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‘People of righteousness’ march on for Sri Lanka June 26, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Roberts, Michael, Sri Lanka , trackback

Michael Roberts

A longer version first appeared here in Transcurrents

The war crimes accusations levelled against the Sri Lankan government at the moment are driven by a complex coalition of forces. In the vanguard are people of righteousness. Such a man is Gordon Weiss. His demeanour as he addresses television audiences is that of a crusader. The iconic picture of himself adopted in his very own website, benignly overseeing a mass of African children, reminds one of a missionary.

The advocates of human rights today are reminiscent of the nineteenth century missionaries in Asia who set out to save the poor benighted ‘natives’ and rid them of idol worship. The moral crusaders of today pursue a different agenda. They are secular fundamentalists marching forth to cleanse the world of “evil” in the form of carbon pollution, smoke inhalation, et cetera. However, like the missionaries of yesteryear, they adhere to an either/or evaluation of the worlds before them.

For Sri Lanka these people of righteousness present a clear picture: Eelam War IV was a brutal war involving atrocities from both sides in the conflict, government and LTTE. It was also ‘a war without witnesses’, a phrase parroted ad nauseam and repeated recently by Weiss in a high-profile ABC interview. This text is self-serving: it renders the spokespersons into the only honest witnesses.

Their witness includes statistics on ‘civilian’ deaths. This is not surprising. We are dwelling in an era captivated by the magical wand of statistics and the impression of precision generated by the imprint of number. So Gordon Weiss told us earlier that his computation of civilian deaths ranged from 15,000 to 40,000. Invariably this sound bite gets twisted in world reportage and is presented categorically in several outlets as ‘40,000’.

‘War without witnesses’ tells the world that there were no Western reporters at the battlefront.  Does this mean that only Westerners can provide untainted reportage? There were local media personnel provided reports from the rear of the frontlines. Several of these TV reporters were certainly gung-ho patriotic in disposition and their presentation would have to be filtered. But does this render all such reports totally unreliable? Illustratively, it would be puerile for anyone to discard the reports penned by Sheran & Roshini Fernando and Vidura for the Sunday Leader on the 3rd and 17th May 2009 respectively.

But that is precisely the implication attached to a stress on “a war without witnesses.” As problematically, it renders a part-truth into a whole truth. The Sri Lankan government certainly restricted the entry of foreign media personnel; but David Chater of Al-Jazeera was on the sea-front, while the Hindu correspondent, Muralidhar Reddy, visited the frontlines periodically from October 2008 to May 2009. Kanchan Prasad of Prasar Bharati did so from the 25th January onwards. In late January as well as mid-April they were among a contingent of media personnel, including other foreigners, taken to Kilinochchi and the front. Both Reddy and Prasad were also permitted to visit Kilinochchi on the 13th May and to then visit the No Fire Zone on the eastern side of Nandikadal Lagoon on every day from the 14th May to 18th May inclusive.

My analysis thus far would suggest a measure of colour prejudice in the voicing of ‘a war without witnesses’. That is too simple an explanation for the manifest bias. Rather, the people of righteousness are prejudiced towards their own kind, people without nationality, people of the universe. Thus, in my analysis, it is ideological prejudice that encourages such selectivity.

Invariably, however, when campaigning in an imperfect world their righteous war crimes movement draws unto itself a coalition of various interests, including Tamil ultra-nationalists and former Tigers posing as humanists and Sinhalese journalists victimized and endangered by the Rajapaksa regime.

So it is that the reportage retailed by the people of righteousness appears in either/or terms. It is a tale of Sri Lankan government juggernaut versus Tiger terrorists. In this view both were equally horrid and the Tamil civilians were caught in the middle of war. While it is recognised that the LTTE held the Tamil people as hostages, the tale is oversimplified, and even fallacious, because of the influence of an either/or epistemology.

In speaking to the world, their picture hides two critical facts about Eelam War IV: namely, (I) that from some point in 2005/06 the LTTE trained many civilians as peoples’ militia; (For two illustrations, see Figure 17 in Roberts, Fire and Storm: Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa, 2010). and (II) that, during Eelam War IV, and especially in 2008/09, the Tigers mostly fought in shorts, trousers or sarong. (For two illustrations, see Figures 19a and 19b in Roberts, Fire and Storm; also see Roberts, “The Landscape of the LTTE’s Last Redoubt”). In other words one of the critical aspects of the vicious war was the blurring of the distinction between the ‘civilian’ and the Tiger army person.

In the simplified evaluations from humanitarian cloisters, the people of righteousness seem to expect an infantry platoon crawling through a booby-trapped no-man’s land, usually at night, to have a magical capacity to sort out who was Tiger and who was ‘civilian’. Worse still, they implicitly consider it good policy for infantrymen to refrain from the conventional practice of throwing a grenade into a bunker in front of them; that is, they ask the infantrymen to poke their heads into the opening first so as to discern if there were ‘civilians’ or Tigers inside.

Such naivety is complicated by the manner in which the people of righteousness fail to recognise their own complicity in the awful story of the months January-May 2009. By 2009 the LTTE had perfected its strategy of taking a sea of Tamil people with them as a shroud of protection, a labour pool and a bargaining chip in geo-political diplomacy. This Machiavellian strategy was predicated on the presence of two sets of forces whom, they felt, would come to their aid and save their bacon: namely, (A) the Western states (Canada, Australia, Britain, USA and EU) directed by their own specific agendas including constituency pressures in some places; and (B) people of righteousness both within agencies in Sri Lanka and abroad.

In other words, the people of righteousness, whether White, Weiss, Brown or Black, were seen as allies by the LTTE. Allies they became during that crucial stage of the war January to May. Allies they remain for Tiger branches abroad, embittered Tamil migrants as well as Tamils and Sinhalese of humane disposition. The war of manoeuvre in word and thrust continues. No public statement can break out of this context.



1. Who cares? - September 3, 2011

So much Bias.

The pro eelam people particulary the diaspora are fooling themselves thinking the West is an ally.
Nobody cares for the minority in Sl. The West is full of Hypocricy and double statndards.