainly he seemed briefly to have fallen in with the role allotted to him by the pro-Western opposition which had earlier excoriated him, and to have got carried away in the interview he gave to the ‘Sunday Leader’, which naturally highlighted that part of his diatribe that seemed critical of the Secretary of Defence, given its own animosities and predilections.

That was too much however for his more nationalist supporters, and in the ensuing furore, with government making much of what seemed a venomous attack on fellow soldiers, he swiftly withdrew. However, the withdrawal was not thorough, as careful reading of the texts that were carried revealed, and allowed the Editor of the ‘Leader’ to claim that what she had reported was substantially true. The fact that Fonseka, with a mindset that rejects the idea of retreat, seems to have repeated the allegation at a later election rally lent credence to the view that, in order to satisfy his new potential allies, he would enthusiastically sell former colleagues down the river.

So the story continues to be used by the War Crimes Brigade. Personally I believe the Sri Lankan government missed a chance to nail the canard on its head by not swiftly addressing the list of purported atrocities collated by the American State Department, way back in 2009, before Fonseka declared himself a candidate for the Presidency. I wrote at the time that the diffident approach of the Americans at that stage should be respected, and that in any case answering most of the allegations was not a problem. In fact I mentioned that the most serious seemed to me to be the report of what Fonseka had said in August. Now, however, if we point out that Fonseka then seemed to be hyper-critical of an indulgent approach to surrendees on the part of his civilian superiors, which he personally had subverted, we would be accused of engaging in a witch-hunt against him.

So we are left with the ridiculous position that the evidence thus far adduced against Sri Lanka with regard to war crimes is a dubious video with inconsistencies that its champions cannot explain away, and an even more dubious pronouncement by a bitter and ambitious individual who thought to kill two birds with this stone flung from a glass mansion, namely to get his revenge and also convince the Anglo-Saxons that he was their best bet for the Presidency. He was not quite as mad as his nationalist backers thought he was, given what Wikileaks has revealed, but surely a more careful look at the evidence, as adduced by the Americans themselves a couple of months earlier, would suggest that the idea of Sarath Fonseka being a champion of human rights belongs in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

A modern Periclean Scholar would probably not be familiar with Cloud Cuckoo Land or even Aristophanes, but it would be naïve to think that such flights of fancy are simply lunatic. We need therefore to consider the reasons, as my Periclean Scholar rightly noted, for such excesses to have gained currency.


[1] See the detailed arguments in the ‘Interactions with the West’ series on my blog, www.rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com, but of course the Times refrained from publishing any rejoinders.

[2] She was making her way surreptitiously out of Tiger territory when she was shot at. It never occurred to her that the army had naturally to fire at suspicious movements at night time in a context in which Tiger guerillas were launching attacks of various sorts, and that this was a hazard she had willingly decided to risk when less adventurous journalists would have stuck by the rules. More preposterously, she claims that the firing started only when she called out ‘Journalist, Journalist’, a touching example of the British belief that anyone must and will understand English if it is shouted loud enough. Dickens described the phenomenon brilliantly in the character and behavior of Mr Podsnap well over a century ago. Sadly, in the 21st century, it has resurfaced with corresponding fury against an organization that obviously, in the speaker’s view, willfully ignored plain spoken, indeed shouted, English.

[3] Albeit, perhaps because she is of Ukranian descent, she seems to have been more discriminating in her general perceptions than her British counterpart. Middle Europe generally seems to have been more sensible in its view of Fonseka, if the comments of other ambassadors are believed.

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