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Another mark of increasing age, though I suppose I should be pleased at this one, was a request to deliver a memorial lecture. The topic given to me was ‘The March of Folly’, which led me to look up the origin of the phrase. I knew it was the title of a book by the popular American historian Barbara Tuchman, but I had thought this was the one she wrote about the beginnings of the First World War, chronicling the headlong rush into a war that could have been avoided, and which destroyed the world its perpetrators thought to perpetuate.
In fact ‘The March of Folly’ is a later book, based on the idea that folly is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Tuchman deals with four examples of this, beginning with the decision of the Trojans to take into their city the horse left on the beach by the Greeks who had pretended to abandon their attempt to conquer Troy. She goes on to discuss the policies of the Popes who precipitated the Reformation, and then the British blunders that led to the independence of the United States. Finally, and at length, she deals with the American disaster in Vietnam.
All very interesting subjects, and I should now read the book. But it gave me a focus for this new series, which will look at recent political history in the context of folly in the Tuchman sense. I will not confine myself to governments alone, since the whole picture demands looking also at what others in the political arena engage in. And the series will be different from the lecture, which will have to be tightly focused. But these articles will I hope provide some food for thought, and with luck some changes in approach – assuming, that is, that those who decide, and those who influence decision making, both read and think.
I will begin however in an area where obviously I cannot hope for influence, since I shall talk about the folly of the West in persecuting us for achieving what it pretends it desires, namely the eradication of terrorism. But from the Sri Lankan perspective it is essential to consider this too, for the mess the current government is in springs largely from its unthinking acceptance of Western mythology. Some in the government, and even perhaps the Prime Minister, have begun to realize how badly they blundered way back in 2015, but he has no idea how to reverse gear effectively, and he certainly cannot even begin to do this while Mangala Samaraweera continues to run foreign affairs and bleat helplessly in Geneva. Read the rest of this entry »
The reason Mohan gave for the Secretary of Defence being annoyed with me in June 2009 was a matter that was to prove an enormous bone of contention over the next few years, namely the claim advanced by some in Sri Lanka that there had been no civilian casualties during the war. This was obviously nonsense, and it never occurred to me that any such claim was serious. I assumed that what was meant was we had not inflicted civilian casualties deliberately, which I firmly believe to have been government policy throughout the conflict. I had seen this illustrated in the East when Daya Ratnayake, who subsequently became Commander of the Army – after he had survived, with Gotabhaya’s support, an attempt by Sarath Fonseka to have him prematurely retired – came to brief me on the campaign in that arena of the war. He had been responsible for the strategy there, and I had called him up to find out details of this after Human Rights Watch had given excessive publicity to a report it had prepared on the conflict in the East, in which they claimed there had been indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
When I studied the report itself, however, I found that, while this claim was made in the publicity, the report itself recorded only one instance of civilian deaths. This was something for which the army had acknowledged responsibility, but explained that they had used radar directed mortars to respond when the LTTE opened fire on them. This however had been from a refugee centre, but even the Human Rights Watch report disclosed that the LTTE had had weapons there, though they claimed that they had been told no one had seen heavy weapons being used.
I have no doubt that it was the attack on the Sri Lankan forces by HRW in this instance that made the LTTE feel they could get away with using civilians as shields when they were on the defensive. Any investigation of abuses during the conflict should look into the role of HRW in making such outrageous claims without evidence, and dodging the questions I posed to them in this regard. Once the LTTE realized that they would not be blamed for firing from amidst civilians, but public opinion could be manipulated to pressurize the Sri Lankan government not to respond to such firing, they developed the technique to perfection. This strengthened their resolve to ensure that civilians were taken along with them as they retreated in the North as the Sri Lankan forces were advancing.
The claim of some of the Non-Governmental Organizations that the civilians went willingly because of fear of the forces was patent nonsense, for those same NGOs complained to us that their former employees had not been allowed to escape to government controlled territory. The same thing happened to UN employees, and indeed one of the most skilful maneuvers of the LTTE in the latter stages of the war was when they persuaded the UN that they might free these employees, thus ensuring that UN staff that had taken a convoy of food in stayed on, to negotiate. The LTTE almost daily claimed that the local staff would be released, and asked for a cessation of hostilities, a period they used for military maneuvering, only to prove intransigent in the end.
The UN staff then were kept on by the LTTE till the end, but in fact there were no casualties amongst them, except for one person who stepped on a landmine in the final escape, but was given immediate medical attention by our forces, and also survived. Similarly, the local employees of the NGOs, who had been forced to stay back, also all survived the final battles. Read the rest of this entry »
During the conflict period, relations with India had been handled not by the Foreign Ministry, but by three trusted confidantes of the President. These were his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge, and two of his brothers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa. These two, both younger than the President, were neither of them Ministers at the time (as opposed to the oldest brother, Chamal, who was a long standing member of Parliament and a senior Minister). It was the two younger brothers however who were considered the most powerful members of the government. Gotabhaya was virtually a Minister in fact, since he was Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, with the President being the Minister, and leaving most of its running to him.
Basil at the time was a Member of Parliament, but his executive responsibilities were informal, arising from his chairing the Task Forces that were responsible for reconstruction of the East (which had been retaken from the Tigers fully by 2007) and later of the North. He was an extremely hard worker, and had managed, well before the Tigers were destroyed, to have succeeded in bringing life in the East back to relative normality. His technique had been massive infrastructural development, and the connectivity that was restored to the East had enabled its full involvement in the economic life of the country.
Late in 2008 he was appointed to chair what was termed a Presidential Task Force for the North. This was expected initially to make arrangements for the care of the internally displaced, most of whom were being held hostage by the Tigers at that time. Over the next six months they were driven into more and more restricted areas in terms of the Tiger strategy of using them as a human shields. This made the task of the military extremely difficult, but in the end, when the Tigers were destroyed, nearly 300,000 civilians were rescued, and taken to what were termed Welfare Centres.
Though there were complaints at the time about conditions in the camps, they were comparatively speaking much better than the lot of most displaced persons in such conflicts. Health services were excellent, and within a few days mortality figures had stabilized. Food supply and distribution was competently handled, and soon enough educational services too were made available.
Still, there had been much confusion initially, and this contributed to the feeling that government had been callous. More serious was the charge that government had wanted to keep the displaced in what were termed internment camps, and did not wish them to be resettled soon in their original places of residence.
Changing the demography of the North may have been the plan of a few people in government, and in particular the Army Commander, who had wanted to increase the size of the army when the war ended, probably because of a belief that Israeli type settlements were the best way of preventing future agitation. But this was certainly not the view of the President, who from the start urged swift resettlement, and hoped that the fertile land of the North would soon provide excellent harvests. And Basil Rajapaksa certainly wished to expedite resettlement, as I found when I once wrote to him suggesting that this was proceeding too slowly.
This was in August 2009, three months after the conclusion of the war, and he called me up and sounded extremely indignant. He declared that he had said he would perform the bulk of resettlement in six months, and he intended to do this, give or take a month or two. He had done a similar task in the East, and I should remember that a commitment of six months did not mean half in three. In fact he started the resettlement soon after, though there was a hiccup, in that many of those sent away from the main Welfare Centre at Manik Farm in Vavuniya were then held in Centres in the District Capitals through which they had to transit.
I was in Geneva at the time, at the September 2009 session of the Human Rights Council, and for a moment I wondered whether the allegations that were being flung around, that we had started the Resettlement to pull the wool over the eyes of the Council, were true. Basil it turned out was nowhere to be found, a practice he often engaged in when upset, going back to the United States where he had been settled when his brother was elected President.
However Jeevan Thiagarajah, head of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, that had worked very positively with the government, went up to Jaffna to check, and informed me that the Special Forces Commanders in the Districts had been asked to subject those being resettled to another security check. But they assured him that they proposed to do this very cursorily, and would send them to their places of habitation within a day or two. What was left unsaid was who had ordered the second check, but I assumed this was Sarath Fonseka, in pursuit of his own agenda – and this was confirmed by the irritation he was later to express in writing to the President, about the Resettlement programme going ahead more quickly than he had advised. Basil, I realized, had felt frustrated, and gone away, but his intentions were carried out by the generals in the field, who were on the whole much more enlightened than Fonseka. Read the rest of this entry »