the Blacklight Arrow

David Blacker’s Blog

To JR

You said I could preach Ahimsa after the war was over.
So I did as you asked.
I killed them all
For your Dharmishta Society.
Where is the Ahimsa
You promised…

August 29, 2013 Posted by | government, Politics, War | , , , , | Leave a comment

Build a Bridge, One Kevum at a Time — the One Plate Project

ads hand The One Plate Project is an initiative by Yamu and ad agency JWT to create a uniquely Sri Lankan practice online. During most religious and cultural celebrations such as the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, Ramazan, Thai Pongal, and Christmas, people of all ethnicities look forward to the celebrations, regardless of whether that particular festival is one relevant to one’s community or not. And there’s one simple irreligious reason for that — Sri Lankans love food. As a Christian Burgher, I look forward to Avurudhu and Ramazan almost as much as I do to Christmas because I know there’s going to be a load of great Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim food coming my way from the neighbours.

In multi-ethnic neighbourhoods — mostly in Sri Lanka’s bigger cities, it is considered a common — and neighbourly — practice to send your neighbours — especially those from other communities — a plate of food if you’re celebrating something. So at Ramazan, some biryani and wattalappam is pretty much guaranteed; sweets and milk rice will be loaded onto a plate for Avurudhu; and at Christmas, thick wedges of breudher are piled onto plates and dispatched to the neighbours. Everyone gets to enjoy everyone else’s party. What makes this doubly cool is the fact that no one wants to return an empty plate to its owner, so usually there’s a frantic scramble to find something tasty to fill that plate for its return journey.

This is precisely the experience the One Plate Project replicates in a virtual neighbourhood. Hosted on Anything.lk this Avurudhu, the project allows you the chance to buy a plate of food — ideally one belonging to your community — and have it delivered with a personal greeting to a random person from another community. In return, you yourself will receive a surprise plate of food from some other neighbourly stranger off the net. How it works is that one selects one of four plates, each belonging to one of the four major ethnic communities of Sri Lanka — Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, and Burgher — and pay for it. All plates are priced the same at Rs 500. That’s it. Your address will be saved on the site, and on delivery day you’ll receive something in return.

The project was launched by Yamu and JWT this New Year, and is planned to run throughout all the major festivals for a full year, culminating next year with the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. To simplify matters, the organisers have decided to stick to just sweets for now which are less perishable and therefore easier to deliver. They have also restricted the project to Colombo for now, but if all goes well we’re likely to see both the menu and the areas expand rapidly over the next year. For now, the Sinhalese plate consists of aasme, konde kevum, kokis, and thala karali; the Tamil plate has jelebi, rava laddu, sweet murukku, and boondi; the Muslim plate is actually a bowl of legendary watalappam; and the Burgher plate gives you the equally famous breudher.

Speaking to me, Indi Samarajeeva, one of the owners of Yamu, said that the “One Plate [Project] is an experiment to see if online food sharing can help bridge divides between communities. Sri Lankans traditionally share food at holidays with their neighbors. One Plate is an attempt to extend that behavior online.” At a time when Sri Lanka has been experiencing a new wave of ethnic tension, Indi went on to say, “We hope that people will take the chance to do something concrete to promote fraternity and goodwill among all the communities of Sri Lanka.”

Print

May 13, 2013 Posted by | advertising, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Our Moment of Destiny

I think every generation faces its own particular challenges; but the greatest and most defining ones are those of morality and courage. That moment, if missed, condemns that generation — and often many that follow — to a world far more unpleasant and evil than we would wish it to be. For many in the free world of the late 1930s, that moment came with the invasion of Poland and the bombing of Pearl Harbour. It was a moment when my grandfather’s generation had to decide if they would simply stand on the sidelines or go out and fight someone else’s cause. Fortunately for them, the choice was easy; their respective governments took the right fork, and millions of young men — my grandfather included — went out into the deserts, the jungles, and across the seas to ensure that tyranny and racism would not shape our world. For 1960s America, the moment of destiny was in fact a place — Vietnam — and a moral choice. America made its decision, albeit a little late for millions of Vietnamese.

But when that hour of destiny arrived thirty years ago in Sri Lanka, our parents’ generation failed us. For decades, they had watched as extremist rhetoric leveled at the Tamil community gave way to physical violence. They stood by as our constitution was changed to remove any protection the minorities had a right to under law. They were silent when the nation’s leadership was silent on the racism and hatred that was all around them. They did nothing when their elected politicians in fact helped instigate the violence that climaxed in the orgy of assault, murder, rape, and destruction now known as Black July. For thirty years we have wondered how our parents could have been so docile, so shortsighted, so wrong in their choices. We have watched our country torn apart by suicide bombers and child soldiers, by tanks and artillery. We have watched a hundred thousand die, because our parents didn’t say “stop!”

Thirty years later, the clock is back at five minutes to midnight; racists are calling for violence, for this country to be only for Sinhalese Buddhists. They are calling for a tiny minority to change their lifestyles or leave; they are calling for their right to worship to be curbed. And they are threatening violence if their demands are not met. Our government is at best silent; at worst in collusion. Our police force is standing by while Muslims are attacked. There are no arrests. There is no condemnation. There is no justice.

The last time this happened, I was eleven years old; an uncomprehending child. I grew up to wonder why my father who could ride a motorcycle through a wall of fire to get me home that July, hadn’t been able to stop what was done to the Tamils and to my country. Was he scared? Didn’t he care? I ask the same questions from myself today. Why am I doing nothing as my country heads towards the flames again. I ask it of my friends — especially the Buddhists — my colleagues, my girlfriend. None of you are racists, I think. None of you believe that Muslims must be persecuted and harassed. Why are you not speaking out? Why are you not protesting? What will it take? Or is there nothing that will drive us out of our homes and on to the streets to brave the thugs and the tear gas, the water cannon and the bullets? Have we no fucking shame?

I feel ashamed right now; ashamed of my government; ashamed of my friends; ashamed of my country. More than anything, I am ashamed of myself. I have never felt this way about my country, and I never thought I would, but I feel it now. And I hate feeling this way. In the worst of the war, I told myself that it wasn’t my fault; that I hadn’t chosen this war to fight. But this is now. This is me. This is us. This is our country and our moment of destiny is here. Why are we doing nothing?

April 2, 2013 Posted by | government, Politics, Security, War | 44 Comments

LIttle Talks by Of Monsters & Men

Hey! Hey! Hey!
I don’t like walking around this old and empty house.
So hold my hand, I’ll walk with you my dear
The stairs creak as I sleep,
it’s keeping me awake
It’s the house telling you to close your eyes
Some days I can’t even dress myself.
It’s killing me to see you this way.
‘Cause though the truth may vary
this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore.
Hey! Hey! Hey!
There’s an old voice in my head
that’s holding me back
Well tell her that I miss our little talks.
Soon it will all be over, buried with our past
We used to play outside when we were young
and full of life and full of love.
Some days I feel like I’m wrong when I am right.
Your mind is playing tricks on you my dear.
‘Cause though the truth may vary
This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore
Hey!
Don’t listen to a word I say
Hey!
The screams all sound the same.
Hey!
Though the truth may vary
this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore
You’re gone, gone, gone away,
I watched you disappear.
All that’s left is a ghost of you.
Now we’re torn, torn, torn apart,
there’s nothing we can do,
Just let me go, we’ll meet again soon.
Now wait, wait, wait for me, please hang around
I’ll see you when I fall asleep.
Hey!
Don’t listen to a word I say
Hey!
The screams all sound the same.
Hey!
Though the truth may vary
this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore
Hey!
Don’t listen to a word I say
Hey!
The screams all sound the same.
Hey!
Though the truth may vary
this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore

August 29, 2012 Posted by | Life, Love, music | , | 2 Comments

Chandraprema’s War – a Review of Gota’s War

Unfortunately, much of history is written by journalists. And Gota’s War is no different. If you’re looking for a military history of Sri Lanka’s war, this is not the book for you. In fact, that book has yet to be written. CA Chandraprema looks at the conflict through the lens of the media — the incidents and events that drew the newspaperman’s eye; albeit a rather right-of-centre Sinhalese nationalist newspaperman. Make no mistake, this is an important book; if for no other reason than that it is the first since the end of the war to cover the conflict in its entirety.

Chandraprema’s use of Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s truncated name in the title, and the description, The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka, is slightly misleading, giving the impression that the book is simply about the Defense Secretary’s role in the final few years of the war. In fact, what Chandraprema does is to use Gotabhaya as both a counterpoint and a parallel to the narrative, particularly in the early stages of the war, when Gotabhaya was a young SL Army officer. Gota’s War is both history and biography, but it is not a natural coupling, and Chandraprema’s attempt to do both in one piece, cripples the scope of the book as a historical work.

In order to keep Gotabhaya central to the narrative, Chandraprema is forced to keep the trench-level view of the war narrow, while looking at some events – the JVP uprisings, the political infighting between the Rajapakses and their opponents – with a detail that is superfluous to the war against the Tamil separatists. Naturally, because of this, the early military confrontations between the Armed Forces and the separatists is confined to descriptions of operations carried out by the Gajaba Regiment, the unit Gotabhaya served most of his military career with. Similarly, this focus on Gotabhaya naturally prevents him examining some of the other influential characters that a true history should have. This is particularly clear in the almost non-existence of Gen Sarath Fonseka in Gota’s War. When he does make a rare appearance, he is depicted, at best, to be a rather passive figure and, often, as a hindrance to the dynamic and practical defense secretary. Fonseka, in Chandraprema’s view, is a Montgomery to Gotabhaya’s Patton, plodding and rigid, petty and selfish. In this, the author has done both Fonseka and his book a great disservice, and is akin to writing the history of the Second World War and leaving out Eisenhower or MacArthur. Similarly, many of the other military officers examined – senior to Gotabhaya the soldier and subordinate to Gotabhaya the defense secretary – are largely those who had the most influence on him. While this is acceptable in a biography, it is certainly not in a history.

The converse of this is that Gotabhaya often disappears from the narrative for long periods, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when his character isn’t central to events. We have very little indication of Gotabhaya’s personality, or the motivations that drove him; almost nothing of Gotabhaya Rajapakse the man; beyond the most superficial of sketches. This too is a deep flaw in Chandraprema’s book. At the end of Gota’s War, we know hardly more of the defense secretary than we knew at the beginning.

Chandraprema has also come under criticism, both from within the SL Army and without, for playing favourites in his book; for focusing on the feats of certain military officers, unfairly criticizing others, and completely ignoring still others. I will not dwell on this because every author has his own slant and viewpoint, and is entitled to it. To examine motive would be to review CA Chandraprema rather than his writing, and that is not the point of this article. I have mentioned the treatment of Fonseka simply because it is so glaring and obvious a failing.

One thing Chandraprema can be certainly complimented on is his writing style. Gota’s War is 504 pages long, and looks rather daunting when first picked up. However, it is very readable even if you’re not a history buff. The prose is smooth and conversational, the chapters no more than half a dozen pages in length, as fast paced as a novel, and devoid of the stuffiness, cliché, and archaic language many Sri Lankan authors of histories and memoirs feel obliged to write in. Chandraprema even manages to infuse a certain amount of sardonic humour to his writing. The book is solidly bound, and the cover is attractive, if rather unimaginative. The book could do with some better maps, however, in place of the hand-drawn ones at the back, which give no indication of the frontlines, the Tiger- and government-held areas, or the direction of offensives described by Chandraprema. Continue reading

July 8, 2012 Posted by | Literature, Politics, Security, War | , , , , , , | 32 Comments

Parama Weera

One of the most iconic images of the end of the war in Sri Lanka. A soldier walks past destroyed vehicles in Mullivaikal in May 2009. The Vijayabahu Infantry calling card scrawled in the background is almost symbolic. The very last PWV of the war would be awarded to an NCO of this regiment.

The eyes stared expressionlessly back at me from the fifteen small pictures, some clear, and some blurred; reflections that only hinted at the men behind those eyes. But sharp or soft, they all looked so innocuous, so devoid of any indication of what they had once seen. So normal. To look into those fifteen pairs of eyes, to read their names on the Wall that held thousands of similar names, was to gain no hint of the impossible acts of bravery that their owners had committed. Acts that would now see them join the eight who had gone before. Twenty-three names for twenty-three men. Twenty-three individual acts of supreme courage, selected out of twenty-eight years of war. The faces were tucked away in the second page of the Sunday Times, and I stared back at them for awhile before reading the short paragraph beneath each. The words were trite, cliched, dry; unable to capture the struggle of courage over fear that must have dominated each man’s last moments; the pain, the heat. And of course, that ultimate singularity, as they stepped forward and died. Alone. That solitude was also what singled them out, along with their courage, for none of them had done what they did as part of a whole, or at the order of someone else. They had each decided alone to do what they did, each for his own reasons.

At this year’s commemoration of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government decided to award the Parama Weera Vibushanaya, Sri Lanka’s highest award for bravery (equivalent to the British Victoria Cross and the American Medal of Honour) to fifteen members of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces for courage displayed in combat and, almost without exception, conducted in the last two years of the war. Fifteen may not seem like a huge number, but to give you an idea of its significance, consider that since the PWV was established in 1981, it had been awarded only eight times in the twenty-one years that preceded the Cease-Fire Agreement between the GoSL and the Tigers. Therefore, for it to be awarded over a dozen times in two years is an indication of the intensity of the fighting after the CFA collapsed, and the sacrifices needed to destroy the Tigers; particularly in the last year of combat.

Front face of the Parama Weera Vibushanaya (left) and reverse (C Ameresekere)

The Presidential Proclamation of 1981 that brought the PWV into effect states that the medal is to be awarded for … individual acts of gallantry and conspicuous bravery of the most exceptional order in the face of the enemy, performed voluntarily whilst on active service and with no regard to the risks to his own life and security with the objective of safeguarding thereby, the lives of his comrades or facilitating the operational aim of his force.

The twenty-three recipients of the PWV are all men and, with few exceptions, young. These are not generals or admirals. They didn’t command thousands of subordinates, or carry out great acts of strategy that would be recorded in military textbooks. Usually, they were in charge of less than a dozen men. Sometimes, not even that; being the youngest and most junior soldiers in their units. Only eleven of them, less than half their number, were officers. Twenty of them were soldiers. Two were sailors. And one an airman. Twenty-one were Sinhalese, one a Moor, and one a Tamil. And all of them are dead. In the eighteen years since the PWV was first awarded in 1991, not a single one of its recipients has ever lived to feel that medal’s weight on his chest or test the military code that requires even the Chief of the Defense Staff to salute, without regard to rank, the wearer of that 32-mm wide crimson ribbon. Some died leading attacks that would drive the enemy back to ultimate defeat; but many died in desperate rearguard actions to ensure that their comrades and friends retreated to safety; and at least one to save the life of a politician. As many of them died to save someone as those who died whilst killing the enemy. Continue reading

May 28, 2012 Posted by | Security, Uncategorized, War | , , , , , , , , , , | 51 Comments

Pedestrian Crossings in Colombo

"Bi-directional" pedestrian crossings so that pedestrians won't bump into each other (Sri Lanka News Online)

A couple of weekends ago, on a Saturday afternoon, I was driving past the Apollo Hospital on the way to the supermarket and was approaching the pedestrian crossing opposite the hospital. Traffic was moderate for Colombo, and I’m doing around 30-kmph. A pedestrian gallops across the crossing in the usual I’m-Gonna-Cross-Here-So-Stop-You-Bastards stance necessary for using such crossings in Sri Lanka — arm, umbrella, or newspaper held up to catch attention, steely determined look firmly on face, brisk pace, etc. Elvitigala Road has three lanes in each direction with a center island, and I was in the inside lane, alongside the island, driving towards Kirillapone. I always try and stop for pedestrians on crossings and so I followed procedure and slowed to a stop.

The guy crosses in front of me, and as soon as he’s clear I start to roll. Just then, I notice a young woman about to step on to the crossing, three lanes away. She’s going to take half a minute to get to me, and I’m already on the crossing, so I just keep going. She crosses unhindered behind me and goes merrily on her way. So do I — or so I think.

I’ve barely gone fifty metres when a cop appears from beneath a shady tree and crosses two lanes of traffic, making cars brake and swerve, to flag me down. Puzzled, I steer across the centre and outside lanes to the pavement. Cop leans in on the passenger side and asks me for my licence. I ask him what the problem (actually, what his problem) is. He tells me that I did the right thing in letting the male pedestrian cross, but that I had violated the road rules by driving on before the woman had crossed.

I look at him in disbelief and point out that I didn’t hinder the pedestrian in anyway and that she had crossed without any problem. He says that this is not the point, and that it’s a violation he has to book me for. Now the cop speaking to me is the most junior of three, the other two — a sergeant and a sub-inspector — are still under the shady tree, watching disinterestedly.

Junior breaks off his conversation with me to flag down two more vehicles, clearly for the same offense as mine. While I wait for his return I see random pedestrians crossing the road without the aid of any crossing, dodging between vehicles, unencumbered by the presence of the guardians of the law. A hundred metres further on is the Park Road intersection, and I watch a bus run through the red light followed by a trishaw and a motorcycle that both do U-turns and head back past the hospital. The law enforcement trio cheerfully stop a van for driving across the pedestrian crossing.

Junior comes back to my car and demands my licence once more. I ask him if he expected me to have waited while every pedestrian who strolls up to the crossing has crossed, since it isn’t a light-controlled crossing. Junior shrugs and holds out his hand for the licence. I hand it over, pointing to the intersection and the fact that a bus is cutting across three lanes of traffic to turn onto Park Road, through a red light, of course. Junior feigns interest and squints into the distance. Then he tells me that he’s there to enforce the law where he is and not where he isn’t. I ask him why he doesn’t then position himself where dangerous offenses are being committed and not where minor violations are easy to detect. I suggest that maybe the shady tree is the determining factor, and he walks off to deliver my licence to the sarge. When he returns with the charge sheet I ask him if he isn’t ashamed of himself and the disgrace he brings to his uniform. I say it loud enough to see the sub-inspector’s jaw tighten. Clearly annoyed but unsure if my lecture is actually a violation, Junior drops the charge sheet onto my passenger seat and walks off to continue fighting crime. Continue reading

March 7, 2012 Posted by | cars, government | , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Speeding on the Southern Expressway

Me, speeding past a kovil

So on my sixth trip down the E01, they nailed me for speeding. It was actually a bit of a relief. Like a serial killer giving up to the inevitable. And I have been speeding. Probably still will. The relief came from finally knowing how they were going to catch me. I had been told they were installing speed detecting cameras, and on my last trip down south, I even saw cops standing by the road, mostly under overpasses, aiming speed guns at me. If they were going to stop me, they would have, since I was doing variously 130kmph, 140kmph, and 150kmph when I saw them. Obviously, they saw me first. And let me go.

Mostly, I wondered how exactly they were going to stop me. Flagging me down seemed impossibly dangerous, and I didn’t think they were going to give chase. I thought I was going too fast for them to visually read my plates and radio ahead, and I doubted that they had the technology to take a high-speed photograph and upload it to cops at the exits. In the end, it proved to be a bit of both the latter two.

My first time on the E01, I stuck to the speed limit for a full ten minutes, while cars overtook me. Then I got up to 140kmph and stayed there as long as I could, except when traffic or the sight of cops slowed me down. After several trips with nothing happening to stop me speeding, I realised I was on average faster than everyone else; I overtook everything placed before me, and nothing overtook me. Going down to Unawatuna this weekend, I took the usual precautions and nothing happened. Again. Coming back, traffic was moderately heavy, and I just kept my foot planted, doing the trip in 47 minutes. My slowest is 53 minutes, my fastest 38.

When I got to the Kottawa exit last evening, I saw a cop checking number plates in front of me. I’d seen this before, but not noticed anyone being charged. This time he gave me the good new: 128kmph at the 27th mile post. Aside from that being an embarrassingly low speed to be copped for speeding (I’ve been nailed for doing 140 on Baseline Road), I wondered where the Hell the 27th mile post was. I had slowed down on spotting a parked patrol car, and hadn’t seen a speed gun, but I guess that was it.

While I was waiting my turn to have my fine sheet filled out, other offenders unrepentantly inquired from each other what speeds they had each been clocked at. 138kmph was the winner amongst the half-dozen there, the champ unjustifiably proud. I sneered. I had passed him close to the Horana exit like he was standing still.

That’s where I found out how they nailed me. The police radio kept crackling and a voice would say something like, “Vehicle HA-1242, 28th milepost, 130kmph, silver car.” The cops at the exit would then write this down. Obviously, this was happening at all the exits north of the 28th mile post. I wondered what would happen if I challenged the charge. I’m guessing that they have some sort of camera attached to the speed gun — ‘cos no way they can read a number plate going by at that speed — and this picture would be produced in court if needed.

One improvement over the old system of cops flagging you down for these violations, is you get charged at the point of exit; so I only needed to go back to Kottawa to pick up my license, and not Aluthgama or somewhere like it was before. The fine’s a thousand rupees plus a hundred-rupee stamp. I sent a three-wheel driver today with the fine to the post office, and then to Kottawa to collect my licence. He charged me 1,500 bucks. So, 2,600 all told.

Also saw an Army patrol crossing the expressway while I was doing 150kmph. I saw them three seconds before I passed them. Luckily they were still in the oncoming lanes. In my rearview mirror I glimpsed them vault the center barrier. They were carrying a small sign about a foot in diameter which said “STOP”. Probably Vijayabahu Regiment. They always were idiots.

January 23, 2012 Posted by | cars | , , , , | 32 Comments

My Frankfurt Motor Show

The full line-up

The Mini Coupe's black alloys

The Frankfurt Motor Show is arguably the best such event on the planet. Unlike Geneva in March, and Paris in October, Frankfurt happens only once in two years, and gives visitors a chance to see new concepts as well as models that have been launched over 24 months instead of just 12. For a Sri Lankan, rarely getting the opportunity to see the world’s best in the steel and carbon, it was petrolhead heaven.

To make the experience even more unique, I was accompanied by Petrolhead Junior, aged 8. This would be our first car event together, a moment of great importance, even without the prospect of checking out the new baby Jag or sitting in an Aventador.

With just three hours to explore the show, we both knew what we wanted to see; so this post isn’t a comprehensive article on the exhibition, but a breakdown of what the Wee Man and I liked.

BMW

The Bavarian giant easily had the largest area to itself, practically the whole of Hall 11, crowding Rolls Royce and Mini into two small corners at the back. Even the Italian capos of Ferrari and Lambo didn’t get that much space. Hall 11 even had a track running just below the ceiling, and visitors watched spellbound as Beamers pulled out of their raised parking slots and roared — or in the case of the hybrids, hummed — around the track, only pausing in formation on the wide banked section behind the presentation stage.

New 6 Series

While BMW was giving its new 1 Series — including the highly praised 1M and various hybrid versions — top billing, I wasn’t really interested. I think the 1 is the ugliest Beamer ever made, and not even the 1M’s flared wheel arches can change that. The last M3 was still pretty popular with the punters, as was the Z4, but for me the new M5-led 5 Series and the gorgeous new 6 Series stole all the attention. I still like the looks of the old 6, but the slightly retro lines of the new one are just perfect, though that’s one big car, mind you. Hopefully we’ll see an M6 soon.

Hybrid fleet drives past the i8. Teutons worship in awe.

This was also my first close up look at the i8 concept, and with it was BMW’s new urban concept, the i3. The i8 is a petrol/lithium-ion hybrid 2+2 sports car that promises 0-100kmph in under five seconds, while the i3 is a pure electric city car that can carry four. Both cars are planned for a 2013 launch.

i3 electric city car

i8 sports concept

 

 

Mini wall wasn't so mini

Mini

I was never one for the Mini, particularly the new rendition, but the kid liked them, and I must admit that the John Cooper Works Coupe and the Countryman WRC racer do look the business; just not pretty business. Coupes should look pretty and sporty, and the Mini Coupe just isn’t. It looks like someone’s squashed a baseball cap down over its ears. Hopefully, future versions could iron that out, but it’s hard to see that happening without changing the overall proportions; and then it just won’t be a Mini will it? The 17-in alloys looked pretty cool, though. Another nice touch was the display of Mini accessories going all the way up the pierced steel wall, giving the whole stand a kind of grunge-pop feel.

JCW coupe

Countryman WRC with mini me

Continue reading

October 6, 2011 Posted by | cars | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Holes in the Darusman Defence — Examining the Probable Events

Last week, I attended a seminar conducted by the Colombo-based Marga Institute, a think tank devoted to studying and influencing human development in Sri Lanka. Marga is in the process of putting together a review of the UN Secretary General’s advisory panel report on Sri Lanka (the well-known Darusman Report), which will analyze several aspects of this document, including its legal credibility; the manner in which it makes its allegations and narrates the series of events that made up the final stages of the war; the recommendations of the report; and, very importantly, the impact all of this will have on the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka, via accountability and restorative justice. The seminar itself was to elaborate on the thinking behind the review, discuss the draft, and possibly include the conclusions of such discussions in the final review.

The seminar was therefore conducted in a series of panel discussions, each looking at a different aspect of the Darusman Report, and each made up of experts in that area. I was there mostly because I was part of the panel looking at the allegations made against the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in their conduct of the final operations to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. With me was Arjuna Gunawardene, a defence analyst, writer, and expert in suicide terrorism, and the session was moderated by Asoka Gunawardene of the Marga Institute. While this session began with presentations by both Arjuna and I, it focused around a series of key questions that we had been asked to examine. What I’m now going to do in this blog post is present our view in the form of a Q&A that will include our presentations and the questions that were subsequently put to us by the moderator and the other participants.

In the Darusman Panel’s account of the last stages of the war, and the events that lead to the allegations of war crimes, is the panel’s account complete, or if not complete, adequate, and has it been able to access all sources of information that are essential for coming to fair and just conclusions concerning the events and actions?

The account is certainly not complete, nor adequate, if it is taken as an objective narration of the events. But I believe it isn’t meant to be so, and is a document comparable to a policeman’s request for a search warrant, which sets out to show sufficient suspicion of guilt. However, since the report has been released to the public and is being treated and used as a historical account, its biases and subjectivity must be brought into account.

To be fair and objective, the panel would have needed to interview combatants as well as eyewitnesses to ascertain motive for some of the acts which are alleged to be criminal. It would need to examine the actual scenes of the crimes instead of merely examining photographs. Therefore, in Part I of the report (Mandate, Composition, & Programme of Work), Section D (Interaction with the GoSL), paragraph 22, the panel says that visiting Sri Lanka “was not essential to its work”, thereby confirming that an actual investigation was never its intention.

In spite of this statement, the laying out of the events takes the form of a narrative or historical account, suggesting that it is fact rather than allegation. Footnotes are given to previously documented statements or reports, but there isn’t any indication of where the other information came from. It is, of course, understandable that witnesses cannot be named at this stage, but it is still necessary to indicate what the capacity of an eyewitness was. Was he or she a civilian IDP, an NGO worker, or a journalist? Often, allegations of the use of artillery, cluster munitions, white phosphorous, etc are made without any indication of the source, or what expertise that source may or may not have in determining whether these were indeed the weapons and munitions used.

This is compounded further in the Executive Summary of the report which, for example says in the section Allegations Found Credible by the Panel, “Some of those who were separated were summarily executed, and some of the women may have been raped. Others disappeared, as recounted by their wives and relatives during the LLRC hearings.” By lumping together the unattributed allegations of rape and execution with those made by identified witnesses before the LLRC, the report gives the rape and execution allegations a higher credence which they may not deserve. There are many such similar examples, and it is a strategy subsequently used by the Channel 4 “documentary” Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, in which footage of identifiable Sri Lankan soldiers committing shocking but non-criminal activities is shown alongside footage of unidentified persons committing obviously criminal acts, thereby implying that all the acts shown are criminal ones committed by identifiable SL Army personnel.

Has the panel examined all possible explanations and interpretations of the events and actions before coming to its conclusions?

The report analyzes certain events and draws conclusions which often do not take into account factors that the report itself acknowledges elsewhere. While legally, the actions of the Tigers may not have any effect on the culpability of the Government of Sri Lanka or the SL Army, in a report which must examine motive, this refusal to examine the impact of Tiger actions on those of the GoSL and the SL Army is indicative of an unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility that there might be motives other than those alleged by the report.

For instance, in the Executive Summary’s conclusion to the allegations, it says, “the Panel found credible allegations that comprise five core categories of potential serious violations committed by the Government of Sri Lanka: (i) killing of civilians through widespread shelling; (ii) shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects; (iii)denial of humanitarian assistance; (iv) human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict, including both IDPs and suspected LTTE cadre; and (v) human rights violations outside the conflict zone, including against the media and other critics of the Government.”

It then goes on to say, “The Panel’s determination of credible allegations against the LTTE associated with the final stages of the war reveal six core categories of potential serious violations: (i) using civilians as a human buffer; (ii) killing civilians attempting to flee LTTE control; (iii)using military equipment in the proximity of civilians; (iv) forced recruitment of children; (v)forced labour; and (vi) killing of civilians through suicide attacks.”

However, there is no attempt to acknowledge the fact that allegations against the Tiger such as “(i) using civilians as a human buffer” and “(iii) using military equipment in the proximity of civilians” would contribute hugely to “(i) killing of civilians through widespread shelling” and “(ii) shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects”, as the SL Army is alleged to have done.

It is on very rare occasions that the Tiger actions are specifically mentioned in relation to SL Army action. For instance in paragraph 79 of the report it says, “During the ninth and tenth convoys, shells fell 200 metres from the road, and both the SLA and LTTE were using the cover of the convoys to advance their military positions,” and then goes on to say in paragraph 86, “The LTTE did fire artillery from approximately 500 metres away as well as from further back in the NFZ,” without acknowledging that it was this very tendency of the Tigers to fire artillery and other weapons from close proximity to the civilians that was bringing in counter-battery fire 200 metres away.

500 metres is not a huge distance in such a restricted battle space, and it is very possible for even a single shell, or two or three, that could have devastating effect on concentrated civilians, to fall 500 metres off target. One or two shells could kill and injure a hundred civilians, and seem to indicate deliberate intent even when it isn’t so intended. Continue reading

July 25, 2011 Posted by | government, Security, War | , , , , , | 23 Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 54 other followers