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A reply to "An American and an outsider"

While I was drafting a longish reply to my interlocutor, Robert Mackey, of the New York Times, who was polite enough to reply my previous blog post about his own post, "is the world ignoring Sri Lanka's Serbrenica?" -- I found two other posts by him made even more recently. They both simply add confusion not clarity to the issues in Sri Lanka, but are less sensational than than the Serbrenica one.  One recent post called "Two Sri Lankas Struggle To Tell Their Tales" made one reader, Jonathan, respond this way:

As an American and an outsider without intimate knowledge of what is going on - in part b/c of the media blackout - I am perpetually confused. It seems clear to me that many horrible things are going on, probably on both sides. But I caught a snippet of something that apparently the Sri Lankan government has massive interment camps on the order of 100,000s of people. This seems utterly shocking and it seems to me that it is incumbent upon news organizations like the NYTimes (to which I have subscribed for more than half of my life) to get the story in spite of the government. It seems to me that this is a major angle to this story and that I would like a less biased source than the massively biased Sinhalese or Tamil sites. My impression is that the Tamils may in fact have a valid genocide claim against the government, but I am nervous about this without a neutral group to back it up. The NY Times or BBC would do well to provide such reports. I think it is only b/c these are dark skinned people in a far away country that we cannot about read this from reporters in spite of the media bans. If this was a corner of Europe the will would be there from the western media.

I was tired and going to bed, but some thing in me wanted to respond. So I did, and it is long. I hope it helps someone. It has helped me think a few factual points through.


I'm a 'dark skinned' person who lives in Sri Lanka. I'm also a social anthropologist who has studied violence and its aftermath in my country for 15 years. I'm sorry that neither the New York Times nor the BBC --both of which I follow closely -- (I'm a more recent reader of Mr. Mackey’s remarkable blog, which I have had one previous occasion to comment on) really gets any where near what's happening. Its really nothing to do with access, as they claim, since I don't have any more access to the actual war zone, than they do. But there is an enormous amount of information that is available in the Sri Lankan press, TV, blogs (from all over the world) and yes, International News media, which contain both news and analysis. (I also talk to people, which any one can do on the phone or skype.) In fact, all the newspapers I read, are available on the web, and I think the TV stations I watch have podcasts also. If you actually have the background on Sri Lanka, and take time to consult people who can sift through the ideological claims of all this media material, including the ideological claims of the Times and BBC, (and I would have thought well paid, sophisticated journalists would do this) -- a clear picture of what is going on emerges.

Here is a snap shot:

While it is more than true that both the British colonial government that ruled the country, from 1815-1948, and the independent governments of Ceylon (1948-1972) and Sri Lanka (GoSL, 1972, onwards) are responsible for enormous atrocities – including pogroms, collective punishment, enforced disappearances, mass executions and torture-- some of which, in recent decades, the so called international community has been seriously implicated in several ways, there is not, on my view, at this juncture, a genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka or a will for such a project within the ranks of the GoSL. Nevertheless, this claim is made constantly, and this is how I unpack that claim: There was a large number of people (100,000+), who had been corralled into a small strip of land, by the LTTE (also known as the Tigers), on the north-eastern coast of the country. This corralling was done, by the LTTE, as they lost territory, over a period of months, and GoSL engaged the Tigers. Much of the battles were what are called ‘set pieces,’ in World War II terminology. During the last month of fighting, as the LTTE was pushed back to the North-East coast, the LTTE continued to corral civilians. As the population density of the battle zone grew, the GoSL designated a small portion of the much larger LTTE controlled area a ‘no fire’ zone. The LTTE, then as they lost conventional ‘set-piece’ battles with the military, and lost more territory pulled back into this very 'no fire zone,' taking civilians with them, and called for a ceasefire. Perhaps an astute military tactic, since the LTTE has always managed to re-group, re- recruit and re-arm during previous ceasefires, but indescribably inhumane. (I am yet to see the New York Times or the BBC really get this point, even though it's easy to work out!) While it is certainly true that the GoSL has shelled this zone several times, I am persuaded by a close reading of events, that considerable care was exercised, to minimize civilian casualties, after frontlines moved to the edge of this zone. Nevertheless many many civilians have died, I would say approximately 3000, at the hands of GoSL. This is an enormous tragedy, but there is little evidence of what might be called callous disregard for human life.

It has also been confirmed that the LTTE was coercively, with beatings and shootings and even suicide bombers that mingled with fleeing people, prevented an exodus from the battle zone, which they had created from the ‘no fire’ zone. All through this time, the GoSL, through an arrangement with ICRC, provided food via ships to the corralled, trapped people, even though much of the food was confiscated by LTTE cadres for their own use. Some medical supplies got through as well, even though crucial supplies have run out; all medical service personnel inside that zone are employees of the GoSL health services, and have been trained in Sri Lankan universities, which charge no fees. None of this ever really makes the NYT or the BBC.

Given that the GoSL realized they were at an impasse, after two, 2-day pauses in military action had failed to see any movement of civilians out of the battle zone, they pursued a daring operation. As of yesterday, the 58 division, (in a coordinated operation with the 53 division which made a feint to the south, foxing the LTTE), exploded a section of the long earth bund the LTTE had built on the edge of the no-fire zone, and went in, securing a strip of land across it, right to the beach, and calling with loud hailers for people to come through. As they held the Tigers at bay, thousands poured out. As of this moment, more than 60,000 people have come through, both by land and by sea. It is important to understand that this military operation, and others previously, have cost many many lives of GoSL forces, even though casualty numbers are censored. These soldiers also have young wives and children, mothers and fathers.

The 60,000 people who have come out, will join others who have made it out earlier. (Update, 23/04 Thursday: more than 100,000 people have moved out, leaving perhaps 15,000 still in the LTTE Zone) The IDP camps, where displaced are being sheltered, are not ‘concentration camps.’ There are, however, serious questions about the constitutional right of free movement being restricted, until an ‘identification and registration’ process is completed, and I expect the Supreme Court to be moved on this matter soon. The Court has intervened several times earlier in relation to GoSL counter-terror policies and process, finding some un-constitutional and others not. The Court may well allow the ‘registration’ process to take place, if the registration process can be defined as time bound, as it surely can. I do not know. Freedom of movement in the country is already restricted, and is subject to identification checks. This happens to you at an airport all the time, for example, but there are lots of questions that are raised when it happens within your country of citizenship. I have written about this several times, questioning it, but the matter is currectly not accedemic, as such, since there is a clear and present danger that a small portion of the refugees might well be hard core LTTE cadres. Since there are larger number of people invovled, even a small portion may be a very serious matter. As I understand it, if a person does admit to being such a cadre, but asserts that s/he no longer wishes to follow the LTTE, that person will be sent to a rehabilitation camp. There is one up and running in Ambepussa and there do not seem to be any coercive elements involved. If however, a person is a hard core LTTE cadre, and they remain under-cover, and if they are detected by trained, Tamil intelligence officials, they will be subject to arrest and counter-terror interrogations. It is most important to worry about the human rights of those citizens, even though very small in number, and try to ensure that they are subject to a transperent legal process, but it really is a grotesque misunderstanding to call the sum of these camps ‘concentration camps,’ in comparison to Nazi camps, which were about mass labour and mass extermination.

The biggest problem now, is the ability of the GoSL human service apparatus to service these camps. UN agencies can help, but it won’t be enough, and every one concerned should try to help. There are several small and large non-profit, non-governmental Sri Lankan groups and agencies that are actively supporting the people in these camps, while all this tub thumping about genocide and extermination is going on.

But the “real need,” as my colleague Malathi de Alwis recently said in the Guardian: “is for the formulation of a set of political proposals that will be acceptable to democratic elements in all three communities – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim.” This won’t happen this week or next, but with relative peace, which now seems on the horizen, there is every chance I will see it before I die.

(Update: also published as comment 57, in the New York Times, Lede blog post cited above)

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Reader Comments (5)

mr. Jeganathan,

I recently added Kottu to my google reader list and your response to the Mackey article was one of the first things to pop up. I tend to filter quickly while reading and when I saw it on the NYT site, I saw the comparison to Srebrenica and quickly closed the window. (Yes, I am a member of that dread corporate being, the Tamil diaspora, and I abhor inapt comparisons--however much I may indulge)

I agree with most of your response.

I will ask for a favor, as I am 3.5 years removed from the university environment and am no longer current on what is good scholarship for the region.

I am constantly gifted books, often by family members (also a member of that increasingly secretive and skulking cult of book readers) and a certain "Tamils In Sri Lanka--A comperehnsive History " by a Dr. Murugar Gunasingam was the most recent gift.

In your estimation, is the author a crank, a semiserious waste of time or a legitimate scholar?

Just reading the first few chapters, I was extremely underwhelmed and felt a very nagging, "but further archeological work done by OTHERS will prove my point" tone undergirding nearly every 'point' made.

The book was published by the South asian studies Centre--Sydney

ISBN 978-0-646-49455-5
April 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNayagan
No Gunasigam's work is not that of a crank; but its really positioned within the ideology of separatist tamil nationalism, and the book isn't as scholarly, and disciplinary as the work of Karthigesu Indrapala. He has two major works, and of course some classic articles. They are (on the period before 12 Century) "The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity:" (Yapa, Colombo, 2007) and "Early Dravidian Settlements in Ceylon," (London, Phd, 1968) (on the period after). He is conscious of pressures of nationalist ideology as is his former colleague the justly celebrated Peradeniya Medievalist, R.A.L.H. Gunewardena, whose article "People of the Lion," and book, 'Robe and Plough" you should also read. On the Dutch Period, Arasaratnam is the authority. On the Nineteenth Century the literature is too vast to list here, but Bastianpillai's new book, and some of Helman Rajanayagam's early work on Navalar are worth looking at. On liberal Nationalism, A.J. Wilson's last books, including his biography of SJV. Chevanayakam are comprehensive. Somamasundaram's Scared Minds is an account of psychic trauma in the war zone, and very important, and Maunaguru's account of gender and militant tamil nationalist, in the volume Unmaking the Nation, which I co-edited, as become the most widely cited work on the subject. On '1983', you may want to look at my 'Violence as an Analytical Problem' available on this website, as a guide to the literature, even though that is a article for specialists. Some of my other work on the aftermath of '1983' might also be of interest 'All the Lord's Men" and "In the Shadow of Violence" & "Checkpoint: Anthropology, Identity, Politics" you can find references on the articles page.
April 23, 2009 | Registered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan

I would like to see your response to the London Times report which puts the number of civilian killed by the shelling of the Army at 20,000. This is almost 7 times the figure you quoted (3000) in your response to the New York Times reporter Robert Mackey's blog posts. The UN's initial figure of 7000 is more than double your number. Are these numbers based on different time frames? Can you throw some light?


May 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterManoharan
my estimate of was 18th April. The war, as you know, continued several weeks after that.
On the Times figure John Holmes of the UN has said: ""That figure has no status as far as we're concerned... "It may be right, it may be wrong, it may be far too high, it may even be too low. But we honestly don't know." (http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20090530/india_nm/india399793_2). Having looked at the Times report, the photographs, the sources, and claims about LTTE weapons, I feel the methodology and evidence too weak to warrant publication.
No doubt however, that thousands of the Sri Lankans died in the final weeks of the war.
I think we should mourn their loss collectively.
June 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
Dear Pradeep,

Reading your blog I came across Manoharan's comment requesting your response to the Times story about 20,000 dead due to Army shelling. What follows are my views. I hope it would be of some use to you and your readers.

These are the stories in question

1. Times photographs expose Sri Lanka’s lie on civilian deaths at beach
By Catherine Philp and Michael Evans datelined May 29, 2009

2. The hidden massacre: Sri Lanka’s final offensive against Tamil Tigers
By Catherine Philp in Colombo, date lined May 29, 2009

3. Slaughter in Sri Lanka
Evidence gathered by The Times has revealed that at least 20,000 Tamils were killed on the beach by shelling as the army closed in on the Tigers
Date lined May 29, 2009
No byline but the video carries a commentary by the Foreign Editor Richard Beeston

The first thing that one notices is that there are THREE stories on the SAME DATE with different headlines, using the same data

Three pictures are used in their video presentation
1. a part of the NFZ
2. Picture of an LTTE grave yard (not from the NFZ)
3. another part of NFZ showing earth mounds (possibly graves)

This is a transcript of Foreign Editor Richard Beeston’s commentary

“In the first photograph you can see the remains of what was a refugee camp for some 100,000 Tamil civilians. In the center you can see the destroyed dwellings these wretched people were trying to live in. To the South out of the shot is the sea. Between them and the sea are Tamil Tiger gun emplacements you can see them they are mortar pits circular, bottom center, bottom right you can see what we believe is a command center, ammunition trucks, so effectively you had a population, the size of a large football stadium packed with civilians trapped here for weeks upon weeks under the merciless bombardment of the govt offensive”

Note – the mortar pits, command center and ammunition trucks are highlighted by graying out the background but they fail to highlight any ground impact bomb crater or any “Burnt Out Tree Stumps” that they claim were “one of the sights seen frequently in The Times photographs.” Very strangely this allegedly frequent sight, is no where to be seen in ANY of the three photos used by them (see story 1 para 19). In fact you can see that ALL vegetation is intact and still standing

Transcript continues…
“In the second picture we can see what looks like a strange crop in the center of the photograph these are in fact we believe Tamil tiger graves, hundreds of them neatly laid in the fields buried presumably near where they fell.

Note – This picture is not of a LTTE grave yard WITHIN the NFZ. It is an LTTE graveyard far removed from the NFZ. Observe the COMPLETE absence of any war damage. There are no bomb craters. Even the vegetation is intact, not a single bush, let alone a tree, shows signs of ANY damage. This UNRELATED photograph has been surreptitiously introduced to hoodwink the reader

Transcript continues…
(focus moves now to the third photo)
“In contrast to the Tamil Tiger dead, in this photograph is what we believe are the civilian mass graves down to the right these will be men women and children killed in the fighting and hurriedly buried by their relatives in between lulls in the onslaught”
End of transcript

Note the use of the words “In contrast to the Tamil Tiger dead” Mr Beeston is DELIBERATELY misleading the reader into believing that the LTTE buries their dead in “Lines and Columns” even during “weeks upon weeks under the merciless bombardment of the govt offensive” which forces civilians to bury their dead “in between lulls in the onslaught” haphazardly but allows the LTTE to bury their dead at leisure, in ordered rows and columns, completely unaffected by the same bombardment of the same area!!!!

The Times states
“It looks more likely that the firing position has been located by the Sri Lankan Army and it has then been targeted with air-burst and ground-impact mortars,” said Charles Heyman, editor of the magazine Armed Forces of the UK” (see story 2 para 7)

“Air-burst and ground-impact mortars can cause wide destruction and reduce trees to burnt stumps — one of the sights seen frequently in The Times photographs.” (see story 1 para 19)

This statement means that this type of intense bombardment creates an intense HEAT capable of burning down LIVE trees to Burnt Stumps

Strangely, such an intense heat had failed to burn down the FLIMSY TENTS. The story teller wants you the reader to believe that Plastic and Cloth tents cannot be burnt even by an inferno that can burn “Live trees to Stumps”

These Times stories contradicts itself big time. Someone some where has been on the uptake big time. LTTE millions at work.

These fabrications add insult to injury as these people were flown over the NFZ by the SL Govt in Air Force copters. Not something a govt would do IF it wants to hide the NFZ from sight.

Blatant and damaging fabrications such as this and Channel 4 is sufficient reason for the Govt to shut out such media institutions. Media freedom or freedom to slander?
October 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterOff the Cuff

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