Dealing with adverse propaganda
Posted on May 29th, 2016

By Rajiva Wijesinha Courtesy Ceylon Today

Concerted attacks, however, lay far in the future. In 2009 we were dealing rather with generalizations, and the threat then was not allegations of war crimes, but rather efforts to galvanize international opinion against us and stop the slow but steady progress of the forces in the North.

I had to travel to Geneva four times in the first six months of the year to help Dayan deal with the moves against us. Two of these were for the regular sessions of the Human Rights Council, in March and in June, though in both cases I had to stay for longer periods than previously. I should add that we did use these periods to strengthen cooperation with the ICRC as well as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with meetings with not only Navanetham Pillay but also the Working Group on Disappearances, the Rapporteurs on Sanitation and on Women, and of course Walter Kalin.
Kalin also came again to Sri Lanka that April, to see what we were doing and also what was planned. This was before the large influx, which happened later that month, and the report he presented was not at all negative, as had been hoped by the various organizations which claimed we were ill-treating the displaced. I got on so well with Kalin that I invited him to my cottage for lunch, the first official guest I had there (I saw it as a treat, that was given only to those I particularly liked among the internationals we had to deal with, three Norwegian ambassadors in turn when they were leaving, and the Head of the ICRC who served between 2010 and 2013, one of the most conscientious workers I ever came across).

Significantly, the semi-official reports that came out against us later barely mentioned Kalin and the fact that we tried throughout this period to work in terms of the norms he enunciated.

Dayan organized a plethora of briefings during this time working breakfasts and lunches and dinners, meetings with individual delegations and groups. This was when a startlingly young, and beautiful, French Minister who seemed to know nothing (and whom Sarkozy had to get rid of soon after) wanted to know if we had stopped using child soldiers.
I also had to deal with a worrying news report that cited the ICRC, which then denied this through a statement on its website after I insisted (though I later gathered that an individual had indeed been indiscreet, contrary to the specific commitment of the ICRC Vice-President, Christine Bierli with whom I had had a very encouraging meeting.

Media interviews
Dayan also arranged several media interviews, something which I had also to deal with in Colombo. In general, despite the forces ranged against us, the very few of us who were able to deal on equal terms with the international media managed to maintain a balance, so that the one-sided reporting that had dominated world news before Dayan went to Geneva was at least contained.
His active engagement also with delegations that Sri Lanka had previously neglected, the South Americans and Africans and East Europeans, plus his warm personal relationships with leaders of the Non-Aligned and Islamic groups meant that the West, which tended to dominate opinion in Geneva, were held at bay.
In May when there were efforts to requisition a special session of the Council, to stop the final victory over the Tigers, those behind the move were unable to get the required number of signatures. Despite this I was summoned again to Geneva in mid-May and, though the danger passed, Dayan used the time well, involving me in the briefing that John Holmes gave on his recent visit to Sri Lanka.

Last assault
He had come twice by then, in February as well as in April. On that first visit, while Mahinda Samarasinghe was hosting him to dinner at the Galle Face, the LTTE launched its last assault on Colombo, having actually managed to send down two planes of its fledgling air force. Though the damage they caused was minimal, we had some tense moments. Sir John however remained cool, prompting me to liken him to Colonel Fazackerly, who was unfazed by a ghost in Hilaire Belloc’s poem of that name. I think Sir John was amused by the reference.

By now the unpleasantness that had been caused in 2007 by what he was to claim was a comment made out of context (at a media briefing Rory Mungoven had arranged contrary to the agreements we had) had all worn off. We found him generally helpful, and during his April visit he helped to clarify concerns about figures that it was claimed the UN had released. We had previously discussed these with Chris du Toit and found that they were based on not very reliable estimates, whereas the worst case possibilities were promptly leaked by those in the UN system who disliked what the government was doing.

Special pleading
At the end of the war, I wrote a piece that made clear the special pleading we had to put up with when figures about casualties were being bandied about foolishness or cunning – indiscriminate allegations about civilian deaths.
We are told that the UN claims that about 7,000 civilians have been killed in fighting between the Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE over the last few months. It is also claimed that 16,700 have been wounded, “according to a UN document given to the Associated Press by a senior diplomat.”

This leak is the third in a series which has led to a state of denial by the UN. They claim that they are not responsible for any leaks, though they have still not reported to us on an investigation that was promised into the reports. More pertinently they have gone on record as saying that they know their figures are not reliable.

Certainly, when this process first began, we sat down with the head of security in Colombo who had produced the figures and found that many of them were based on extrapolation that had no rational basis.
The process began with a figure in February of around 2,000 killed and over 4,000 wounded. Then, in March, when the High Commissioner for Human Rights got into the ring, it was 2,800 killed and more than 7,000 injured. By April it was nearly 6,500 civilians killed and 14,000 wounded.

The latest figure then suggests agreement on a ratio of just over two to one with regard to wounded and killed, which makes sense in such conflict situations even if the figures themselves are suspect.
Implicit in all this bandying about of figures is the assumption that the government is responsible for all these deaths and also the injuries.

Yet, obviously, there are three things that need to be verified before we can start the process of apportioning blame, blame that will stick given the small size of Sri Lanka, as opposed to blame that wafts away on a breezy apology, which we have seen in more brutal conflicts in recent days.
First, are the figures of dead and injured accurate?
Second, are they all attributable to the Sri Lankan forces, or might some of them at least have been inflicted by the LTTE?

Injured civilians
Third, are all those who died or were injured civilians?In dealing with these questions we see a remarkable lack of logic and of thought on the part of those determined to jump on a bandwagon to bash the Sri Lankan state. Let me try then to introduce some basic rationality into the discussion.

As we have seen, there were more than twice as many injured as died through this year. However, there seems to be no trace of the large figure now alleged for the last four months of 16,700. The ICRC brought off several shiploads of injured from the conflict zone from the beginning of February until the beginning of May, but of the 13,826 they conveyed only 5,499 were patients.
Obviously the ICRC would not have brought out over 8,000 bystanders if there were injured waiting to come out. This suggests that the total number of deaths would in fact have been about 2,500, possibly 3,000 at most.

Hard evidence
Second, we have hard evidence of the LTTE both firing deliberately on civilians, and also not caring much about collateral damage. It is now forgotten that, in the last seven months of 2008, when the forces swept through half the North, and took Kilinochchi too after bitter battles, the total of civilian deaths alleged even by Tamilnet was just 78. It was only after that, when the LTTE had achieved its aim of corralling civilians together, that wanton destruction of civilians began.

Before that, clearly, as had happened in the liberation of the East, the government had been able to ensure maintenance of its principle of minimal civilian casualties.
The first date on which massive numbers of civilian deaths was alleged was 26 January, just after the government declared the first safe zone. Though initially when firing into the zone started the UN thought government was responsible. UN Resident Coordinator Neil Buhne sent a text message at the end of the day to say that he believed most of the firing came from the LTTE.

There is also the testimony of the Bishop of Jaffna who, while asking the government to extend the safe zone (which he would scarce have done if he believed the government were firing into it), said that he would also ask the LTTE to withdraw from the zone its own heavy weapons that were endangering the people.

TamilNet claims
Apart from such collateral damage there were many occasions on which the LTTE fired on civilians trying to get away, using heavy weapons too as was seen in the pictures of the tank being deployed desperately on 20 April when the first large exodus began. And of course there is the testimony of so many in the camps, mentioned so often to visitors, forgotten by the sensationalist media.
Finally, it must be clear to any thinking person that a great number of those who died would be LTTE fighters. After all, when TamilNet propagated claims of civilian deaths, they never gave numbers of cadres who had died. Nor did they give numbers of cadres who were wounded. Yet, obviously, many of those who engaged the forces for so long, especially in the area around Puthukudiyirippu, would have been hard core combatants.

And to the number of those we have to add combatants who had been recently recruited. UNICEF has reported on these. UNDP has complained that the children of its staff were recruited, but no one has extrapolated from this. The obvious fact that many civilians were forced to bear arms, and therefore were legitimate targets for the offensives of the armed forces.
Youngsters in civilian clothes
This had been made clear from early on, when the Army Commander explained why the LTTE still continued to fight ferociously even though it had lost so many people in battle in 2008 – youngsters in civilian clothes, obviously scarcely trained but carrying weapons, were found in profusion in bunkers along with regular cadres.

This indeed heightens the guilt of those international agencies who refused, almost till the end of 2008, to condemn the LTTE for holding people hostage – they knew, as they had known for years, about forced conscription, but there was no public criticism of this, as the UN Resident Coordinator admitted, when he acknowledged that UN awareness that the LTTE was recruiting one person per family was not expressed publicly in 2007 (and when it was raised to 2 in 2008, there was an even more deafening silence).

So, it is obvious that a number of those who died in the last few months were combatants, bearing arms, having been forced into this by LTTE brutality and the ostensibly benign silence of the international agencies who had known what was happening, but said nothing. And, more pertinently, a number of those injured too would have been combatants.

LTTE combatants
And yet, there are no LTTE combatants amongst the injured, not at least in any of the reports that are filed, the accusations that are made. All those injured, the more than 5,000 who were brought out by the ICRC, the rest who surrendered, are described as civilians.
This is not acceptable since, in the process of rehabilitation that the government plans, it is important not to hold their enforced recruitment against many of the youngsters. But at the same time it must be recognized that, when they were bearing arms against us, they were legitimate objects of attack.

When we see that in theory then there are no LTTE wounded among those we are now caring for, we can understand how preposterous it is to assume that there were no LTTE dead either. Except at the very end, when after we had managed to rescue almost all the civilians the hard core cadres fought and died, there were no accounts of LTTE dead in the propaganda that was churned out between January and April.
But to believe that propaganda would be as ridiculous as to believe that all those injured, whom we are now treating in government hospitals all around the country, were civilians who were victims of government assaults.
But people believe what they want to believe. Sensible extrapolation from the casualties who are now with us suggests that some of them must be combatants, that many were wounded by LTTE action, and the number of dead must be less than the now oft tossed about figure that will soon become gospel.
Civilian deaths
Certainly the number of civilian deaths must be very much less, and among them those killed by collateral damage as opposed to the deliberate targeting of them by the LTTE as they tried to escape must be minimal.
We have rescued 290,000, more than the figure of 250,000 that was being bandied about most often. We avoided the bloodbath that was predicted, that the LTTE tried to precipitate, especially on 10 May. We have confounded the world in dealing firmly with terrorism while preserving the lives of most of the civilians who were the most oppressed victims of terror.

For this evidently we must suffer. But this is a small price to pay for what we have achieved. And we can but hope that, in time, those who with more power inflict greater suffering for the sake of what they see as the greater good will learn to try to emulate our actions. They must learn in the end to deal with terrorism while remembering that the people they are rescuing from terror are not to be bothered, but to be treated as fellow human beings and thus fellow citizens in our common humanity.

One Response to “Dealing with adverse propaganda”

  1. nilwala Says:

    It is unfortunate that global politics and big power influence that supported a concept that, as far as the Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict was concerned, a Confederal arrangement was the desired goal, and that this could be achieved through an UN supervised Accountability Process that could also thereby enable the West’s continued influence in the South Asian region. Any success to that concept had to be backed by a massive propaganda effort.

    The LTTE Diaspora’s post-war propaganda was backed by its financial power and occurred at a time of global recession from which the world has still not emerged. This financial power was recognized and covertly supported by even those who overtly decried the LTTE, labeling it as being the “most ruthless terrorist group in the world”, and listing the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (and doing so to this day). Via the strength of the LTTE’s Financial and Propaganda machine, these democratic governments were transformed into supporting the global LTTE rump’s activities and goals.
    What led to this apparent transformation? Was it the covert aim for a South Asian beachhead in Sri Lanka that had always underlain the International Community’s stance?

    Coincident with the emergence of the US as the world’s superpower and its overt control of the UN, the use of Human Rights as the weapon for ‘Regime Change’ came into the forefront of global politics.
    Sri Lanka became its first Democratic casualty.

    All the efforts of Dayan and Rajiva and others who attempted both in official capacity and otherwise, in several Western-oriented democracies over the globe to expose, explain, rationalize, seemed to fall on deaf ears as the march towards the utter injustice of holding the Sri Lankan Govt. and its Military Forces responsible for ALL THE ILLS OF THE SRI LANKAN CONFLICT, while the actions of the LTTE were only mentioned ‘en passent’, without any taking into account of the >30yr. of provocations; situations in which ANY/ALL of these governments that hold Sri Lanka to task today would have acted much more definitively and much more destructively into bringing any rebel or insurgent group to heel, let alone one accepted as “terrorist”.
    Sri Lanka ended the war, and has attempted to atone for the loss of Life on both sides of the conflict. But the punitive measures on the GoSL continue unabated via the UNHRC. The numbers game continues even though who was a “combatant” and who a “civilian” may NEVER be able to be proven through any proposed investigations, and for however prolonged they may be.
    The nation has been left with ONE HAND CLAPPING for the PEACE that we now enjoy, and those instrumental in making Peace possible are being made to suffer.
    AND, is this for the greater good?

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