Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sri Lanka: The denial syndrome

Dr.Kumar David | South Asia Analysis Group

"Society is in denial because the army is a microcosm of society. It is not that Americans don’t or can’t know about carpet bombing, a million dead in Vietnam and Laos, an ecology incinerated and war crimes. No, pardon the grammar, the syndrome is deeper; the collective American psyche can’t want to know. Similarly, Sri Lanka’s can’t want to know denial syndrome exemplifies an ubiquitous madness of all crowds."

There is outrage in Colombo and frenzy in the Sinhala diaspora about the Marzuki Darusman, Steven Ratner, Yasmin Sooka report to UNSG about war crimes in Sri Lanka. The law society, organisations of professionals and most Sinhalese political parties have thrown their weight behind the regime supporters mobilising on the streets. Conversely, Tamils and the outside world accept the reports veracity. GoSL’s friends Russia and China say raking up a fuss will “complicate” reconciliation but have not contested the report’s factuality. The Indian Government, GoSL’s principal champion, has kept a low profile, but Indian public opinion is outraged and even Rajapakse stalwart Hindu is less blasé than usual. Either the whole outside world is insane, or, appalling atrocities were perpetrated by both GoSL and the LTTE in the closing months of the war.

The Panel and GoSL version of events are diametrically opposed, as schizophrenic as black and white, hence the prima face truthfulness is paramount. Sri Lankans ask: “Is this true? Did these things happen? Or is the Panel falsifying and fabricating with squalid motives?” In Colombo’s supra-charged streets and media frenzy, calls for an international investigation are beyond people’s mental preparedness till the unvarnished truth is made stark.

Whether the findings of the Panel are factual but the Lankan State had no choice but to resort to brutality to root out a “ruthless enemy”, or conversely, whether the LTTE did behave as said but in the course of a “liberation war” it was pushed to terrorism, these are judgements after the facts; logically consequent to elucidation of prima face veracity. mordant

Veracity, bias, conspiracy

The government says the Panel’s findings of bombing and shelling civilian encampments, safe zones and hospitals, are false. It denies shooting combatants after surrender and withholding humanitarian assistance from civilians. If the report is flawed a credible item by item rebuttal has to be produced by GoSL (or the LTTE-remnant if it rebuts anything). This was a “war without witnesses” at GoSL’s insistence; hence the onus for dispelling a flurry of charges and disproving a mass of evidence falls squarely on its shoulders. The sheer volume of material the Panel has accessed is staggering. The technical content show-cases the prowess of modern analytical methods and image processing. The submissions are, in part, an outcome of the exertions of the Tamil diaspora. It is up to the diaspora to press its case with an information overkill if it so wishes. The crucial issue for the Panel is: “Are the submissions true or false?”

The enquiry also accessed other sources including UN ground teams, NGOs, religious and medical personnel in the Vannie, and satellite images from UNOSAT and other satellite services. The Chanel-4 videos had previously been authenticated by two laboratories in the US. A full reading of the report engenders confidence that the panellists have not been taken for a ride. A striking feature is clarity of content and unambiguous confidence of tenor. GoSL has made no detailed or itemised refutation of the report’s principal assertions. A rebuttal that is subsequently falsified will be disastrous, so any rebuttal has to be watertight.

Videos, photographs and aerial reconnaissance images were used as supports. Satellite imagery was reviewed by the UN Office for Military Affairs and the UN Institute for Training and Research. In respect of video and photographic evidence the Panel says it relied on “authenticated” evidence. Presumably it had access to UN funds to purchase expert and scientific services, so the use of the word ‘authenticated’ is significant. Authentication is also important since some written and oral evidence, for understandable reasons, was made available under conditions of strict confidentiality and therefore warranted cross-checking. Sections 49 to 52 explain the methodology of verification and I accept due diligence was exercised. It is implausible to suggest that the panellists were tricked or arrived at conclusions without attention to detail and method. The report makes 196 pages of dense reading and I am satisfied the panellists approached their task conscientiously. The prima face findings and the recommendations for a formal inquiry are compelling.

Another safeguard is the international standing of the Panel members. The call by the Global Elders - Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu and Sung San Suu Kyi - for follow up action is a vote of confidence in the personal integrity of Darusman, Ratner and Sooka.

A feature, obscured by universally hostile comment in Sri Lanka, is that the report includes detailed and credible indictment of the LTTE in addition to its findings against GoSL. These accounts can be found in paragraphs 97 to 99 and 112 to 114 and elsewhere. The LTTE forced civilians to move out of their homes and villages, used civilians as human shields, forcibly recruited children, and cold bloodedly murdered people attempting to flee captivity. The criticisms of the LTTE for war crimes and crimes against humanity are so devastating that the charge made in some quarters in Sri Lanka and the Singhalese diaspora that the panellists were bribed and worked in cahoots with rump LTTE elements has to be dismissed as cranky.

Having dismissed these risible allegation of conspiracy, what about systematic bias? The underlying rationale for considering the possibility of bias is that most LTTE leaders are dead, while those now accountable are leaders of Sri Lanka’s state and military and surviving LTTE leaders now aligned with the regime. Therefore findings against the LTTE have little practical consequence while holding the government responsible for war crimes panics the leaders. I mulled the possibility of bias but eventually dropped it because of the weight and volume of evidence. Given the mass of written, oral, electronic and satellite data, it would not have been possible to reject it all and arrive at a different set of conclusions.

The LSSP’s telling slip

The statement of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka is no surprise; it is a restatement of GoSL positions. ‘The Report is false, a fabrication; the Panel is conspiring with an LTTE rump and global imperialism to scuttle Mahinda Rajapakse’s the anti-imperialist policies’. This summary is not a caricature. Indian Communists have taken an opposite position; CPI(M) State Secretary G. Ramakrishanan has demanded: “The party will demonstrate in the first week of May demanding a detailed enquiry into these human rights violations, punishment of war criminals, rehabilitation of the affected and provincial autonomy for the Tamils in the island nation”.

Still, the climax comes in the fascinating Lanka Sama Samaja Party analysis. Why this had to be so I can only guess; maybe the presence of a left-tendency in the LSSP made the leadership wary of making itself grotesquely silly. The significant bit consists of a few lines buried in repeats of GoSL positions.

QUOTE: “The Panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been presented with a large body of information, some of which may be accurate. However much of what has been included are clearly exaggerations, distortions or even complete fabrications by those wishing to discredit the Government. Unfortunately the sources include people who are expected to be neutral, such as members of United Nations and other international organizations, but over the years it has become evident that many of them are blatantly biased. Even if the three members preparing this report had been neutral, they were probably unaware of this and have taken the statements given to them to be factual.” END QUOTE.

This reluctant confession can be magnified several fold; the LSSP could not with impunity rubbish the force of evidence. The “may be” in the first sentence is a reluctant concession that the material is accurate. If only “much” is exaggeration, distortion and fabrication, then much else is truthful and accurate. The LSSP concedes that panel members are upright in their intentions, just taken for a ride! To say of the panellists, “they were probably unaware” of their primary responsibility, factual veracity, is gratuitous in the extreme. Grudgingly, the LSSP has endorsed my conclusion; by and large, and taken as a whole, the Darusman Report is credible.

It is not the Lankan left but India that will be decisive. The Indian left was decimated in West Bengal and lost narrowly in Kerala in state elections, but did quite well by clinging to Jayalalitha’s sari string (won 18 of the 22 seats it contested) in Tamil Nadu. The TN State CPI and CPI(M) have Lankan war crimes in their cross hairs, so how much longer can Delhi ignore TN? Jayalalitha in her first interview after winning the elections demand: “The Indian government must ensure Sri Lanka’s athipar (president) stands trial in international courts.” Internationally, Delhi has compromised itself in world HR forums to protect Colombo, so can it backtrack now, or has it painted itself too far into a corner? If you tell one lie, they say, you soon have to tell two more to conceal the first!

The ubiquity of denial

Japanese textbooks to this day conceal the unspeakable atrocities of its occupying forces in China in the 1930s and 1940s; society is in denial because the army is a microcosm of society. It is not that Americans don’t or can’t know about carpet bombing, a million dead in Vietnam and Laos, an ecology incinerated and war crimes. No, pardon the grammar, the syndrome is deeper; the collective American psyche can’t want to know.

Croatia was in shock when the International Criminal Court convicted two of its generals for war crimes in hostilities with Serbia in 1995. True it was a national liberation war, but crimes are crimes, irrespective of the greater national, class or political context. It is not easy for any community to digest such truths. Croats and Serbs are bitter about the other’s atrocities, but an impenetrable can’t-want-to-know blurs the collective psyche when faced with evidence that their side was no better. Sri Lanka’s can’t want to know denial syndrome exemplifies an ubiquitous madness of all crowds. I am not making excuses, perish the thought; just being hardnosed.


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