A one-eyed view of Sri Lanka

My following article appears today in ABC’s The Drum Unleashed:

A Western journalist visits the Sudanese capital Khartoum to interview President Omar al-Bashir. The reporter, after calling him “controversial” due to his “bloody” record in fighting terrorism, gives the leader a platform to explain his views and tactics. The only other voice featured in the piece is a commentator who backs the government wholeheartedly. The fact that Bashir has been charged in 2010 by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur is glossed over in the story.

This piece would be rightly called propaganda, the lack of enquiry revealing an inability to understand the reasons Bashir wanted to speak to a Westerner. Bashir is undoubtedly a legitimate person to interview but the skill is painting an entire picture of the people suffering under his rule, not least the minorities and those in Darfur.

Sadly, The Australian’s Rowan Callick was easily seduced by the allure of an exclusive chat with Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and this week published a number of articles from his lightning visit. His trip was “not paid for by the Sri Lanka government or by anybody in any way associated with Sri Lanka”, Callick told me but it appears he engaged with nobody other than officials while in the country.

Amazingly, Callick didn’t even mention that Gotabaya has consistently said that no civilians were killed by the Sri Lankan government in the final phases of its brutal war against the Tamil Tigers despite every major human rights group in the world detailing a litany of war crimes against the top echelons of the Colombo regime. Up to 40,000 Tamil civilians were murdered, according to former UN official in Colombo, Gordon Weiss. Britain is now calling for a fully independent war crimes investigation into the serious allegations.

Callick published a story that claimed Sri Lanka was again safe for all its citizens and Australia should “get tough” on Tamil asylum seekers. Singapore based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, a Sinhalese like Sri Lanka’s leadership, claimed without evidence that “70 per cent of Tamils granted asylum in Australia and Canada had returned to Sri Lanka for a visit.”

The article concluded with this curious paragraph:

“The government has invited opinion leaders of that Diaspora to visit Sri Lanka as it emerges from the war, and to visit centres of past conflict. Those who had gone, including some from Australia, had ‘returned pleased.'”

In other words, Callick was happy to be shown around parts of Sri Lanka the government wanted him to see.

This fit perfectly with the regime’s enthusiasm to restore its battered image. In the UK, public relations firm Bell Pottinger has been hired to “counter the Tamil Diaspora campaign work” and white-wash alleged crimes committed by the Rajapaksa authorities.

I asked Callick by email about his trip and he said that he was “briefly in Colombo” to “interview the country’s second most powerful figure”¦ His views [Gotabaya] are clearly of considerable interest.” The Murdoch journalist told me that his paper “has covered a range of views on Sri Lanka issues” over time and this is certainly true.

Despite the newspaper featuring stories over the last years about the Sri Lankan government’s Israeli-style blitzkrieg on the Tamil population, this is utterly irrelevant to the impression this week’s stories have falsely created in the public mind. Letters to The Australian in the last days show readers are outraged that 70 per cent of Tamil refugees granted protection are supposedly returning to Sri Lanka within a year of arriving here. Yet there is no documented evidence that this is true.

Callick’s full-page feature of his time with Gotabaya merely added insult to injury. Titled, “Brothers who tamed the Tigers”, the article again only featured two voices, Gotabaya and Gunaratna. Claims about protecting civilians were accepted without challenge. No mention of the extensive reports by Human Rights Watch, the UN and Amnesty International that found alleged crimes against humanity by the Sri Lankan forces towards both Tamil civilians and the Tamil Tigers (who also stand accused of committing war crimes). Callick accepted Gotabaya’s claims without hesitation or challenge.

Callick followed up his series of stories with a more balanced piece the next day but this also barely mentioned Sri Lanka’s slide into authoritarianism.

The International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recently declined an offer from Colombo to appear before a sham commission to investigate any alleged abuses during the country’s war with the Tamil Tigers. The letter to the commission read in part:

“While we would welcome the opportunity to appear before a genuine, credible effort to pursue accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, the LLRC [Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission] falls far short of such an effort. It not only fails to meet basic international standards for independent and impartial inquiries, but it is proceeding against a backdrop of government failure to address impunity and continuing human rights abuses.

Our three organizations believe that the persistence of these and other destructive trends indicates that currently Sri Lanka’s government and justice system cannot or will not uphold the rule of law and respect basic rights.”

Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris called the refusal of the groups reminiscent of an “attitude that is almost colonial, patronizing and condescending“.

Colombo is following the Israeli model, dismissive of international opinion towards its crimes and excesses and relying on the largesse, military backing and diplomatic cover of a handful of major powers.

Another fundamental flaw with the Callick articles was his reliance on Rohan Gunaratna, the ubiquitous terrorism expert. The Singapore-based analyst’s disturbing ability to blur academic studies and political opinions has been challenged for years but the mainstream media continues seeking his views. Gunaratna’s understanding of Asia’s Islamist threat has often be inaccurate and excessive and his use of unsourced and unproven intelligence leaves open the possibility of distortions. A number of terrorism experts told me that very few, if any, serious terrorism experts take his claims seriously.

I asked Callick about his use of Gunaratna and the questions around his credibility. He responded that his “views are often interesting and well informed. That he has a close connection to governments does not necessarily undermine those elements.”

It would be like solely using a former Israeli intelligence officer and expecting him to speak frankly and honestly about the role of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. His former association would cloud his view unavoidably.

The Australian has used Gunaratna as its only source on Sri Lanka and Tamil refugee issues for months. He is always guaranteed to issue apocalyptic predictions of doom about the prospects of a re-formed Tamil Tigers in Australia and Canada despite no evidence to back the claims.

Gunaratna told me via email that he had “no financial relationship whatsoever” with the Sri Lankan intelligence services or the Sri Lankan government. He railed against “disinformation produced by the LTTE front and sympathetic organisations overseas including in Australia”. The implication was that any allegation of government-led war crimes by Tamils was suspect by definition despite the overwhelming eyewitness testimony of Sri Lanka forces firing on hospitals and civilian areas during the war.

He acknowledged that there was, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, “civilian deaths and injuries” and encouraged an “investigation”¦ No life is cheap. It is a son or a daughter, a mother or a father, brother or a sister of someone.”

When challenged on Colombo’s holding of 11,500 former Tamil Tigers suspects in detention – condemned by Human Rights Watch as a prison without international monitoring or investigation – Gunaratna denied that Sri Lanka was holding Tamils “without access to international bodies. It is a lie spread by the LTTE and its supporters and sympathisers. There are 11,500 LTTE terrorists in custody. They are undergoing rehabilitation before they are released.”

This is the same logic deployed by America and Israel with its illegal holding of countless prisoners without trial or judicial process. Terrorists are simply called terrorists because a government says so.

Gunaratna told me that he had “personally interviewed several thousand detainees” – a claim that stretches credibility – and praised the Sri Lankan “rehabilitation program as one of the best terrorist rehabilitation programs in the world”¦ [that] should be emulated by other governments.”

Despite no independent monitoring to assess the claim, he said that authorities “treat detainees with respect, promote moderation, toleration and co-existence and given a second chance to start a life.”

Such unbelievable claims are by the man who is often the main source of expertise in The Australian‘s coverage of Sri Lanka.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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