The Torture Scene in “Killing Fields” and Gordon Weiss

Michael Roberts, courtesy of Colombo Telegraph where it appeared a few days earlier.. with a different title. The version here has minor embellishments.

 Frontispiece images in the Gordon Weiss web-site — http://www.gordonweissauthor.com/press.html#

                                                 ONE

In the course of my researches into the emergence of Ceylonese nationalism in the British period, I delved in considerable detail into an event that was referred to then as “the 1915 riots” – the term “riots” in South Asia being a mechanical reproduction of the terminology of the British legal lexicon to describe affrays of all sorts. In 1915 this shorthand phrase referred to the assaults on the Mohammedan Moors (as they were called then) in the south-western quadrant by elements of the Sinhalese population (Roberts 1981). Amidst the complex processes that promoted this outbreak let me isolate a particular factor: a critical force inspiring the attacks was the incitement by those whom I have referred to as “stirrers” (Kannangara 1984; Roberts 1981; 1994a).

The outbreak of the July 1983 pogrom against Tamils living in the south-western and central regions of Lanka encouraged scholars to redefine such events as “pogroms.” On this occasion too, anecdotal testimony from friends and the article by Valli Kanapathypillai (1990) indicate that incitement by a diverse body of chauvinist stirrers was one factor behind a campaign that legitimised the terror wrought by depicting these activities as acts that would “teach Tamils a lesson.”

Dwelling on some anecdotal tales I was motivated in the 1990s to pen a literary essay of protest against the horrendous acts of July 1983: “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1983.” This article was written during a lonely sojourn in Charlottesville, Virginia, where my isolation promoted reflexivity. Central to this intervention was the deployment of two horrifying photographs extracted from the Tamil Times. In subsequent years I discovered that these images had been captured by a brave cameraman, Chandragupta Amarasinghe, who supplied me with better copies and clarified details about the mayhem around Borella Junction that 24th/25th night in July (Roberts 1994b, 2003).

These engagements with ethnic extremism and zealotry encouraged me to seek comparative material on race riots in USA and pogroms in Eastern Europe; while a Research Fellowship at Teen Murthi enabled me to spend four months in Delhi in 1995 delving into “communal violence” in India – mostly attacks on the Muslims by Hindus, but also the attacks on Sikhs in 1984 after Indira Gandhi was assassinated (Roberts 2010a).

During this work I dwelt on the possibility of creating composite picture of a typical riot-pattern, a constellation which I would set out in order to provoke readers and governments into reflective counter-action. Central to such a purpose was the deployment of photographic imagery of the type Amarasinghe, namely, pictures that horrify and reveal man’s inhumanity towards man. My reasoning was that it is far more difficult for people to transfer horrendous images into the nether regions of the mind in contrast with prose reports on violence.

Thus motivated, I even approached a German NGO in Colombo with this idea. I got nowhere and confess that my efforts in this direction were not sustained. However weak my endeavours, it would seem that the NGO world of the 1990s did not possess the type of interest we have seen in recent times.

Given this experience I find it ironic that visual imagery, whether You Tube videos, still photographs or documentaries, have been so powerful in the moral storm about “war crimes” (a controversial concept as it is) in both Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The controversial apotheosis of this power of imagery has been the Channel 4 video presented by Jon Snow which bears the title “Killing Fields.”

Killing Fields cannot, however, be comprehended without attentiveness to one of the principal forces behind some of the terrifying footage deployed within it, namely, the LTTE and its many arms abroad. Such investigative work must begin with awareness of the degree to which the Tiger leadership invested in pictorial modalities in their propaganda and training programmes from very early on. The LTTE set up two-person video teams within a department that has been called “The Truth Tigers” to film specific operations (Journeyman Pictures 2002). Their video work supplemented the LTTE investments in street theatre, radio, newspapers et cetera. The innovative character of the LTTE’s diverse means of presenting their liberation struggle has to be grasped by anyone reviewing the present propaganda war. In their heyday the LTTE’s use of pandals, buntings, poster art, billboards et cetera was quite phenomenal. The most pronounced moment in such endeavours occurred in the week leading up to Māveerar Nāl at 6.05 pm on 27th November every year (Roberts 2005) – a process of grieving, celebration and dedication that occurred in all the major cities in the West beside the territories embraced by the de facto state of Thamilīlam from 1990 to 2007.

Pictorial imagery was a major dimension of the reportage and propaganda in such LTTE web sites as Tamilnet.com and TamilCanadian.com. I was taken in once by a Tamil supporter who sent me a photograph of the corpses produced by the suicide bomb attack that killed Janaka Perera in Anuradhapura as proof of killings caused by shelling in the north-eastern Vanni pocket in 2009 (see my illustrative entry in Senaratne 2011). One must therefore attend to the possibility that some video footage of alleged government atrocities was manufactured in 2008 as the LTTE realised that it was on the back foot. Grapevine information indicates that Channel 4 was working secretly in LTTE territory from 2007 or 2008 and that Nick Paton Walsh entered Sri Lanka to complete the final phase of this cooperation; but was deemed suspect and unceremoniously turfed out by the Sri Lankan government in May 2009 – a humiliating outcome which added revenge to the other motivations promoting Channel 4s commitment to the Tiger cause and its targeting of the Sri Lankan government for a public hanging.

   In early 2009, as we know, the Sri Lankan government was subject to pressure from some Western governments, UN agencies and INGOs demanding that they resort to a unilateral ceasefire in order to reduce the civilian death toll. As Simon Jenkins indicated in his strictures on David Miliband’s grandstanding on several fronts in that period:  “in Sri Lanka a rudimentary study of the past three months of fighting would have told Miliband that a ceasefire would be pro-Tamil, not just “pro-humanitarian” (2009). This was precisely the position I pressed then in criticising Hilary Clinton and other world leaders for their simpleton approach, one that encouraged the LTTE to use the impending general elections in mid-May in India as well as human rights vocabulary as a foundation for their Machiavellian policy of using the Tamil population of Thamililam as a buffer and bargaining chip to gain some bolt-hole (also see Tekwani 2011).

Since then, after the demise of the LTTE military regime, the campaign to crucify the Sri Lankan state has been promoted by processes that I do not have the expertise to decipher, but which can be treated as an alliance of sorts between five categories of actors. These are

  1. The LTTE’s various international arms — bolstered now by new recruits among Tamil migrants stirred by the emotional heat of 2009.
  2. UN, INGO and NGO agencies directed for the most part by human rights discourse and the either/or epistemology that governs the currents of secular fundamentalism that are so vibrant now in Western countries.
  3. The hidden agendas (and double standards) of several Western states as well as the UN agencies in their pockets.
  4. The sensationalist tendencies of several media outlets in the West who thrive on “churnalism,” encouraged as they are by a principled hostility to the intimidation of their colleagues in Sri Lanka during the period 2006-09.
  5. The activities of several Sri Lankan journalists and cameramen who were forced to flee their land in 2007-09 as a result of the assassinations and threats that surrounded those with liberal or Left inclinations. On a priori grounds one can say that ideology, motives of vengeance and occasionally that of profit combined to encourage such individuals to supply Channel 4 and other Western media outlets with some of the wherewithal to cane the government. In some ways this could be seen as poetic justice; but the issue remains whether some of the lynching evidence is fabricated and thus contrary to the moral norms of others in the alliance as well as the concept of justice via truth.

                                                            TWO

When Channel 4 chose the title of “Killing Fields” for its documentary of 2011, it cleverly deployed a metaphor from the Pol Pot era as a sensational sales pitch to support its highly weighted and partisan reading of the last stages of Eelam War IV, when the LTTE and its Tamil hostages and supporters were caged into what can be called the “Vanni Pocket” (that is, the shrinking area in the north eastern corner of Sri Lanka under LTTE control in the period Janaury-mid May 2009).  It used the visual power of film juxtaposed with interviews in a blitzkrieg compilation that reverberated throughout the Western world and persuaded many non-partisan viewers — from Michael Atherton to Peter Roebuck — that something awful happened in the north eastern corners of the Vanni. That such individuals were persuaded is proof of visual power when it is cleverly compiled – though in my view it is also indicative of some measure of credulity and some unfamiliarity with the details of the context among those so swayed.

The shortcomings of a great deal of the Channel 4 film footage have now been outlined in several productions. The most revealing is the visual power-point documentary assembled by a Canadian collective associated with the Sri Lankan government who incorporated Siri Hewavitharana’s visual decoding analysis (2011a, b, c) within their product. The most thorough textual criticism is that presented by a media outfit marshalled by the Ministry of Defence: “Appalling Journalism. Jon Snow and Channel 4 News on Sri Lanka.”

Both sources above may immediately be viewed as tainted by those hostile to the Sri Lankan state. However, Godfrey Gunatilleka’s recent summary of the findings of a Marga team supports their thrusts in providing a measured, yet severe, set of strictures on the yardsticks directing both Ban Ki-Moon’s Darusman Panel and the Channel 4 documentary. There are also useful insights in the remarks of such independent analysts as Shyam Tekwani (2011) and Kalana Senaratne (2011).

Because I was familiar with the LTTE’s capacities in using pictorial and video material, I surveyed the first airing of the open-air execution scenes by Channel 4 in August 2009 with suspicion. These doubts became conviction when I read Siri Hewavitharana’s forensic analysis in article form in the Asian Tribune and local newspapers immediately afterwards (see Rajasingham 2010 for a subsequent overview). I reached this conclusion because Hewavitharana’s decoding report seemed to be the work of a technologist rather than a literary giant – a broadcasting engineer who knew his onions. The time discrepancy between the audio and visual moments in one execution scene highlighted by Hewavitharana, and his insistence that this was video or cinematic camera footage rather than the work of a mobile phone (as claimed by Channel 4), seemed clinching arguments. This incisive work has now, in 2011, been incorporated in power-point documents.

When this execution scene was subsequently incorporated within Killing Fields in mid-2011, my suspicions increased — the more so because Killing Fields moved on in rapid blitzkrieg fashion to depict other gory scenes, including one series where the video-documentary depicted a terrified man tied to a tree and subject to torture, with the coup de grace for the message being an image of his bloodied corpse at the conclusion of this segment.

This latter series of images aroused my scepticism immediately. The doubts did not arise from any faith in the goodness of the SL Army. Anyone with experience of war, whether vicariously or in real time, knows that frontline soldiers sometimes execute captured adversaries. It is well-known that during the last months of World War Two Allied troops killed soldiers of the Wehrmacht (German army) who had killed some of their comrades in the course of continued resistance that everyone knew to be futile. The Sri Lankan wars of the last 30 years have been littered with atrocities from both sides. The atrocities in the Eastern Province in 1990 were particularly extensive. After the LTTE executed over 600 policemen Sinhalese and Muslim who had surrendered in June 1990 [Tamil policemen being spared], the SL army indulged in massacres at Kokkadichcholai and other places in 1990-91. If one wanted “Srebenica” moments, it is here that the best examples can be located.

However, the Channel 4 footage simply smelled “fake” because it purported to convey events occurring in the last stages of Eelam War IV in 2008-09.  During that phase the SL armed forces were not only well kitted, but were  in command of the situation and had taken control of many buildings in the northern Vanni, especially those in the town of Kilinochchi, which had been abandoned by the LTTE once Paranthan fell in late December 2008. SL army torturing would, in my speculative reasoning, have occurred within closed doors. On this ground I thought then that this set of images indicated a killing of a dissident or deserter by the LTTE, acts which were frequent in Thamilīlam from 1990 through to 2009 and which have been documented over the years by the UTHR collective; and which are even marked by Gordon Weiss himself in The Cage (2011: 69, 141-42).

The doubts were subsequently supported by the insights offered by the Tamil dissident, Noel Nadesan: “I was told by sources in the Vanni that this was an LTTE operation and [that these] pictures were taken for propaganda purposes by LTTE. Have a close look and you will find among the so-called soldiers a man in slippers. Sri Lankan soldiers never go about in slippers when they go out on operations.” Nadesan is referring to operations in the late 2000s and told me that his sources are former LTTE functionaries associated with its propaganda wings. He is not free to name them, so this evidence is open to sceptical responses from those who believe the Channel 4 version of this visual story.

Nevertheless, I insist that there is reasonable ground to conjecture that this segment of Killing Fields is a LTTE production developed as part of its propaganda operations in late 2008. The three reasons for this verdict are (a) the resort to open-air torture and execution with the use of a tree as a stanchion; (b) the presence of a soldier wearing slippers; and (c) information garnered by Nadesan from well-placed sources within the LTTE camp. Such suspicious signs and testimony do not, of course, enable a definitive verdict; but they are strongly indicative. At the very least they suggest that the jury should remain out on any conclusion about the perpetrators of this atrocity.

It is therefore of some significance that one photograph from this set of concoctions by the LTTE should turn up in the marquee images fronting – yes fronting — the web site maintained by Gordon Weiss with the caption: “Torturing a Victim, Northern Sri Lanka, 2009.”

This same image, cropped even tighter, is reproduced in his The Cage with the following description: “One of a series of photos, video, and testimony from Sinhalese soldiers that gradually emerged after the war. This one shows a man thought to be a captured Tamil Tiger fighter being tortured. Other photos in the sequence show him being bludgeoned to death.” In the credits for his illustrations inserted at the head of the book we are told that this image is from the “author’s own collection.”

We are not told where Weiss derived this particular selection from the video sequence. But BEWARE. This image has been cropped by someone, presumably by whoever delivered the photograph to Weiss. But study the same image reproduced by Rajiva Wijesinha after he received it from ABC when he challenged them about their reportage on the war in May 2011. This is presumably a replication extracted from the Channel Four documentary; and was displayed to Wijesinha in a triumphant style by a female ABC reporter whose confidence evaporated when Wijesinha clarified the problem posed by the surrounding figures. That was not all: ABC “suppressed everything about the pictures after I pointed out the slippers” (email, Wijesinha to Roberts, 6 January 2012).

Take careful note: here we see at least one soldier with slippers, an indication, albeit not definitively, that the torturers and killers were probably Tiger personnel – an indication that is consolidated by Nadesan’s sources. Thus, someone has cropped the tell-tale giveaway out of viewing vision when circulating the still image as single frame for the benefit of those waiting in the wings to accept charges of governmental war crimes. Weiss appears to have been an “innocent” taken in by this particular footage [though one should also attend to the ‘minor’ narrowing of frame in his book version of the image in comparison with that on his web-page].

Weiss has a reputation of being an idealist and his moral passion may suggest that he is not the type of person who would crop a photograph. However, his campaign against human rights abuses directed at both parties in the conflict has not been even-handed. There are several moments where his representations let the LTTE off the hook. A separate essay is called for if one is to evaluate the degree of partiality and integrity displayed in recent years by Gordon Weiss (see Sri Lanka Media Watch 2012 which appeared after the first draft of this article).

Tekwani (2011) has already indicated that “Weiss’ studied conclusion” in The Cage to the effect that the war was justified “is at variance with his narrative style and choice of words, which draw heavily on his moral repugnance of the Rajapaksa victory.” From my location in Australia what demands emphasis is the cumulative impact of developments arising from the composition and publication of The Cage by Picador for Macmillan Australia. Note that in a deliberate move the book was launched in Sydney on 19th May 2011, a day of grieving in the Tamil nationalist firmament.

In participating actively in the marketing of this book, it would seem that, from late 2010 if not earlier, Gordon Weiss has been drawn increasingly closer to the networks of the Tamil Australian lobby associated with the LTTE in the past and with the politics of the Global Tamil Forum’s radical arms today. The importance which Weiss himself has attached to the photograph under scrutiny indicates that he accepts the presentation of this visual evidence as a case of government soldiers’ torturing Tamils. Even if his hand has not carried out the excision of tell-tale evidence undermining such a verdict, his ability to evaluate data is called into question. At the very least he has been sucked into distortion by others in his circuit, others working mala fide.

ADDENDUM

I have had two long conversations with Siri Hewavitharana in Sydney early in January. As far as I could judge from these chats, Hewavitharana is not a Sinhala ultra of the type associated with SPUR in Australia. Quite incidentally, his reference to visits to Adelaide to buy wine from one particular shop indicated a background of affluence – a comforting thought in the sense that he does not require big bucks from any state agency. However, the most central impression that I gathered was that this is a man with phenomenal technical knowledge.

I insisted on receiving his c. v. and this document supports what was self-evident in the course of our conversation. Siri Hewavitharana is a professional engineer in broadcast and satellite display, cable design and operations, content platforms DRM and STB’s, video broadcasting and IPTV. He seems to be at the cutting edge in this field and since September 2008 has held the post of Executive Director, IPTV Systems, after a career history of senior positions with Huawei Technology, IPTV, Cisco, Optus Vision et cetera. He founded the company Applied Video System in 1984 in UK, but his millionaire status burst with the financial bubble of 1987 and he was eventually enticed to Australia by Kerry Packer as Head of Visual Communication for OTC Researach & Development in 1989.

His professional status was such that in 2009 the US Defence Department sent him a copy of the first video deployed by Channel 4 that year. By an act of the gods this original video footage contained metadata which gave the game away and indicated, for one, that it was not generated by a mobile phone — it is for this reason that Channel 4 has never made its video footage public. Hewavitharana immediately approached Prabath Sahabandu, Editor of The Island, with his conclusions. That is how his report eventually ended up as a semi-official rebuttal of Channel 4 in the public realm.

He warned the government representatives that the defects in this video version would be covered up once his report was out. It so transpired. New improved versions of the open-air execution segment appeared in 2011, one reaching the UN via Journalists for Democracy and the other, with additional footage, being incorporated within Killing Fields. These versions too have been analysed to reveal defects. The availability of the original video with meta-data has been of critical importance in these acts of revelation. Killing Fields also contains other frames that are still-images stitched together in clever fashion, inclusive of one segment that is “totally fake” in Hewavitharana’s words.

His “Technical Analysis of Channel 4 killing fields documentary” is now included in power-point presentations that are within the public realm (Lankaweb 2011 and Technical Analysis 2011) and should be essential viewing for everyone who is reviewing this topic. These reports are indirectly supported in a separate study by Professor Yfantis, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Nevada, who was commissioned by the LLRC. His “mathematical analysis” of blood in the 3GPvideos pertaining to the open-air execution scenes revealed that “it was not real blood,” but either “water with red dye” or “digitally constructed … video blood.” This directed Yfantis to the overall verdict that Killing Fields is “a very deliberate and orchestrated video” (LLRC, 2011, chap. 4: 372).

What these findings say of the morality guiding Channel Four and Jon Snow is beyond words. There is even some suggestion that elements of the British Foreign Office had a role in this ‘handiwork’ because Channel 4 had sought governmental aid in a situation of financial crisis in 2008/09; but this must be treated as unverified gossip unless wikileaks or other material provides evidence in this direction.

If people wish to dismiss the opinions expressed by Hewavitharana and Yfantis  simply because they have been expressed through agencies associated with the Sri Lankan government, they should attend to Shyam Tekwani’s depiction (2011) of Killing Fields as “an effort to sensationalise and shock with carefully selected and edited footage,” and his further observations to the effect that, (a) for this reason, “the documentary weakens its case and invites an investigation into its own credibility and accountability to journalistic norms”; and that (b) “the volume of testimony it uses as evidence is not enormous and most of it is derived from leading questions.”

END

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Weiss, Gordon 2011 “Sri Lanka faces its ‘Srebrenica moment’,” The Australian, 23 April 2011, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/sri-lanka-faces-its-srebrenica-moment/story-e6frg6ux-1226043466322.

Weiss, Gordon 2011b The Cage, Sydney: Picador.

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