By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Let me start with a paradox. This is an extremely impressive book, but I find it woefully depressing. It has been put together, according to the introduction, by three patriots who are also strong adherents of pluralism and the rule of law. Godfrey Gunatilleka is, as Dayan Jayatilleka once described him, arguably the best intellect in public life, Asoka Gunawardena is the most balanced and practical of administrators, and Jeevan Thiagarajah combines unparalleled energy in the service of his country with wide ranging knowledge of what happened in various spheres during the conflict.
Why then am I depressed? There are several reasons for this. The first is very simply that it comes far too late. Second, it requires fleshing out through details which are only available with government. Third, it leaves unstated the need for immediate action by government in the spheres in which it is unable to refute allegations made against the country. Fourth – and I cannot believe that the main writers were responsible for this, given the very different perspective Godfrey put forward in the television interview – it seems to swallow wholesale the allegations against the UN leadership in Sri Lanka made by the Petrie Report. Finally, it leaves out one group of significant actors, namely those who have contributed heavily to the Darusman Report, if we are to believe Wikileaks: I mean the NGO representatives who produced evidence against Sri Lanka.
For these reasons, the fourth and fifth sections of this book are weak. The first two sections are very strong, and provide an object lesson to the Sri Lankan government as to how it should have dealt with the allegations in the first place. The third section is well argued, but its main point is weakened by the failure to affirm forcefully the need for a credible internal inquiry with regard to the treatment of surrendees. In this regard the book is less balanced than the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report, which is surprising since its rationale is that of a middle way between that and Darusman.
With regard to the first three worries I have, the first could be compensated for by prompt action now on the part of government. But given the hamfisted way in which government dealt with the Darusman Report in the first place, I do not think anything more will be done. It seems incredible now that the government responded to allegations against it by producing a narrative that did not address those allegations. But, pace the book’s erroneous claim that the Ministry of Defence’s account of the humanitarian operation preceded the Darusman Report, the fact is that, in its ostrich like view that hiding one’s head in the sand would get rid of threats, the Ministry produced a document that might have been useful had it been produced in 2009, but which meant nothing after Darusman.
At the risk of making myself even more unpopular with government, which cannot bear other people having been correct, I told the Secretary of Defence, when I was called in to help with editing of that account, that it did not answer the allegations. His answer was that that was not the purpose of the narrative he was preparing. When I pointed out that the allegations needed to be answered, he said that he had allocated that task to the Chief of General Staff, who was however given neither resources nor encouragement to proceed. My own view is that this unintelligent approach has done more damage to our forces than anything else, given how easy a defence would have been of the bulk of the charges made against the forces. At the very least, citation of claims made during the conflict would have made clear the absurdity of charges made afterwards.
But as it was, the only detailed defence was what I produced, which government ignored completely, except for the Governor of the Central Bank, who bought several of the books I produced. Whether they were distributed or not I do not know, but given the emulation of the Ministry of Defence, which seems to be the chief function now of the Ministry of External Affairs, I do not think it would have reached the audience that should have been targeted. So too another good defence that came out last year, ‘The Numbers Game’ by a thoughtful Sri Lankan expatriate, has also sunk without trace, as did the documentary by Daniel Ridicki, ‘Common Differences’, despite the President ordering that it be shown in Geneva. So I have little doubt that this book too will be buried as soon as possible by the powers that be – by which I do not mean the President, who has more sense, but seems to have abdicated the defence of the country to his two brothers, neither of whom has instincts nor intellect to match his.
So, where this book succinctly makes clear that, contrary to the claims of the Darusman Report, government provided supplies in accordance with requirements agreed with the UN to the people held by the LTTE, the Minister of Economic Development presided over the production of a book which was filled so full of unnecessary detail that it was unreadable. I was asked to assist at the beginning, and we produced a report that covered the basics, but then it was taken away and everyone put in their account of what a good job each of them had done, and it turned into a vast tome. What is now needed is a direct answer to Darusman, using the excellent basis this book has provided, but that will not be produced.
The second area in which government needs to act is that of a credible internal inquiry. Now that the ice has been broken, as it were, ice in this case being the intransigence of the Secretary of Defence, by the expansion of the mandate of the Disappearances Commission, and the appointment of internationally respected advisers, it should be a short step to dividing the job up to produce swift and useful results. The business of the Disappearances Commission should be Restorative Justice, as recommended by the LLRC. But there is also a need for thorough investigation of possible crimes by individuals, and government must follow the recommendations of the LLRC in this regard, where it diagnosed a prima facie case. Of course there may be mitigating circumstances, but assuming those without investigation is as bad as what seemed blanket denials originally.
I have no doubt, given the generally compassionate way the forces fought, for which there is much evidence that this book cites, we will find no question of a genocidal or even callous policy. But this, for which I believe the Secretary of Defence deserves much credit, needs confirmation, which requires establishing that the few cases of aberrations that occurred were the result of individual passions, not general policy. If the Secretary of Defence is not made to realize this, he will bring upon the forces a greater disaster than they deserve, after fighting a hard war in comparatively exemplary fashion. The book makes clear the difficult circumstances in which battles were fought, and establishes conclusively the responsibility of the LTTE for the collateral damage that did occur. But unless the few cases of extra-judicial killing that are alleged – not of civilians, it should be noted, but of suspected if not proven terrorists – then the care to avoid civilian casualties that the forces evinced will remain in doubt.
So much for what government needs to do. But there is also more that government should do to make clear where responsibility lies for the tragedy that occurred. The book makes clear the culpability of the LTTE. It is also harsh on the UN, whereas I believe more thorough analysis, based on facts that Jeevan is aware of, and which I have recorded in many instances, would make clear who the real villains are in the international community.
It is not the Americans, which is what the fourth section of the book suggests. That indeed makes clear how confused the Americans were, and I think what seems the schizophrenia of Robert Blake can be understood when one realizes that, as he himself put it to an interlocutor who asked why his line seemed to have hardened, he was in 2009 serving a different administration. That explains the different emphases of the different Americans cited in the book, and it is a pity that we allowed extremists to treat all Americans as hostile when there were several less devious types, even under the Obama administration with its strange morality that we now find productive of even more tragic outcomes in the Middle East than the blunderbuss of George Bush.
Where blame should lie becomes clear when we consider the first error in the book, namely its claim that ‘during the Eastern Operation, there were no complaints that the military caused harm or killed civilians’. On the contrary, in August 2007 Human Rights Watch released with much fanfire a report in which it claimed that our forces had engaged in indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
I read through the Report and confronted HRW with the fact that there was only one instance cited in the whole Report about civilian deaths. There was much blustering then on the part of Brad Adams, but he could not deny that the publicity HRW had engaged in was belied by the Report. That one instance, which the forces did not deny, was the result of mortar locating radar. But though HRW granted that the LTTE had indeed taken weaponry into a refugee centre, they claimed that these were not heavy weapons.
This was casuistry of the highest order. But worse, it also indicated to the LTTE that they could get away with murder. If they fired from amidst civilians, they could either do so with impunity or else they could claim that the Sri Lankan army was deliberately targeting civilians. Thus it was the gullibility, or the wickedness, of HRW that encouraged the LTTE to employ the strategy that led to so many civilian deaths. And the book does not cite the most telling evidence for this, namely the plea of the Bishop of Jaffna to the LTTE, when the First No Fire Zone was declared, not to take weapons into the Zone.
This is the type of information the government of Sri Lanka should have deployed when allegations were first made. But given the lack of institutional memory, given that the person they sent to the site when the Darusman Report came out was a hawk who probably thought the army had used insufficient force, given the incapacity of most of those in government after the war to use English effectively, the allegations have through default turned into gospel truth as far as world opinion is concerned. This is a very far cry from the effectiveness of our defences in 2009, but since the Secretary of Defence, under Israeli pressure, got rid of our best spokesman, and since then relied on a man who, as the President put it, kept chasing after women, it is not surprising that our forces are being sacrificed on the altar of defiant incompetence.
A more sensible strategy would also have pieced together the evidence for collusion by some elements in the international community – not the Americans, I hasten to add, who were on the straight and narrow in 2008 as far as terrorism was concerned – with the LTTE. This book does not mention culpability with regard to the barriers the LTTE constructed, and I have seen no mention of this by government in recent years, but back in 2008 the manner in which Solidar allowed heavy vehicles to be used by the LTTE and did not report this to government was outrageous, and contributed to the deep suspicions that developed with regard to the international community, a factor the book registers. Unfortunately the EU, despite being misled by Solidar – they claimed at the CCHA that there were no internationals in Vavuniya, which was simply not true – granted them impunity for this aberration. And I fear the stupid Sri Lankans who talked about the event blamed the Norwegians, because it was the Norwegian component of Solidar that was in place in Kilinochchi. The truth however was that it was a shady group of Britishers who were responsible, and the head of Solidar was Guy Rhodes, whose connections should have been investigated more carefully – especially after the Wikileaks revelation that much evidence against Sri Lanka was provided by him subsequently.
Interestingly, Rhodes was part of the UN Security Committee which seems to have been busy collecting evidence against the country from early days. The Darusman Report revealed that the UN had networks of observers in LTTE controlled territory, but this was not known by government, and the Ministry of External Affairs failed to clarify who these were, and to whom they answered, after the Report came out. Indeed the failure of the Ministry to ask the questions I suggested to them, and to allow so much criticism to go by default, whilst also not pre-empting the Petrie Report by working together with the UN officials who did their best according to UN norms, is grossly culpable.
So too there has been no attempt to establish the manner in which the UN decided to leave Kilinochchi as a whole in September 2008. The book, in its strange chapter on the UN, swallows wholesale the assertions of the Petrie Report, which it cites endlessly. It never once references the narrative I prepared while at the Peace Secretariat as to what really happened, even though it mentions it to indicate that there was a very different version of what happened.
The fact is that, given that they were not doing much good, other agencies were asked to leave, but government specifically exempted the ICRC and WFP and UNHCR. The first of these stayed on, giving the lie to the claims made subsequently that we wanted a war without witnesses. It was the UN that chose to withdraw everyone, and this decision by the UN Resident Coordinator, Neil Buhne, was based on misinformation, for he was told that government had only allowed WFP to stay. He subsequently told me that, had he known it was the UNHCR also, he might have decided differently.
We will not be able to find out now who fed him wrong information, which I believe was part of a plan to dragoon the UN out because the NGOs had been asked to leave. And what is astonishing is that those NGOs made no fuss about the fact that their local employees were not permitted to leave. Nor did the UN demand that their own local employees leave. Instead they engaged in a covert operation to get them out, which is one reason why Convoy XI as a whole, and then a couple of its members, stayed on for so long, and in effect destroyed the system that had been in place to deliver supplies.
I remember asking the NGOs why they did not speak out about the fact that their employees wanted to leave, and were being kept forcibly. Some I think wanted to do this, but like sheep they went along with the dominant characters who included Guy Rhodes. The claim was that they did not want to jeopardize their safety, but this was clearly nonsense, since obviously the LTTE was not going to harm them as a result of such claims. Rather, it was because they wanted to perpetuate the myth that people stayed on willingly, whereas open assertions that people were being kept forcibly would have given the lie to this.
There was one area in which the NGOs as a whole resisted another insidious ploy of Guy Rhodes. Government had made it clear that they could continue to work in the area, through the administration we still had in place, led by Government Agents and Divisional Secretaries, but Guy claimed that this would not be proper because their donors had conditions that could be met only if international staff were in place. He backed down however when I asked how there could be conditions in agreements between NGOs and the Sri Lankan government which the government was not aware of, and the others agreed to continue with their work. Whether this was ultimately beneficial however is not certain, given the sleight of hand that followed with regard to the equipment that these NGOs left behind. Jeevan is aware of the details, and of how much of this fell into the hands of the LTTE, but I suppose this book is not the place for an account of this. But it should be written down elsewhere.
One other example of sleight of hand should be investigated, but the Ministry of External Affairs has ignored this matter despite my drawing attention to this. I refer to the identity of the two individuals left behind by the UN when Convoy X! finally left the Wanni. For several days the LTTE played with them, pretending that they would allow the local UN employees to leave, which meant the Sri Lankan forces were requested day after day for CeaseFires, which doubtless the LTTE used to redeploy its own forces. Finally, realizing what was happening, the Bangladeshi Colonel in charge decided to head back and he brought with him a convoy of patients which the ICRC had organized.
With him was a Sri Lankan employee from the Colombo office, but there was no trace of Peter McKie, just as there is no trace of when and how McKie had gone into the Wanni. Government has not tried to find out what he did while he was there, but relatively recently it has been revealed that he was perhaps the principal source of information later used against us. I am sorry that no one else in government is indignant about this, that the UN should have been engaged in covert operations when it is supposed to work with governments which are the owners of the UN, rather than a few countries with agendas of their own and much money. But instead of coming out straight with complaints, those in charge of Foreign Policy in Sri Lanka have allowed deep distrust to build up, which affects relations with the less shadowy players in the UN, who are generally decent and proper.
I hope then that government will even now take its cue from this report, flesh out the narrative of the war with clear and convincing citation of evidence, and also make clear the underhand work of a few elements. But at the same time it must deal with anything underhand that our own people were engaged in, which is why investigation of the matters the LLRC noted is essential. Without that, we too would have sunk to the level of Guy Rhodes and Peter McKie, whereas we owe it to our own people to affirm convincingly that we did our best in a difficult situation, and that there will be no impunity for egregious violations of national and international norms.
*Prof Rajiva’s presentation on Issues of Truth and Accountability; the last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka – Narrative iii – MARGA & CHA Colloquium.