Our Selective Moral Outrage

There’s a Facebook post doing the usual rounds calling for the United Kingdom to try/extradite/spank Adele Balasingham, the widow of former Tiger theoretician Anton Balasingham. At various times, Mrs Balasingham was recorded handing out cyanide necklaces to Tiger child fighters, and otherwise encouraging them to be little terrorists. The individual preambles and comments that this post is accompanied by claim that the London and Manchester attacks are karma, that the UK is reaping what it sowed, and other assorted quasi-religious proclamations that are gleefully typed out as fast as a keyboard can endure. The post has a tone of righteous … Continue reading Our Selective Moral Outrage

Does Islam Provide a Stronger Identity than Sri Lanka does?

Recently I’ve begun to notice once more a particular sort of post cropping up on my Facebook timeline, most often posted, “liked”, or shared by one of my FB friends. Almost all of these posts are by Sri Lankan Muslims (most of my Muslim friends are Sri Lankan); almost, I say, because the rest are by non-Muslim social workers or activists who are generally anyway more interested in this particular topic than most. The event that seems to have sparked this flurry of posts is the ongoing escalation of the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians. The … Continue reading Does Islam Provide a Stronger Identity than Sri Lanka does?

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 Continue reading Death by Any Other Name

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

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

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 … Continue reading Our Moment of Destiny

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

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 “Why does the Darusman Panel Ignore Evidence of War Crimes?”

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 “Why I Boycotted the Galle Literary Festival”

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