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Sri Lanka ‘Killing Fields’: Will there be progress and what does that mean?


“In conclusion, however, there’s one point worth mentioning. If even amidst constant reiteration politicians are unable to see the dangers which are staring at them, and if in the face of such danger their only response is absolute denial, it would be beneficial for some to be simply vigilant, ever mindful, and observe the madness surrounding you, with equanimity.”

22 Jun, 2011 / Kalana Senaratne
‘Killing fields’ can be a phrase used to describe a most mundane fact known to humanity, or it could be a most provocative phrase to an ethnic majority or minority group. When viewed from the standpoint of a human being, one need not try hard to realize that the moment one factors in the number of killings that may have taken place, the amount of brutal wars that have been fought by man against man in the past, the kind of death and destruction that resulted in policies and practices of various states, such as colonialism etc., all of us belonging to the human race belong to one large ‘killing field’.

But we are sentient beings with a lot of dust in our eyes, we are easily provoked and even enjoy being provoked at times, and we often view things from a narrow ‘ethnic’ or ‘nationalist’ lens (merely conventional truths or sammuti-sacca, as a great philosophical teacher has stated; or, since we are on the topic of provocation, would I be permitted to use the phrase ‘conventional myths’?). So when ‘killing fields’ is thrown at us, as Britain’s Channel 4 recently did, we are provoked, for various different reasons. A trap is set, and we walk straight into it.

But how do we deal with such a sensitive issue? Are we to believe everything that we see, are we to reject all, can we to be selective, or do we whilst seeing what we see make an attempt to see the unseen as well? Can there be a more critical appreciation of the numerous factors and facets surrounding the episode, the moving image, the movers and shakers, their motives, the whole works? What are some of these factors?

A critique

To begin with, the reaction of the government, by and large, has been unsurprising. This reaction angers many, but it’s unsurprising and obvious because governments never rush to accept the allegation that their Armed Forces have committed war-crimes. It’s a standard response of governments which are engaged, or have engaged, in armed conflict. It’s natural, for as reported by AFP, when the Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmudi accused the NATO forces of having committed war-crimes, the immediate response of NATO’s spokeswoman Oana Lungescu was to call such allegations simply “outrageous”. So, this impression some have that it’s only the Sri Lankan government that resorts to such outright rejection of allegations and accusations is flawed; unless it’s so obvious like when a state drops a nuclear bomb for the entire world to witness, and then, because of the sheer power it wields, it comes out with the excuse that that it had to be done in the name of peace.

Not only that. The difficulty of getting top political leaders to initiate inquiries against their own Armed Forces has to do with a genuine sense of love they have for their Armed Forces personnel, the young and the brave, who ultimately are sent to the battlefield, knowing very well that they may not return; that asking a soldier to go and fight is akin to telling that soldier’s son that his father may not return, or telling a wife that her husband will die, or informing a parent that his/her son is gone forever.

It was reported recently that the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, after dinner, all alone, writes notes to families of the US soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Since late 2006, he has reportedly written some 3,400 condolence letters, and he states: “There’s probably not a day in the last four years that I haven’t wept…” Referring to the soldiers as ‘kids’, he says: “The only thing that actually matters to me long term is if somehow these kids think that here was a secretary of defence that was really looking after me. All the stuff, the budget decisions, the war decisions, all that other stuff, the only one I care about is what those kids think of me. The rest of it is just Washington talk.” (Gates’ Legacy of Care for Troops, South China Morning Post, 20 June 2011).

If then, to stomach the allegation that your ‘kids’ committed war-crimes is not an easy task, and there’s outright denial. This strong attachment shown by leaders commanding their Armed Forces should not be underestimated.

Furthermore, the moving image can very conveniently and surreptitiously hide many other serious factors which often go unnoticed. And in this regard it may be noted that the law, in such circumstances, is a hopelessly weak tool to address very complex political choices and decisions, and it’s an illusion that justice and reconciliation can only dawn if a particular set of crimes are investigated, which were committed during a specific time period (in a conflict which went on for decades), with a set of laws contained in an international legal instrument which are considered to be pure, rational and coherent; that there is a law, it’s clear, apply it, and peace, justice and reconciliation will arrive.

One such important factor was pointed out by Prof. Michael Roberts (People of Righteousness march on for Sri Lanka, The Island, 21 June 2011): “that, during Eelam War IV, and especially in 2008/09, the Tigers mostly fought in shorts, trousers or sarong. In other words one of the critical aspects of the vicious war was the blurring of the distinction between the “civilian” and the Tiger army person (whether infantry, catering, engineering or supply corps).” Any rational observer needs to take this into account, since one entire part of the footage shown by Channel 4 concerns video footage from the LTTE-controlled areas, and many men who are seen to be dead or injured, whether they are near a hospital or elsewhere, could be from the LTTE’s fighting units. How can one say they are not?

Are we also to believe that those images which came from the LTTE-controlled areas were captured by an innocent civilian who was running for his life? Wasn’t it all captured by a well trained individual belonging to LTTE’s media/propaganda outfit, and if so, could it not be the case that such video-recording may have been done in a manner that even in death, the dead were recorded in a way that blurs the distinction between the civilian and the fighter? And while there is apparent bombing and shelling going on, with smoke and noise, does it still mean that the LTTE did not provoke the Armed Forces into attacking them, knowing very well that their man will do the needful by recording the inevitable outcome, destruction and death that would follow? Are we to believe that bullets could only come into a no-fire zone, but cannot go out of it? And didn’t all this mean that even in the face of death, the LTTE was mindful of ‘propaganda’, not out of any serious concern for the civilians trapped under them, but simply to make an exaggerated case that civilians were indiscriminately targeted by the Armed Forces?

This also should give some impression about the ulterior motives of some (not all) of the actors involved in pursuing a revengeful policy of portraying that all that happened in Sri Lanka was one big ‘war-crime’. Having funded and fuelled terrorism for so long, some of these actors today proclaim that an investigation of both parties should take place, knowing very well that their ‘boys’ are no more. How ironically convenient the decimation of the LTTE has turned out to be for such proxy groups of the LTTE? Consider also the tremendous political and financial reach such groups have, the influence they have on certain governments, political parties and politicians in the Western world in particular. And when one takes into account this encircling global movement, along with the Tamil Nadu baying for blood, would not the Sinhalese consider themselves to be a global minority which is being unjustly pushed around after decades of armed conflict?

And do some of these groups which have now initiated a so-called ‘non-violent’ movement to win Ealam consider the debilitating impact their policies might have on the short and long term reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka? How could they even stop to think, because their avowed agenda is a separatist one, which, they very well know, cannot be achieved if reconciliation and peace is to dawn within a single nation-state?

An alternative (a constructive-constructive?)

But how then do you move forward (if one is interested in moving forward)? Can there be an alternative perspective, which, while not endorsing the exact opposite of the above, is still an alternative which could lead to a lessening of the problems which seem to be mounting, now almost by the day?

To begin with, the attachment and love one has for the Armed Forces does not mean very simply that there are no fringe elements, miscreants, within the establishment which, wittingly or unwittingly, tarnish the entire image of the Armed Forces. Such elements should not be permitted to ridicule not only the Armed Forces, but an entire country as well. As the late Lakshman Kadirgamar once noted when speaking at the Kotelawela Defence Academy: “An officer whose character is flawed or compromised will forfeit the trust and respect of his men… An officer must not only be a man of valour, he must be a man of honour.” Armed Forces personnel are honourable men, and the people have faith in them and consider them to be so, but where it is seen that some have been utterly dishonourable, this faith is shattered and shaken, and it has to be restored before it vanishes.

This is necessary, especially in light of the Channel 4 footage which should move anyone for they depict, ultimately, the suffering of many trapped under the inescapable and inevitable harrowing conditions of armed conflict. At least two years after the war, people should be able to view these images with some detachment, and more importantly, with much compassion (whilst being mindful of the politics surrounding the promotion of such video footage). There should be an understanding especially of the amount of suffering that people underwent, and what those who survived had to say within the country. And how else can the truth about those specific clips be ascertained with some degree of certainty without a proper domestic investigation?

The government, let us not forget, can very well reject any such calls for a domestic investigation. But if then, wouldn’t they run the risk of realizing some day that for them, unlike for many in big and powerful countries, the principle of complementarity applies? (in fact, George W. Bush has realized this already).

Furthermore, it is also necessary to have an open mind about much touted ‘peace and reconciliation’ argument above. Firstly, not all investigations, especially domestic investigations regarding specific incidents which are carried out with the intention of identifying those who are seen to have committed crimes – and holding them accountable – leads to the break-up of a state or is a threat to sovereignty. It is indeed a moral and ethical course of action to take. And while I continue to maintain a somewhat skeptical view about the ability of the international law discipline to resolve problems, this skepticism should not be taken to the extreme of suggesting that the law is of absolute irrelevance.

Secondly, while the ‘need for reconciliation’ may be a slightly exaggerated claim (in that there is no violence unleashed by the people of one ethnic community on another and the people have, by and large, lived in relative peace even during the height of the war), there is not much to suggest that reconciliation in terms of providing a safe environment whereby the people feel secure and safe in the North and the East in particular, or that they could realize their basic civil and political rights, and engage in peaceful democratic activity, has been created. Not only should the politicians act with great responsibility, but they should also ensure that armed groups which may belong to some political parties or some politicians with ‘Chief-Ministerial’ ambitions are not running havoc in those parts of the country.

Conclusion (The End?)

When dealing with such emotive and sensitive issues, one is well on the path towards adopting an extremist approach. Carving out a middle-ground (and I am not suggesting that the above amounts to one at all), or maintaining a sense of ‘detached involvement’, without tilting towards either side, is an extremely difficult task. In the present context, it could even be dangerous, for one could be easily misunderstood. In a sense, it is convenient to be either a total apologist or an absolute critic; for then, one’s stand is absolutely clear, one is not misunderstood (s/he is with us, s/he is not), there is no real need for some in power to ‘watch-out’. Yet, an attempt to reach that middle-ground should be made.

Finally, a question: will there be progress? The question itself is a vague one. And if ‘yes’ is what a naïve optimist wants to hear, ‘yes’ shall be the answer. But he will soon realize that ‘progress’ can mean anything. The absence of a serious call for an international or internal investigation (preferably both, but at least the former) is ‘progress’ if you are a member of the government or one of its apologists. An international investigation, followed even by some form of regime change and political turmoil, could be welcome ‘progress’ for some separatist elements overseas and their apologists (and some politicians might benefit from it too). A domestic inquiry which ultimately is capable of holding any miscreant elements accountable can amount to some form of ‘progress’ for those who are desirous of seeing a lessening of the unnecessary problems faced by the government. An international inquiry would be ‘progress’ for those who believe that that is the only way to uphold the international rule of law. No wonder that one’s ‘progress’ clashes with, and is detrimental to, the ‘progress’ of the other.

In conclusion, however, there’s one point worth mentioning. If even amidst constant reiteration politicians are unable to see the dangers which are staring at them, and if in the face of such danger their only response is absolute denial, it would be beneficial for some to be simply vigilant, ever mindful, and observe the madness surrounding you, with equanimity. At least there will be some inner peace; and what greater peace or happiness can there be than that.

(Kalana Senaratne, LLM (UCL), is a PhD Candidate at the Law Faculty, University of Hong Kong)

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