By Izeth Hussain –
My article Geneva Again of January 11 had a very limited focus: to establish that the call for international investigations on war crimes was the text, while the sub-text was to push the Sri Lanka Government towards a political solution of the Tamil ethnic problem. It is essentially the same case that I made out in my article The Ban Ki-moon Conspiracy in the Island of May 2, 2011. In the two years and eight months that have elapsed since then, there have however been many significant developments over the ethnic problem which call for new thinking in preparing for the UNHRC Meeting in late March. I have in mind also some of the material provided by the over one hundred responses that have been provoked by my last article.
On one point that I have made there can be no argument, none whatever. It is that the Government had no genocidal intent at all during the final phase of the war. Why on earth should it have wanted to sully a certain victory by committing mass killings on a genocidal scale, knowing full well that that would not have gone undetected by India and the US? That has to be written off as quite simply unimaginable. Nevertheless, I have to acknowledge, mass killings of civilians on a very substantial scale could have taken place. As I acknowledged in my last article, there would have been sadistic armed forces officers and rogue units who wanted to massacre civilians. In addition, we should I think allow for the possibility that there were in the upper echelons of the State ultranationalist super-patriotic racists who wanted latitude to be given for mass killings in order to “teach the Tamils a lesson”. In saying this I have in mind the indubitable fact that after 1977 our political culture has been for the most part unutterably, stinkily, sickeningly, low-grade.
Yet another factor has to be borne in mind: the rage for destruction that is inherent in warfare. I have no direct experience of warfare, nor erudition on the subject, but I know that it’s not a picnic. I quote here a recognized expert on war, Clausewitz: “Philanthropic people can easily imagine that there is a way of contriving to disarm and defeat the adversary without shedding too much blood … It is an error which should be eliminated … We cannot introduce a principle of moderation into the realm of war without committing an absurdity. War is an act of violence and there is no limit to the manifestation of that violence”.
So, we can assume – backed by the expertise of Clausewitz – that a very substantial number of non-combatant civilians were indeed killed, even though there was no genocidal intent. How many? No one can know for certain of course, but my commonsense tells me that the number could not have been on the scale of Rwanda, Kosovo, or Darfur, all of which provoked immediate international attention and outrage though not immediate counter-action. A problem in computing the number, a serious problem, arises out of the fact that it is known that the LTTE not only used civilians as human shields, but also that many of the combatants in the final stages of the war were not wearing LTTE uniforms. That means that the Tamils who actually saw the fighting in the final stages could not themselves have been sure how many of those being killed were non-combatant civilians.
I have raised the question – which could be of crucial importance – why there was no international rumpus about war crimes until two years after the conclusion of the war. We can assume that India and the US would have been reasonably well-informed about what transpired during the final phase of the war. It is quite possible that India did not want a rumpus soon after the conclusion of the war as that would have prejudiced the chances of moving towards a political solution through implementation of 13A, and it is possible also that India persuaded the US to keep quiet. As for the Jaffna people, they would have been too afraid to speak out: they could have all vanished into thin air if they did. The real enigma is the thunderous silence from Tamil Nadu. The TN Government could have been persuaded by Delhi to keep quiet, but what about the TN Opposition and the TN people? There are many facts leading to legitimate questions that suggest that the estimate of 40,000 civilians being wantonly slaughtered is exaggerated.
I must now make some comments on the two Channel 4 documentaries. They are not, and they don’t purport to be, a sober presentation of data and nothing more than that. Such a documentary would be far too dull for British and other TV audiences. They seem to me to belong to the genre of the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and others which came into vogue in the ‘sixties of the last century. There was also the figure of the American writer of fiction, Truman Capote, who wanted to transform journalism into literature by using the techniques of fiction for the presentation of facts. I haven’t read his novel written in illustration of his thesis, In Cold Blood, the real life story about two cold-blooded killers, but I have seen the film which powerfully portrays “the banality of evil”. Actually the usage of the techniques of fiction to heighten the presentation of facts seems to have quite a respectable ancestry. I have in mind a superb piece of journalism by the young Hemingway of the ‘twenties. However, the problem with such journalism is that it could show an even greater tendency towards distortion and tendentiousness than the journalism that purports to be straightforward reportage.
I fear that the Government has done badly in dealing with those two documentaries. There has been too much of vilification and vituperation towards Callum Macrae and the others, which is typical of our fiercely intolerant political culture. I feel that, on the whole, they are honest journalists who were trying to turn out documentaries with a powerful emotional impact. The Government would have done better to point to the tendency towards distortion and tendentiousness that is inherent in that kind of documentary. More important is that those two documentaries have a very limited significance. They establish not much more than that the “horrors of war” have to be expected in protracted warfare – the quotation that I have provided above from Clausewitz is very relevant in this connection. They go no distance at all towards establishing that the Government had a genocidal intent or that 40,000 civilians were massacred.
I have expressed unorthodox views in this article, as well as in the last one which provoked some ferocious denunciation. I will therefore reproduce part of an email that I have received from a reader in London as he probably reflects the contrary thinking of a wide segment of people: “I agree that the Government had nothing to gain from the massacre and also think that rogue elements in the armed forces are likely to have been responsible for the abuses that took place. The program which I saw would seem to support this idea – we see scenes that point to abuse and possibly murder of male and female captives as well as a scene of women LTTE fighters being taken away into captivity unharmed. This is horrible but not a mini Rwandan massacre and does not support a thesis of genocidal intent at government level. The delay in all this coming to light is also as you point out crucial”.
Of course the miscreants responsible for the horrors shown in the two Channel 4 documentaries should be brought to book, and certainly there is a case for holding that there can be no full and proper ethnic reconciliation until credible investigations are held into war crimes allegations. But we must face up to the problem that there is an incompatibility between holding those investigations and moving meaningfully towards ethnic reconciliation. The present situation here is very different from the one that prevailed in South Africa at the end of apartheid, as I pointed out in an earlier article. Investigations into war crimes here will mean that important personages, both within and outside the armed forces, will have to be put in the dock and that is going to rend this society apart. It will become impossible to proceed with the meaningful implementation of 13A, a process that requires as precondition goodwill from both sides of the ethnic fence. It seemed to make sense to hold therefore that we should now proceed to implement 13A and postpone war crimes investigations for a later stage.
But that argument has come to seem premised on the questionable, very questionable, assumption that the Government would sincerely move towards as full an implementation as might be possible of 13A. We cannot ignore the fact that for the greater part of four years the Government seemed to show that it had developed an allergy to 13A, and it even seemed that it was against any political solution based on devolution. The Northern Provincial Council has been set up, but it does not seem that the Government will allow it to function properly. Furthermore, the Government has been clearly going in an authoritarian, neo-Fascist, and racist direction that is clearly incompatible with proper implementation of 13A
This novel situation seems to demand action along certain lines. Clearly there has to be pressure on the Government to properly implement 13A. But the Government is impervious to internal pressure. So there has to be external pressure, obviously in the form of the Tamil diaspora and the West clamoring for international investigations into war crimes. I wish that India would distance itself from that clamor and play the role of helpful friend to Sri Lanka in making the Government implement 13A properly and fully. If that succeeds I expect that the clamour for international investigations will die down. But can it succeed? I don’t know. What I do know is that something keeps telling me that in these troubled times we will all do well to bear in mind this bit of ancient Greek wisdom: Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first drive mad.