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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Narratives and a casualty

There are two distinct,even disparate,narratives in circulation regarding the ongoing war in Sri Lanka.

Written by Mohan K. Tikku |
April 28, 2009 1:14:21 am

There are two distinct,even disparate,narratives in circulation regarding the ongoing war in Sri Lanka. One is the version of battlefield developments provided by the Sri Lankan government or its armed forces. These deserve close analysis because no international observer or independent journalist has been permitted access to the fighting zone. Even the so-called “safe zones” for Tamil civilians have generally been kept out of bounds for the media. Then there are international agencies,including multilateral aid organisation workers working in the war zone. Though members of the aid agencies working on the ground have been under strict instructions not to speak to the outside media,news about the consequences of this war can be pieced into another narrative.

Reporting has naturally been dominated by the first narrative. Reporters,including Indian reporters,restricted to Colombo have to depend on the same official sources. Besides,the fact that many journalists critical of the government or its armed forces have been killed or detained even in supposedly secure Colombo has had a chilling effect on dissemination of war information. At least one international news agency has been depending on the Sri Lankan security forces for pictures of the war zone. (Jeremy Page,the South Asia correspondent of The Times was recently locked up for the night on landing at the airport in Colombo and then repatriated the following morning. His fault? He had been denied a journalist visa after,during an earlier visit,writing about the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga and the barbed,fenced camps designed to hold Tamil civilians for a period of three years after the war was over.)

In any event,examining the other narrative might help gain a more complete picture of what is transpiring behind the veil of official secrecy. Four reports or statements issued over the past week can assist in that.

Earlier last week,the International Crisis Group (ICG),which has been critical of the LTTE in the past,estimated that at least 5000 Tamil civilians,including 500 children,had been killed since mid-January and an estimated 10000 civilians had been wounded in the same period. After detailing their suffering,the ICG has placed the blame squarely on the doorstep of the international community. “Much of the international community knows what is happening and what is at stake,” according to Robert Templer,the Asia Director of the ICG; “the alarm bells [have been sounding since last fall… Nonetheless,the UN and influential governments have been slow to act and have allowed a bad situation to grow much worse.” Amnesty International urged the Sri Lankan government to allow international monitors to visit “reception centres” to help reassure both fleeing civilians and surrendered LTTE fighters that they will be treated according to accepted international norms.

After speaking about the vicious character of the LTTE,James Traub,director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect,argued in The Washington Post a few days ago that the need to protect civilian lives stood out even if Colombo was not prepared to listen. “The fighting threatens to produce exactly the kind of cataclysm that states vowed to prevent when they adopted ‘the responsibility to protect’ at the 2005 UN World Summit,” Traub remarked,and went on to ask: why this silence from the international community?

As of this moment there has been no answer.

In a war situation,truth of course is the first casualty. So,one should at least be able to reduce the areas of ambiguity,or the scope for obfuscation of facts,by examining contending versions to reach an approximation of the truth — if not the whole truth. We need both narratives to be part of this country’s discourse,so as to ensure a better-informed debate on the subject. It then might not have become necessary for the Congress to make a U-turn as it did last Wednesday,suddenly waking up to the fact of civilian suffering in this war. Its leaders were quite candid in admitting that they were worried about the votes in the coming elections in Tamil Nadu,thereby raising the possibility that the political class would be comfortable with things as usual once the elections are over.

Even after the LTTE has finally been defanged or destroyed,it is not going to be back-to-normal for the suffering civilian population. The healing process will take time. And confining them in security enclosures,described as the equivalent of “concentration camps” by some observers,cannot be part of that process. Nor is the question of minority rights going to disappear without a fair and equitable resolution of the issues at the heart of this conflict. Clearly,what is at stake here is far more important than the votes in Tamil Nadu and its skewed politics.

Mohan K. Tikku is the author of ‘Sri Lanka: A Land in Search of Itself’. He is based in Delhi

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