Authors note: This is the first of two articles. The second is in draft form and is tentatively entitled ‘The Rajapakse Regime: Plus Points, Minus Points’. It may appear first in print form, but that remains to be seen.
The Rajapakse regime has been in power since April 2004 and has received a bad press in many Western countries in recent years. Such comments have often aroused Xenophobic reactions within some segments of Sri Lankan society. This parochial response merges with the rabid hostility to (selected) NGOs in some political circles.
Rather than dwelling in a parochial miasma, the Rajapakse government should ask itself WHY, why such a bad press? One answer is clear: it is the prevalence of the â€œwhite van” phenomenon in Sri Lankan society. This is a convenient trope that highlights (a) the cluster of disappearances, and acts of abduction that have occurred over the last five years; and (b) the number of media personnel, some 34 in sum, who have been killed in this space of time.[i]
Not all such acts involved the use of white vans. Lasantha Wickrematunga was assaulted and killed in his car on 8 January 2009. But the Deputy Editor of The Nation, Keith Noyahr, was bundled into a white van at 10.30 pm on the 22nd May 2008 and returned the next day after a severe beating.[ii] So the phrase is convenient shorthand for a process that involves the intimidation and assassination of media personnel and other activists.
Of the 34 media personnel killed since April 2004, three have been Sinhalese, one Muslim and the rest Tamil. A few of these instances may have been due to personal entanglements; some of these acts could have been the work of the LTTE; but whispers in the corridors suggest that elements linked to military intelligence and the Tamil paramilitary groups associated with the government had a hand in many of these acts. Indeed, in May 2008 Ranga Jayasuriya was bold enough to state that â€œKeith Noyahr was the latest victim of the media witch-hunt which is apparently becoming a part of the government’s counter insurgency policy.”[iii]
A damning dimension of this scenario is that hardly any perpetrators have been identified and charged. There is a culture of impunity surrounding the subterranean forces engaged in these practices. It is not surprising that in July 2009 the BBC Sinhala Service announced that more than 50 journalists have left the island because of specific threats looming over them.[iv] Since then I can add one journalist friend to this growing figure; while Keith Noyahr is among those who have fled the island.
The Western Fourth Estate hits Back
The Fourth Estate is club of sorts, albeit loosely linked. Media persons in the West have, quite rightly, taken a dim view about such a state of affairs. A recent instance, arising from the advent of Tamil boat people seeking illegal pathways into Australia, is Sally Neighbour’s â€œTest of Stamina,” in the Australian of 16 November 2009.[v] This article is a hammer-and-tongs assault on the record of the Sri Lankan governments past and present, assisted by quotations from a Tamil Australian, Sarah Nathan. Note some of the excesses:
Between 1987 and 1991, known as the period of terror, about 30,000 people were officially recognised as having disappeared. In 2007, a former government minister estimated that one person disappeared every five hours in Sri Lanka.[vi]
The second sentence is equivalent to using Sarah Palin’s views on Obama as a valid evaluation of the latter. The first statement deliberately takes advantage of the Australian audience’s ignorance by equating the killings during the Leftist insurgency of the JVP with those surrounding the ethnic conflict. So what we see in Sally Neighbour’s strike is a case of assassination by word.[vii]
Channel Four in UK has been a serial offender in the tale of media fabrications and gross exaggerations,[viii] beginning with the reportage provided by Nick Paton Walsh in April-May 2009 and then with the laughable attempt, possibly aided by some Sinhalese journalists abroad, to foist a trumped-up video of alleged army executions on the whole world. Technical decoding quickly exposed this outrageous fabrication.[ix]
However considerable damage was done by this video: indeed, I consider the alacrity with which media sources hostile to the government aired this video â€“ one so patently a fabrication to my inexpert eyes â€“ to be as questionable as the calumnies manufactured by those behind this exercise. My critique is simple: if one is participating in a crusade against all forms of discrimination, one has to be discriminating in selecting one’s causes or bodies of evidence.
The most outstanding tale of deliberate assassination by tall tales, however, rests with the respected Times group in UK. From circa April-May Jeremy Page,[x] who was in charge of a journalist team seeking dirt of Sri Lanka, worked the phone assiduously contacting Sri Lankans hostile to the existing regime, among them politicians who had been pushed out of the SLFP.[xi]
A number of horrendous assessments of the Sri Lankan government’s record have been presented over the course of year 2009. I take just one: in early July 2009 Jeremy Page et al told the world that â€œabout 1,400 people are dying every week at the giant Manik Farm internment camp set up in Sri Lanka to detain Tamil refugees from the nation’s bloody civil war.”[xii] They cited international aid agencies or â€œreliable sources” as their authority without providing specifics.
The structure of this startling item of news was as strange as it was suspicious. No sooner was the main message in support of its title mentioned than the article veered sideways to the Eastern Province — where few camps existed and where warfare had ceased two years back â€“ to relate how the government had asked the ICRC to scale down its operation there. The latter point may well have been factual, but to Britons unaware of the regional complexities of the conflict it added another black mark against the government.
My deconstructive path in rebuttal involves two rhetorical questions. Why did the Times not elaborate upon its lead story within the same article? Why was there no follow-up on such a striking statistic?
The answer in logical surmise is two-fold: (a) the Times had no foundation for its alleged facts and (b) its muckraking intent had been secured. The Tamil propaganda machine across the world ran with these headlines at full blast. Even Italian newspapers picked up the headline; while in Australia Amanda Hodge and the Australian duly obliged because it had been regularly adopting the Times line of advocacy for sometime. It was also among the ‘facts’ mentioned by David Feith, in the Sydney Morning Herald on 30 October 2008, that is, three months later.[xiii]
As for the facts of medical aid and deaths in the IDP camps let me note that the tsunami disaster medical team under Dr. Hemantha Herath was diverted to oversee the medical facilities in the camps. When Dr. Veronica Shanti Chelliah, a Malaysian expatriate, visited the camps in late July, the Brigadier in overall charge gave the following figures for death rates then:
An average of seven deaths occurred on a daily basis. There was a medical record that Brigadier LC Perera referred to and read out statistics with details such as age, gender and cause of death. He summarised the main causes of deaths as – Myocardial Infarction, Cerebrovascular Accidents, Pneumonia, Typhoid, Hepatitis A and complications of Diabetes and Septicemia. More than 90 percent of the deaths were due to the above causes and almost 80 percent of the deaths were those above 60 years. Important to note that most of these illnesses were prevalent prior to admission into the IDP camps.[xiv]
This statistic converts to a death rate of 9.1 per thousand. Given the horrible conditions faced by these people during their stint with the LTTE during the first 4-5 months of the year, this figure is on approximate par with the crude death rate of 5.8 per thousand for the whole of Sri Lanka in 2007; and its range from 8.4 in Colombo District to 3.3 in Monaragala District. As vitally, by November the death rate in the IDP camps was down on average to 2-3 per day. This latter update was provided by Dr. Susiri Weerasekera whose teams from the Friend-in-Need Society had fitted 391 artificial limbs on amputees within four camps in the course of periodic visits dating from 8 July.[xv]
Alliances in Condemnation
There have, therefore, been alliances across the Fourth Estate, abetted by Tamils within some media outlets and by the Tamil diaspora in general, in condemning the Rajapakse Regime for its activities: quite validly on some counts but with little regard for accuracy on others.
This alliance has been assisted by Sinhalese and other liberals in Sri Lanka as well as abroad. In this coalition of forces one sees a standard political principle structuring coalitions: where the enemy of your near-and-critical-enemy is your friend or, alternatively, of lesser moment than the near-and-critical enemy. Sinhalese moderates within Sri Lanka who are associated with NGOs or media have been subject to an intimidating political atmosphere for some time. Threatening telephone calls cannot easily be dismissed when white vans intervene on odd occasions. Thus, throughout the period 2004-09 the government regime has been a greater threat to their interests than the ruthless interventions of the LTTE within the Colombo region. Where Tamil dissidents such as Kethesh Loganathan — who was eventually assassinated by the LTTE on the 12th August 2006 — had to watch out for the Tigers, vociferous Sinhala critics had [and still have] to keep a weather eye on the government. Several journalists have fled for this reason.
It is this circumstance of structured opposition that explains why some â€“ repeat some, not all â€“ Sinhala moderates have provided people like Page with information, inclusive of unsubstantiated rumours, that damn the Rajapakse government. For similar reasons they disseminate every tale of horror, even improbable ones, with little forethought. There have been occasions where some of them even seem to regret the eclipse of the LTTE from the local political firmament.
Given the number of IDP camps, the conditions therein constitute a contentious subject that cannot be covered comprehensively in a short article. But my brief excursions here suggest that this issue is poor ground for criticisms of the government. Not so the conditions generating the intimidation and assassination of media men. There is a moral here for leading members of the government: when you allow shit to be dumped in your lounge, expect the place to smell. Indeed, such circumstances enable unscrupulous writers, even academics, to use a tactical ploy to spread guilt by analogy and association: if one room in the government smells dirty, then all rooms are so tainted. That is a persuasive ploy that can convert an unwary public that is not alive to the complexities of governmental structures.
There are yet other morals here. If elements within Western media and academic circles wish to smear dirt on the Sri Lankan government’s extensive mansion, they should use solid empirical data not fabricated material. Cess-pit journalism only compromises the ethical aura they have constructed around themselves.
[i] See http://jdsrilanka.blogspot.com/2009/08/sri-lanka-thirty-four-journalists-media.html andÂ http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2009/07/090722_jds_journalists.shtml
[ii] Daily Mirror, 26 May 2008 and http://www.lankalibrary.com/phpBB/viewtopic.php?f=21&t=4420
[iii] Jayasuriya, â€œKeith Noyahr’s Nasty Night,” 25 May 2008, http://www.lankalibrary.com/phpBB/ iewtopic.php?f=21&t=4420
[vii] A White Australian friend even made an unsolicited remark to the effect that Neighbour’s article was quite one-sided and imbalanced.
[viii] Note Kath Noble, â€œWhat the Channel 4 video means,” Island, 2 Sept. 2009.
[ix] See http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2009/09/13/analysis-video-clip-published-channel-4-uk. Also see Shanika Sriyananda, Sunday Observer, 20 Sept. 2009 which reports the analyses by Siri Hewawitharana, previously the head of systems engineering for Star TV Hong Kong and presently the Executive Director at IPTV Systems. Also note Rajiva Wijesinha’s Interview with Channel Four in http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1184614595?bctid=39593167001.
[x] Page was deported from Sri Lanka on 17-18 April 2009 for trying to enter the country after he had been refused journalist accreditation to enter.
[xi] I discovered this quite accidentally when I was in Colombo in May.
[xii] Quotation from Times in TamilNet, 10 July 2009, But also see http://www.nowpublic.com/world/ death-toll-1-400-week-manik-farm-camp-time-reports, which runs thus: â€œTime reported on July 10, 2009, according to reliable sources from Sri Lanka aid workers, the death toll is 1400 per week in Manik Farm camp.”
[xiii] Feith, ‘Tamils’ horrific treatment makes them desperate to leave,” SMH, 30 Oct. 2009 (see http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/contributors/tamils-horrific-treatment-makes-them-desperate-to-leave-20091030-ho18.html). Feith is the author of Conflict in Sri Lanka and Stalemate: Refugees in Asia.
[xiii] Dr. Veronica Shanti Chelliah, â€œIDPs in Sri Lanka: An Eyewitness Report. Exploring the realities,” Daily News, 25 August 2009.
[xiii] Emails to Michael Roberts, 27 Oct, 6 Nov. and 26 Nov. 2009