the Blacklight Arrow

David Blacker’s Blog

Death by Any Other Name

The Sunday Times quotes the Prisons Department spokesman as saying that a new title is being sought to replace that of “hangman” as the negative connotations of the current title of the post is putting off applicants for the vacant spot. I have helpfully made up a list of possible designations for this job; feel free to add to it:

Life Terminations Officer

Permanent Citizenship Revocation Manager

Life Executive Officer, Prisons Department

Director of Lifestyle Suppression

Chief Operations Officer, Executions & Terminations

Terminal Penalties Officer

And my personal favourite: Director of the Division of Ultimate Solutions

May 4, 2014 Posted by | government, Life, Politics | , | 1 Comment

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

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 | 45 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 | , , , , , , | 21 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

Why does the Darusman Panel Ignore Evidence of War Crimes?

In June 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed a panel to investigate and and advise him on the possibility of large scale human rights violations in the closing stages of the war in Sri Lanka, primarily in the first quarter of 2009. This was done close on the heels of the UN Human Rights Council’s rejection of a call by advocacy groups for a full-scale international investigation. Ban appointed his Special Rights Investigator to North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, as the panel’s chair and, in April 2011, the panel released its report. This report has been variously viewed by the different parties. At one end of the spectrum it is seen as totally biased and unfair by the government of Sri Lanka, and at the other end as proof of genocide by the Tamil nationalists. Somewhere in the middle, most balanced observers have seen it as a scathing indictment against both the victorious Sri Lankan military and the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Certain international advocacy groups such as Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, and Human Rights Watch, then immediately mounted a media campaign accusing the GoSL of war crimes, and one particularly contentious issue is that in this campaign, the panel’s use of the phrase “credible allegation” has been replaced by that of “credible evidence”, giving the impression that the panel has evidence of war crimes committed by the GoSL. The recently aired Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, opens with this lie.

In reality, the panel uses the phrase only twice; in the positive, saying that it had credible evidence that superiors in the Sri Lankan chain of command were responsible for any violations committed by their subordinates; and in the negative, claiming to have no credible evidence of the LTTE’s use of human shields. Everywhere else, the term used is that of credible allegations. At no point does the Darusman Report reveal what evidence it examined, which portions were deemed credible, and which portions were rejected. Nor does it explain how an allegation was deemed credible, and whether this credibility was based on actual evidence, eyewitness testimony, or both. In spite of this, legal minds contend that credible evidence is necessary for an allegation to be termed credible, though it is unclear as to how the Darusman panel adjudged credibility.

Let’s take the statement by the panel that they cannot find credible evidence of the Tigers using civilians as human shields. This is what the report says:

“…With respect to the credible allegations of the LTTE’s refusal to allow civilians to leave the combat zone, the Panel believes that these actions did not, in law, amount to the use of human shields insofar as it did not find credible evidence of the LTTE deliberately moving civilians towards military targets to protect the latter from attacks as is required by the customary definition of that war crime (Rule 97, ICRC Study).”

Rule 97 of the Customary International Humanitarian Law, as set out by the ICRC, prohibits the use of human shields, and is based on a number of customary practices, international conventions, military manuals, and state laws which are cited in support of Rule 97.

Now, given that in addition to eyewitness testimonies to the fact, there exists video footage shot by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of the Sri Lanka Air Force which clearly show violations of Rule 97, the Darusman report seems to fly in the face of the actual evidence. Continue reading

June 16, 2011 Posted by | government, Politics, Security, War | , , , , , , | 29 Comments

Why I Boycotted the Galle Literary Festival

German university students give the Nazi salute in 1933 as they burn books by Freud, Einstein, Thomas Mann, Jack London, H.G. Wells and many others who were thought to have "un-German" ideas (www.thehistoryplace.com)

Two weeks ago, Reporters sans frontières (RSF), on the instigation of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), called for a boycott of the fifth Galle Literary Festival. They sent a petition around, and Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy signed up. So did a bunch of other idiots. In it, they called on international authors who had agreed to travel to Sri Lanka to abort their journeys, claiming that it was wrong for literature to be celebrated in a country that killed its journalists. Three authors did; South African Commonwealth Writers Prize winner Damon Galgut, Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, and Indian Man Booker winner Kiran Desai. The rest came.

It’s wrong to do many things in a country that kills its journalists. It’s wrong to laugh, it’s wrong to be happy, it’s wrong to have celebrations of any sort. Christmas, Avurudhu, and Valentine’s should be boycotted. But what is right is to celebrate literature. How could the RSF and JDS get this so wrong?

Supporters of the boycott variously claim that the Galle Literary Festival has failed to speak out against the Big Bad Wolf from Madamulana who likes to eat journalists for lunch. Him and his wolfpack of brothers. They say that participants at the festival haven’t done their bit to call attention to the disappearance of cartoonist and columnist Pradeep Eknaligoda, or the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunge, or even the killing of that Tiger, Dharmaratnam Sivaram. Last June, Sri Lanka hosted the International Surfing Association’s Pro 2010 event at Arugam Bay on the island’s east coast, in an area once dominated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Well, to paraphrase Colonel Kilgore, Tiger don’t surf, and he’s history now. Over a hundred and twenty international competitors from New Zealand to Germany and from the USA to South Africa participated. No one boycotted that. Next month sees the start of the Cricket World Cup, with Sri Lanka hosting several matches which will be watched by at least a billion fans worldwide. No one has boycotted that either. Perhaps the RSF and JDS think that surfers and cricket fans are too dumb to care about media rights. Continue reading

January 31, 2011 Posted by | government, Literature, Politics | , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Sinhala Only — Sri Lankan Government Abolishes Tamil Version of National Anthem

On Wednesday 8th December, 2010, the Government of Sri Lanka decided to do away with the Tamil language version of the country’s national anthem. The decision was made at the first cabinet meeting to be held since President Mahinda Rajapakse’s return from the Oxford Union fiasco. The unfortunate decision itself, as well as the timing of it, has resulted in much speculation as to whether it is an act of revenge for the British Tamil diaspora’s recent machinations.

The decision clearly isn’t grounded in any factual concerns — those voiced range from the inaccurate (no other national anthem is sung in more than one language — MR) to the absurd (India with 300 languages has a Hindi national anthem — Wimal Weerawanse). It is not surprising that Weerawanse, a man who was once hilariously unaware that The Old Man and the Sea was written by Ernest Hemingway and not Guy de Maupassant would be ignorant of the fact that the Indian national anthem is in Bengali, but I am surprised that President Rajapakse is unaware that nations such as South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand (amongst others) have multi-lingual anthems. What makes Weerawanse’s statement ridiculous, is that while it may not be possible to incorporate 300 languages into one anthem, it’s pretty simple to do so with two.

Excuses aside, there doesn’t seem to be any necessity to make this change. Traditionally, the Sinhalese version of the anthem is sung in Sinhalese-majority areas, and the Tamil one in Tamil-majority areas. There is an English version apparently, which I’ve never ever heard sung and which looks a bit cheesy, to be honest, when written down. Many Christian churches conducting services around Independence Day usually opt for WS Senior’s beautiful Hymn for Ceylon instead, set to music by Deva Suriya Sena. If the GoSL felt a need for some sort of standardization, the sensible (and sensitive) option would have been to have a verse in each of the official languages, with the majority language sung first, depending on the area. Continue reading

December 13, 2010 Posted by | government, Politics | , , , , , | 17 Comments

The Ban Panel — to Ban or Not?

UN Sec Gen Ban Ki Moon with SL President Mahinda Rajapakse

There’s been a lot of discussion and drama around the UN Secretary General’s advisory panel on Sri Lanka, it’s validity, necessity, and legality. These have ranged from newspaper editorials to street farce. Rather than adding my own narrative to this, I thought I’d reproduce some of the conversations that have been taking place online. This particular one emerged in the comment thread of one of Indi’s posts on the matter, and amongst other things, discusses Star Trek. The debate can be seen in whole on that blog, but I’ve just selected a portion of it that I think highlights some of the viewpoints, as well as a lot of the fallacies. It often gets off the topic, but in order to avoid being accused of manipulation, I haven’t edited any of the comments.

Mahinda: This whole mess was created by our dearly beloved Mahinda & Co. in the run up to the Presidential Elections.

Our General (who has a bit of a bad habit of speaking his mind sometimes, even when it may not be appropriate) mentioned to Indi’s boss, the Jansz woman, that he had information that our friend Gota issued a silly order to a certain Major General to “shoot any LTTE personnel, even if they were trying to surrender waving white flags”. The General went on to add that no such thing occurred on the ground, and that he himself took responsibility for actions of the Sri Lankan Army during the final stages of the war, as the serving Commander of the Army. I think the General was just getting involved in a spot of character assassination here, and to try and show the public what sort of man our Gota is, in his opinion. Our Frederica immediately got extremely wet, sensing an opportunity to flog a few more copies of her rag with a controversial exclusive. She wrote and published her infamous story, presumably omitting bits she felt would have lessened the impact of the controversy. The General and his media team, understandably upset, issued a correction, stressing that the General was certain, as a Commander who had direct contact and control with and over troops on the ground, that no acts in contravention of the Geneva Convention were committed by the SL Army. Frederica made some noises to the effect that she had a tape recording of the interview and that he actually said war crimes had been committed, but seeing as she has failed to produce the said tape, I suppose we can write this off as a little white lie.

Sunday Leader editor Frederica Jansz

Philip Alston also got wind of the Jansz woman’s controversial article, and was obliged to contact the Sri Lanka Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights regarding the article. The Secretary of the said Ministry at the time, (who was, unusually for a Secretary to a Sri Lankan Ministry, an Oxbridge educated, presumably intelligent man) promptly replied to Alston saying that the article was erroneously published and that the General had issued a correction claiming that no one waving a white flag trying to surrender was shot by SL Army troops.

However, Team Mahinda & Co. had other ideas-they retracted the reaction of the Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights and Disaster Management (which would have solved the whole problem) and turned the issue into a political drama to dupe the easily fooled masses. They even went as far to publish full page ad’s of a noose with the caption “don’t vote in the man who will send our brave soldiers to the gallows”. And lo and behold, the highest ranked serving Officer in the history of the SL Army, the man credited with ending the war, became a traitor who betrayed the country (this was similar to the process by which Ranil, the man who convinced Karuna to defect along with his eastern LTTE types, which weakened and lead to the defeat of the LTTE, became a “deshadrohiya”). Continue reading

July 23, 2010 Posted by | government, Politics, Security, War | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Wimal Weerawansa Ends ‘Fast Unto Death’: “I Might Die,” He Says

National Freedom Front parliamentarian and Mawbimay Pomenarian, Wimal Weerawansa gave up his death fast today after three whole days, citing health reasons. After sipping a glass of thambili, he ordered an ambulance which took him to the Colombo General Hospital Accident Ward, stopping on the way for a Sugar burger at Odel. Minister Weerawansa ordered a ‘chicken sugar daddy’, demanding that they hold the pickles, since they were unpatriotic.

Talking with his mouth full, Weerawansa claimed that he actually wasn’t ending his fast, but merely taking a break as the doctor had ordered. He also said that as the leader (and member) of the National Freedom Front he jolly well had the freedom to fast if he wanted to, and due to health reasons he would be fasting unto death for two days of every week until the UN Secretary General dissolved the advisory panel on Sri Lankan war crimes. However, he also stated that it was his right to fast every other day instead if he got a bit peckish.

All characters in this blog post are fictional, and any resemblance to an actual fast unto death is entirely coincidental.

July 10, 2010 Posted by | F&B, government, Politics | 8 Comments