Monday, April 9, 2012

Can you forgive her?

Published in my column in The Nation on April 08, 2012 
By Darshanie Ratnawalli

How did the UN Panel report on Lanka affect the local commentators? I say nothing about foreign commentators because all cultures across the world have popular tropes that depict foreigners as credulous fools (the Brooklyn bridge story, the ‘parangiya kotte giya’ story, etc.) and we can draw on this common heritage to come to terms with the acts of some foreign commentators. But what about the natives (who are savvy individuals full of native cunning according to the same tropes)? I suggest that the report made sucklings out of some local commentators and caused them to imprint on the UN Panel as dispensers of absolute wisdom. Just so do animal cubs imprint on the first moving object they encounter as ‘MOTHER’. It has little to do with reason and all to do with blind instinct.

For instance take Tisaranee Gunesekara ( ). In chiding the Government for positioning the Fourth Eelam War as a ‘humanitarian rescue operation’ with a policy of ‘zero civilian casualties’ she says; “The lies were unnecessary and the excessive measures taken to sustain them needless. Truth, with all its scabs and warts, would have served Sri Lanka better…More damagingly, the lie of ‘zero-civilian casualties’ was maintained, against all logic and reason. Assuming perfection was unnecessary; claiming infallibility was unconvincing. These poses were, in the final analysis, far more damaging than acknowledging mistakes and apologising for misdeeds.”

Look carefully and you will find hidden among the words of moral rectitude and good sense, like a gun among lingerie, the UN report’s legacy to Tisaranee. There is an unauthorized item in her chain of reasoning which she has surreptitiously smuggled in. Did you spot it Watson? By unauthorized, I meant not authorized by the normal rules governing chains of reasoning. Such rules would direct a person critical of the denial of civilian casualties, to urge…acknowledging civilian casualties. Instead Tisaranee urges…acknowledging mistakes and apologizing for misdeeds. Probably unknowingly and qualifying herself to be included in a case book for Freudian slips, Tisaranee reveals a conceptualization, which equates acknowledging civilian casualties with acknowledging mistakes and apologizing for misdeeds. Ipso facto categorization of Fourth Eelam War civilian casualties as Government mistake and misdeed is an act of positioning, a market spin, a selling proposition and the lady slips it in such an unobtrusive, taken for granted manner, that one wonders what to do. Sneer and express the wish that some mentor had succeeded early, in encouraging her to find avenues of self expression other than political analysis? Or whistle in admiration and nominate her for the Sri Lankan subliminal propaganda awards?

The last stage of Eelam War IV was a context made impossibly, unprecedentedly complex by the hellish juxtaposition of four irredeemable factors; a civilian hostage situation, a progressively decreasing battle space, an orchestrated merging of civilian and combat spaces and a fraught international situation throbbing with interventionist potential. One day they will invent a proper slot, a correct classification that can comfortably sum up such a unique circumstance. Mistake and misdeed don’t even begin to do it.

Which is the actual Thisaranee? Clever smuggler of presumption disguised as basic reality or a genuine cognitive failure? Perhaps the following long quote (from Godfrey Gunatilleke in 'Truth and Accountability : The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka', an evaluation of the UN panel report on SL) will give us some light;
As stated earlier the panel’s own account of the fighting on the ground and LTTE’s use of civilians for various military purposes in order to defend themselves were leading to high civilian casualties. At this point the options that were available for minimizing civilian casualties short of stopping the military operation, would have posed dilemmas of inconceivable proportions. The Panel does not grant that the GOSL might have acted on its judgment that if it did not move in to destroy the LTTE’s military and defence capability as early as possible, the plight of the civilians would have deteriorated and the LTTE would have engineered a major humanitarian crisis. On such a premise, issues of intentionality and proportionality take on a different character and would have to be examined in much greater depth than what the Panel has been able to do, given its rejection of the government version and the circumstances in which it had to operate.”
Now hold that light steady and read more of Tiisaranee; “…As a civilian stated, “If the Government openly admitted that it had crushed and injured these people, it would be easier to accept than what it does now. It claims that it rescued the civilians without a single casualty, is caring for them, feeding them, resettling them and looking after all their needs. That kind of lie is the lowest thing you could inflict on another human being” (UTHR Special Report No. 34 – 13.12.2009).” Admitting that there were civilian casualties is not interchangeable with admitting to ‘injuring and crushing these people’. It doesn’t automatically follow Watson. A government can admit civilian casualties without admitting to ‘crushing and injuring these people’. What transforms civilian casualties into ‘crushing and injuring a people’? Not magic. It’s a premise, a presumption that transforms it. This presumption, of murderous intent, of ruthless, criminal disregard of civilian life, flows from the UN Panel Report and is accepted and used insidiously as a fundamental principle by Tisaranee as well as by the civilian proxy of the UTHR report she quotes.

There are serious credible allegations against the UN Panel: viz., that knowingly and deliberately while in the grip of the above presumption and to give credence to such presumption, they have committed gross intellectual misdemeanors including the following;

Failure to correlate in a manner indicating cause and effect, the strategies and actions of the LTTE disclosed in the Panel’s own account, i.e. use of civilians as a buffer, shooting of civilians who were escaping, conscription of civilians and pushing them to the front lines as cannon fodder, fortifying the no-fire zones, using mobile artillery, shooting from proximity of hospitals, with the courses of action open to a government pursuing a military goal.

Omitting or sidelining significant details from the Report that could provide a different explanation of the government’s strategy and actions. Such as the erasure of vital contextual details from the picture of civilian casualties within the NFZs. Thus firmly placing civilian casualties in a vacuum and giving ‘no information of Tiger units coming under fire in close proximity to the civilians, something which many eyewitnesses have admitted to seeing themselves’. Inferring in this way ‘that there was very little or no military activity in the areas around the civilians, and that therefore there was no reason for any shelling by the SL Army’.

Inability to form complete cognitive pathways incorporating such facts as ‘a lot of UAV footage as well as SL military statements point to the fact that the Tiger units were actively fortifying and defending terrain even in the NFZs, often relocating high value weapons and ordnance within the NFZs and in close proximity to the civilians, and that far from the civilians and hospitals being easily recognizable islands in a sea of calm, they were right in the middle of an intensely contested battlefield’. (See Pp. 10-13)

Such cognitive failures are starkly manifest when placed alongside functioning cognitive pathways of contemporary commentators close to the thick of the action, such as the Bishop of Jaffna, who in asking the government to extend the safe zone, ‘declared that he and his colleagues “are urgently requesting the Tamil Tigers not to station themselves among the people in the safety zone and fire their artillery-shells and rockets at the army. This will only increase more and more the death of civilians thus endangering the safety of the people”.( )