Act I. Thoughts on My Abject Failure
On 31st March 2011 a panel of lawyers appointed by Ban Ki-Moon submitted a review of the Sri Lankan War IV without ever visiting the island. The report was composed in the manner of a prosecuting team rather than a judicial assessment. It was as slipshod in its methodology as flawed in several of its conclusions.
The Western media has simply failed – and one could say “refused” – to comprehend these circumstances. Their office room nourishment assists this process of miscomprehension. Political orientations ill-disposed towards the Rajapaksa government – for good reasons I might add – have encouraged this leaning.
Nevertheless, it is widely cited in a number of quarters, quarters hostile to the admittedly distasteful Rajapaksa Regime and happy to have any cane to beat up their activities.
A headmaster wielding a cane must have judiciousness on his side. Moral crusaders such as, say, Amnesty International must adhere to ethics in presentation and quotation. But, as it happens, the last four years have seen blatant dishonesty in quotations well as interpretation.
Though aware that the LTTE personnel were often fighting without wearing uniforms and that it was well-nigh impossible to differentiate between “civilians” and “soldiers” in some situations, the UNPoE proceeded to this conclusion in one of its key segments: “a number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths” (para 137 on page 41).
What has transpired since? Take one early instance: Amnesty International has substituted “credible allegations” with “credible evidence” when quoting this report.
A report submitted to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 12 April 2011 by the Panel of Experts he appointed to advise him on accountability issues in Sri Lanka “found credible evidence, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed by both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity” (from one of their reports as quoted by Harshula in Groundviews in 2011).
Amnesty International was not an isolated instance and Harshula’s essay of mid-2011 in a web-site devoted to the liberal human rights cause pinpointed a number of other reports which made the same alteration. Amnesty International then indicated that this was a typological error and said that they would make a correction (they had not yet done so yet in June 2011).
Be that as it may, Amnesty International was not alone. I have certainly heard Kerry O’Brien of ABC present this ‘fact’ on air. As Harshula indicated, a whole swathe of pious individuals and organisations had indulged in the same error. This in itself is suspicious. The consternation is compounded now, some four years later, when one finds the error – an act of dishonesty in effect – inscribed in stone. Esteemed organisations as well as every Tom, Dick and Mary of a reporter believes that the UNPoE had discovered “credible evidence” of 40,000 civilian deaths during the last five months of Eelam War IV — that is between 1 January and 19th May 2009.
Amanda Hodge of The Australian has recently joined the brigade peddling duplicity on this issue. On Thursday 20thAugust, in reporting Mahinda Rajapaksa’s failure to win a parliamentary majority in the General Elections held in August, she added:
Mr. Rajapaksa’s bid at a political comeback, by winning enough seats to become prime minister, has been widely interpreted as an attempt to protect himself, his family and allies from prosecution relating to a slew of charges arising from his 10 years in power. They potentially include war crimes charges relating to the last months of the civil war in which as many as 40,000 civilians were killed.
So: here we see definitiveness once again – a distortion of some consequence, something drummed into the careless world of journalism by constant repetition that could, conceivably, be the product of orchestration and manipulation.
A Sri Lankan Aussie’s failure
Facing this inaccuracy (and likely duplicity), I decided to bring this error to the attention of the Australian news-reading world, even though I was not optimistic about the likelihood of success. As both a tactic and a pertinent strategy in the year marking the 100th Anniversary of the disastrous, yet meaningfully momentous, battles at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles in 1915, I highlighted the proportion of wounded Australian soldiers (19,441) to the number who were killed (8,709). In military parlance this meant that WIA was 2.28 in relation to KIA. This has been a common feature in most recent wars. In this manner I was marking a gaping hole in the thinking and capacities of the bourgeois office-room personnel who composed the UNOeP document. This was a serious contention about a serious issue.
Deploying a contact within The Australian’s staff,on the 24th August I sent an essay of some 1091 words to Alister McMillan, its “World News Editor.” Guided by a friendly journalist in Perth and an Aussie pal in Queensland, I also composed a short 320 word “Letter to the Editor” and sent that to the appropriate slot in that newspaper’s base on the 26th August. I then coined another version of intermediate length, some 736 words in length, and sent it to the web-journal South Asian Masala because it is associated with academics and I had succeeded in entering its portals way back in 2009 or so when Sandy Gordon was its editor.
I have rarely succeeded in breaching the portals of the Australian newspaper world so my endeavors were not oiled by expectations of success. Sure enough I have failed. Or, rather, one could say that The Australian did not pass my test. They are (A) not interested in correcting factual inaccuracies; (B) not interested in addressing specious reasoning and (C) and not interested in taking to task such sacred cows as Amnesty International. And, last but not least, issues relating to a little island such as Sri Lanka are of limited consequence. So be it. An iniquitous world is it not?
Act II. WIA is to KIA
Amanda Hodge’s report on the Sri Lankan election covered important new developments, but she reiterates a commonplace error in political reportage when she asserts that the UN Panel of Experts claimed that there was “credible evidence” of up to 40,00 civilian deaths. In truth the UNPoE surmised that “a number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths” (para 137 on page 41). The tweaking of this conjecture is an act of duplicity furthered by many prominent organisations including Amnesty International and prestigious news media.
No accurate figure exists for the death toll in the period of 1 January to 19 May 2009 when the Tamil peoples of Thamililam had been persuaded or dragooned into becoming a defensive bulwark in the LTTE’s military strategy. No evaluation of this issue can be presented without attending to that basic fact and without heed to the maps depicting the shifting battle theatre and the contracting arena of war.
However, Australians attuned to the casualty figures in the restricted Gallipoli war theatre will be aware that the ratio for Australian wounded to dead was 2.23. We also know that during the Korean War the ratio for USA was over three: 103,284 *WIA against 33,651 **KIA. To their credit the UN personnel in Colombo, directed by Gordon Weiss, computed figures for the wounded in hospitals and detention centres. They “estimated a total figure of 7,721 killed and 18,479 injured from August 2008 up to 13 May 2009, after which it became too difficult to count.” [paragraph 134, UNPoE].
This undermines the UNPoE’s concluding estimate, that which misleads Hodge and others. The simple question is: “how many wounded were there among the survivors?” If 40,000 were killed in the final months of the Sri Lanka conflict, where were the 100,000 or so wounded?
Act III. “Home-Truths from Gallipoli: Those in Office Attics cannot read Death Tolls Anywhere”
One hundred year after Gallipoli the carnage in that confined theatre of battle provides lessons for those addressing the last phase of the Sri Lankan War in 2009. At Gallipoli the number of wounded was greater than those killed: 8,709 Australians died and 19,441 were wounded (WIA). The ratio of WIA to KIA was 2.23 and for the Allied forces taken together the ratio was 2.18.
In the last phase of the Sri Lankan war pitting the state against the de facto LTTE state during the period 1 January to 19 May 2009, the Tamil Tigers and their people were confined to the Vanni Pocket in the north-east. Some civilians slipped through the battle lines by foot or boat, while roughly 13,000 were evacuated by ships organized by the ICRC with SL Navy assistance between early February and 9th May. By early March the remaining body of Tamils was pressed into even less space; and by mid-April the remaining body of civilians and Tiger fighters, amounting to an estimated 200,000 individuals, was hemmed in within what can be termed the “Last Redoubt” of 24 square kilometres of coastline.
The Tamil people were so placed because the LTTE had persuaded and/or dragooned them into this corral as a defensive formation of so many (vulnerable) sandbags that would constitute a spectre of “humanitarian disaster” – a spectre which would, the LTTE hoped, induce a UN/Western intervention to save their bacon. As the Tiger political chief Pulidevan told European friends, “just as in Kosovo if enough civilians died in Sri Lanka the world would be forced to step in” (Frances Harrison, Counting the Dead, 2012: 63).
The danger to “civilians” was all the greater because (1) many Tiger fighters did not wear fatigues; (2) able-bodied civilians were utilized for the building of berms and logistical operations and thus made into “belligerents” in war terminology; and (3) the SL Army’s infantry attacks were mostly at night. In a remarkable operationon the night of the 19/20th May, commando troops penetrated the Last Redoubt and some 103,000 Tamils, including Tiger personnel who had discarded their weapons, streamed out.
The Western media has simply failed – and one could say “refused” – to comprehend these circumstances. Their office room nourishment assists this process of miscomprehension. Political orientations ill-disposed towards the Rajapaksa government – for good reasons I might add – have encouraged this leaning. Amanda Hodge is a fine illustration. In commenting upon the recent parliamentary elections, she speaks of the Rajapaksa party’s failure to secure a majority as a blow to his hopes of meeting “war crimes charges relating to the last months of the war in which as many as 40,000 civilians were killed” (The Australian, 20 August 2015, p. 8).
This is an act of duplicity. The UN Panel of Experts Report dated 31 March 2011 actually said this: “a number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths” (para 137 on page 41). The fact that an imposing array of reporters has reiterated this allegation as definite fact does not render her ‘crime’ any less a ‘crime’.
But that is not my main argument. The emphasis here is on the lessons that Australians can draw from the ratio of wounded to dead at Gallipoli (and for that matter all wars). To any person asserting that “possibly 40,000 Tamil civilians died,” the simple question is: “how many wounded were there among the survivors assembled between, say, March and May/June 2009?”
As it happens, the UN personnel in Colombo had computed figures for the wounded in hospitals and detention centres. This computation is referred to in passing by the UNPoE: “The United Nations Country Team is one source of information; in a document that was never released publicly, it estimated a total figure of 7,721 killed and 18,479 injured from August 2008 up to 13 May 2009, after which it became too difficult to count.” [para 134].
The implication of this assessment is (conveniently?) passed over in the UNPoE conclusion two paragraphs later, viz. paragraph 137 quoted above. Reporters such as Hodge, of course, have not read the whole document or evaluated the physical context of the war and its extraordinary facets. They have simply not transcended their cloistered office-room perspective. Even the home-truths from Gallipoli have not been brought into their readings.
Act IV. “Lessons from Gallipoli for Readings of the Sri Lankan War”
In a recent review of the parliamentary election results in Sri Lanka Amanda Hodge alludes to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s failure to become Prime Minister as a blow to his hopes of meeting “war crimes charges relating to the last months of the war in which as many as 40,000 civilians were killed” (The Australian, 20 August 2015, p. 8).
The assertion at the end is more than a tweaking of the ‘facts. It is an act of dishonesty. The UN Panel of Experts Report dated 31 March 2011 went thus: “In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage” (para 137 on page 41).
Hodge is not an innovator. A whole line of reporters in western media channels, including Kerry O’Brien, have perpetuated this untruth. One Lee Scott, a British MP no less, even went so far as to assert that “40,000 had been “slaughtered” – implicitly laying all deaths at the door of the government of Sri Lanka in contrast to the UNPoE’s indictment of both warring parties in this particular estimate.
Such dishonesties, the manipulation of the empirical groundings of any assessment, can be attributed to many forces. One influence is the armchair and office background of so many reporters and analysts (including the so-called lawyer experts constituting the UN Panel). Only a handful of journalists and academics have real-life experience of battle theatres and warfare. In the year commemorating the battles in Gallipoli, however, one would hope that these recollections would impose a reality check on the Australian media world. Alas, not so.
Most Aussies know that in the limited physical arena of Gallipoli in 1915 the casualties on all sides were heavy. In this context 8,709 Australians were killed (KIA) and 19,441 were wounded (WIA). Thus the ratio of WIA to KIA was 2.23. For the Allied forces taken together the ratio of WIA to KIA was 2.18.
Such ratios can vary in some measure in different warring scenarios, but the WIA is invariably higher than KIA and sometimes even over three (as in Korea for USA: 103,284 WIA against 33,651 KIA). The key point during the last phase of the Sri Lankan War IV extending from the months of January to May 2009 is the fact that the civilians were corralled in a battle theatre in the Vanni Pocket in the north eastern corner of the island.Fig. 1. By mid-April the mixed bag of civilians and fighters, some 200,000 in rough estimate, were boxed within a coastal strip of some 12 by 3 sq. kilometres (the “Last Redoubt” in my terminology).Fig. 2.
They were so placed because the LTTE had persuaded and/or dragooned them into this corral as a defensive formation of so many (vulnerable) sandbags that would constitute a spectre of “humanitarian disaster” – a spectre which would, the LTTE hoped, induce a UN/Western intervention to save their bacon. As the Tiger political chief Pulidevan told European friends, “just as in Kosovo if enough civilians died in Sri Lanka the world would be forced to step in” (Frances Harrison, Counting the Dead, 2012: 63).
Not all Tiger fighters were wearing fatigues, while the “civilians” were also used as labour in building berms and other military activity (and thus were “belligerents” in international war terminology). Civilians were also shot by the LTTE troops in significant numbers as they tried to escape from the alarming trap they were placed in (as the UNPoE noted at various points in its report: page 34, paras 112-14). These civilians usually crossed the battlefront lines at night, so that some were probably hit by crossfire. Likewise most of the SL infantry offensives were launched at night. The major offensive by commando units that penetrated the Last Redoubt was initiated on the night of 19th April. It was remarkably successful. Over the course of four days some 103-110,000 Tamil civilians and fighters who had discarded their weapons streamed out (see Fig 3)and a guesstimate from one of the more thorough reviews conjectures that perhaps 1875 Tigers and civilians died during the period of intense infantry action from 20-31 April (IDAG, Numbers Game, 2013: para 4.4.4).
In its concluding paragraph 137 to its Section E (quoted above) the UNPoE report glosses over these caveats. Worse still, its authors display their office room background and its associated blindness. They do not relate the ball park possibility of 40,000 deaths to the test: how many “civilians” were wounded by the warring activities around them in the confined theatre of the Vanni Pocket and thereafter within the Last Redoubt?
As it happens, during the months of May-June 2009 – especially after the fighting ended on 19th May –the UN personnel in Colombo, directed by one Gordon Weiss, had computed figures for the wounded in hospitals and detention centres. This computation is referred to in passing by the UNPoE: “The United Nations Country Team is one source of information; in a document that was never released publicly, it estimated a total figure of 7,721 killed and 18,479 injured from August 2008 up to 13 May 2009, after which it became too difficult to count.” [paragraph 134, UNPoE].
The UN “experts” then proceeded to miss the implications of this set of figures for their concluding paragraph 137. Such a gross error is one reason – among a whole list of shortcomings—for criticisms of this panel of office-room personnel for a slipshod report marred by serious shortcomings. But that is not my point here. How is that Australian journalists open to the realities of war through the Anzac story at Gallipoli do not ask pertinent questions about the death toll in the last phase of the Sri Lankan war? A. Is it due to the blindness of office room eyes? Or, B., is it a product of political orientations seeking to destroy the authoritarian pro-China Rajapaksa regime? Or, has a combination of these two factors directed such blindness as well as the manipulation of the UNPoE’s vocabulary? Mind-reading is called for. In my surmise, it is a result of both A and B working together.
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009b “The Battle for the Vanni Pocket,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, March 2009, Vol. 35/2, pp. 17-19. … andhttp://www.dtic.mil/dtic/aulimp/citations/gsa/ 2009157395/156554.html
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2010b “Information Warfare and the Endgame of the Civil War,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, May 2010 30/4: 35-37.…. and http://www.asiapacificdefencereporter.com/ articles/40/Sri-Lanka.
Harshula 2011a “When allegations becomes evidence,” 6 June 2011, http://groundviews.org/2011/06/06/when-allegations-become-evidence/
Harrison, Frances 2012 Still Counting the Dead, London: Portobello.
Hodge, Amanda 2015 “Sri Lankan poll loser Rajapaksa may quit to dodge prosecution,” The Australian,20 August 2015,http://m.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/sri-lankan-poll-loser-rajapaksa-may-quit-to-dodge-prosecution/story-e6frg6so-1227490467880
ICEP 2014 Island of Impunity?Investigation into International Crimes committed during the Final Stage ages of the Sri Lankan Civil War, Sydney: Public Interest Advocacy Centre Ltd, http://www.piac.asn.au/sites/default/files/publications/extras/island_of_impunity.pdf
IDAG [i.e. Citizen Silva] 2013 “The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice,” http://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-Justice OR http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/TheNG.pdf
Jeyaraj, DBS 2009 “Wretched of the Wanni Earth break Free of Bondage,” Daily Mirror, 25 April 2009.
Mango 2014 “Sri Lanka’s War In Its Last Phase: Where WIA Figures Defeat The Gross KIA Estimates,” 14 February 2014, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/sri-lankas-war-in-its-last-phase-where-wia-figures-defeat-the-gross-kia-estimates/
Marga 2011 An Analysis and Evaluation of The Report of the Advisory Panel to the UNSG nn the Final Stages of the War in Sri Lanka, https://www.dropbox.com/s/0eybj1ynej6spaa/The%20Darusman%20Report-%20Final%20doc-2.doc
Marga 2014 Issues of Truth and Accountability. The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka, https://www.dropbox.com/s/tdxwntf7wu5andq/The%20Last%20Stages%20of%20the%20war%20in%20Sri%20Lanka.pdf?n=66191473.
Minnick, Wendell 2015 “China’s One Belt One Road Policy,” 12 April 2015, http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/2015/04/11/taiwan-china-one-belt-one-road-strategy/25353561/.
Roberts, M. 2013 “BBC-Blind: Misreading the Tamil Tiger Strategy of International Blackmail, 2008-13,” https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/bbc-blind-misreading-the-tamil-tiger-strategy-of-international-blackmail-2008-13/#more-11221
Roberts, M. 2013 “Congestion in the “Vanni Pocket” January-May 2009: Appendix IV for “BBC Blind,” https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/12/09/congestion-in-the-vanni-pocket-january-may-2009- appendix-iv-for-bbc-blind/
Narendran, Rajasingham 2014 “Harsh Ground Realities in War: Decomposing Bodies and Missing Persons and Soldiers,” 28 January 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/11702/
Noble, Kath 2013b “Numbers Game reviewed by Kath Noble: The Full Monty,” 14 July 2013, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/numbers-game-reviewed-by-kath-noble-the-full-monty/
UN PoE 2011 Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts report on Accountability in Sri Lanka, March 2011….http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/ POE_Report_Full.pdf.
* WIA – Wounded in Action
** KIA – Killed in Action