Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Post-War, War Crimes

Sri Lanka’s Numbers Game


Image courtesy Hill Post

On May 16 a seminar was held at the Marga Institute to launch  a publication by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka (IDAG-S) – The Numbers Game: Politics of Restorative Justice. I was at the seminar and will here attempt to provide an impression of the ideas generated in the discussion. This is in no way intended to be a formal record or set of minutes.

The members of the panel leading the discussion of the publication were Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, Chairman Emeritus of the Marga Institute, Asoka Gunawardena, Marga’s Executive Governor,  and Raja Korale, an international statistics consultant. The open forum was moderated by Dr Nimal Gunatilleke.

The IDAG-S Report

Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, opened  the proceedings by answering the question: “Do numbers matter”. He acknowledged that, while even a low number of casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures raised issues of the proportionality of the military response and the ethical position of the line of command. Continual recycling of spurious figures can only inhibit the healing process. Dr Dayan Jayetilleka agreed that the numbers do matter because the truth is a moral issue.

The Marga Institute had taken up this publication because it seemed authoritative enough to provide ammunition to persuade the UN to revisit its position on the numbers of civilian casualties in the final months of Eelam IV.

The provenance of the report encouraged confidence in its impartiality and competence. The IDAG-S is a think tank of academics, professionals and analysts from  the Sri Lankan diaspora in Europe, North America and Australia. The lead author is an aerospace engineer who was able to bring a wide range of multidisciplinary skills to the task.

Although Eelam War IV has been described as a war without witnesses, the authors of this report had managed, through thorough research, to assemble a logical and well-argued package which casts doubt on some of the calculations being peddled. Dr Gunatilleke found the high-resolution satellite images included in the report impressive. These had not been published so comprehensively elsewhere. These satellite images show that shells fired by the SLA from February to May mostly avoided concentrations of civilians and in the final weeks had used  hardly any artillery.

Remembrance and Amnesia

There was a strong theme at the seminar of the need to acknowledge the size of the catastrophe. Those who are citing inflated figures are making a demand for reckoning based on the assumption that we did not care. That exaggeration in turn prompts a bunker mentality among the victors who are reluctant to admit to a figure of civilian dead for fear of a litigious reaction.

Ernest Renan observed that nation-building requires amnesia as well as invention. In some countries memorials and commemorative days are seen as part of the healing process. Elsewhere, remembering is felt to be dangerous. In Rwanda, political parties are prohibited from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. The authorities have used these limitations to imprison critics. Remembering might inflame old hatreds. Cambodia celebrates a Day of Remembrance on My 20 each year. It used to be called the National Day of Hatred.

How do we strike a balance between remembering and the infantile abuse that too depressingly often passes for comment on the websites of newspapers. How do we contrive a discourse that notes the mistakes of the past without allowing the armchair conflict junkies from forcing further mistakes to be made?

Victory parades are not a helpful form of commemoration despite claims that that there are no longer any minorities, only Sri Lankans. Michael Roberts warns against  “hegemonic incorporation” of this nature. “Constitutional fiat cannot transform minds, especially entrenched mindsets. Multiple strategies are required. Political imagination is called for, both from President Rajapaksa and his advisors as well as eminent minds attached to this their land.”

Accountancy and Accountability

The war arose from a constellation of issues, not just as a reaction to grievances. The government’s foreign service and highly-paid PR consultants have dismally failed to convey this and to let  the world know the true nature of the LTTE and the kind of war it fought. GOSL needs to convey the truth about battle. Jim Grant of UNICEF had commended the government for still continuing to provide services in conflict zones. The world was not aware of this. The government has allowed the LTTE rump to convince some sections of western opinion that GOSL was following a policy of extermination. GOSL has not made the case that it took 11,000 LTTE prisoners alive and rehabilitated many of them.

On the other hand, there was a consensus that civil society must engage with the GOSL  focusing on the LLRC recommendations on the  process of collective atonement and  that leadership on this needs to be given by the President.

It would have  been surprising if there had not been some atavistic and brutal reaction from some soldiers who witnessed horrible things happening  to their comrades and lived under traumatic fear themselves. The IDAG-S conclusion states clearly: “Nothing in this survey denies the probability and the evidence that some extra-judicial killings of high-ranking LTTE officers occurred during the last days of the war. These actions need to be impartially investigated by an independent body, and where possible criminal indictments pursued against the perpetrators.”

There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for  genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis  of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise  the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils.  Bludgeoning them with  inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.

In 2009, the Banyan column in the Economist said: “It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.”

 IDAG-S consider that some critics , such as Frances Harrison and Alan Keenan have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity / morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”

In Sri Lanka’s case, controversial estimates of civilian deaths were introduced not as irrefutable facts, but as circumstantial evidence to lay the foundation for an international investigation and ultimately regime change.

Way Forward

At the conclusion of the seminar, the question was posed: “How can we engage in the international debate and how can civil society encourage  the implementation of LLRC recommendations on issues relating to humanitarian law and civilian casualties?”

Pradeep Jaganathan stressed the need to raise  public consciousness and  make people realise that we are all responsible and accountable for  what took place during the last 30 years – through sins of  commission and omission, hate, apathy, failure to speak up.

Dr. Dayan Jayetilleka proposed establishing a group to review the study and make necessary recommendations to GOSL which could be used  in the international debate. Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke thought it important that we address the moral responsibility and accountability of all actors in the conflict, including the TNA, and not solely the state. What is the universalist framework for an understanding of this whole tragedy of war and human suffering?