On My Watch
- Lucien RAJAKARUNANAYAKE
It was a familiar story line last week as Sri Lankan troops moved
deeper into LTTE held territory. Diplomats and the foreign media that
have so far remained sceptical about the success of the Government’s
military operations to fight terrorism of the LTTE, are also now
beginning to see for themselves that the LTTE is no more the invincible
outfit it was made out to be for so long.
Earlier this week the Mallavi town fell to the advancing troops of
the 57 Division. Mallavi was an important LTTE bastion located along the
Vellankulama- Mankulama main road. Its fall after a week of heavy
resistance from the LTTE, in a desperate attempt to save this strategic
hub, to prevent further military setbacks for the LTTE.
The fall of Mallavi, reportedly the birthplace of Velupillai
Prabhakaran’s wife, came after troops had earlier taken control of
Thunukkai and Uyiliankulama towns in the eastern Mullaitivu battlefront.
The operations continue with success for the troops in the face of stiff
resistance by the LTTE.
The new focus
With the advance of the Sri Lankan troops being a fact that is unable
to be hidden or ignored anymore, some organisations of “civil society”
and foreign news agencies have turned their attention to what is claimed
to be a humanitarian crisis involving civilians in areas where the
fighting is now on.
It was not unexpected that the BBC last Sunday published a story
based only on reports from LTTE sources that civilians were being killed
by the actions of troops against the LTTE.
The BBC News story headlined “Sri Lanka Army accused of killings”
said “Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka have accused the army of killing
five civilians, including two children, in the rebel-controlled north.”
It added that the rebels said “artillery shells fired by the military
fell inside a camp for internally displaced people near the northern
town of Kilinochchi.
“But a Sri Lankan military spokesman later denied the rebels’
This story came the day after the bomb blast in Colombo where more
than 40 persons were injured, and what the Police and Defence
authorities said was caused by the LTTE.
The BBC story on the alleged killing of civilians in an IDP camp in
Kilinochchi also had a picture, supplied by the LTTE, of an injured
person being treated for head wounds and cared for by nursing staff at
an unidentified but clean hospital.
The story which says the Sri Lankan Air Force has begun dropping
leaflets urging civilians to cross into government-controlled areas;
report aid agency claims that there are 135,000 people in Kilinochchi
district who have been displaced by the fighting.
It adds that “more than half of them have abandoned their homes in
the last three months, fleeing further into rebel territory ahead of a
military advance to crush the Tigers, and end their fight for a separate
state for the Tamil minority.”
This BBC story is quoted at length to show the one-sided nature of
the reporting that goes on, with the focus now being directed at what is
undoubtedly a very tragic situation of the civilians caught up in the
However, with foreign correspondents stating that reports about
casualties reported from both sides cannot be verified independently, it
is strange how they can be certain of such large numbers of people who
see danger in the fighting and the retreat of the LTTE, fleeing into
Tiger held territory for safety from advancing troops.
One sees the beginning of an orchestrated media build up to report on
a vast humanitarian catastrophe involving the Tamil civilians in the
North coming up very soon, to dovetail with the INGO laments and
allegations to come about it.
The lie to this claim of Tamils fleeing for safety from Government
troops into the battle zones of the LTTE is given by what took place in
August 1999 with the fall of Elephant Pass and the threat posed to the
Jaffna peninsula, when our closest neighbour turned very humanitarian
and preferred to offer us transport ships for the 40,000 troops who
would be trapped had the LTTE advance to Jaffna succeeded, while
Pakistan gave us the weaponry to fight them off.
No “people’s war”
It is interesting to recall that in Prabhakaran’s Martyr’s Day speech
in November that year, commenting on the LTTE’s failure to gain Jaffna,
the LTTE leader admitted that the campaign of the LTTE had not even by
then become a people’s war.
The proof of it, as Prabhakaran said, it was the failure of the
people of Jaffna to rise up against the Sri Lankan troops in Jaffna, as
expected by the LTTE, which would have made a major difference in the
entire separatist strategy of the LTTE.
We are now told to believe that Tamil civilians, who see the LTTE
losing one location after another, unlike the situation in August 1999,
are rushing in their thousands virtually into the arms of the LTTE as
the Sri Lankan troops advance.
Such reports can only come from those who have no understanding of
human reaction to fighting, apart from any particular reaction of Tamil
civilians in such difficult and tragic circumstances.
The fact is that the Tamils are trapped in areas still held by the
LTTE, which is a sad enough situation, far from the reports of their
moving in thousands into Tiger held areas, unless they are being forced
to do so, in the LTTE’s strategy of the human shield, as some have
Two days later, On Tuesday September 2, the BBC had another story on
the fighting in Sri Lanka. Interestingly this was headlined “Sri Lanka
Army ‘captures’ key town” and the report was that “The Sri Lankan
military says that it has advanced deeper into territory held by Tamil
Tiger rebels in the North of the country and captured a key town.
“The Defence Ministry produced photographs showing soldiers in
control of the Mallavi town centre and what was described as a rebel
“An army spokesman said troops were still searching for rebels in the
area.” It added that “The Tamil Tigers have not commented on the
military’s claims and with journalists barred from the conflict zone,
they cannot be independently verified.”
These two stories have been juxtaposed to show the distortion through
doubt that is created by the BBC in its reporting on the fighting in Sri
Lanka. The use of captures in parenthesis, in the headline of the second
story, is a clear indication that there are doubts about the veracity of
the military’s claim.
The earlier story that came from the LTTE only said “Sri Lanka Army
accused of killings” - there was no specific doubt created in the mind
of the reader or viewer, only the statement of a claim.
This story that came from LTTE sources did not mention that
journalists are barred from the conflict zone, so that information
provided cannot be independently verified. Apparently this is only
important to be said when it is a story that has come from official
It is also worth noting that the BBC story of the alleged killing of
civilians due to troop action showed a picture of an injured person,
admittedly given by the LTTE. But the latter story of the “capture” of
Mallavi only mentions that “The Defence Ministry produced photographs
showing soldiers in control of the Mallavi town centre and what was
described as a rebel command post.”
So the pictures were available to the BBC, it was on defence.lk for
two days, but the BBC did not think it important to use them. Possibly
it was not “humanitarian” enough to help the LTTE angle, and also in
case it leads to more belief than doubt about the military’s claim. Far
better, it seems, for the BBC to create a doubt in the minds of the
public about the capture of Mallavi.
As for the picture of the wounded person being treated in a hospital
in the first news item, I have no independent verification, but it must
be a hospital in the LTTE held area that is funded, equipped, medical
supplies provided and staffed by the Government.
This too is not of much interest for news services such as BBC (like
some other foreign channels, too) that often takes delight in taking of
a “de facto” state of the Tamil Tigers in the North, where all but the
arms and uniforms of the Tiger fighting cadres are provided by the
Government in Colombo. So much for facts being sacred in news!
Relief at hand
While sections of the international media and INGOs, with their local
lackeys in tow, keep their focus on the possibilities of denouncing
Colombo for a humanitarian catastrophe caused by the military operations
in the North to defeat terrorism, as they see the LTTE weaken despite
its strong resistance; there are signs that other international
organizations, that are not directly involved with the LTTE’s aims and
strategy, or party to its propaganda machine, are taking a different
view of the situation regarding civilians caught in the midst of battle
in the North.
The United Nation’s Resident representative in Sri Lanka has
requested that all civilians who want to move out of the non-liberated
areas in the North should be allowed to move out without any hindrance.
Earlier there had been allegations by Amnesty International as well
as Tamil leaders that the LTTE had driven civilians to the war prone
areas in the North so that they could be used as a human shield.
The United Nations office has said the UN has been providing supplies
to the displaced in the Wanni, accessible only through the Omanthai
Entry/Exit point, 50km south of Kilinochchi. The UN Rep said supplies
were reaching the displaced despite the access difficulties, but he
warned that the situation was very precarious.”
We continue to have access to the bulk of the IDPs, but the situation
is very fluid,” he said. “It is difficult for us to supply them when
they are on the move.”
There is no doubt that a serious situation is looming, which will be
added to and manipulated by the LTTE to gain the propaganda mileage it
so urgently needs in the crisis it is facing militarily today. It is
with knowledge of this that the government last week appealed to
civilians and IDPs remaining in the Wanni to move south and reach
government-controlled areas through the Omanthai gate.
“We want the civilians to come to Vavuniya [south of Vanni]; we have
established all facilities in Vavuniya,” Defence Secretary Gotabaya
Rajapaksa told reporters at the Foreign Ministry in Colombo. The
Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights said the government was
increasing facilities available in Vavuniya to assist the IDPs.
“The Government of Sri Lanka has decided to further develop Vavuniya
as a storage and logistics hub for humanitarian assistance including
food and non-food items,” the Ministry said in a statement on September
1. “The ongoing efforts of the Government in this connection are
complemented by international partners who have also commenced
stockpiling food and humanitarian supplies” it added.
Freedom for civilians
The UN Country Team has stressed it is still committed to helping the
Government provide humanitarian assistance to civilians whether they
remain in the Vanni or decide to leave, said a statement issued
Wednesday (3) by the UN Country Team in Sri Lanka.
It acknowledged the Government’s announcement that it will take extra
steps to improve the freedom of movement of thousands of civilians
affected by recent fierce fighting in the north of the country.
“Measures must be taken to prevent displacing people from their homes
and livelihoods. The UN has also raised with the LTTE its urgent concern
that civilians be allowed maximum freedom of movement of all times,” the
It is now seen that there are international organisations who are
realising the possibilities of the crisis that the LTTE must be planning
to create, and readying to come to the assistance of the Sri Lankan
authorities in providing assistance to the IDPs driven out of their
homes by the military operations against terror.
This is amidst reliable reports of the LTTE seeking to hold them
ransom with the threat of human shields (shades of Vakarai), and the
international “exposure” of the crisis through its friendly media
organisations, and some diplomatic sources who are still repeating the
mantra of asking both sides to observe peace, while ignoring the world,
and the UN particularly, consider terrorism as something that needs
rooting out and not just talking to.
The efforts of the foreign media to create the impression of a
humanitarian crisis in the north is buttressed by another BBC story that
appeared on its web site BBCSinhala.com on August 28, which quoted a
purported communication from the “Catholic Church” in Sri Lanka
addressed to UN Secretary-General relating to Internally Displaced
Persons in the Wanni, which gave a totally wrong position on the
situation prevailing in the Vanni.
The report was a communication to UNSG Ban Ki-Moon relating to IDPs
in the Wanni and the “human tragedy” supposedly unfolding in that part
of Sri Lanka. The letter had allegedly been sent by one Father James
Pathinathan, who is said to be President of the Peace and Justice
Commission in the Wanni.
The BBC knows well enough of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in
Sri Lanka, and elsewhere too, as not to mistake a letter from one priest
to that of a communication from the Catholic Church. Yet the BBC did not
want to bother with such realities in its rush to join in the beginning
of orchestrating the planned grand performance about a humanitarian
catastrophe in Sri Lanka on the international stage.
Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management Mahinda Samarasinghe
soon got in touch with them embers of the Roman Catholic hierarchy who
are most knowledgeable of the situation in the Wanni and adjacent areas
of military operations, the Bishops of Manner and Jaffna, who disclaimed
the communication to the UNSG, emphasising that it was made without
their sanction and appears to be the writer’s personal perspective.
The statement from the Ministry of Human Rights said “The two Bishops
have also acknowledged the excellent cooperation extended to them by the
Sri Lankan Security Forces and, in particular, the Security Force
Commanders serving in the Wanni, who are in regular contact with them
and have often facilitated delivery of humanitarian assistance when
requested by the Bishops.”
The Ministry statement concluded that the story on BBCSinhala.com
does not present an accurate picture of the reality on the ground in the
Wanni, and that “The Government will continue, through modalities such
as the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA) ... to
monitor and coordinate the provision of enhanced relief to any and all
Sri Lankan civilians affected by the conflict, should the evolving
situation require it.”
These comments on three BBC items on recent developments in Sri Lanka
do not indicate it is the only news organisation responsible for
deliberately misleading the world on the situation in Sri Lanka. It is
not through an obsession of being assailed by the foreign media that
this column will expose such distortion by other agencies and
As the LTTE faces growing threats to its hold over the people in the
North, there is bound to be more of this stuff that panders to its
needs, more than that of the people of the north, that it will need to
be exposed for purposes of fair play, as well as, look at media freedom
and reporting of the war on the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka from a