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The dangers of denial

March 04, 2012


ALONG the way to the Bandarnaike International Airport on the outskirts of Colombo, I saw several large banners, placed over the road by the local council, imploring the USA not to “support terrorism”.

Over the emigration counter was a printed sign issued by the Immigration and Emigration Officers Union condemning meddling western countries for supporting separatism in Sri Lanka. In a local daily in the departure lounge, the cartoon on the op-ed page showed a unified island under the title of ‘No Devolution’; in the next panel, the country was fragmented into a dozen parts with the legend of ‘Devolution’ under the illustration.

So what’s going on? Why have so many fears about the unity and security of the country been raised simultaneously after the stunning victory over the Tamil Tigers nearly three years ago? One would have thought that after a long, bloody civil war and its brutally conclusive end, the ghost of separatism would have been laid to rest forever.

Clearly, the current campaign is officially inspired and choreographed, and has nothing to do with any real threats or fears. For the foreseeable future, the crushed and demoralised Tamils pose no danger whatsoever to the Sri Lankan state or its unity. This crude propaganda exercise is aimed entirely at the ongoing proceedings at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Currently, the 47-member body is considering a draft resolution circulated by the United States demanding that the Sri Lankan government properly investigate the many allegations of atrocities and flagrant abuses that were widely reported at the end of the civil war.

This is a very sore point with President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government. In its view, it won a hard-fought victory against an extremely violent terrorist group, the LTTE, or the Tamil Tigers, to use its better-known label. Instead of getting credit for defeating a separatist group that had caused mayhem across the country for 25 years, the government feels it is being unfairly targeted by western countries. The infamous ‘hidden hand’ often pops up in newspaper articles and editorials. Government supporters in the media – and there is no shortage of this breed – cite the many atrocities committed by the Tigers.

This is certainly true. The LTTE pioneered the use of suicide bombers as a tactical weapon, and carried out a string of terrorist attacks across the country that claimed thousands of lives. At the end of the war when it faced certain defeat, it used large numbers of Tamil civilians as human shields. Those attempting to escape the crossfire were ruthlessly shot in the back.While such brutal acts figure in a UN report, the document focuses mainly on the government’s final assault that sought to wipe out LTTE resistance, no matter how many innocent civilians were killed. One allegation relates to the shelling of makeshift hospitals that had been declared ‘no-fire zones’; apparently, aircraft and artillery pounded these areas, killing thousands of civilians in the process.

In their defence, government spokesmen have pointed out to the placement of LTTE mortars in the close proximity of these medical facilities. From here, they were shelling advancing Sri Lankan troops, and causing heavy casualties.

The reason the official position has been virtually ignored by the outside world is that no foreign observers or journalists were permitted in the war zone when this campaign reached its climax. Thus, the government narrative has been widely dismissed as propaganda. For many outsiders, the army’s tactics were best illustrated by its cold-blooded killing of LTTE leader Prabahkran as he and his lieutenants apparently tried to surrender.

Many gruesome images of the final moments of captured LTTE fighters being gunned down have surfaced, most notably in several Channel 4 documentaries. Others show civilian victims of the army’s final push to victory.

The government has always claimed that these digital images – often captured on cellphone cameras by Sri Lankan soldiers – have been doctored. But the UK-based TV channel insists that they have been verified by computer experts. Ordinary Sri Lankans mostly believe the official version, but we should remember that for decades, they suffered due to the hardships imposed by the war. Almost all majority Sinhala Sri Lankans consider the LTTE demands to be unreasonable, and the war unnecessary. Thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed and maimed. So to expect a sympathetic Sinhala audience for the UN proceedings is somewhat unreasonable.

I have often been struck by the parallels between the civil wars in Sri Lanka and Pakistan in 1971. Our army was accused of far worse atrocities in the erstwhile East Pakistan than any allegedly committed by Sri Lankan forces. And just as Sri Lanka does today, we simply refused to admit to the horrors our troops had inflicted on Bengalis 40 years ago. We were in deep denial, and continue to bury our heads in the sand to this day.

The big difference between then and now is that information is not so easy to control. In 1971, the military junta in Pakistan could censor the press at will, and had a monopoly on the electronic media. To a great extent, the Sri Lankan administration exercises similar restrictions, but it cannot control the Internet or satellite TV. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Sri Lankans prefer to swallow the official line. Ultimately, we all believe what we choose to, and in Sri Lanka, there is still a huge feeling of relief over the end of the country’s long nightmare. So most people do not wish to look too closely at the methods used to achieve victory.

The big difference between the two cases is that the Pakistan army was defeated after Indian intervention, and Bangladesh was born. People in West Pakistan could put the whole bloody episode behind them, and army generals could seek feeble excuses for the military disaster they had brought upon all of us.

The opposite has happened in Sri Lanka: the army won, but the Tamils are still there. There is thus an urgent need for reconciliation to avoid future ethnic conflict. Unfortunately, there are few signs of this happening any time soon.