On my instructions, due to the priority given to the policy of zero civilian casualties the security forces are limiting themselves to rescue operations of the entrapped civilians held hostage as a human shield by the LTTE. – Address by President Mahinda Rajapakse to the diplomatic community, 7 May 2009
“Firing should stop,” Mr. Anandasangaree, a former MP and the leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front party, said in an interview. “The government has no business to kill people like this.” He said he believed the latest casualty figures because he had heard them directly from a doctor at the hospital that received the dead and injured. “These are 100 per cent true,” he said. “We can’t trust the LTTE’s version, but this is from the horse’s mouth.” – Interview with V Anandasangaree in Canada’s National Post, 11 May 2009
A day after torrential rain resulted in widespread flooding in Menik Camp in late August, I published online the first images of what conditions were really like for IDPs interned inside. The photos, taken from a mobile phone, were low resolution but clearly showed the scale of catastrophe. Amongst many who expressed shock and outrage at the Rajapakse government’s inhumanity so evident in these photos, a particularly revealing comment came from an individual called ‘Sunday Sinha’ who noted,
“Your images don’t bear any date or time-marks, and we wonder why. Could it be that your images are doctored, just like many LTTE images were in the last days and weeks of the war?”
“I’ve yet to see a time-stamps and dates on photos published on the Ministry of Defence and Army websites… Prove they are. Go on. Fetch the evidence. And by the same token of scepticism, why don’t you question the images and video released by government during and after war?”
‘Sunday Sinha’ has yet to prove these images were doctored, or for that matter point to any time and date stamped photos published by mainstream media journalists who are actually in Menik Camp covering what is happening on the ground.
One encounters a similar pattern of vehement denial and accusations of falling prey to LTTE propaganda with the video broadcast by Channel 4. Let me be very clear about this. Media literacy rightly teaches us to be sceptical of content such as the photos I published and the video broadcast by Channel 4. New media, such as mobile videos and photos published on the web, allow for new perspectives to emerge. Sometimes these perspectives bear witness to events that we may otherwise have not known about, or add fresh perspectives to events we may only have been told a specific version of. But any camera is a still or moving frame, and no frame covers all angles. So interlocutors who question the bona fides of Channel 4 in broadcasting this video are partly right – we cannot be sure that what we see is real and without context, temporal information or the original video file for digital forensics, its veracity must be held up to scrutiny. Obviously, the government will seek to prove it is well-staged LTTE hog-wash, others will see it as evidence of war crimes with a view to using it as evidence in campaigns of accountability, justice and punitive sanctions against the Sri Lankan government. This thrust and parry of competing worldviews is not new. The President and V Anandasangaree, one of the most senior Tamil politicians in government and hardly a supporter of the LTTE, showed a remarkable difference of opinion during Vesak this year. Whereas the President believes he conducted a rescue operation with zero civilian casualties, V Anandasangaree claimed otherwise. Unsurprisingly, only one of these worldviews found sustained and unquestioned publication in Sinhala and English media. Videos such as the one broadcast by Channel 4 allow for a critical, open contestation between what the government wants us to believe, and what some of us know is a far more bloody, outrageous reality.
This is inconvenient for those who want to keep believing government propaganda. Calling the government’s bluff that this video is false, Philip Alston, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions said last week that “There’s nothing on the surface to indicate that it is not authentic and, if that’s the case, it would raise very grave concerns”. Alston went on to note that the Sri Lankan government had a poor record investigating such cases. “Given the not-very-happy record of such investigations in the past, it would in my view be desirable that this be an international investigation, which would ensure its independence and impartiality”. Alston was being diplomatically polite. Successive Sri Lankan governments have with complete impunity executed civilians. The Rajapakse regime’s emblematic red sash is deeply symbolic of its own complicity in terror. As Amnesty International notes in Twenty Years of Make Believe: Sri Lanka Commission’s of Inquiry published earlier this year, “Commissions of Inquiry have not worked as mechanisms of justice in Sri Lanka. Presidential Commissions have proved to be little more than tools to launch partisan attacks against opponents or to deflect criticism when the state has been faced with overwhelming evidence of its complicity in human rights violations.” To expect this government to conduct any meaningful investigation into the veracity of this video, and those that in invariably surface in the months and years to come, reminds us of the Sinhala proverb “Horaga Ammagen Pena Ahanawa Wage”.
This same report notes that Sri Lanka’s formal justice system is in tatters. It is a raw nerve for the government, particularly in light of vehement and growing local and international condemnation of the sentence handed down to journalist J.S. Tissainayagam. The judgement also comes in the context of growing media reports that suggest Sri Lanka stands little chance of getting the EU’s GSP Plus trade concessions, vital for our garment industry, because of its terrible human rights violations. This is cogently expressed in The Economist last week when it noted that rarely has a government soiled its reputation as dramatically as Sri Lanka’s, and quotes a confidential report from the EU submitted for government review,
“Widespread police torture, abductions of journalists, politicised courts and un-investigated disappearances have all played a part in creating a state of “complete or virtually complete impunity in Sri Lanka”. The internment of the Tamil displaced, which the government claims is necessary to weed out the last Tamil Tiger rebels and to protect them from munitions left in their fields, is “a novel form of unacknowledged detention”.
Prefiguring the EU’s trenchant and wholly justified critique, I noted in my last column that what was needed in Sri Lanka was not more support to maintain these horrendous, inhuman IDP camps, but the international and local impetus to dismantle them and allow inhabitants to return to their homes. It is interesting to speculate whether the Channel 4 video combined with the EU’s confidential draft report contributed in large part towards Tissa’s judgement. Tissa’s incarceration, his treatment in prison, and his case are no small warnings against independent journalists who wish to hold government accountable for its actions, particularly during war and now increasingly in the domains of security, reconstruction and rehabilitation in the North and East. The revealing combination and conflation of high security zones and special economic zones, coupled with new army installations, new cantonments and the resulting demographic shifts colour any appreciation of post-war development and the demarcation of land. Tissa’s predicament suggest that few journalists will dare explore these vital issues rigorously, or name the countries that are guiding and funding these developments.
Ergo, it may also be the case that, public optics aside, the government does NOT really want an extension GSP Plus and the attendant conditionalities that run counter to a growing totalitarianism. A government that sees victory in and the resulting absence of war as peace is unlikely to take kindly to growing concerns of war crimes, human rights abuses and a supine, subservient judiciary to boot. And well beyond the significant war-centric human rights abuse, Nipuna Ramanayake’s case and the fiasco in Angulana suggest that under this government, the Rule of Law exists, akin to minority rights, only as a legitimate aspiration of our peoples. It does not really exist in fact.
We must also ask why journalists who trespass private property now charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), despite assurances by the pathetically disempowered Media Minister that the PTA will not be used to clamp down on media freedom? Is it because the owner of the property these journalists trespassed on is really the key agent, even above the judiciary, of the PTA’s application and interpretation? The Sunday Leader editorial today submits that the PTA facilitates arbitrary and capricious official conduct, including torture and also makes serious incursions into the freedom of expression and the media. Sri Lanka’s post-war descent into totalitarian rule by a frothing, murderous fraternity is disturbing because it is occurring without shame or disguise. The corruption, the abuse of power, the hypocrisy, the lies, the rabid racism, the violence – they are all out in the open. This degree of impunity, mirroring the LTTE’s chutzpah, is worrying. It reveals that democracy is hostage to the whims of a powerful few, who are really answerable to no one. It suggests that there is little local and international actors can do to stop this manic lawlessness. It reveals that truth-telling and reconciliation are non-starters, whatever photos, videos and other narratives that make it out to the public domain.
It reveals that eyes wide open, though validation, collusion, ignorance and indifference, voters are supporting a brutish regime that will never bring a meaningful peace to a country that so richly and urgently deserves it.
Published in The Sunday Leader, 6th September 2009