Thursday, June 21, 2012

UTHR (J) forges ahead without narrow ethnic agendas!

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

This is a horror story. It follows a classic plotline of the genre; the gradual emergence of the hidden revenant from under the guise of apparent goodness. At night, during a thunder storm, the hero would be necking in the car with his beautiful girlfriend (who is really the female revenant, a malignant supernatural force in human guise). Suddenly, in a flash of lighting, for a fraction of a second, he would see the beloved face as the face of a rotting corpse. The next moment, it would be the familiar beautiful face and he would dismiss the revelation as a trick of the light. But these sightings will intensify during the coming days, until…

The equivalent moment in my horror story comes when an intense bloke with little warmth but earnest and assiduous, a Calvinist to the bone, enjoying extremely good press for passionate defense of human rights, the recipient of an Amnesty International award in recognition of same, tries to straddle the moral high ground and slips. He pontificates in glorious vein (doing the beautiful girlfriend number); “Social and political forces with narrow ethnic or religious ideological trappings continue to undermine democracy in most of the developing nations… There is only one way forward. An initiative to forge a broad multi-ethnic and multi religious movement that challenges these narrow ethnic and religious agendas… While the Government and Sinhalese chauvinism must be fought through alliances with Muslims and Sinhalese who understand the dangers…” And then voila, the sudden glimpse of the rotting corpse underneath in the shape of an earnest invoking of the Tamil community’s claim on the North and the East. The bloke is none other than Rajan Hoole and this horror flick is shown in UTHR (J) special report 34.

The paragraph that afforded me my first, fleeting glimpse of the revenant under the skin of UTHR(J), straddles pages 9 and 10 of the special report 34; “Instead of showing generosity, the Government made maximum mileage of the misery it imposed on Tamil civilians to solicit funds from reluctant donors to pay for the extralegal incarceration of IDPs and for other projects with ulterior aims, such as resettlement or development schemes that could change the ethnic demographics of the north and east to further weaken the Tamil community’s claim on those areas.

The fear that the Government will not allow the IDPs to resettle in all the areas they inhabited before the war, and will instead introduce new Sinhalese settlements and their familiar consequences would remain a real fear for the Tamils. …Meanwhile the Government appears totally indifferent to the squalor of the IDPs. The effect of its actions amounts to the decimation of a people by crippling them from birth through deprivation, routine harassment and dirt.”

What left such a profound impression of horror on me was the fact that they were not even bothering to camouflage the chauvinism with a democratic spin, i.e. ‘demographics confer political clout in a democracy and systematic plans to deprive minority communities of regional political clout they have traditionally enjoyed by changing established demographics are not exactly cricket’. Even that would have sounded dodgy without definite evidence of a systematic agenda. For example it’s not enough to show that the President got up one morning full of plans for Northern development and North-South highways and remarked to his brothers, “you know what all this would ultimately lead to, don’t you fellas?” and they remarked with relish “yes demographic change!” and looked like cats with cream. You need to show systematic manipulation of the system, to exclude or sideline the Tamil component of the population from participating in the enterprise, in order to bring about the desired demographic result.

However, where was I? Ah yes being horrified at Hoole’s chauvinism and hypocrisy. This horror led me to ask the opinion of someone who (in my perception) had always been liberal with the scorn for Sinhala chauvinism but trodden softly, like through fields of Tulip, when it came to anything that could be reasonably be interpreted as Tamil chauvinism. This person is none other than Dr. Michael Roberts who replied to my query in an email dated August 2011;

“Note that Rajan and the UTHR cluster in the north were caught in the middle in the period 1987-2009; and that both Rajan and Sritharan had to go into hiding from the LTTE. In short they were in extreme danger once Rajani T was assassinated. Even in Colombo Rajan moved around and when I set up a meeting with him once circa 2001 had to wait his call via Nesiah and for them to arrange a meeting.

He is an intense bloke with little warmth but earnest and assiduous. A Calvinist to the bone. This does not of course preclude errors of judgment but he will in my view never concoct material in the manner of Channel 4, Darusman etc. Whether he accepts or reprints testimony from liars is another matter.

If Rajan is buying into the standard claims re the Eastern Province as part of the “traditional homelands” then I would challenge him.

Re the present fear that the present govt is going to settle Sinhalese in areas that housed Tamils in the recent past (not just the pre-48 past): in voicing this fear Rajan is moving with the tide of articulate Tamil opinion (and some anti-govt Sinhalese). As far as I know this fear is unsubstantiated and has not come to pass but I have an open mind on the issue.

As for his comments on the IDP camps as “extra-legal” and having terrible conditions, my response would be (a) yes extra-legal but requisite in the interests of the rest of the population on a short-term basis and (b) the conditions were not that terrible and a remarkable job was done by govt and NGO and INGO agencies in catering to those people. On this issue he is speaking from the cloisters in Colombo or wherever.

In 1987-20009 Rajan and Co were in a crunch sandwich situ between Sinhala-dominated state and the LTTE (with latter as greater threat). NOW with the LTTE out their structured political situation is that of a former Tamil dissident faction that pursues its Tamilness by taking up Tamil grievances and thus liable to press exaggerations, pedantic claims and unrealistic demands.”

Friday, June 1, 2012

Hoole is not cool

Published in my column in The Nation on May 27, 2012 
By Darshanie Ratnawalli

“When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back..” - Friedrich Nietzsche
The testimonies of the hoards of civilians who recounted their NFZ experiences to the LLRC contradict the set of testimonies culled by Rajan Hoole and Co and included in the UTHR(J) special Report 34. It’s not a case of a lot of blind men trying to describe an elephant. The two batches of testimonies are plain irreconcilable. They do not complement but contradict each other on the most fundamental level.

We do not know Hoole’s methodologies of collecting testimonies. The popular impression is that they are insider testimonies culled from a more aware inner circle. For example, a common feature of LLRC civilians is not being able to tell exactly from which direction shells came while being shelled. The typical LLRC dialog on shelling; ““We were running in fear because there was continuous shelling.” In response to a question as to who was shelling – she stated “we can't tell you definitely because shells were being fired by both sides – Tigers and Army.”” Ditto on shelling of hospitals. None of the LLRC civilians were sure who shelled. In contrast Hoole’s insider civilians were extraordinarily aware; “…Within three minutes shells were fired by an MBRL further east of where the first shells fell, just north of Charles Mandapam (Hall), killing all together 16 persons. He is certain that the shells were fired by the Army from Kalliady, which is across Nandikadal lagoon, south of Puthukkudiyiruppu…” However let us concede the point. We know that any civilian community consists of a clueless majority and a sharply observant minority. Only where were the latter when the LLRC was moving around?

The whole point of appointing a public commission and having them move around holding public sittings is to obtain a representative, across the board sample of voices that will accurately represent the slice of life under investigation. We know that of the hundreds and thousands of civilians who wanted to meet the LLRC, not all were given the opportunity. But that opportunity denial was not through systematic screening. There was no pre-LLRC board that the people first had to pass, so that dangerous material could be filtered. Subject to inevitable limitations, people went and told their stories unhindered. They said we surrendered together but now my husband is missing, we were waiting in line in the NFZ to get Thriposha and the Navy shelled us and so many expectant mothers died, we went in a boat with white flags towards the Navy and they fired. One witness even recounted a cluster bomb experience and it was given wide publicity in a Tamil Newspaper. None of these civilians have disappeared.

Meanwhile Hoole’s civilians who told him that much of the government shelling into the NFZs were independent of any LTTE provocation, that NFZs were roomy places where combat and civilian spaces were generally well separated, that SLA shelling mostly fell on these civilian spaces, that punitive, vengeful and indiscriminate shelling was the norm; where are they? They were conspicuous by their absence before the LLRC. Since telling their stories to Hoole these civilians seem to have disappeared. Which is strange, because they can’t have been some niche group of random carpetbaggers. They had to have been a representative cross section of IDPs for Hoole to treat their account as an accurate representation of the general reality in the NFZs and a bedrock to base the conclusions in his executive summary;
“…But this time, from January 2009, indiscriminate brutality causing huge civilian casualties was used when the LTTE was virtually broken and was merely prolonging the war by throwing in conscripts. This time, moreover, the bombing and shelling of areas full of civilians seemed almost vindictive. The largest civilian losses came at the last stages due to indiscriminate fire when the LTTE was virtually finished…”- (Pp.16-17)
Is this bit of executive summary actually based on a representative cross section of IDP testimonies? Less than two years later the LLRC, whose transparency in opening the door to civilian voices remains uncontested, throws the issue into serious doubt. It uncovered a narration, which categorically contradicted not a mere detail but a major pillar of Hoole’s narrative.

Apart from 6 specific episodes recounted by witnesses of shell attacks on civilian assemblies allegedly by government forces, the everyday reality experienced by civilians who came before the LLRC was that the Army never initiated attacks into the No Fire Zones. In the life-world of even an accusing LLRC witness, the ultimate accusation against the Army re NFZs was of retaliating; “…The LTTE infiltrated this security zone and they came inside along with the ordinary people and used it as a base to attack the Army. When this happened the Army retaliated and this act of the Government despite the announcement that they have already announced the area as a security zone, how can they start retaliating when the civilian population was there and this is the main question we wish to pose to you as this cannot be justified. … From my point of view it is the Government that gave the LTTE an opportunity to use the civilian population as pawns and as a human shield... the people went into that area because the Government had made the announcement that it was a safe place. As a result of this that area became besieged by the LTTE…”.- (LLRC 4.58). It was not only from this but from the entire body of the NFZ experiences relived before it, that the LLRC reconstructs the firing practices of the SLA;
“4.271 It further transpired from these and other representations that the Army had never initiated attacks in the Safety Zones and return fire was in response to LTTE attacks.”
Why didn’t Hoole encounter these civilians? There is not a shadow of a doubt that they existed and walked and talked while Hoole was collecting testimonies for his report. Even the US State Department picked up their voices;
“May 14-18 – An organization reported that, at the beginning of the final operation, the SLA used shelling that resulted in some civilian casualties. However, the IDPs to whom the organization spoke were uniformly emphatic that the SLA shelled only in reply to the LTTE’s mortar and gun fire from among the civilians. Civilians also said that on May 15 the SLA stopped shelling when the LTTE began destroying its own equipment. The organization also reported that some LTTE cadres were going to bunkers where civilians were sheltered, asking “So you want to run away to the Army do you?” and then opening fire against them.”-(Report to Congress on SL-Pp. 46)
Why didn’t Hoole hear any of the civilian voices that would have challenged his thesis on vindictive, pointless, brutal SLA shelling of civilians and his conceptualization of NFZs as vast, rolling planes with clearly segregated civilian and LTTE zones?

“Several civilians who were interviewed by the Commission stated that right up to the final stages, the LTTE had used heavy artillery from civilian populated areas in the NFZs to start firing at the Security Forces.”- (LLRC 4.51)

“A civilian, who was interviewed by the Commission referring to the Mullaivaikkal East area, stated that at the last stages there was no space at all and the LTTE and the civilians had been in a very congested area and the LTTE had continued to fire at the Army from this area and the Army had returned fire.”- (LLRC 4.53)

I think it was the abyss. You think you can stare into it with impunity. But it gets you eventually.