Sri Lanka is losing the propaganda battle over war crimes

WHEN a sovereign nation has to respond to charges made in a TV documentary that screens in just a few countries, no matter how serious those charges are, then it has well and truly lost the battle to convince people that it is in the right.

Sri Lanka finds itself in this position after having, rather foolishly, decided to respond to a documentary made by Britain’s Channel 4 about alleged war crimes committed during the war against the Tamil Tiger separatist movement that ended in May 2009. (The programme is also available on YouTube; just search for “Sri Lanka killing fields”.)

The Lankan bid to refute the claims came a few days after Channel 4 broadcast even more evidence of Colombo’s complicity in war crimes – evidence given by two unnamed soldiers who went to the extent of claiming that the orders to kill Tamils en masse in order to get the war over with came from the country’s defence secretary, Gotabaya Rakapakse.

That Sri Lanka found it necessary to respond with an hour-long video is, in itself, evidence of the fact that the government is disquieted by the Channel 4 allegations made on June 14, in the programme titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. But Colombo’s effort at propaganda is rather tame, to say the least.

First, the government video is narrated by Minoli Ratnayake, a good-looking Sri Lankan woman with a British accent, a clear sign of the cultural cringe from which Sri Lanka apparently still suffers, 63 years after gaining independence from Britain. Someone with a Sri Lankan accent would have been far more credible. And when a pretty woman, nicely dolled up, with her head tilted to one side in what is a markedly patronising manner, is chosen to be the face of a programme when she has no experience as a news presenter, it is a clear fact that the people who put here there are trying to use her as a prop, to get past the initial resistance that any sane individual has to government propaganda. Channel 4’s Jon Snow will not win any beauty contests, but he has tremendous credibility as a newsman.

There are lots of irregularities in the government video. First, to numbers of Tamil civilians killed. The Channel 4 video made a claim that as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were slaughtered in the final days of the war. Gordon Weiss, the former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, was used as a source. In the government documentary, a figure of 305,000 is cited as being the official number of people in the war zone, the Vanni area, in January 2009. From that, by deducting in dribs and drabs, Ratnayake concludes that only a few thousand were killed. But tellingly, she quietly reduces that 305,000 to 300,000 before beginning her mental pyrotechnics.

The figure of 305,000 itself is dubious. Giving evidence before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, a body set up by the government to supposedly investigate the goings-on during the war, Bishop Rayappu Joseph of the Mannar Catholic Diocese, said there were 429,059 people in the Vanni area as of October 2008. His source was the Kaccheri Office (the government collector or district office). And given this, that figure of 40,000 which Weiss put to Channel 4 looks rather small – the number unaccounted for is well over 100,000.

Ratnayake claims that Weiss had every reason to take part in the Channel 4 programme and spruik his views as he was trying to promote an upcoming book – that, according to the government, is why he participated in the Channel 4 programme. Nonsense. The Channel 4 programme was screened on June 14; I had a copy of Weiss’ book, The Cage, in hand by May 26. As I live in Australia and bought the book from the UK (cheaper by far), I had to place my order about two weeks prior to that date. Promote an upcoming book? Hardly. By the time Channel 4 went to air, Weiss was sitting on a best-seller and he was called in to comment as a result of the book, not the other way round.

The government documentary also claims that a protest by Tamils at the UN office in Kilinochchi, begging the international agency not to leave the war zone, was stage-managed by Tamil Tiger militants who told the people in the area to protest. Channel 4 says this was something which the people did on their own. It is difficult to believe the government claim because it is bolstered by a Tamil from the area – any Tamil who was asked to speak and refused would have been well aware that not taking part would probably have resulted in disappearing in a white van some evening and being never heard of again. Too many people have disappeared in this manner in Sri Lanka ever since Mahinda Rajapakse came to power in 2005.

Ratnayake also tries to cast doubt on the bonafides of Vany Kumar, one of the people whom Channel 4 featured in the programme. According to Channel 4, Kumar is a London-based Tamil, a medical technician, who happened to be in Sri Lanka and got caught up in the conflict. According to the government, she was a member of a front organisation for the Tamil Tigers and landed in Sri Lanka at the beginning of 2008.

The government documentary parades a number of Tamils to speak in its favour – and in such glowing terms that it all looks like stuff made up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. One of these Tamils talks about Kumar being the head of the Tamil Youth Organisation women’s wing in the UK; here, it is a case of claim and counter-claim.

The rest of the documentary is taken up by telling the viewer about how vile the late leader of the Tigers, Velupillai Pirapaharan, was (true, he was a nasty piece of work) and dragging a number of ex-Tiger cadres before the camera to testify as to how good the government has been to them after the war. It all looks far too stage-managed to have any credibility. Sri Lanka’s government under Mahinda Rajapakse has a reputation for muzzling the press and even murdering journalists; given this, one has to take everything said by these Tamils with a kilo of salt.

What is clear is that, as the UN report into the war (PDF, 9.2 MB) claimed, both sides, the Sri Lankan military and the Tigers, were responsible for some outrageous atrocities. It is time for both sides to admit the truth and take their medicine.


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