With the solitary, honourable exception of Sunday Times columnist Lasanda Kurukulasuriya, (‘Give a dog a bad name and hang him’, From the Sidelines, Sunday Times, Colombo, August 14, 2011), the Lankan media and Colombo’s commentariat completely missed the most important intellectual event in civil society in this post-war phase of our contemporary history.
A media accustomed to lionising the less distinguished among our retired senior professionals and intelligentsia, was either ignorant of or chose to ignore a symposium held by the oldest among our independent think tanks, the MARGA Institute, precisely on the most pressing subject of the day, the Darusman report or more accurately the UNSG’s Advisory Panel Report. Worse, the media and our commentators seem unaware of the extended analysis of the Darusman Report by the doyen of Sri Lanka’s intelligentsia, one of our most refined literary critics, most distinguished civil servant, and among a handful of our globally most respected minds, Godfrey Gunatilleke. Entitled ‘Truth and Accountability: The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka’, and subtitled ‘An Analysis and Evaluation of the Report of the UN Secretary General’s (UNSG’s) Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka’, it is a Working Paper prepared by him for the MARGA seminar on ‘Accountability, Restorative Justice and Reconciliation’ (21/07/2011).
Let us assume the media simply missed the story. I eagerly await the reportage, and more crucially, the commentaries over the coming weeks, as that would give sufficient lead time for the texts to be sought out, digested and reflected upon. I await such developments especially keenly because Godfrey Gunatilleke’s evaluation of the Darusman Report’s critique of the Sri Lankan government and the armed forces, while a demonstrative deployment of and in perfect consonance with his own diamantine critical intelligence, refined methodology and liberal humanistic ethics, cuts completely against the grain of the neoliberal humanitarian/human rights discourse on Sri Lanka in the West, INGO-based ‘global civil society’, the Tamil émigré community and Colombo’s cosmopolitan ‘social networks’.
It strikes me that an encyclopaedically literate Lankan and towering intellectual figure such as Godfrey Gunatilleke, whose integrity, values and reasoned judgement have never been in question, has an evaluation of the war which is quite at variance with that of the intellectually dwarfish (by comparison) moralising denouncers of the Sri Lankan state. His, notably, is a penetratingly objective perspective that extends selective, critical support to the legitimate, democratic state authority on the historically defining, core complex of problems of the war, allegations of war crimes and accountability. Here is a microcosmic excerpt from Godfrey’s conclusion:
“[…] The root of the problems in the report lie in their outrageous interpretation of the government’s military strategy as designed at the extermination of Tamils without any humanitarian intention or effort at rescuing hostages. With this interpretation the panel puts on the blinkers that distort all their perceptions of the government’s actions. The report also gives a deliberately truncated view of the government’s action by excluding what would have provided a different and more positive explanation of these actions. This deficiency is seen in every part of the report that deals with government actions.” (Conclusions, pp.28-29)
“…The LTTE had deliberately integrated the civilian population into their military effort and turned the NFZs to battle fields. By the mass conscription of civilians for military activity in the NFZ the building of fortifications with civilian conscripts and the use of all means available for military purposes, the LTTE had effectively blurred the distinction between civilians and combatants. How is intentionality and proportionality of army actions to be judged in such a situation? The LTTE was refusing to surrender. It was becoming clear that the defeat of the LTTE and the rescue of the hostages would entail heavy human cost- deaths of the LTTE combatants, conscripted civilians, soldiers and non combatant civilians. At this point the army after weighing the options available and their likely consequences had apparently decided that it could not halt the offensive and had to go ahead and put a speedy end to the resistance of the LTTE. It has to be noted that the government would have had to take into account that the LTTE in their desperation might resort to acts of the utmost brutality that might involve deaths of civilians on a massive scale.”(Conclusions, p 33)
Let me make a prediction. Godfrey Gunatilleke’s brilliant disquisition will be pretty much ignored. The foreign press corps, including those of the neighbourhood, will not pick it up. The media will not run it. The social media will black it out. The Embassies will turn a blind eye and a deaf ear. The pundits will not engage with it or even refer to it. Other luminaries, more pontifical but of lesser independence of mind and intellectual standing, will continue to be depicted with a halo. This is because it is ‘politically correct’ to adopt a pseudo-sophisticated sneer at state sovereignty, while it is ‘politically incorrect’ to fail to ooze rancour towards Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and the conduct of the Sri Lankan military. An objective perspective such Godfrey’s will not help position any aspirant as a possible element in a successor or transitional government in the currently faddish scenario of West-induced regime change. It will not bring in any funds or secure applause from the sections of the Tamil émigré community that nurses an abiding sense of singular victimhood.
Godfrey’s text cannot be frontally critiqued either conceptually or concretely, because it is argumentatively impregnable and because the civil society critics just are not good enough. It cannot be dismissed as Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism or neo-conservative militarism because Godfrey is neither Buddhist (still less a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’) nor a neo-conservative. It cannot be brushed aside as resulting from regime patronage or a wish for such, because Godfrey was never one for such patronage and at the age of 85 it is difficult to imagine he has picked up the habit.
Ironically, the chief contributors to the MARGA seminar, Godfrey Gunatilleke and David Blacker (a war veteran and award winning writer of English prose), who are neither Sinhala-Buddhist nor subscribe to such fundamentalist notions of Sri Lanka’s identity, have produced a far more serious and sophisticated critique of the Darusman report and a credible, analytically solid, alternative interpretative framework of the war’s last stages, than have any ideologue or spokesperson for narrow nationalism.
Having left the Darusman report in rubble, Godfrey Gunatilleke’s and David Blacker’s critical interventions delegitimize, by implicit extension, the even more tendentious Channel 4 productions by a realistic re-framing of context and events. For example, David Blacker says of Channel 4:
“…footage of identifiable Sri Lankan soldiers committing shocking but non-criminal activities is shown alongside footage of unidentified persons committing obviously criminal acts, thereby implying that all the acts shown are criminal ones committed by identifiable SL Army personnel.” (Holes in the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts Report: Examining the Probable Alternate Events)
This is intellectually all the more valuable and praiseworthy at a time when commentators pronounce judgment upon the counter-documentary of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence, ‘Lies Agreed Upon’ (ably narrated and presented by Minoli Ratnayake), without a single critical reference to the WMD-esque Channel 4 programmes, and while, in fact, parroting their more lurid nonsense.