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"Is the World Ignoring Sri Lanka’s Srebrenica?"

The New York Times blog, Lede, carries a post authored by Robert Mackey, under this title, seeming to want to up the ante on MIA and Arundathi Roy's wild accusations, that others, like Indi.ca, have taken up. The post itself is that familiar mixture of sanctimoniousness and bad reporting, the so called 'free press' has been quite liberal with for a long while, especially in relation to Sri Lanka.

But even more remarkable is the 'balance' that emerges from Mackey, when he is challenged in posted comments. One of the most reasoned comes from "DJ" who writes:

As a photographer who has shot the war in Sri Lanka, I find it frightening that you associate the situation there with Srebrenica. The war in Sri Lanka is horrific and there is plenty of blame to go around for both sides. The tens of thousands of civilians held by the Tigers and shelled by the government are innocent victims. But Srebrenica was genocide planned and executed by Bosnian Serbs to murder innocent Bosnian muslims. They were lined up and shot, a la the Eisengruppen. The Sri Lankan government has no desire to murder the Tamil civilians trapped on the beaches of Mullaitivu. It has a reckless disregard for their lives. This is bad. But it is not the same, not even close.

Saying that the American fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, designed to murder civilians, were on par with Nazi death camps would be ridiculous and offensive. But it is no worse an analogy than between the premeditated ethnic cleansing of Srebrenica and the murderous crossfire of Mullaitivu. We should be very careful making analogies with genocide. The slippery slope of relativity can confuse war crimes with war. Maybe war is a crime. But even so, we need a word for the worst of the worst, and as horrific as the situation must be for those civilians right now, it is not, and hopefully never will be, Srebrenica.

It reminds me of Michael Roberts recent, and more sophisticated attempt to think through the question of war and its victims in a historical frame; he was of course shouted down, even though his arguments had merit. Mackey on the other had is so illogical in his response, that is seems disingenuous.

[DJ, The blog post cites a statement by our reporter in India that the rebel group's treatment of civilians is clearly wrong -- that they "have effectively held them hostage as a civilian shield" -- but the comparison here is to similar "pockets" or enclaves packed with civilians trapped by fighting in Sri Lanka now as in Bosnia then. I worked in Bosnia for the UN during that war and it seems to me that Channel 4's Alex Thomson, and our headline, is not making a judgment as to the relative rightness or wrongness of any of the combatants in either war, but only of the horrifyingly similar situation the civilians find themselves in. -- RM, Lede Blog]

In any reasonable use of language, that is historically and politically sensitive, Srebrenica is a code word code for a deliberate civilian massacre, and has been deemed to be genocide, by the International Court of Justice. There were perpetrators and victims in that example; and justice was demanded and obtained. Surely this is not a word to thrown around, because Mackay and Sen Gupta are 'horrified.'

This is an extremely poor comparison, that holds no water or weight, and Macky's qualifications raise questions either about his judgment, or motives. Or is it just that the meaning of "Srebrenica" is being re-made here: it is now to mean, "oh the 'Horror, the Horror'" in the Heart of Darkness, every where, that natives have (re)made, half naked in loin clothes no doubt, after the good white folk left.


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Reader Comments (12)

I posted a further clarification of what the question asked in the headline of the blog post I wrote means to many journalists and aid workers who were in Bosnia at the time that Srebrenica was allowed to fall. You can read that addendum to my post, and accept that the word means different things to different people, or not, but I find your wild accusation that some sort of racism is behind what I wrote really baseless. You really have no idea what my background or perspective is, and yet you feel comfortable launching into this personal and insulting attack on me and hinting about my "motives."

People who were very close witnesses to the failure of the United Nations to protect the U.N.-designated "safe areas" in Bosnia may have a different perspective on what happened there than people who were not, but to assume that the only possible meaning of the word Srebrenica now is shorthand for "genocide" is beneath someone of your education.

I have one bias here: against the killing of innocent civilians in any war zone. And maybe a second one: against the allowing of it by the international community. But having grown up partly in Northern Ireland and lived and worked in former Yugoslavia with refugees from the conflict during it, I am aware that it is hard to say anything about a conflict like this without being misunderstood by some or most people deeply invested in it.

Lastly Srebrenica is not in fact a code word for genocide: it is a place, with a history that has many different meanings for many different people. If that were not so, it would not have ended up being the site of a multifaceted tragedy.
April 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Mackey
Mr Mackey

Firstly, thank you for bringing attention to the conflict in Sri Lanka which as you rightly point out has received little of the world media's attention in the two and a half decades in which it has been going on.

Further to your blogpost, the update dated 18 April and your comment here there are two issues which I would like to take up.

Firstly, you suggest that the word 'Srebrenica' has acquired two different meanings, one "as a symbol of a massive failure of the international community to protect civilians in a war zone", the other as a term synonymous with a horrific act of ethnic cleanising which was part of a systematic, government supported attempt to wipe out a race of people. I am sure that as you point out many journalists, aid workers and others who were in Bosnia at the time and had a close and detailed understanding of the events would understand each of these meanings and interpret your post on Sri Lanka with that knowledge in mind.

However as someone who was not personally connected to that situation and who gets her news from several established news sources including the NYTimes, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Times and the BBC and has an interest in international affairs, the first thought that comes to mind on reading the word 'Srebrenicza' is that of ethinc cleansing. Though it is understood that there are other facts and histories associated with the town, Srebrenicza can not at the moment be completely divorced from that horrific act (particularly in view of the recent capture of Radovan Karadzic). I would venture that most other interested, unconnected readers will be struck with that same association on seeing your article. As a journalist who writes for a wider audience (and not simply journalists, aid workers and others directly involved in the reported events) it would have been prudent for you to keep this in mind and to have given some thought to the parallels you were drawing.

Secondly, at the risk of nitpicking, the wording of your title - 'Is the World ignoring Sri Lanka's Srebrenicza?' - appears in itself not to reflect the first meaning mentioned above. If the word 'Srebrenicza' as you say itself encompasses the international community's indifference and failure to act then it would be repetitive and gramatically incorrect to ask whether 'the World is ignoring' it.

I apologise for the persnickety comments, but as a journalist you must have a more than clear grasp of the power of words and the potency of a catchy headline. If you are targeting an audience beyond the involved and already knowledgable journalistic and aid community then you must give some thought to the information you disseminate and the impression (false or not) your words create.
April 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterB Kularatne
Mr. Mackey Where were you during the Iraqi Srebrenicza and Afghan annihillations that continue to date?
April 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSome Jokey
Mr. Mackey, thank you for bringing this story out. The mere fact this pseudo Tamil-namish sounding guy is commenting on this blog from within srilanka is testament that he is a 'servant' of rajapakse like douglass, karupi karuna and his cohorts. it is sad. Mr Mackey please keep highlighting the GENOCIDE of Tamils by the sinhala dominated government of sri lanka.
April 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlways a Tamil
Srebrenica means: a large group of innocent civilians, trapped in a small area in the middle of a war zone, that the outside world failed to protect.
That is the horrific reality of the Tamil civilians, 330,000 of them living in 20sq km being bombed , and killed.. the wounded without medicine and the people starving to death. The documentation is there. What kind of govt kills its own civiilians? Saddma Hussien, govt of Myamar, Pol Pot of Cambodia. Hitler. and the govt of Sri lanka.
The selfish desires of the geo politics ie,China and India and the US veying for a port on the Indian Ocean has left the govt of Sri Lanka free reign to conduct thier ethnic cleansing , and genocide with impunity. Rajapksa, was elected on his platform of the "final solution" to the Tamil people.When will the interantional community and the UN move in to insist on an immediated ceasefire and negotiations between the SLgovt and the LTTE.? Only then will this insanity stop.. If the govt of SL refuses the ceasefire offered by the LTTE, then all civilized countries should immediately begin sanctions. OR have politices and greed finally overtaken our humanity? I hope not, because to witness another holocaust,: the distruction of the Tamil people,: and not do anything about it , makes YOU complicit with genocide.
April 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDr Shander
Mr. Jeganathan,
You are a disgrace to humanity--what has been happening in Sri lanka in the name of counter terrorism has been horrendous. I don't see any critcism from you about Lsantha's murder, Tissainayagam's incarceration. Your former collaborator, Qadri Ismail, can teach you a thing or two about the country you live in.

Mr. Mackey's honorable intention to speak out for the innocent civilians caught up in this mad war should be supported and encouraged. People like you who nitpick on his arguments, while thousands of innocents are being slaughtered, are pure evil. And you should be ashamed of your Tamil name.
April 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAgnos
"... is not making a judgment as to the relative rightness or wrongness of any of the combatants in either war"

is effectively denying the halocaust of Srebrenica.. wheres the uproar?
April 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTheWhacksteR
RM: thank you for responding. I will post two replies, one a 'follow up post' and another 'stand alone post' (I'm still learning the blogging interface on this site), over the next two or three days. But in brief, what I hear you say, is that you regret the unqualified comparison with 'Serbrenica' and so we no longer disagree on the main point.
BK: you make a subtle and elegant second point -- which I should have seen, but didn't. thank you so much!
W: the same.
Angos: Have you really read Unmaking the Nation that I co-edited with Qadri Ismail? The book taken as a whole is an unpacking of the logic of nationalism, and there are three chapters which examine the oppressive logic of Tamil Nationalism. It came out in '95 Its out again, in an international paper back edition, so you might want to take a look.
On the assassination of Lasantha, and the incarceration of Tissa, others have written eloquent poems in condemnation; what comes to mind first are the poetry of Jean Arasanayagam, and Malinda Seneviratne. One the subject of journalists, should also remember the killing of Sivaram, which Whiterker has addressed in his biography, and of Richard de Zoysa, which Wijesinha has in his on the subject. I have little to add. This is just a one person blog, and I just started blogging frequently. Earlier what was blogged were print published columns. So I've not covered very much. But I have a longer post today, that perhaps gives a more comprehensive sense of my understanding of where Sri Lanka is, right now, politically.
Misc: there are some other comments, that I won't be replying to :) But on my name: I like my name; its my father's name, and if you don't mind, I'm keeping it.
April 22, 2009 | Registered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
Strange as it may be in the modern world, we at last have success story in the war against terror.
The sovereignty of Sri Lanka is complete and rebuilding can begin.
Sri Lanka are you ready?
Go to Sri Lanka, every one!
April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGo to Sri Lanka
I can't understand how all this grand scale branding with places like Srebrenica is going to help. In a war there will be casualties. I think Sri Lanka did its best to avoid civilian casualties.

The foreign press went on and on about the Army firing into the No Fire Zone, without even mentioning how the LTTE got in there or in the beginging rejecting the faintest idea that LTTE was holding the civilians by force.

They continue to talk of the Tamil genocide which started right after the British left. I don't think it would take 60 years for a population as big as the Sinhala population to finish off all the Tamils, if what has been happening is like in Srebrenica or other places they talk about.
September 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSureney
Quite so, Sureney. The lack of balance, and the mis-representations of history in the international press, were and continue to be appalling.
September 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan

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