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FeaturesNewsWhy Government Rhetoric and Propaganda Might Divide Sri Lanka

Why Government Rhetoric and Propaganda Might Divide Sri Lanka


In an interview Professor Rajiva Wijesinha gave The Sunday Leader concerning government responses to international pressure, he remarks that “people believe what they want to believe”. Wijesinha’s ironically astute observation sheds light on why government responses to war crimes allegations during the final stage of the Eelam
War are not being rallied against locally. Leaving aside the lack of press freedom, the fear psychosis and the problem of discontent (over 16 Sri Lankans commit suicide daily), the desire to simply ‘move past’ a nerve-wracking 30 years of war is strong. At this point it is no surprise that internal criticism of the government response to war crimes allegations is yet weak. While the government strongly condemns what it deems the rhetoric, propaganda and bias of Western media, it is in turn a useful exercise to see what kind of political rhetoric is intrinsic to the official government response, and what kind of moral and political commitments are implicit in that rhetoric.

“It was I think Aristotle who said that the roots of injustice lay in comparing like things with unlike things, and unlike things with like things” – Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary-General of the Sri Lankan Government Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP). [1]

Ironically, in a recent article entitled “Death Eaters and the return of Dark Lords of Terror”[2], Wijesinha compares characters from JK Rowling’s fictional Harry Potter (the popular fantasy novel about teenage wizards and witches) to international activists and the Tamil Diaspora. He draws superficial comparisons between the LTTE and Voldermort, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Dolores Umbridge, and the speechwriter Alan Keenan and a magical snake. Essentially, Rajiva Wijesinha asks the reader to infer the inherent “wickedness” of such international organizations and political activists on the basis of this comparison. All the while, Wijesinha condemns Western media for being ‘sensationalist’ and ‘dramatic’. Although the UN and Western media are certainly not without flaw, the kind of rhetorical gesture that parallels them to popular fantasy fiction is nothing if not itself sensationalist and dramatic.

The aforementioned article is only one example of the explicit sensationalism and lack of professionalism in government rhetoric. According to President Council Jayantha Guantileke the UN commissioned Darusman Report is based on “the Law of the Jungle”; according to an article featured on the homepage of the Defense Ministry website, Amnesty and HRW are “shameless people [that] will continue their effort until they see bloodshed in Sri Lanka” [3]; and according to other absurd articles UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has been described as having “penchant for sari parties, [an] all-girls-together approach that is no substitute for proper diplomacy” and belonging to a regime of “monstrous women” while David Miliband acts with “evil cynicism”[4].
The means used in government rhetoric to discredit media organizations often come across as petty and irrelevant –ultimately what do “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” presenter Jon Snow’s choice in ties and socks have to do with the legitimacy of war crime allegations in Sri Lanka? (Daily Mirror, 23 July) Ridiculing and mocking media institutions undermines much of the genuine information that these institutions seek to disseminate. For those individuals whose doubts and grievances with the government are serious, for those who have lost homes and the lives of loved ones, rhetoric by government representatives that is belittling and sardonic comes across as indifferent and unforgivably derisive.

“Either with us or Against us”
Before the Eelam War reached its close, Gotabaya Rajapakse made clear his stance on terrorism: “I have only two groups, you know. That is the people who wants to fight terrorism or the terrorists” (BBC Hardtalk).[5] Much of the undertone of postwar rhetoric implicitly contains the hard-line ‘either with us or against us’ ideology, where either one is with the ‘good guys’ (Harry Potter and his friends) or working for the ‘bad guys’ (Voldermort’s gang). While it might be possible to hash together some kind of justification for this rhetoric during the war effort, with respect to the postwar attempt at reconciliation, it can only be detrimental.

Postwar, the Pick-a-Side ideology is dangerous because it depicts situations as polarized and forces apolitical or neutral individuals to pick and then justify one side over another. In current postwar debate, for example, Sri Lankans swayed by this kind of rhetoric are asked to choose between ‘the West’ and ‘Sri Lanka’. If they chose Sri Lanka they are bound to justify all the moves of their side, wholesale, instead of making independent objective decisions concerning individual policies. Moreover the Pick-a-Side ideology produces the feeling that one is betraying one’s country when simply disagreeing or considering facts objectively. The ideology manipulates individual loyalty at a subconscious level; if you are not part of Team Sri Lanka you are an enemy or terrorist. When asked about General Fonseka’s wish to testify before an independent council, for example, Gotabaya responded without hesitation: “We will hang him if he do that. How can he tell that? That’s a treason, how can he betray the country? He’s a liar, he’s lying, isn’t that a treason?” (Interview by Stephen Sackur, BBC Hardtalk)
The Eelam War was fought on the grounds that a functioning democracy is superior to the fascist dictatorship that the LTTE very clearly represented. In order for democracy to be effectively realized postwar, however, it is important that individual citizens be able to argue, dissent and question government policies and actions, without being or feeling marginalized as traitors. If indeed the Eelam War was fought to secure the possibility of democracy over fascism, then it was fought for the right of every Sri Lankan to argue, disagree and ask questions.

Identity Politics
In the final stages of the Eelam War, approximately 300,000 Tamil civilians found themselves trapped in the Vanni region between LTTE militants and the Sri Lankan army. Extreme conditions, both emotionally and physically. The circumstances certainly qualify as likely to induce post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that comes to significantly determine victim identity. While many of us can claim to identify with being ‘Sri Lankan’, how many of us can identify with being involuntarily caught in direct crossfire between two warring factions?
It is indeed laudable that former captain of the Sri Lankan cricket team Kumar Sangakkara can identify with Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims and Burghers simultaneously. But given the nature and variety of human experience it is naïve and reductive to believe that one Sri Lankan can imagine the identity-forming experiences of another. As demonstrated by the wide assortment of identity-related articles available on Groundviews, different individuals will find resonance with different levels and forms of collective identity. Ultimately, identity is deeply personal. When it appears in the context of national reconciliation – president Rajapakse believes that “people of all communities should shed their communal identities”[6] to better rebuild the nation – the issue of identity is necessarily political.
One Groundviews writer, for instance, makes the related point that adopting the label “Sri Lankan” to the exclusion of more specific labels (e.g. Tamil, Muslim, Sinhala) can cause individuals to overlook the unique problems faced by those particular communities, and instead shift attention to issues that are wider in scope and less urgent. [7] Emphasizing that identity discourse is often politically motivated, it is important to pay attention to certain postwar identities that are being extolled for overtly political purposes.

“This is not about petty party politics…it is about our sovereignty, our integrity and the sacrifices made by our heroic security forces” – Minister of Power and Energy, Patali Ranawaka [8]
A large component of government rhetoric centers on the noble assertion of the ‘right to sovereignty’. Remarks such as, “we are not here to keep the British electorate happy” (Wijesinha)[9], “we will not tolerate an infringement of our sovereignty” [10](MP Keheliya Rambukwella) or Mahinda Rajapakse’s self-acclaimed duty to “unite the nation, protect the sovereignty”[11] illustrate how strongly the language of sovereignty resounds in government rhetoric. Unfortunately, the word is often extrapolated as just grounds for denying postwar requests and demands from the very communities most severely affected by the war. On his website, for instance, President Rajapaksa reportedly says that demands from a political party representing Tamils in the North and the East were rejected because they were “detrimental to the country’s sovereignty.”[12]

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Sovereignty, though its meanings have varied across history, also has a core meaning, supreme authority within a territory.”[13] The extensive use of the notion of sovereignty no doubt reflects a justifiably bitter attitude towards Sri Lanka’s long history of colonization. However, uncritical reliance on the notion of sovereignty also masks fundamental truths about our country and its relation to the international community.

That Sri Lanka is somehow economically or politically autonomous and independent from all other nations is a myth. Nations today are certainly sovereign in the sense that they are free to maintain militaries and evolve distinct cultures and traditions. But while the idea of a Sri Lanka that is completely independent and sovereign is uplifting and empowering, no modern state that participates within the global capitalist economy can be considered entirely sovereign. The Sri Lankan economy, and therefore Sri Lankan politics, depends vitally on international trade (e.g. the global recession had its impact on the local tea and tourism industries) and international politics (in the form of trade sanctions, tax exemptions, humanitarian aid, etc.). Developments in other nations can be the difference between political stability and economic unrest in the domestic sphere. In this respect, the very idea of sovereignty is a misnomer.

Despite its continued trumpeting of Sri Lanka’s ‘sovereignty’ in public discourse, the government is well aware of her dependence on other nations. According to a report by the The Sunday Times, a US resolution to cut aid to Sri Lanka now awaits further discussion before becoming law.[14] In addition, another report points out that the Sri Lankan government has paid a British PR firm about 3 million sterling pounds (Rs. 545,880,000) a year to try to boost the country’s post-war image. [15] In the meantime, government officials continue to use the flatulent and misleading notion of sovereignty (tied of course to the ‘integrity’ of our people), in responding to the Darusman report and war crimes allegations.

Sri Lanka’s “propaganda counter offensive based on true facts” (Ranawaka) imagines Sri Lanka’s Sovereignty as under threat of attack by the EU, the US and the UN and envisions her in a cold war of sorts. In opposition to an independent war crimes investigation, Minister Ranawaka contends that “Western powers such as the US, UK and a few other countries in the EU will try to use the document to defame our country and bring war crimes charges… We have to have a propaganda counter offensive based on true facts.” Indeed, Ranawaka goes as far as describing pressure from nations and international organizations that regularly provided Sri Lanka with humanitarian aid as an “international conspiracy funded by the LTTE rump” (Daily News, July 20) [16]

War Crimes Allegations
Worse than isolating Sri Lanka from its former allies, the propaganda offensive that the government has launched might be increasing ethnic tensions. The flat-out denial of war crimes, the refusal to conduct internationally approved investigations, and the refusal to confront the legitimate anxieties of concerned communities can only increase anger amongst those individuals who genuinely believe war crimes were committed.

“It’s just not possible to carry out an identification parade on nearly 100,000 people” responds Rajiva Wijesinha as to why the Sri Lankan government cannot apprehend Sri Lankan soldiers whose faces are clearly visible in the Channel Four Documentary. Wijesinha goes on to argue that he needs an exact date and time for the incident, before he can begin investigations. He also claims that the images in the documentary were ‘doctored’ merely because the orders of some segments were reversed; a response, he seems to believe, sufficient to delegitimize the content of the segments.

Here is another attempt to discredit the Channel Four Video, an excerpt from a speech given by Major General Shavendra Silva:

“The main actress of this film is a girlHer sister described what happened to her – She had left Sri Lanka in 2003, and came to UK, got married, a very brief marriage, she is supposed to be very um – on her own – never listen to others, that is how her sister herself talks about her”[17]

Is the narrator Ms Vani Kumar marital state of any relevance to war crime allegations? No. Does a divorce, or short marriage, make an individual more likely to be lying? No. In Aristotle ‘s Art of Rhetoric, (and many other treatments of political rhetoric since then) we learn that establishing or denouncing speaker ‘character’ is an extremely powerful rhetorical strategy. While perhaps rhetorically appealing to some, Shavendra Silva’s poor analysis still contains no objective evidence that war crimes did not happen.

Rhetorical Strategy in Historical Context
If the government response is this hypocritical and poorly formulated, why aren’t Sri Lankans rallying against it? The explanation of why the government response to war crimes allegations is so readily accepted might lie in our country’s history as a colonized feudal state. A feudal caste system is an economic-political-social system in which society is stratified into different castes that determine an individual’s social and economic function. Different conventions of discourse govern argument in societies with different political economic systems. In caste systems, origin and authority carry a lot of weight, (the caste you are born into more or less determines your future) and so it is not surprising that the forms of reasoning privileged in such systems credit authority and source of information rather than the information or argument itself. In such a system, the repute or ‘authority’ of government officials lends to the acceptability of the government response. In such a system, Vanni Kumar’s marital state, character, motive and intent would determine the value of her story. This is why, when repudiating Vanni Kumar’s narrative, Shavendra Silva believes it is enough to say she is a bad daughter and a bad member of her family.

During colonization, Sri Lanka’s feudal system was modernized in letter, but the ideological transformations necessary to peacefully and successfully sustain this form of governance did not take place. A feudal form of reasoning still dominates government rhetoric – arguments by the Tamil Diasporas are often automatically discredited, for example, because the source is attributed with malicious intents. The UN’s political motives and interests, or Channel Four’s financial motives and interests are given larger weight when discrediting or disproving the Channel Four Video, than actual video or argument content.

In liberal democracies that evolved organically out of the French and British Revolutions, different conventions of reasoning have come to be privileged. Questions about the source of claims are less important than the actual justifications for the claim, the evidence or the consequences of the claim. Since all individuals are thought to be equally capable of rational thought and objectivity, it does not matter nearly as much who is making an argument or with what intent, as long as the argument itself is logically sound.

If the UN commissioned Darusman Report is credible, over the last few days of the Eelam War certain government representatives committed crimes far more heinous than those atrocities that occurred during Black July. While all government officials have a vested interest in maintaining political power, government officials guilty of war crimes will have a vested interest in opposing independent inquiry into war crimes. Reflecting those vested interests, the current rhetoric of the Sri Lankan government is based on exaggerated claims of sovereignty, and poorly formulated or irrelevant argument. Arguments that dismiss allegations on the basis of source (‘West’ or the ‘Tamil Diaspora’) are not convincing. Arguments that depict internal or world affairs as polarized are highly deceitful. With respect to the seriousness of the allegations made, much government propaganda is insensitive, mocking and derisive.
Sri Lanka is no longer an autonomous and self-sustaining feudal monarchy and in today’s world Sri Lanka is no longer absolutely sovereign. The government has a moral responsibility to prove its claims that war crimes did not happen, and as a member of the global economy, the Sri Lankan government has a political responsibility to its citizens to represent itself as accountable.

There are many who cannot and will not be able to simply ‘move on’ from the trauma suffered during the final stages of the Eelam War. While it is widely understood that the LTTE were a ruthless terrorist outfit, if the government was involved in committing war crimes, then Sri Lankans of all ethnicity need to know that legal action will hold the guilty accountable. Because no nation can be properly rebuilt on a foundation of doubt and suspicion, the government needs to prove that its attitude towards reconciliation is genuine. Allegations have been made that need to be taken seriously and disproved systematically and impartially. Instead of uniting Sri Lanka, hard-line retrogressive government rhetoric might give Sri Lankans who want to believe in an irreconcilable Sri Lanka the ammunition to continue believing.

[2] Daily Mirror, 23 July –
[3] Daily News, July 18 –
[8] Daily News, July 20 -


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