The fog of war in Sri Lanka

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By Michael Roberts and Padraig Colman

Reporting of the civil war in Sri Lanka has tended to distort various aspects of the violence that ensued, particularly in terms of the number of civilian casualties and the causes of their deaths.

Although Western media have been critical of both sides in the conflict between the Sinhala-dominated government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), they tend to see Tamils (and thus the LTTE) as underdogs.

Sri Lankan Tamils have been emigrating since the fifties. There is a substantial body of intelligent and prosperous Tamils abroad alienated from Sri Lankan politics and governments. The patriotism of expatriate Tamils increased when the government defeated the LTTE in 2009. They are receptive to the propaganda of Tiger activists.

Tamil nationalists or sympathizers now hold key positions in the west. Sri Lankan government PR is ineffective in comparison with the coordinated campaign of the Tamil diaspora using such outlets as the BBC, ABC, Sky, Channel Four, New York TimesDer Spiegel and their like.

The result has been distortion.

  • Western media erroneously describe it as “a war without witnesses” even though a restricted number of foreign reporters were transported to the rear battle front on several occasions.(1)
  • The received wisdom is that at the end of war there was “merciless shelling” and “extermination” and that subsequently some 300,000 civilians were “interned” in “concentration camps”. Both claims are exaggerations, the latter being quite gross.
  • Ban Ki-Moon’s Panel of Experts (Darusman Report) said that “a number of credible sources have estimated that there “could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths”. Despite the questionable methodology pursued by this panel, (2) its guesswork became a definite figure of at least 40,000 civilian dead; and, in the indelible words of a British parliamentarian named Lee Scott, 40,000 “slaughtered”.

British parliamentarians did not allow for the following factors during the last five months of the war in the patch of LTTE territory we term the “Vanni Pocket”:

  • It was difficult to distinguish between civilians and combatants;
  • The LTTE often fired on Tamil civilians;
  • US Ambassador Butenis confirmed the government’s claim that they made a conscious decision to prolong the war and risk more SL Army casualties in order to protect civilians. Red Cross representative Jacques de Maio, Robert O Blake of the US State Department and Jim Grant of UNICEF echoed this in their secret memoranda during the height of the war;
  • The Sri Lankan authorities knew that USA and India were tracking the battles on satellite and would spot any inordinate use of force; Continue reading
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Getting the balance right – David Cameron and foreign relations

Soon after David Cameron had left Sri Lanka, the Sunday Times in England published a satirical piece about his visit. It accused him of behaving like a public school prefect and treating the Sri Lankan President like a fag, a junior schoolboy who was at his beck and call.

Cameron’s was certainly a brilliant performance, full of British bravado. Having decided, correctly in my view, that he would attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, he had to contend with the anger of those who have in effect been running British policy with regard to Sri Lanka, which has been deeply negative about our success in overcoming terrorism in this country. He had therefore to put in an aggressive performance to keep them happy, and this he certainly did.

I do not mean only the extremist members of the diaspora, who have been enormously successful in lobbying British politicians where it matters. Having concentrated their attentions initially on Labour, and obtained brilliant results through David Miliband, they were quick to switch in 2010 when the Conservatives won, while the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry floundered, and did not even bother to appoint a High Commissioner to England for a lengthy period.

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