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Channel 4 video, a blatant lie - Dr Kohona

Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Dr. Palitha Kohona said the commentator John Snow and the UK-based Channel 4 (Ch-4), which made the video – Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields - depending heavily on information from the LTTE’s propaganda arm, TamilNet, had deliberately produced the video to influence international public opinion and arouse sympathy towards the LTTE and its cause.

Dr. Kohona, together with his deputy, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, had exposed the technical ‘lies’ in the video at a screening of the documentary at the UN Church Centre in New York, sponsored by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, on June 22.

“The commentary is heavily biased towards the LTTE propaganda watch. This is obvious from the pictures and phrases used and the way John Snow tries so hard to create sympathy towards the LTTE cause. It is just unmistakable, one would describe his commentary as gut-wrenching”, he said.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer Dr. Kohona, who is now in Sri Lanka, discussed the motive of Ch-4, the initiatives taken by the Government to save Tamils facing LTTE terror and future action against Ch-4. He said they had dealt with the video adequately at its screening.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q:The EU Parliamentary delegation, in its recent debate, said the Channel 4 (Ch-4) video - ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ - is a far cry from the reality, heavy on criticism and light in substance. How do you describe the video?

A: I think it is important to examine closely the way the Ch-4 video has been compiled. It has extensive segments taken from the TamilNet, which we all know was the propaganda arm of the LTTE and continues to be the propaganda tool of the rump LTTE. There is other footage which was ‘acquired through other means’.

However, the substantial part of the video comes from propaganda used by the LTTE and now by the rump LTTE.

One begins to wonder whether this video was compiled with a genuine humanitarian motive or with some other motive. If you look at the video, you see disturbing scenes and there is no doubt about it, but the commentary is heavily biased towards the LTTE propaganda watch. This is obvious. The pictures and phrases used and the way John Snow tries so hard to create sympathy towards the LTTE cause, it is just unmistakable. His commentary could be described as gut-wrenching.

Another thing is the title – Killing Fields. This is not new, it was used in the late 1970s by John Hiltor in his famous documentary on Khmer Rouge. The title was the Killing Field. It had enormous impact and I have no doubt that John Snow and the Ch-4 did this deliberately with a view to influencing international public opinion. The motive was solely that.

Again you have to remember that the LTTE, which terrorised and brutalised our society for over 27 years, comes out of this, smelling not too badly. I can’t say that they smell like roses, but they don’t come out too badly. The video team ignores that the LTTE, for over 27 years, recruited children, 5,700 according to UNESCO and over 20,000 according to Human Rights Watch. They invented the suicide vest, and used it over 250 times successfully, killing thousands of civilians in the process, children going to school, shoppers, etc. They damaged UNESCO-declared sacred sites such as the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy.

They killed most of the moderate Tamil political leadership of this country. Having done all these, today we find the Government of Sri Lanka in the dock rather than the LTTE. The LTTE merely gets passing references and criticism while John Snow piles criticism on the Government of Sri Lanka. Also, the way he characterised the Security Forces offensives against the LTTE... as deliberate targeting of the Tamil civilian population. This cannot be anything but a blatant lie because if the Government wanted to do that, Tamils were in the South. Over 54 percent of the Tamil population lives in the South and over 40 percent of the Colombo population is Tamils. If the Government wanted to target Tamils, it could have done that here.

There is no need to go to the North to do that. Until the Security Forces reached Kilinochchi, there was never a suggestion that the civilians were being harmed. Only when it became clear that the LTTE was in a situation it would not recover from, did the TamilNet start focusing on civilians. John Snow picks up this lie very casually but deliberately because from then onwards, for him the Security Forces operations targeted civilians.

The Forces actually adopted an infantry approach. It could have used heavy weapons from the beginning, but it didn’t. They adopted an infantry approach because they wanted to avoid civilian concentrations. In the process they lost over 6,000 personnel. This casualty figure could have been avoided if Sri Lanka had also adopted the approach of the militaries of other countries dealing with terrorist-related issues. We could have used extensive aerial bombing, missiles and drones, but we did not. In fact we used our infantry at a great cost. I think it is irresponsible and shameless journalism to have used this kind of commentary and compiled a video of this nature.

Q: After the explanation provided by you and Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva at the forum of the INGOs including the Ch-4 team, do you think you have been able to change the perception about Sri Lanka internationally?

A: I must say that Maj. Gen. Silva and myself confronted the Ch-4 at a showing of this video at the Church Centre in NY and we feel that we dealt with the video adequately. We were initially given only 10 minutes by the organisers of this event. Even that had to be obtained by making repeated requests. Whatever we did had to be done within a very limited time. It was not easy. The screening started at 11.15 am and went on for 70 or 80 minutes. The time available for us was not that extensive. Similarly, other people were asking questions and making commentaries, they also did take up time. We took all the time we needed.

EU debate

Q: Meanwhile, EU parliamentary group Head Geoffrey Order had claimed at the EU debate that the Ch-4 video is a malicious approach against the Lankan Government by extremists of the Tamil diaspora. What is your comment?

A: I totally agree with him, but also need to say that it is not only the Tamil diaspora that is behind this. I am certain that elements in the Tamil diaspora are very active and are to a larger extent responsible for pushing the Ch-4 and other parties to adopt an anti - Sri Lanka approach.

This is not only Channel 4; the video has now been shown by the Public Broadcast System of America and Special Broadcasting Service in Australia and is scheduled to be shown in Australia and the ABC Channel. There are elements, including extremist Tamil elements in various parts of the world, who for various reasons, have adopted a sympathetic approach to the LTTE and the video is being used to create sympathy for their cause. It could also be said that what the LTTE lost on the battle field after 27 years of brutal terrorism, the rump LTTE is now seeking to win elsewhere by mobilising the sympathy of liberals in the West, politicians, NGOs and decision makers. It is a well-orchestrated campaign.

Q: Order has also called on the EU to support the Government. Will this be a good initiative for other countries to abandon their criticism of Sri Lanka?

A: I think all well-meaning politicians in democracies should take a similar view for the same reason – if a precedent is set whereby a terrorist group, which has been defeated can recover initiatives by relying on moderates and liberals, I think terrorist groups will do the the same. It is a simple formula, you hide yourself behind civilians either to use them as a shield and prevent attacks on yourselves or by subsequently using civilian casualties as a means of creating a public opinion against the government. I think it is very important for democracies which are fighting terrorism all over the world not to set a precedent of this nature and also not to give encouragement to terrorist groups that they can recover the initiatives through different mechanisms.

Q: This is the second time that Ch-4 accused Sri Lanka of war crimes through fake videos. Do you think the Government should maintain silence without taking legal action against the channel?

A: I don’t think the Government maintains silence when elements come up through such videos. When they aired the first video, where naked and blind-folded individuals are executed the Government responded to it. Not only responded, but we acquired the services of professionals to analyse the video clip and of course there are two views on it. When there are two views, you can’t simply say one is better than the other. We have to let the world decide that. In fact, in my view, there is nothing in those videos to suggest that they were shot in Sri Lanka, that the shooters were Sinhalese soldiers simply because they happened to be using Sinhala expressions in the background or the victims were Tamils. It could very well happen the other way around, because there is ample evidence that the LTTE executed their prisoners. The Sri Lanka Army still has over 3,000 soldiers missing. What happened to them? They were not released when the LTTE was defeated. We do not know what happened to them. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the LTTE executed them.

There is also a video circulating at the moment, the same video, with Tamil voices in the background. There are enormous doubts as to the authenticity, not only of the technical authenticity, but also the substantive authenticity of this video. They have used this to put the Sri Lankan Government and its military on the dock. We should also remember that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has the mandate to go into issues of this nature. When it was appointed, it was welcomed by many countries including the USA. We should give it time and space to go into all these issues and come up with its own recommendations. It is far too premature to rush in to judgement simply because elements in the Tamil diaspora want to seek revenge because they have invested heavily in the LTTE and the champions are no more. In my view, they are trying to recover what they lost in the battle field through enormous investments of money, time and energy or through some other means.

It is mysterious that these INGOs have applied a different standard to the LLRC to what they have used with regard to commissions appointed by Western countries. It is only now, almost 40 years later, that proper investigations are being conducted on the Bloody Sunday massacres in the UK. Yes, 40 years! The Walcott Commission was appointed seven years after the illegal invasion of Iraq and then only to investigate intelligence failures and not to look into the thousands of civilian deaths, the absolute devastation of Iraq’s infrastructure and the disintegration of that society that followed the invasion. Do we see any agonised wringing of NGO hands? No! To be credible, criticism of the LLRC must at least bear a semblance of balance and fair play.

I believe the Government is exploring the avenues to take legal action against Channel 4 at the moment.

Q: Don’t you think the Government’s international propaganda machinery is still too weak to counter these false allegations?

A: The Government is doing its best. A democratically elected civilian government cannot operate in the same way as a well-funded terrorist group. The experience of the world over the years is that terrorist groups have always done well in the propaganda field. The LTTE is no exception. The exception is the rump LTTE is much more sophisticated and better organised than any of those terrorist groups. One has to remember that the FBI described them as the most brutal and most sophisticated terrorist organisation in the world.

The Government is working on it. I am sure there will be something serious to counter these allegations in future.

Final months

Q: The Tamil diaspora claims that over 40,000 Tamils died during the final months of the battle against the LTTE. What is the real figure and do you think the figure is being exaggerated?

A: There is no doubt that the figure is grossly exaggerated. There is no substantive evidence that it did ever happen. The simple question is who buried 40,000 because the LTTE was fully engaged in fighting with the Army and the Army was totally engaged in fighting with the LTTE. There was nobody to spare for burial purposes and the burial of 40,000 people would have taken time. If they do their maths, they would realise that it takes longer than the final three months of the war. In my view, this is an absolute lie and should not be tolerated. Originally the number was 7,000, which apparently came from a leaked UN document. Immediately after it became public knowledge, Sir John Holmes said he could not verify that figure or the UN could not.

And The London Times from nowhere came up with the figure of 20,000. The journalist who published this figure, I believe, was annoyed for not being allowed to come to Sri Lanka. Now of course we have Gordon Weiss, the Australian UN spokesman saying the number was 40,000. The number keeps on growing and I suspect that this might grow to 60,000 or 80,000 in the coming months. This is one way to get the sympathy of the liberal-minded Westerners. You give numbers, show disturbing footage and then the numbers acquire a life of their own. That is how 7,000 became 20,000 and now 40,000.

The dead may disturb you and evoke sympathy, but I absolutely do not believe this number. If you watch the Channel 4 video without the commentary, you would not be able to count even 100 deaths.

The ‘No Fire Zones’ (NFZs) were declared by the Government, not to encourage Tamils to congregate there. It was only when we discovered large concentrations of civilians in certain areas, that the Government declared the two NFZs. The idea was not to get the civilians to flock into those areas, but to ensure that our troops avoid large concentrations. This has now been turned around through the Ch-4 video maliciously and deliberately.

The LTTE did locate their heavy machinery and heavy weapons and their fighting units among unarmed civilians. The video inadvertently shows men in sarongs and jeans firing from heavy machine guns in a village. In one shot of the camp site, you see a destroyed piece of artillery and it is known that they did this deliberately to attract retaliatory fire. When you fire to silence a gun, it is quite possible that civilians got caught in the cross-fire. But this was not deliberate and never done deliberately as our objective was to get those civilians to leave the LTTE-controlled areas. You may remember the President himself calling on the LTTE to surrender at least before the end of the conflict. They refused and kept on moving to the North and the East with a large number of civilians in tow.

The UN Secretary General pleaded with them to let the people go, but they ignored it. Then Bernard Kouchner, David Miliband and the then US Secretary of State called on them to let the people go, but all these pleas fell on deaf ears. If the LTTE was keen on protecting their own people, certainly they did not show that by their actions. The Government’s sole objective was to let the people leave the clutches of the LTTE and they succeeded at the end of the conflict; over 300,000 people managed to escape from the terrorists.

Q: While US and NATO forces, which killed thousands of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya are not facing any war crimes charges, why do you think they are targeting Sri Lanka to take it before an International War Crimes Tribunal?

A: There is no way they can do it as Lanka is not a party to the International Criminal Court. What they are really trying to do is to embarrass Sri Lanka and seek revenge. For this purpose they distort the facts, they exploit the sympathetic feelings of liberal-minded people in the West and they are certainly using the media to full effect.

At the end of the day, as you pointed out, one needs to ask the question why is Sri Lanka subjected to all this anger and venom? Perhaps, it is because we are small and poor. Therefore, it is easy to beat up ourselves. We don’t have the resources to counter the propaganda assets of the LTTE and its remnants. We are not rich enough to lobby the type of pressure groups that they have succeeded in lobbying. Then of course, the obvious question, as to why the security forces of those countries which are fighting terrorists and responsible for countless number of deaths are not coming under the same amount of pressure. Perhaps, it may be because funding for these INGOs are from these countries. You are not going to lose your funding by criticising your donors.

Sri Lanka wanted to release its own people from the control of a terrorist group that has been proscribed in almost every Western country. One will wonder whether there is any sincerity in the attempts to try Sri Lanka.

No Fire Zones

Q: The Sri Lankan Government was accused of firing into the State-declared No Fire Zones. As the former Foreign Ministry Secretary, how do you respond to this allegation?

A: I can categorically say this is not correct for the simple reason that the Government clearly adopted a policy of zero civilian casualties and there is no way the Security Forces would disobey this and deliberately fire at the civilians in the NFZ. Having said that, the laws of war do permit retaliatory action and that is the simple rule of law as long as the retaliation is proportionate and reasonable.

Q: You were accused of negotiating the surrender of Nadesan, who was later killed. Is it true?

A: Let me explain two things here. First, the Foreign Secretary in Sri Lanka has no absolute legal authority or other authority to negotiate a surrender. Secondly, the Foreign Secretary will never have any authority to issue orders to troops.

The other thing to remember is there is no evidence at all to suggest that these individuals attempted surrender and were killed after they surrendered.

There was an interview in the Asian Tribune with a Tamil Parliamentarian who was with the LTTE till the very end; there he categorically states that there was no attempt to surrender and in fact he says if there was anybody trying to surrender, Prabhakaran would have ensured that they are executed. I think this is just for propaganda purposes. My personal view is that it was character assassination.

Furthermore, a number of Tiger leaders who surrendered are living comfortably in Government custody. e.g. George and Daya Master and KP who was captured, is in Government hands. Thamilchelvam’s wife and Sea Tiger leader, Soosai’s wife are being looked after by the Government.

Q: Did you receive any calls from them and did you ask them to contact the authorities?

A: I was contacted by somebody through email and and it was published by a newspaper. I had simply asked them to follow the normal procedure.

This was not an effort to orchestrate or arrange a surrender. Especially during the final battle, when bullets were flying from all directions, to contact the Foreign Secretary would have been absolute nonsense.

I think this story is a desperate attempt to get sympathy for the rump LTTE and their cause.

It is important to recognise that the war against terrorism is over. People of this country need to move forward. They are moving forward. It is not by keeping wounds open, but by letting the wounds heal. For whatever reason, they like to keep scratching the wounds but these will only perpetuate bitterness and will prevent the two communities getting back together.

Within Sri Lanka, the reconciliation process is progressing well, but outside efforts of this nature will only encourage people to remain bitter for much longer.

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