Perhaps most shocking was that they came in military uniform to an arts festival. It could have been a bold move to include a session on war reporting in the latest literary event in the Sri Lankan capital – Colomboscope. Sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank and organised by the British Council and Goethe Institute, the boundaries of freedom of expression should at least have been nudged forward a little.
But three of the four-member panel were government spokesmen. The only dissenting voice a very articulate German war correspondent, who didn’t seem to have actually reported on the end of the war in 2009 (another journalist was invited, but later pulled out).
She looked increasingly frustrated and uncomfortable as the session proceeded and she came under attack as part of an undefined western conspiracy against Sri Lanka. Her words about coming to terms with the past were applauded by the audience but made little impact on the panelists bent on rewriting history to their advantage.
You only have to read the comments on Twitter to chart the mounting frustration of Sri Lankan journalists in the audience and see how badly managed the event was. There was very little time for audience participation, that might have challenged the views of the panel, where the moderator clearly did not.
The session was entitled ‘Counting the Bodies’, which is suspiciously similar to my book ‘Still Counting the Dead’.
There was a willful misquoting of my book too. As part of the argument that wild casualty figures were part of a foreign conspiracy, the number of 147,000 dead was wrongly attributed to me. This is a number cited by a compatriot, the Bishop of Mannar, in his submission to an official commission. It isn’t a figure for the dead, but for the missing and that too derived from government statistics.
My book cited the Bishop’s figure, as it did the government’s figures, which vary from zero to seven thousand dead. It’s hard to imagine the two military spokesmen were not properly briefed – this was deliberate obfuscation. Interestingly the military spokesmen received warm applause from members of the audience, clearly comforted and soothed by their assurances that tens of thousands of people were not slaughtered after all.
The debate was supposed to focus on the problems of war reporting but ironically half the panel were those who’d caused the problems – and on purpose. No independent witnesses were allowed by the Sri Lankan army into the no-fire zones – aid workers or journalists and access to the refugees who fled was strictly controlled.
At least I watched ‘Counting the Bodies’ on YouTube and didn’t have to buy a ticket for the event. I hope next year Colomboscope has a session on the end of the war in 2009 where there are three international war crimes lawyers and human rights activists and only one government representative who had nothing to do with the war. That would balance this year’s session.
The British Council in Colombo declined to comment on the session, but emphasised that the festival was “independently curated” by someone outside the council. What’s shocking as a UK tax payer is to find my money is being used to whitewash war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. This is insidious and highly political for an arts festival and not something the British Council should be involved in again.