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Those who watched the celebration of our servicemen on May 19th told me the President seemed upset when he had to condole with the families of those who had died. Catching glimpses of the march past, I could understand that. But in addition to sorry for them, and indeed for the Tamils too who had died in the last days of the war, and earlier, I was angry too.
The LTTE had to be defeated, and those who laid down their lives for this did not die unnecessarily. So too those who died because of the brutality of the LTTE, the hostage taking, the assassinations, the horrendous tactics such as electrifying water, were victims of a megalomanic mentality, and there is no point in recriminations about Prabhakaran’s brutality, just as there is no point in recriminations about the destructive power of a tsunami. One simply sorrows, for those who died, and for those who suffered, with perhaps some regret that no one had stopped him earlier.
But there must be anger about those who contributed to protracted delay, and on May 19th I was thinking of those wicked people who supported the LTTE in the last days, in particular those who contributed equipment to enable them to build up huge defences. These led to the taking of Kilinochchi taking much longer than it should have, with many of our youngsters dying in trying to get over the tall barricades. Worse, it gave the LTTE time to plan and ruthlessly execute the hostage taking that they had determined on, in Prabhakaran’s ‘Gotterdammerung’ vision.
The most horrible contribution to my mind was that of the organization called Norwegian People’s Aid, which allowed over 40 of their vehicles to be used. They did not inform us about them, and only acknowledged what had happened when the Defence Ministry asked. Even then they only admitted to a few, and it was only later that they acknowledged the full force of the aid they had given.
They lied to the European Union by pretending that this had happened because we had not permitted any Europeans to remain in Kilinochchi. At a meeting of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance they had to admit that this was not the case, and they excused themselves on the grounds that it was only a junior person who had stayed, as though such a person could not count the number of vehicles that the LTTE had taken away.
In Colombo, when what had happened was revealed, there was anger against the Norwegians. This was misplaced. There were no Norwegians in senior positions with NPA, rather it was managed by a conglomerate called Solidar, which was headed by British personnel. The leadership of this was pretty suspect, one Britisher called Peter Sunderland I think, another with several passports called Felipe Atkins, and the spider at the centre of the web a man called Guy Rhodes. There was also Mathew Todd, who was in charge of a German aid agency, who I used to think an innocent computer buff, married as he was to a great friend of mine, until he fled Sri Lanka quite suddenly when it seemed further information was emerging about the activities of the agencies that made up Solidar.
The following remarks had been prepared in the belief that speakers would have about 10 minutes each. However, speakers were only given a few minutes for a few introductory remarks, the rest of the 45 minutes for the opening section being devoted to answering questions from the Moderator.
Unfortunately I had no chance to make my introductory remarks since I was asked to respond to what Callum McRae said. I thought this required some analysis, in the time he had taken, but it seemed I was expected to respond only briefly, and then make my introductory remarks. This was made clear only after I had responded, but I suppose Stephen Sackur was doing his best to have debate from the start and could not then give me another chance to put forward some points for response myself.
So here they are now –
I am grateful to the Frontline Club for this opportunity to engage with at least half the Channel 4 team responsible for such effective attacks on Sri Lanka. I am sorry that Jon Snow dropped out after he heard that I would be attending this event, but I am used to that by now, given the manner in which Channel 4 has consistently refused to engage with me, except when the BBC kindly allowed me to highlight their pusillanimity on the Breakfast Show. The interview that followed I think made clear the sleight of hand in which Channel 4 had indulged, which explains why repeated requests for further live discussion have been turned down.
What should have been a lively discussion then on media manipulation and media ethics, or the absence of them, has now been transformed. We have only the commercial side of Channel 4, the Golden Dustman adept at turning rubbish into lucre. Interestingly enough, Dickens provides yet another clue to the motivations of Channel 4, given the Mutual Friendships that in a more just world would have been identified as conflicts of interests.
I am not talking only of the political motivations of Shirani Sabaratnam and Stuart Cosgrove, who actually voted in a preposterous LTTE rump election in this country. I am talking also of the researcher for Siobhain McDonagh who claimed to have supplied Channel 4 with video evidence, who changed his mind about sending me this evidence, doubtless because it would have been obvious that it was tainted. Instead he sent me another video that is so clearly manipulated that he was roundly scolded for engaging with me by his mentors. Much of the information about this is available on http://www.youtube.com/reconcilesrilanka and on my blog www.rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com at the time of the meetings covered in those videos[Part 1, Part 2, Part 3].
While suppressing the evidence it had commissioned from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Amnesty produced yet another report to denigrate Sri Lanka during the sessions of the Human Rights Council, and has been actively canvassing against us in Geneva. Its normally urbane representative, Peter Splinter, has been scurrying around like a headless chicken, and using language that he would not normally stoop to.
I met him as I went to the Palais on the 14th, and he did not stop to speak, understandably so for he had a meeting with the Sri Lankan delegates led by Dr Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives who have been in the forefront of the campaign against Sri Lanka. Interestingly, when most people in Sri Lanka were positive about the LLRC report, it was CPA which followed the American line of criticism, which sadly the TNA also took up. While Peter was deeply upset about what he claimed was characterization of his friends as terrorists, and this of course is nonsense, the congruence of their agenda with that of the LTTE rump that has now come to the Palais in increasing numbers is truly worrying.
Peter engaged in his own insults when he described the session at which Jeevan Thiagarajah and Javid Yusuf and I spoke about taking Reconciliation forward as a Dog and Pony show. I do not think he intended any particular insult to Mr Yusuf, but it is this type of cultural insensitivity that Amnesty would have been careful about in the old days when people committed to Human Rights without a political agenda, such as Anne Ranasinghe and Javid himself worked for it.
The political agenda is clear in the latest report issued by Amnesty, with its claim that unlawful detention practices continue. In the past I used to think Amnesty was genuine in its commitment to human rights, and I have no objection to it drawing attention to practices it sees as illegal or improper. What I object to is its use of particular instances to engage in generalizations that shore up the impression it seeks to propagate, of Sri Lanka being a militarized state where abuses are the norm. I am sure Amnesty is aware of the vast number of deaths in police custody in Britain in recent years, and I am sure that it will draw attention to these, albeit less dramatically than it does to problems in countries it dislikes – but I do not see it claiming that such abuses in Britain are endemic and indicative of state policy.
The particular instances Amnesty draws attention to in its current assault are largely taken from the past. All case studies as far as I could see were of people arrested in 2009 or earlier, and several of them had been released. While I have no doubt that, like any country under threat from terrorism, arrests sometimes erred on the side of caution, several of the studies indicate that there was good reason for the arrest, ranging from the foreign national who came out to work in an orphanage, as he claimed, and was then recruited by the LTTE (whether forcibly or not is not indicated) to the cadre who had lied under interrogation about his work for the LTTE though he has readily admitted it to whoever interviewed him for Amnesty.
Amnesty also ignores the fact that, whereas we did have large numbers in detention in 2009, those have been significantly reduced. While at the Ministry of Human Rights we would urge that cases be expedited, we could understand that while LTTE terrorism was still an active threat in Sri Lanka, we had to be cautious. Shortly after the war ended however the President appointed a Committee which I chaired to ensure that cases were dealt with, and I had complete cooperation from the prison authorities, the police and the Attorney General’s Department. Though we would complain that this last was slow in dealing with files entrusted to it, the number was halved by the time the Committee ceased to function with the election of 2010.
Since then the Attorney General worked expeditiously to reduce the numbers, and the figure of 2000 cited by Ambassador Godage, cited in the Amnesty Report from the LLRC hearings, is now down to a few hundreds. It should be noted too that ICRC has been visiting such detainees since 2007. I remembered that we used to get reports when I was at the Ministry, but I checked again and ICRC has confirmed that its visits have continued throughout.
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The strange case of Peter Mackay
Perhaps the most telling perversions in the latest Channel 4 film come with regard to what is termed its first case study. This ‘begins on the 23rd of January when UN personnel from the last overland food convoy into the war zone became trapped in the fighting’. This is actually not quite correct, because most of Convoy 11 had gone back, but a few people chose to stay behind, contrary to what had been agreed with government, in order to try, it was claimed, to persuade the LTTE to allow UN workers who had been in the Wanni to leave.
The account relies heavily on a man called Peter Mackay, who was subsequently asked to leave Sri Lanka shortly after two individuals who worked for UNOPS, the agency by which he was employed, were arrested for transport of weapons. It should be noted that UNOPS had another employee too who engaged in show and tell, a man called Benjamin Dix who was featured in the first Channel 4 film. He had been doing the rounds attacking Sri Lanka under the aegis of Amnesty International in September 2008, until we complained, whereupon the UN system stopped him in terms of his contract, and the UNOPS head in Sri Lanka actually came into our Ministry to apologize and assure us that the incident would not be repeated. Unfortunately, when it was repeated, with the first Channel 4 film, we do not seem to have taken the matter up, and I suspect we will do nothing now, to make it clear to the UN that characters like Dix and Peter Mackay and Gordon Weiss are abusing the trust the UN placed in them.
Mackay is even more mysterious than the rest, since his name does not appear on the manifest of those who went into the Vanni in Convoy 11. The job description under which he was granted a visa states that he was supposed to ‘support the implementation of the UNOPS reconstruction portfolio in th current and future operational locations of Sri Lanka’. He seems however, according to an article in the Guardian that appeared after he was asked to leave, to have ‘collected high resolution satellite images’ and been part of the network of informants first publicized in the Darusman report which Chris du Toit, the Head of UN Security in Sri Lanka, and a former adviser to the terrorist Jonas Savimbi, had built up. Again, I am astonished and also very sad that the existence of this network was not taken up with the UN, whose senior officials were I believe as much in the dark about such shadowy networks and what they were actually doing as we were.
Mackay, like Gordon Weiss, implies that the remnants of the UN convoy faced great danger from the start. Weiss gives a starting date of January 22nd, Mackay of January 23rd. This is belied by what du Toit wrote to SF Headquarters on the 24th, that ‘I would like to thank you and your staff for excellent support to all the UN movements to date’. After the remnants of the convoy finally left, on January 29th, getting through with an ICRC convoy, du Toit wrote, on the 30th, ‘Many thanks for the close cooperation that my team experience with your staff’.
He did in that letter draw attention to possible danger to the local staff who had been compelled to stay behind, and wrote ‘Reports have been received of artillery fire as close as 100 meters from the hospital’. This is a far cry from Mackay’s sworn statement that ‘Now the closest shells landed a 100 meters from us indicating that they could control the fire if they wanted to’. Mackay thus implies that previously the fire fell even closer, but was adjusted when details of the convoy were conveyed, whereas on the 30th du Toit implies that 100 meters is an aberration that was unusual.
The latest Channel 4 film on Sri Lanka dwells on four points, most of them expanded versions of what it claimed previously. Once again, actual evidence in the form of documents dating from the period concerned, indicate how selective it is.
Channel 4, following the Darusman report, talks of bombardments on a UN camp from January 23rd on. Unlike Gordon Weiss, who mentioned the same incident but without a date, attributing information to retired Colonel Harun Khan, from the UN Secutiry Office, Channel 4 now finally mentions its purported informant, an Australian called Peter Mackay.
There was no Peter Mackay in the list of those going on the convoy supplied to the army. Apart from Harun Khan, the only UN officer supposed to be in the convoy was a local employee called Mr Suganthan.
In contradiction it seems of the Channel 4 claim, the UN Security Chief wrote to the Security Forces on January 24th as follows – ‘I would like to thank you and your staff for excellent support in all the UN movements to date’ (it must be noted that Harun Khan had stayed behind without authorization, when the rest of the convoy left on January 20th, in order to persuade the LTTE to let local staff who were working in the Wanni leave).
Another letter of du Toit’s of January 31st, after Harun and his small group had got to safety, joining an ICRC convoy on January 29th as suggested by the army when the LTTE was delaying their escape, reads as follows, with regard to the local staff, ‘My office is keeping the SF HQ regularly updated as events unfurl on the battle field in their immediate vicinity and I can report that we are most pleased with the professional response and cooperation with SF HQ.’
So who was Mackay, where did he come from, and where did he get his footage? He may well have been there, but the fact that his presence was never informed to officials is suspicious in itself, given too his position at UNOPS which had had a number of staff with LTTE sympathies, for whom the UNOPS head had apologized (for instance Benjamin Dix whom Amnesty had taken round Geneva in a show and tell performance during an earlier sessions of the UN Human Rights Council).
It should be added that the deaths of civilians occurred largely because of the strategy of using civilians as human shields, and then fighting from amidst them. We were aware of this from the start, given the evidence of the Bishop of Jaffna who wrote on January 25th that ‘We are also urgently requesting the Tamil Tigers not to station themselves among the people in the safety zone and fir their artillery shells and rockets at the Army’.
The following was sent to the Dawn Newspaper in Pakistan in response to a mendacious article by Frances Harrison, former BBC correspondent, but they have not been able to print it.
Frances Harrison has written a book. In her determination to sell it, she will leave no stone unturned. Her latest effusion has appeared in the Dawn in Pakistan, apparently to denigrate the Sri Lankan President as he visits that country.
She sells herself as a former BBC correspondent based in Sri Lanka and Iran. Unfortunately she seems to have no regard for truth whatsoever, and cares little for consistency either. One of her more melodramatic statements is that ‘Unable to dig bunkers because the dry sand just collapsed, women chopped up their best silk wedding saris to stitch sandbags’, despite which she later talks of .grenades being thrown into bunkers ‘where injured rebels lay, unable to flee.’ She talks of a priest whose leg was amputated, without noting that most witnesses (as cited in the US State Department Report) thought that attack was by the Tigers, angry that the priest was trying to limit their conscription.
Frances is perhaps the most hysterical of those currently on the warpath against Sri Lanka, as I noted when she twittered madly to object to my being interviewed by the BBC on Hard Talk. But the general level of honesty of those attacking Sri Lanka is indeed shocking.
Most recently I was reading through a report produced, at the request of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in May 2009, by the American Associagtion for the Advancement of Science on satellite imagery in the Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ) in northeastern Sri Lanka.’ This was announced with much hype by those two agencies, which are part of the witch hunt, but then suddenly it was forgotten.
The reason is that it makes clear that much of what is alleged is nonsense. For instance, the figure now cited as to possible civilian deaths, shamefully also by individuals asked by the Secretary General to advise him on accountability issues, is 40,000, used also by Ms Harrison. This sort of inflation began with the Times of London which spoke only of 20,000, and gave three different sets of reasons for this, the first two of which I was able conclusively to demolish. The final reason given was that the claim was based on satellite imagery of war graves.
The AAAS however notes that ‘In all three gravesites reviewed, a total of 1,346 likely graves are estimated to be in the imagery by May 24, 2009. The majority of the graves were present by May 6, with little change after that except in the southernmost graveyard. The southernmost site grew an estimated 28% between May 6 and May 10, and grew another 20% between May 10 and May 24’. Incidentally the report also notes that it was what were reported as LTTE gravesites that showed increase, whereas in the ‘burial ground for civilians’, ‘In total, 44 burials were identified at this site on May 6, with no changes observed between May 6, May 10, and May 24’.
There are several such details, which Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have ignored. For instance, whereas Ms Harrison declares that ‘the Sri Lankan military indiscriminately shelled and bombed hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in a small rebel enclave in the north of the island’, AAAS notes with regard to one source of this canard that ‘These roofless buildings were initially interpreted as possible evidence of shelling or burning. However, on-the-ground photos taken immediately after the conflict instead indicate widespread removal of rooftops, which were composed of sheet metal, for use in constructing shelters throughout the area.’
There was much speculation some months back about the provenance of the meeting of minority parties in Zurich. The usual suspects were thought to be behind the event, with the usual suspicions. My own view was that the move was to be welcomed, because unlike in the past the balance of power at such meetings could no longer be held by the Tigers. Given the strength of mind displayed in resisting them by a host of others in the past, even while their backs were to the wall, I felt that the outcome could only help in promoting a united Sri Lanka. The initiative seemed designed to promote discussion as a method of reform, rather than violence, and it seemed that the forum would get this message through to those who had been forced into acquiescence with terrorism and efforts to subvert democracy.
I still think this positive approach may not prove mistaken, but I must admit to some worry when I saw the name Peter Bowling amongst those who had facilitated exchanges. We have unfortunately been here before. He was one of the leading instigators just over a year ago of the petition sent to the UN Secretary General that accused the government of all sorts of crimes in its efforts to suppress the LTTE in Sri Lanka.