By Kalinga Seneviratne
In May 2009 when the Sri Lankan army decisively defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the battlefields of Wanni in northern Sri Lanka, the entire population of the island felt a great sign of relief. There was a strong feeling of reconciliation among all sectors of the society after 30 years of a bloody civil war. Simply the people had had enough and they wanted peace.
But today, though the country is largely at peace, with the rebuilding process steaming ahead with new highways, housing schemes and hospitals coming up, the government has been forced on the backfoot to defend allegations of human rights violations.
All this is fuelled mainly by the well-oiled propaganda machine of the LTTE, which has remained largely intact, as it is operated by overseas based Tamils in western countries. They have cleverly exploited the western news organisations’ bias against nationalist leaders in developing countries who are not subservient to western interests. Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse is one of them who has developed close relations with China, and other countries the western media detest such as Iran and Libya under Colonel Gadaffi.
The recent vote at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on a resolution against Sri Lanka tabled by the US, UK and Norway, which was passed by 24 votes to 15 with India the only Asian country to vote for it, has created a huge debate in both Sri Lanka and within India, on the latter’s commitment to principles of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM), as well as the western media’s role in manipulating news to suite western political agendas.
One typical example was British Channel 4’s screening of a documentary just two days before the UNHRC’s vote, which alleged Sri Lankan war crimes using video footage whose origins are dubious. Yet, interestingly some influential mainstream media and political parties from Tamil Nadu aligned with the ruling Congress Party in India cited this programme uncritically to call for India to support the US resolution.
An irate Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Professor G.L Peiris speaking to the media, from Geneva where he was leading the Sri Lankan delegation to the UNHRC meeting last month, said “there is a limit to selectivity” in news reporting and claimed that human rights organisations using such material have done irreversible damage to the UNHRC process. He said that the Sri Lankan delegation had raised the issue of double-standards on human rights practiced by the very nations who are trying to mount war crimes investigations against Sri Lanka.
The battle between the Rajapakse government and a cocktail of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Tamil expatriate groups and international human rights organisations is an interesting indication of how domestic and international geo-politics will clash in the future, particularly in Asia with the rise of China and India as global powers.
It is widely accepted in Sri Lanka that the close political and economic relationship the Rajapakse government has built with China and the Chinese diplomatic and military assistance Sri Lanka got in return were instrumental in the defeat of LTTE terrorism. Thus China has become Sri Lanka’s largest foreign investor and aid provider today.
Veteran journalist Lucien Rajakarunanayake, who founded the Free Media Movement, and is today the Director of Policy Research and Information at the Presidential Secretariat, argues that to fight the propaganda of the well-oiled LTTE machine in the West is not an easy task. During an interview given to me recently he said, “it is unfair for a country that has gone through a deep period of a crisis and has overcome a threat that a lot of other countries are still trying to overcome, be accused of war crimes”.
“Countering the media of the type who does this is not an easy task. Sri Lanka is a small country, its media strength is limited,” he argues. “From the time LTTE started their armed attacks (in 1983) these people have been working abroad. They have been getting a lot of funding from abroad, some of these are from credit cards scams, human smuggling and drug trafficking. All these are known facts known to courts. They have earned a lot of money and that money kitty is still there. They are now trying to restore what they failed to do militarily in the country. The country does not have that kind of resource to counter them, and possibly as a result of not taking it seriously enough (much earlier) we’re not countering it well”.
Rajakarunanayake pointed out that most of the criticism is about the final phase of the war, where photographic evidence about how the LLTE was shooting its own people from behind who were fleeing them, when they were coming to the safety of the government’s own safe zone are available but dismissed as propaganda by western media and ignored in their reporting.
“Whatever happened there certainly needs investigation but I don’t think it needs the same amount of attack we see in some western media,” he argues. “All those organizations that make these allegations never bothered to come before the independent commission government set up. They pre-judged it and said that it is not good enough.”
On December 16, 2011 the long-awaited Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) – an independent commission set up by the government – released its report to the public. Western media, human rights organizations and NGOs have selectively quoted from it passages which reflect their arguments for a political solution to the ethnic issue, while ignoring their findings on unreliability of information leading to war crimes allegations.
Chapter 4 of the LLRC report referred to allegations made by “a number of outside organisations” during the final stages of the war claiming civilian deaths of 40,000 to hundreds of thousands based on “own sources” or “independent” figures. “The Commission invited some of these organisations to make representations regarding these figures and related matters to facilitate its work, but, regrettably they have found reasons not to do so,” the report stated. They named London Times newspaper as one such organization.
The Commission discussed at length material placed before them by Tamil civilians, medical officials who worked in the region and military personnel involved in the final battle who have described how the LTTE has herded in Tamil civilians as human shields into No Fire Zones (NFZ) declared by the military and fired from behind these lines thus attracting a response from the military.
“When the NFZs were declared, the LTTE deliberately clustered the civilian population into these zones and positioned their military hardware including long range weapons, among the civilians. There was material to indicate that they had in fact fired from among civilians. It was also evident that the Security Forces had returned fire,” the LLRC report noted.
The Commisision noted that they “recognise the complex challenge faced by the Security Forces in neutralizing a suicide cult based terrorist group seeking security behind human shields”. These parts of the LLRC report are conveniently ignored by some of the western media, human rights organization and even governments that accuse the Sri Lanka government of war crimes.
Interestingly these parties often quote from the report submitted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s Advisory Panel on Sri Lanka led by former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darussman. Sri Lanka has criticized it as a report based on third hand sources and questions the UN’s decision not to make its sources public for 20 years.
Rajakarunanayake questions the West’s insistence on Sri Lanka allowing an “independent” inquiry into alleged war crimes to be conducted by foreigners. He points out that LLRC was an independent commission that has provided a balanced report. He notes that when the Gordon Brown government set up a commission to look at UK’s conduct of the Iraq war there were no non-UK citizens in that commission.
“The war took place in Iraq and there is no Iraqi person to find out at least the feelings of the Iraqi people, there were so many other NATO countries involved and there was no single person from those countries in it, from Iraq itself there were refugees who went in millions to Syria and into Jordan, not a single Syrian is on that. Iraqi Christians suffered a tremendous amount, not a single Iraqi Christian is on that. So what is the independent commission they want on Sri Lanka?” he asks sarcastically.
It is these double standards that irritate many Sri Lankans who want to live in peace in their homeland. The LLRC report stated among its recommendations that “Tamil leaders should take account of the unnecessary internationalization of the ethnic issue and the external pressures exercised by the Diaspora and its impact on the negotiations for a political settlement.” It also warned, that “the perceptions of external threat and intervention can create a sense of insecurity that can seriously impede the progress towards an acceptable solution.”
Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri Lankan born journalist, television documentary maker and media analyst based in Singapore.