The long afterlife of war in teardrop isle
by Shyam Tekwani
IT IS the first truth of war, however deplorable, that civilians die. The first casualty in war is the civilian. The real victims of war are the civilians. Particularly in civil wars, which are about national survival.
In a war zone, they are everywhere, fleeing on foot, on bicycles or handcarts or on somebody’s back, through drenching rain or blazing sun. Wandering around in circles, with no destination, to escape the hail of gunfire and rockets, all with just one question to ask: when would this madness end?
In the finale to the war in Sri Lanka, which the Tamil Tigers (in their global appeal for funds from their supporters) called the final war, trapped civilians pleaded for intervention to deliver them from the crossfire. Their pleas were as much in vain this time, as they had been successful on several earlier occasions, since as a human shield they were central to the survival of the Tigers leadership.
The unblemished record of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in reneging on negotiations and truces, only to fight even more fiercely, meant that calls for a ceasefire were yet another stratagem to regroup and rejuvenate. Colombo, sensing an impossible victory, was in no mood to risk being cheated of this opportunity as it was by New Delhi in 1987.
There was going to be no bail out this time. The retreating Tigers then resorted to a trick that had previously ensured their longevity – herding civilians as their insurance against certain annihilation. Left with no choice but to pursue the concept of total war with the same kind of ruthless determination that Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tiger chief, had demonstrated for 25 years, Colombo went for the kill. The Tigers had finally met their match.
The prevalent global disregard for international norms and laws following the September 2001 attacks on America provided the enabling environment to eliminate the Tigers. A secessionist group classified as the most sophisticated and deadliest terrorist organisation had been vanquished after a quarter century of bloodletting in a war alternately called ‘Forgotten War’, ‘War without Witness’, ‘Dirty War’, and ‘Unequal War’, as international sympathy and support see-sawed between the Tigers and Colombo. The military victory in the final war was total.
A euphoric Colombo awaited the deluge of congratulatory messages for having accomplished what even the authors of the global war on terror had not been able to achieve. And when the messages flooded in, Colombo found itself protecting the jugular. Mostly condemnatory, the chorus of messages chided the triumphant victor for unbecoming conduct on the battlefield and included accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. A bewildered Colombo’s immediate response (there were ‘zero civilian casualties’, it was a ‘humanitarian rescue operation’) aggravated the situation.
By denying outright all accusations, the ‘information war’ between the critics and Colombo heightened. During the two years of bitter recriminations and allegations that followed, Colombo further countered with accusations of hypocrisy and self-righteousness on the part of the West by citing its proclivity to pick on small hapless nations.
Dogged efforts by an assorted cast of actors to unearth evidence and implicate Colombo of war crimes steadily increased the pressure on the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and peaked around the second anniversary of the military victory.
First, the United Nations released its controversial report of the secretary-general’s panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka citing evidence ‘sufficiently credible to warrant further investigations’ into the charges of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed during the last phase of military operations. The report was followed by The Cage:
The fight for Sri Lanka & the last days of the Tamil Tigers, a book by Gordon Weiss, who was the spokesperson and communications adviser attached to the UN team in Colombo during the years that included the end of the war. Then came the sensational British television Channel 4’s documentary Killing Fields (not to be mistaken for the brilliant 1980s film on Pol Pot’s Cambodia). All three claimed to have ample evidence to charge the government of Sri Lanka for crimes against humanity.
Colombo’s angry reaction to the report and the documentary betrayed the need for a new set of advisers to the Rajapaksa government. It initially challenged the credibility of the video footage shot on mobile phones and the set of images that seemed to corroborate the accusations and dismissed them on the basis of being ‘biased’ adding that the ‘evidence’ was ‘obviously fake’, a ‘fabrication’ and that it was a ‘concerted effort by the western media to discredit Sri Lanka’.
The documentary, in its attempt to provide a stomach-turning narrative (in the filmmaker’s words, ‘this is the only way to make people to take this seriously’), is on shaky ground. The end result is as similar in tone and tenor as documentaries produced by the LTTE’s information warriors, the Truth Tigers, the camera teams that went into battle to record footage for propaganda and posterity. The Tigers would have been proud of this production. Clearly an effort to sensationalise and shock with carefully selected and edited footage, the documentary weakens its case and invites an investigation into its own credibility and accountability to journalistic norms. The volume of testimony it uses as evidence is not enormous and most of it is derived from leading questions. The slant is pronounced. Somewhere in the documentary, a human rights lawyer says, “The only exception (to attacking a hospital) will be if there was some evidence that the hospital was actually being used for military purposes” and the script glosses over the use by the Tigers of every such medical base.
WEISS, SPEAKING in the documentary as the then UN spokesperson, believes the UN crew was asked to leave the war zone by Colombo who could ‘no longer guarantee the safety of UN workers’ to ensure there were no international witnesses in the last stages of what was coming.
A more crucial reason to expel foreign observers and aid workers, one suspects, could have been the fear of the ‘CNN effect’ (which Prabhakaran chose to exploit with his human shield) that a ‘foreign’ casualty would have had on international public opinion. Additionally, in Colombo’s experience all foreigners (Indian and Western) tended to be Tiger sympathisers. Still fresh in memory must have been the role foreigners had played in prolonging this conflict – one of modern history’s longest civil conflicts – by their passive support of the LTTE’s support network in their countries. Apprehensive of its capacity to continue remaining undeterred by ‘imploring diplomats’ clamoring for yet another stalemate, Colombo’s imperative to bring the war to a hasty end set it on its wanton brutal path.
The documentary would have benefitted in its crusade and escaped being labelled another propaganda effort by merely following the norms of good journalism. This does not mean that it is entirely without value.
Even as a good example of poor journalism, it does raise important questions about the rules of war and accountability of governments, which it could have successfully done without the shrillness of a propagandist desperate to believe in his own merchandise.
When The Cage appeared a couple of months ago I approached it with caution because, like a like lot of other books on Sri Lanka, I did not wish to be disappointed by another fantastic or insipid account.
Additionally, I was wary of reading the work of yet another crusader setting out to salve his conscience at his own earlier impotence in office. The Cage is not the perfect book about the conflict, but it is the only decent one we have where the author makes an effort at tempering his grievance (anger is the author’s word of choice) with some academic rigour. Even to examine the book is to sink into a bog of footnotes – and incidentally this book contains long footnotes than any book on conflict I have read in recent years.
The notes section testifies to an attempt at understanding the global and local context for a Total War. To give us the full sense of our ignorance and bias of what is happening in Sri Lanka, Weiss tries to translate the most sensational event of the past two years in Sri Lanka – the military defeat of the LTTE – into humanitarian and war crimes terms. While Weiss is unremitting in cataloguing the savagery of both sides in the conflict, he leaves you with no doubt where his anger is directed. His primary targets are India; his former employer and the ‘Rajapaksa oligarchy’ upon which he unleashes his heaviest artillery.
Where the book undermines its purpose is its obvious attempt to work up a vile atmosphere of a government conspiracy to annihilate the Tamils and in some measure it is as successful in this as it is in sustaining the feeling of horror and rage.
Faults: Yes, several. In parts, Weiss’ studied conclusion (the war was justified but the large-scale deaths of civilians was disproportionate to victory and this calls for a credible judicial investigation into the excesses) is at variance with his narrative style and choice of words, which draw heavily on his moral repugnance of the Rajapaksa victory.
His careful effort to be objective falters occasionally in contradictory pronouncements. In his preface he says of the Tigers, “Their ingenuity became a pioneering model for other transnational terrorist organisations emerging in the 21st century”. His post-mortem ruefully notes, “Other insurgent groups present more potent challenges to the international order than the Tigers, who were only (my italics) ever a threat to Sri Lanka”. There are several similar contradictions.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of the United States Department of Defense. courtesy: Tehelka
Shyam Tekwani is Associate Professor, Asia Pacific Centre for security studies, Honolulu