Reconciliation in the Context of Channel 4 allegation
By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, MP
July 8, 2011
The last few months have seen an astonishing spate of attacks on the Sri Lankan government. These began with the publication of the Darusman report, by three individuals who were tasked to appoint the Un Secretary General on accountability issues but instead sat in judgment on the Sri Lankan state and its armed forces. Immediately those who had in any case been attacking the government previously now used this as a tool.
That episode was followed by a book by a man called Gordon Weiss, and then a film aired on Channel 4. All this added to the impression that there was a mass of evidence against the Sri Lankan government. However the exercise was similar to that of Wittgenstein’s gentleman who bought a second copy of the morning paper to establish that what the first said was true. I noticed for instance that many elements in the Report were repeated in Gordon Weiss’s book, and the only detailed allegations in the Report were based on the pictures shown on Channel 4.
I have responded in detail to these allegations in some detail in various documents, and in one sense we should be grateful to these characters since they have made clear the necessity to tell the real story, as it happened. But we must also bear in mind that people believe what they want to believe. The attacks will continue from people who refuse to look at evidence. If a report commissioned by the Secretary General ignored the evidence of the senior UN personnel on the ground, and instead relied on a few who had been repudiated previously by their seniors, one must recognize that rationality has nothing to do with it, and that political and emotional considerations will trump evidence.
Still, we should point out forcefully the major errors and improprieties in the campaign being conducted. With regard to Channel 4 for instance, it should be noted that they, like many other media outfits, were permitted into Sri Lanka early in 2009. Most outfits were quite fair, and these continue to operate in Sri Lanka, the BBC for instance and in particular several Indian agencies. Our view that having the media around was a positive factor proved correct in that it was the reporting from the ground that assuaged feelings in India when extremists were anxious to mislead the people of Tamilnadu, before the election there, and create problems.
However several British outfits were determined to falsify. The Times engaged in a particularly vicious campaign, which another British journalist explained as arising from its association with New Labour – and we now know for a fact, courtesy of the Americans, what we long suspected, that David Miliband’s approach was for electoral advantage. The Guardian did produce several erroneous reports, but only when a stringer called Gethin Chamberlain wrote. His stories had often to be corrected, though he flatly refused to correct the most outrageous of them, when he claimed that 11 women had been found with their throats cut. He confessed that there was no basis for this, and that his source could not be trusted. I had the impression that this was a junior UN person, and having studied the rest of his reports, I believe it was Gordon Weiss – he quoted the man early on, but then after that he did not mention names but kept talking about an anonymous UN source.
Channel 4 however, given the medium, was even more dramatic. From the start it seemed there was a conspiratorial element to it, and their team was soon asked to leave. So it was not surprising that later that year they produced the first aggressive attack on Sri Lanka, in the form of a brief clip shown in August 2009. They refused to allow the High Commission to see this in advance, and indeed did not show anyone the video they had received. They even refused to give it to the UN Special Rapporteur, who was instead another version, different in some particulars, supplied by an outfit called Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka.
The only member of this outfit I know is a man called Sunanda Deshapriya, who would turn up at Geneva in attempts to discredit the Sri Lankan government. The last time I saw him there – when he confirmed that he was involved with this Journalists for Democracy outfit – he kept quiet because I had taken photocopies of the article in the ‘Sunday Leader’, no friend of the Sri Lankan government, which detailed his financial irregularities. In fact the Centre for Policy Alternatives, another seminal critic of government, had to publicly disown him. The fact then that he was involved in the group that was supplying different copies of this video to different people suggests something suspicious.
The video itself had flaws we pointed out, some of which had been removed in the second version sent to the UN. Its experts did confess nevertheless that there were some problems, but they thought by and large that the video was authentic. One of the problems was a moving leg, which was supposed to belong to a dead body – one of the experts claimed that we could not be sure the person was dead, he might have been just drunk or asleep.
The performance of these experts left so much to be desired, that it seemed almost a godsend that for over a year this was the only claim that there was evidence to suggest some people in the Sri Lankan forces had committed crimes. But of course, a year later, to coincide with the visit of the President to England, Channel 4 came out with another video.
This was also quite strange, in that the same UN experts, while claiming that the longer video explained some discrepancies, now confessed that the video had clearly been edited. The editing included transposing segments, so that what was filmed first appeared third. This explained the strange phenomenon of the number of dead bodies on display reducing as time passed. The reason for this decision to edit backward remains obscure, as also the reason for including a segment that the experts declared had happened at a different time or even, as one of them asserted, in a different place. They continued to claim that the shooting was all done on mobile phones, even though one of them pointed out that an optical zoom had been used at one point, a device it seems you do not find in mobile phones. Incidentally, Channel 4 refused to give even the UN any more information about the video, though this time it did provide them with the video that was shown.
And now, again with brilliant timing, to coincide with the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Channel 4 produces another film. Again they absolutely refuse to share the material with us, which makes a mockery of their claim that they want us to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for any crimes. Their refusal to provide the evidence for us to proceed suggests that their agenda is very different, as is indeed obvious from other problems that have been pointed out, namely that the film mixes up a range of shots, some of them obviously authentic, and uses these to make sweeping allegations which are not substantiated. I believe a sharp analysis of what was going on was provided in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks back, and there is perhaps little more to say, except to note that we will have to live with this type of sensationalism for a while yet.
But, for those of us who are keen on reconciliation, we need to understand what Channel 4 is up to, and why. Given the vicious nature of the attack, it is clear that it is serving a particular agenda, which obviously has nothing to do with morality, given its own record over the years, the support it has given for militarism when it benefits Britain, and its refusal to allow us a fair chance to discuss issues raised – as when they refused to see me after the first film shown, until shamed to do so by a comment I made on the BBC early morning programme.
That agenda can be understood in terms of what has already happened, in terms of providing an excuse for even more emotional attacks on us by the remnants of the LTTE propaganda outfits. Even before the programme was shown, letters were sent to many politicians, including even local Councillors, and we can see the results of this in the reactions of a few – though others, having seen the programme, have noted that it was quite one-sided. More insidiously, the programme was designed to stop active involvement in Sri Lanka of those members of the Tamil community who, free from LTTE pressure, were wondering what they could do to improve the situation of their brethren at home.
It is this polarizing that we must combat, because that would be the most helpful way of reviving the old LTTE agenda. It is even more important than before then, while roundly condemning the tactics of this divisive group, to be even more conciliatory with regard to the vast majority of the Tamil people, and make it clear that we will go on with rebuilding the country.
In this regard I will mention some of the positive things that have been achieved recently, and urge your support for taking things further. First and foremost we have begun taking practical action to overcome the divisiveness caused by insensitive language policies. Tamil was made an official language in 1987, but the introduction of compulsory bilingualism in the school system took place only in the nineties, with now regulations that make knowledge of the other official language mandatory for new recruits to the public sector. Much more however needs to be done, and that is why we are also reforming our education system, encouraging private institutions and input into tertiary education and skills training, strengthening the English medium option that was introduced in 2001, promoting opportunities for youngsters to meet and realize that they have much more in common than they had hitherto thought. But much more still requires to be done, and I hope that the diaspora will contribute to educational exchanges, to endowing scholarships at your old schools, to supporting training for youngsters who were deprived, in particular the former combatants who had to abandon schooling early when they were conscripted.
Another area in which reform has begun, but needs to be fast forwarded, is that of recruitment to the public sector, and in particular to the security forces. It is often ignored that minorities continue to occupy high positions in the armed forces, and in particular in training establishments where they were relatively safe from the particular animosity against them evinced by the LTTE, but certainly in the last few years recruitment has been less. With regard to the military, security considerations were involved, including the targeting by the LTTE of Tamil speaking officers, even during the so-called Ceasefire Agreement period, but there was still continuing recruitment in some areas, including to the Cadet Corps, for education as well as cadet training. Sadly the Ministry of Education seems to have prevented the Ministry of Defence from continuing with this programme, which had facilitated the commissioning of Tamil officers even while fighting was going on.
This is particularly important since we need the involvement of all our citizens in security activity. For we have to remember that, while the discrimination of the sixties and seventies led to the initial desire to leave Sri Lanka, this process was exacerbated by what I believe was state sponsored violence against Tamils on three distinct occasions following the election of the 1977 government of President Jayewardene. This government continued to be in favour with Western countries that have recently discovered a commitment to human rights, and more startlingly continued to be supported by even Tamils in Colombo, who were more concerned about class than race. That only changed with the attacks on Tamils in Colombo too in 1983. But previously the violence unleashed on less privileged Tamils, in 1977 in a few areas, and then in many more in 1981, had laid the groundwork for the deep emotions we see in so many expatriates.
I understand and sympathize then with those who left our shores, not only for economic reasons in the seventies, but for the disgusting attacks on Tamils in the early eighties, the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981, the systematic assaults of July 1983. Those have not been repeated, but we must appreciate why, in the confrontational approach those brutalities engendered, tensions continued. I believe that ensuring that our security forces are multi-ethnic is vital for restoring confidence, and government should fast forward programmes towards this end.
I should note that the police continued to recruit from all communities at all levels, and at the height of the war 700 odd officers passed out from the Training School at Kallady in the East. However, applications were few, given fear of the LTTE. Fortunately this changed after the LTTE in Sri Lanka was destroyed, and a few thousand applied, and a couple of batches of several hundred each have now been trained, and appointed, in particular to stations in the North.
The same applied to the public sector, and we believe there will be greater interest now that the threats that confronted so many bright youngsters in the past have been eliminated. But we need to enhance educational opportunites for youngsters, especially in areas from which there was never much recruitment to the public sector, given the neglect of education in those areas, the Wanni and many parts of the East. I am delighted that the present Government Agent for Kilinochchi is the first person from that area to have risen to such a high position in the public service, and her appointment to that area, after strenuous service in Batticaloa when that district was recovering after it was fully liberated from the LTTE in 2007, was suitable recognition of her dedication to the country in difficult circumstances. I can only hope then that efforts to resurrect the LTTE abroad, and to continue to argue for separatism, will not blight the ready willingness of youngsters in Sri Lanka, from the North as well as the East, to take their proper role in the government sector.
However, we need also to recognize that the orthodoxies of the sixties and seventies, when statist socialism reduced the size of the pie – so that everyone’s share, if increasingly equal, was decreasing in actual content, as John Rawls so tellingly put it in his ‘Theory of Justice’ – have given way to an almost universal understanding that the engine of growth and development needs to be the private sector. Though the excesses and the insensitivities of the crony capitalism that was the alternative, in much of Asia, to statist socialism in the seventies must be avoided, and we must continue with and develop the services that ensure equality of opportunity, education and health and infrastructure and utilities, we need also to ensure much more initiative, much more investment, much more support for entrepreneurship.
In this regard, I would like to mention an initiative undertaken with part of my decentralized budget. I have a particular concern for the former combatants, who were so brutally abused, but who have within a short period seemed to adjust, into the bright and energetic youngsters they would have been if not forced into combat by the LTTE. I had wanted to start a Primary English Training programme for the girls but. by the time I got my funds, all the girls had been released. The Commissioner General requested instead that some of the funds be used for a training programme in psycho-social care, with some of the former combatants being trained to use such skills in the Wanni area. That programme, conducted by a body based in London, including expatriate Sri Lankans, was concluded successfully, and sufficient funding has now been secured for a follow up. But I also wanted some skills training, and we decided therefore on an entrepreneurship development programme.
This was an eye-opener. Over a hundred former combatants applied, and thirty were selected, and proved extremely enterprising. You can see some details of the event, including the very heartening thank you speeches, on the Reconciliation Website, www.peaceinsrilanka.org – the very first articles on the home page, for which you have to scroll all the way down, since that was what I used first when I revived this website. But what also impressed me was the conceptualization skills. Asked to suggest areas in which enterprises could be set up, two groups chose agri-business, the two others construction.
This fits in well with what government has been planning, to make a much better and productive place of the Wanni, neglected for so long by successive Central governments, by the much more advanced entrepreneurs and educationists of Jaffna, and most shamefully by the LTTE who prospered there and did not permit modernization, advanced education or better services despite the funds pouring in from 2002 onward. The area is incredibly fertile and, with the irrigation schemes now being developed, it will provide abundant harvests. Indeed, even at the height of the war, the paddy harvest was excellent, and government actually purchased stocks from the area for distribution to the displaced, even though we knew that the LTTE would commandeer much of the payment.
We need however to ensure that the inhabitants of the area benefit from their labour, and not middlemen. To promote food processing and added value products is essential, and we believe the youngsters there can take on the challenge. But it would be helpful if they could be provided with start up funds, and I hope some organizations abroad will think of collecting funds for micro-credit schemes for the area.
With regard to construction, it must be obvious that, with the rebuilding going on, there are great opportunities for workers as well as suppliers. Unfortunately much of this now benefits people from elsewhere, but it will not take much to build on the vocational training sytems already started, while also developing management and accounting skills. In the short term, as well as in the long run, empowering the people of the area to participate actively in development is the only way of ensuring an equitable share of the prosperity the whole country should be moving towards, now that the terrorist threat, which blighted the Wanni in particular, has been removed.
I believe government has done extremely well thus far in the resettlement process, and in providing basic infrastructure, including schools, roads, water and electricity and better communications. It has also restored the local administration, led by extremely experienced Government Agents, some of whom did a superb job even while they had to work in areas controlled by the LTTE before 2009. The lady who ran Mullaitivu and supervised the distribution of supplies till just a few months before the conflict ended, is now in charge of Jaffna. One of her greatest achievements, it should be noted, was in conducting the national Ordinary Level Examination in December 2008, for the children too of those the LTTE had forced into going along with them in their retreat from the Western part of the Wanni. The LTTE asked that the examination be boycotted, but the people did not give in and, after some sporadic efforts at violent prevention, their will prevailed.
The gentleman who looked after Kilinochchi, and kept all services going right upto the time our forces took over the town, with hardly any civilian casualties, now heads the Secretariat in Mannar. The lady who was in charge of Vavuniya right through the period of conflict and displacement is still there, and ably developing new initiatives, while as mentioned Kilinochchi is looked after by the first senior member of the Administrative Service born and bred in that area. In Mullaitivu we have someone who previously worked in Mannar during the conflict, with first hand experience of the problems faces by the displaced.
However, while appreciating the work of these senior officials, we can do much better in developing human resources more comprehensively. With regard to the public sector this is true not only of the North, since the second and third layers of administrators nationwide, given the decline in communication skills and decision making capacities, are not as capable yet as the senior officials mentioned above. But we need too to develop local community leaders, and mechanisms for ensuring that the schools for instance have teachers as well as equipment, that in addition to the main hospitals we have midwives and social workers and child care officials to fill up the cadre positions that are now empty. Proper training, better deployment and more efficient monitoring are essential to ensure that all areas have proper access to services that are essential.
And, while affirming that government is responsible for ensuring the provision of such services, we need to develop private public partnerships to facilitate more effective delivery, whilst also developing simpler and more accessible structures of both responsibility and accountability. In the ongoing negotiations with Tamil political parties, we should also discuss the establishment of better structures at all levels, so as to ensure empowerment of the people, on whose behalf government functions. For too long now our debates have concentrated on the balance of power between politicians from different areas, whereas we should also be thinking of how power can be exercised effectively, with transparency and accountability.
For too long now, accountability has been to institutions dominated by those who need to account. In place of the confrontational politics of the last couple of decades, we need to develop structures that enhance bipartisan approaches to monitoring and policy development, even though decision making rests in the hands of those elected for the purpose. We have made a start on this with the much more healthy relationship between parties on the Standing Committees of Parliament, as I can testify with regard to the Committees on Public Enterprises and on Standing Orders on which I serve. We are also trying to strengthen the role of the Consultative Committees, and it is good to see members of all parties actively involved in at least some of these Committees and the positive approaches of the Ministers concerned when problems are raised.
I am pleased too that Government has now produced proposals with regard to a Second Chamber based on equal representation for Districts or Provinces. Though this is not a substitute for developing more effective structures on the ground to ensure the empowerment of people with regard to matters that affect them closely, it is also important to ensure a stronger voice for the periphery at matters that will be decided at the Centre. All parties agree that security matters, including financial and food security, need to be entrusted to a Central government, and it was a pity that previously there was no interest in ensuring greater participation of other interests in decision making in these areas. Active involvement of all segments of society in policy issues and decisions is essential, and it is a welcome advance that this too is now recognized on all sides.
It is also important to entrench rights as well as responsibilities and to ensure public awareness of the basic principles on which government and society should operate. At the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, we developed a Human Rights Action Plan, which was near finalization at the end of 2009. Unfortunately, with a series of elections, this was held up and then, with the assumption that Human Rights could be steered by the Foreign Ministry, some priorities were forgotten.
However the matter was entrusted to the Attorney General, who steered the principle through Cabinet last August, so that we were able to have final consultations with civil society and the officials who formed the steering committee. The final draft was then prepared by a special consultant, and it is now before Cabinet. Perhaps even more importantly, our Ministry was able in 2009 to get a draft of a Bill of Rights, as the President had pledged in his 2005 manifesto. That too was put on hold during the election period but, with the Action Plan recommending a dedicated agency for Human Rights, I hope that the Bill too can be finalized by that Agency and, after going before Cabinet, be entrenched soon in the Constitution.
But, apart from fulfilling these pledges which our Ministry managed to advance significantly even during the conflict period, it is also imperative that Government puts in place better communication strategies, in particular to convey information to, and respond to the concerns of, those who are not intrinsically supportive of Government. Much energy is expended on communicating with those who are appreciative of what is being done, and this is important since no Government should neglect those from whom it derives its strength. But it is more important to communicate also with those who have doubts, and in this area Government has much to do.
Distinguished academicswho have actually studied the situation on the ground have told us that we have a good story to tell, but we have not told it. After all, where else have nearly all the displaced been resettled so soon? This includes not only the near 300,000 displaced during the last few months of the conflict, but the larger numbers who had previously been displaced, those in the East being largely resettled within a year of displacement, those who had been displaced for upto two decades being also able now to return home if they wish, including the Muslims expelled from the North in 1990 by the LTTE.
The child soldiers who were finally rescued, after years of ineffective efforts to stop this ghastly practice of the LTTE, were given schooling in one of the best schools in Colombo. Orphans have been looked after in established as well as newly constructed institutions, as also by schools that have taken on the challenge successfully – in which regard I should note that support for such schools would always be welcome, along with support to educational institutions in the North that would like to expand the services they provide, to take in more of the Wanni too.
Infrastructure has been developed apace, and the East indeed has been transformed in the last couple of years with communications having opened the way to much more trade. More work in this regard remains to be done in the North but, with the rebuilding of roads and the railway, there will be greater exchange of persons as well as of goods. In this regard support for increasing exchanges between young persons would also be welcome.
I was pleased that one of the foreign journalists who interviewed me, having begun with what seemed a hostile approach, said at the end that there were many matters which were not known here. In one sense that is understandable, because the media obviously prefers bad news to good, since that is what people are interested in. But I believe it is also our fault that we have not communicated better, not only to the media, but also to all those who want a better Sri Lanka for all our people.
Now that the terror and violence in Sri Lanka is over, we need also to overcome the suspicions that remain. In Australia I was pleased that one member of a Sinhalese group that had worked hard against LTTE propaganda told me, after I spoke there, that though he found it difficult to trust Tamils, he realized the effort had to be made. I spoke too to Tamils there, and was pleased that many of them had also forgotten the suspicions of the past and wanted to work together for development of the country as a whole. But I realize that getting over their suspicions will also be difficult, and we in government need to work concertedly to reassure them, to engage with those willing to move forward. It is vital that those abroad, who can remember only the distant past, will not endeavour to revive tensions, but will rather visit the country and see what they can do to help, their people of course, but through that the country as a whole.
The people of Sri Lanka, all over the country, but in particular those in the North, suffered from terrorism, from forced conscription of children, from execution for dissent, from deprivation of services including the food we sent up to them. We need to make clear, if only to assuage the worries of those who watched with concern our overcoming of terrorists, that we did our best throughout for the civilians who were suffereing. It should be better known, for instance, that though the ICRC recorded its appreciation of the support our navy extended with regard to evacuation, that of the near 14,000 people brought down during the conflict, only 4,500 were wounded. There were a couple of thousand who were sick, while over 7,000 were described by the ICRC as bystanders. If the claims the LTTE made as to injured were accurate, it would seem that they did not send down some of the wounded for medical assistance, but instead sent down their chosen bystanders to safety.
It is likely that they were in fact lying about the number of those wounded, which would in turn mean that they had not just exaggerated, but grossly exaggerated, the number of those dead. But, given the way they treated the people of the Wanni, it is also possible that they deprived them of medical assistance and instead sent down their cadres to the relative safety of the south of Sri Lanka.
Such matters need to be carefully considered, with precise attention to the statistics maintained by various agencies, international as well as national. That will help in making clear the generally humane way in which government operated, as is evident from the written appreciations sent by the heads of both the UN and the ICRC. We need to do this soon, so that those who are genuinely concerned about the Tamil people in Sri Lanka will be able to understand what they went through, and help to recompense them for what they suffered in a militarized situation. But above all we need to make it clear that the participation of all our citizens, including those now settled abroad, will prove invaluable in the reconciliation, the rehabilitation and the rebuilding that we need swiftly to achieve.