History of Dialogue: Tamil Stories


Last month at Union Docs in Brooklyn, journalist Rohini Mohan and documentary filmmaker Calum Macrae sat down to discuss their respective works on the end and aftermath of the twenty-five year civil war in Sri Lanka. The war, fought between the insurgent Tamil Tigers, who aimed to establish an independent state for the country's Tamil minority, and the Sri Lankan army, mostly made up of the country's Sinhalese majority, ended in 2009. Mohan's new book, The Seasons of Trouble, follows three Tamils in the the last years of the war and its aftermath, while Macrae's feature documentary "No Fire Zone" focuses in on the bloody final weeks of the conflict, in which over 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed.

Both trace a history that the regime of president Mahinda Rajapaska—who ruled Sri Lanka from 2005 until a surprising electoral loss this January—has tried to repress through censorship, slander and violence. It is unclear to what extent president-elect Maithripala Sirisena will end this repression, though he had pledged not to prosecute Rajapaska for war crimes on the campaign trail. Mohan and Macrae spoke just before the elections about the waning days of the conflict, the difficulty of telling the story of the Tamil Tigers, and what journalists can do to contribute to post-war justice. The conversation has been edited for length.

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Rohini Mohan: I went [to Sri Lanka] first in 2009, after the end of the war, so the visuals that we saw in the film today were not things that I witnessed, but I met lots of people and talked with them about what they experienced, and I focused on three of those people, still in Sri Lanka, and what they experienced living during the end of the war, and also what they are still going through living in Sri Lanka as survivors, as minorities, as people who have undergone a lot of trauma but need to move on. Not just at the end of the war, but all their lives, as they emerged into what the country calls “a peaceful situation”.

Three people: one is a former combatant who was recruited as a child soldier in the Tamil Tigers. By the time I met Mugil she was the mother of two young boys and she’d been through situations quite similar to what we saw today in Callum’s film. Another is a person who was disappeared, kidnapped from the streets of Colombo, that beautiful city with the coastline that we saw in these pictures. Sarva is a man around thirty years old. He’s disappeared, and I didn’t meet him because he was not traceable when I first heard about him, and so I interviewed his mother, Indra, who is the third person. So the book is about these three and their journeys living in Sri Lanka and trying to stay, because they do love being there, but it’s hard to be in a place where your identity is always contested. Violence is not something that is always as bloody as what we saw, it also happens on the level of their very existence, on what they describe as their identity. And Callum’s film, the Killing Fields, which was the initial version of the film we saw tonight, that documentary aired on Channel 4, it was one of the ways that I could see what they had seen, because of these visuals, so thank you Callum.

Callum Macrae: I think that one of the things that is really important about Rohini’s book is that it does actually explain, in a way that we couldn’t begin to explain in the film, the complex relationship between the Tigers and the Tamils of the North and East: A relationship you need to understand if you are going to make sense of what happened there. And it’s a very vivid way of describing it and introducing people to it which is quite good.

Rohini: One of the things I wanted to ask you Callum was, because of the nature of your investigation itself, when people are telling you what happened, they’re also giving you access to their footage, they’re giving you something that they have shot when it was going on. And you’ve done this for so many years, you’ve taken so much footage, you’ve met and corresponded with a lot of people who’ve given you this footage. I’m thinking about that scene we saw tonight, where someone asks the camera “why are you shooting this video ? Why don’t you just hide in the bunker ?” From the beginning that stayed with me. What makes someone, from what you’ve seen, record a moment rather than protect themselves?

Callum: Well, there’s two sets of footage in a way. There’s the footage that came from within the Tamil side during the period of the no fire zones. It was shot by a variety of people, doctors did some of it, various people did some of it, but most of it was shot by people who actually were Tamil Tiger camera operators and whose original role in the conflict had been to shoot videos, propaganda videos about the war and heroic exploits for the Tigers. But, as the Tigers were effectively destroyed, and the command didn’t really survive, they just went on filming. And for all that you might argue they were compromised by their initial role, the courage of these camera operators is just incomprehensible.

And I think that scene, it’s an extraordinary scene. I remember when I first saw that and had it translated for me, because as a filmmaker you’re watching somebody and you’re having it translated as you’re watching it, and my first reaction was to be really disturbed because, y’know, here I am trying to make a film and here’s a scene I want to use and these people who are in that are saying “we don’t’ want to be filmed.” And then I realized half way through they don’t mean they don’t want to be filmed, they mean “why aren’t you looking after yourself?” The fact is that we don’t know much about the people who’ve done this filming, I know at least one of them is dead, but, that determination to go on and show what is happening is of such fundamental importance. Because this war would not have been known about outside the Tamil diaspora were it not for that, and what went on would not be known about. One of the great ironies is that all the way through this war the Tamil diaspora was shouting and screaming at the world and nobody was listening. It’s an extraordinary service that these people do.

Interviewer: What inspired you both to begin investigating the end of the war? And, starting with Callum, how has the aftermath of your work played out? What has the influence of the film been, and what is happening right now with this film in an applied political space?

Callum: Initially, Sri Lanka was not an area of my expertise. I had made films in Iraq about coalition crimes and war crimes, I’ve made quite a lot of films in Africa: in Sudan and Uganda for example. And I was asked to make the first film as a freelance director for Channel 4 television, because they had acquired some of the first footage showing the atrocities and wanted to make a film around that footage. That was my initial involvement. And after making this first film I went back to them and said you have to make a second film, there’s so much stuff here, and by then more of the reaction to the film was beginning, and that’s what convinced me to make a feature documentary, that we should use this feature documentary to take around the world and the thing became a campaign.

Where we’ve tried to show the film there’s been a hysterical reaction from the Sri Lankan government. The government published an hour long documentary attacking our film. They then published a 222 page book attacking our film. There are endless articles written about me in the Sri Lankan press. The government has accused me of having been paid five million dollars by the Tamil Tigers. The government newspaper even published an article which still gets quoted back at me and people still bring up which claims to have unearthed the link between me and the Tamil Tigers. They say that I took my instructions from the wife of the political leader of the Tamil tigers. They claimed to have some emails—which they didn’t produce—in which I get my instructions from my commanders. My tiger name was Big Mac apparently. It’s absurd and laughable but it’s part of this campaign the government has run.

When we show the film around the world, initially they would always turn up with a load of government supporters, but they stopped doing it. And I know exactly why they stopped doing that. Because when you watch the film you realize it’s not invented. They stopped doing it with their supporters because their supporters were going away saying “oh shit, this is real”. But they go on trying to accuse the film of being lies and invented and fabricated.

They’ve also tried to stop screenings. When we showed the Australian parliament, the UN, the European Parliament they’ve always tried to get the film banned and stopped. And they’ve also put pressure on other countries. When I was showing the film in Malaysia, the Sri Lankan government put pressure on the Malaysian authorities, who then raided the screening and arrested three of the organizers. And in Nepal they banned it as well. In India they refused us a theatrical certificate and sent us a letter saying that they’re refusing it on two grounds. The first grounds are spurious but they might have gotten away with it, they said that there are “distressing images throughout”. But the second ground was that it could damage friendly relations with Sri Lanka, an open admission that this was political censorship. And they’ve banned me, refusing to give me a visa so I cant even go to India now.

When I was asked to make the first film, I think what the channel wanted was an investigation into four or five war crimes. But as I started to understand the story, and get my head around it, we just had all this horrible footage of people dying horribly, and we had to make a way of people who didn’t know anything about it care. And that’s why we’ve made this feature doc. It’s got to be a story, it’s got to be a narrative, you’ve got to get people into it, you’ve got to make people understand and relate to this, and I think interestingly enough that’s the parallel with what you’ve done with the book, you’re a journalist and its actually a piece of journalism but you’ve written it almost as a novel to involve people with the characters.

Rohini: That’s the thing. When I first heard about war crimes in Sri Lanka, it was all these numbers, everything was refuted, all of it was just in pieces here and there in the news, no pictures of what happened inside Sri Lanka. There were pictures of protesters around the world, and that was all, and that kind of disturbed me that even after the end of the war there would be people holding pictures of [Tamil Tiger leader Vellupilai] Prabhakaran, the picture of his dead body. That disturbed me, because clearly there were so many other deaths, to hold the face of Prabhakaran as the person who we have to care about. And it disturbed me that, when there were so many others stories to be told, the stories that were chosen were chiefly of the militants, even if they were leaders and they also committed war crimes.

In 1983, the [anti-Tamil] Black July riots, is a really vivid memory for people even now, that is something people still remember, the Tamil diaspora especially, as so many people left the country because of that moment. And even with the riots the numbers of people killed are disputed, either two hundred or three thousand, as if those were remotely similar numbers. But every piece of evidence that comes up can be refuted or denied.

And that’s why storytelling can make us really care, we care that this person wanted to be an engineer and he couldn’t because he was disappeared off of the streets, or a mother with dreams of her child doing well in school because she couldn’t, but she was not able to carry her dream through because she was caught in friendly fire. So that’s why we care, and how we care about people we are not directly surrounded by, that is the storytelling aspect I guess. When one person is saying “I have seen a cluster bomb” and describes it exactly, what happened, where it fell, how many pieces it breaks into and how many people it killed, feels as real for me as statistics, more relatable and less deniable.

Perhaps we can care about those three people in a way we can’t think about three million, and that would make a big difference to the discussion around Sri Lanka, to an understanding of this war and conflict and how people are treated. These people talked to me about their lives, and they always spoke of themselves not as unique—though their stories definitely are—but they always spoke of themselves saying, “I hope you will say this to people out there so they will believe there were many like us.”

As for the reaction to my book, at least until now, no one has burned effigies of me, I’ve seen it happen to others, and copies of my books haven’t had an X put on the cover, that hasn’t happened to me. No repression has happened. But people have been a little more understanding of the complexities of the war, which I think activism sometimes can miss, reporters doing journalism can miss. For example, the stories of forced recruitment: What is forced recruitment? If someone has been in war for only three months, how should we understand their culpability? If they say that they were forced, how should we understand it? What is forced, or what is choice, in this context?

If a woman had a daughter on the streets protesting and they arrested her under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, why does this act still exist in a time when supposedly there’s no war? Why is there still all this surveillance and repression in a place that is not at war?

One of the things I noticed, also, is that people almost feel a responsibility to both condemn the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government equally. That is expected of an “unbiased” reporter, but it’s hard to do that equally, especially toward the end of the war, when the violence was quite unequal. Callum, how did you approach that? For me it was quite hard, because, although I knew clearly all the violence did not make sense to me, at each point it was hard to make these decisions.

Callum: The whole issue of the Tigers and their relationship with the people of the north and east is an incredibly complex and difficult one. And it’s one that we have to deal with. The trouble is that first of all it is true and there is no doubt that the Tigers committed war crimes, the Tigers conscripted child soldiers and so on. Equally, the government of Sri Lanka tries to hide behind the crimes of the Tigers, and uses that to justify the—and let’s be clear about it—far greater crimes they’ve committed, in terms of sheer scale and numbers. But also the Sri Lankan government claims to adhere to international law, claims to be a legitimate government among the nations of the world.

Secondly it’s a very difficult question about how you classify the Tigers. Because there is a tendency in the NGO world to say the Tigers were a bunch of criminals, and having affirmed that, I can now go on to criticize the government. It’s almost done in a ritual way. For example the word “terrorist” is used to describe the Tamil Tigers. I never described the Tigers as terrorists, they did use terror tactics, but they were not an isolated group of a few ideologues using terror to force their ideas on the majority of people.

Although towards the end there was certainly quite a lot of unhappiness towards the Tigers within the community, the Tigers had legitimacy within that community, there's no getting away from it, if they had been in an election they would have won hands down. We have to understand that. They had that kind of degree of legitimacy. Of course, I know that as soon as I start saying things like this, that will be taken out of context, you know "Callum Macrae says the Tigers were a legitimate representative of the people" I condemn them for having committed war crimes. I'm quite clear about that. There is no excuse for recruiting child soldiers, there is no excuse for using suicide bombings against civilian targets. I will go on saying that quite clearly. But it is a complex issue, and you have to understand it.

And equally you have to understand one of the problems, for the [ethnic majority] Sinhalese community, you have to understand they had thirty years of being frightened of sending their kids to school and worrying if they'll come back, worrying if the bus will be bombed. It's an enormously complex situation, but we have to not shy away from the issues and not just ritually denounce people

The other big discussion that is at the heart of this is: What exactly was going on? Was what the government did an overreaction? Or a disproportionate response to Tiger attacks? Or was it something more sinister?

I am in no doubt that they were deliberately attacking civilians. I am in no doubt that they declared the "no fire zones" directly behind—and this is something directly corroborated by UN staffer Peter Mckay, who himself is no fan of the Tigers—they declared the "no fire zone" directly behind the "front line". They encouraged all the civilians to gather there.

They then entered conventional war between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan army, along the A-35, which is that main road that runs along the "no fire zone", they had all their heavy weapons and artillery firing over the top of the front line. Clearly, this was a deliberate attempt to massacre as many civilians as possible. The Tigers nonetheless did have weapons there. Under international law they should have moved their weapons away from the civilians, that’s their legal obligation, they didn't do that. As you can see there's all sorts of complex issues about why that didn't happen. But, on the other hand, there is absolutely no justification, even if there were Tiger guns inside the "no fire zone", for the Sri Lankan government to fire into the "no fire zone", where they had encouraged the civilians to go.

There's a big debate about whether or not this should be called a genocide: well, elements of the behavior in the north and east had genocidal aspects. There’s no doubt about it. There are arguments about whether it was genocide when people were not being massacred in Colombo. Though they indeed were in '83... One of the ways that can help determine whether a genocide has happened is to prove that there was an intent. And intent can very often be demonstrated, not so much what happened during the war, or during an event, but what happens after it. So, if and when, as I hope will happen, the people responsible for these massacres are in court, I would expect them to put up a defense eventually saying something like, "Sorry it was disproportionate, but we were responding, it was not a genocide, it was not a deliberate massacre of civilians."

What might reveal intent? Right now, the land grabs are designed to not just destroy the Tamil community, some are specifically designed to break up what would be Tamil land, an independent Tamil state. If you look at the systematic use of sexual violence, it is, on top of being rape, also part of a cultural assault, because of the conservative social nature on the Tamil community. It leaves women who are raped isolated, many of whom are ex-fighters. Rape is being used as a really sinister cultural onslaught on the Tamils.

You also look at things like the fact that there are reports, one particular instance where a group of 50 Tamil women were coerced into accepting contraceptive implants. Threatened into coercive implants, threatened that they would lose their services. At the same time as there are barracks being built in the north, of almost all Sinhala families in the north, which is in itself a kind of colonial plantation, and they are being paid a bonus to have a third child.

This is one little instance, but I know the incident happened. There was an opening of a ward at a hospital, I think, something like that, at which one of the local army commanders, in the presence of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, made a joke in which he said "the point is the Tamils can't even claim to be pure Tamils anymore. Our Sinhala army has given so much blood to this hospital that Tamils can't claim to have pure Tamil blood." The fact that someone can make a joke like that, leaving aside describing a “Sinhala army” when its supposed to be a Sri Lankan army, the fact that he can make a joke like that, and the president's brother, the defense secretary can sit there and not have the guy sacked there and then…If you put all these things together, with all these things going on its clear that what is going on is a deliberate, conscious, planned attempt to destroy the Tamils in the North, and in effect to destroy the Tamils in the area as an ethnic grouping.

Rohini: I interviewed a senior army commander, who retired, he was waiting on a posting in the eastern province. When I asked specifically about rape of Tamil women by Sri Lankan soldiers, what he said was "Why would they rape Tamil women? That’s disgusting. If they wanted to have fun they would do it with Sinhala women. We spend years telling them to look at them as enemies or animals, how could they rape animals?” I still regret that I couldn’t put it in my book, but it required too much context.

That thing about seeing Tamils as animals is something that people are brainwashed about, not all civilians but surely the Sri Lankan army. And among civilians it is hard for them, people inside Sri Lanka, in the South, Sri Lanka is quite geographically and demographically divided, they are quite unaware. Everyone who tries to write about this, including Sinhala journalists in Sinhala papers, have had to leave the country, many are disappeared, many are executed: journalists, also activists.

The government tries to censor, to almost protect the Sinhala population, which is their electoral basis, from any actual knowledge of what happens in the North, or anywhere else. At the end of the conflict, on the highway that connects Colombo and the north there was nothing, it was completely bombed, just check points, but over the years, as I visited, every few months there would be a new victory monument.

There is one that is either a shell or a bullet, wedged into this block of wall, and from the crack there is sprouting this monument of a Lotus which is this symbol of Buddhism, Sinhala Buddhism. It is also the symbol of peace, but right next to it there is this massive billboard that has the face of a Sri Lankan soldier, a very young boy, who was said to have captured an area nearby and it says how many people he killed. It just directly says how many Tamils he is supposed to have killed. It doesn't say "killed," but it says "conquered." There is this beautiful artistic monument, and next to it there is this garish vendetta. This is all right next to each other, people stop now in bus loads to take pictures.

And next to that there is this memorabilia shop to buy stuff as a tourist. Then there is this statue of a Sri Lankan soldier holding a gun (I don’t know what gun it is), and on top of him is a dove, and next to him there are two lions, Lion is the Sinhalese symbol of Buddhist history. Every day, Tamil people living in these parts, in buses and cycles (they have very little), all of them have to pass and see this this every day.

I've been in buses where they do look outside. They all are talking and looking outside, and as soon as they pass these monuments everyone gets quiet and looks ahead, no one talks.

Interviewer: Callum, how do you feel about being painted with propaganda by the Sinhalese government? And Rohini, how do you feel about being a political voice in this process? How do you both feel about representing the information that you accumulated?

Callum: It’s an interesting question. Clearly you have some commitment to getting this story out. “What are you a journalist or a campaigner?” And my answer is that, I am a journalist, and I’ve been putting together this evidence, the film. And the reaction to that has been to try to undermine it, to try to stop it getting out, to try to say it’s lies. When you face that reaction to your journalism, you say, “well I’m not going to take that, I’m going to go on looking for more evidence, I’m going to go on telling this story.” If that makes me a campaigner I’m happy to be a campaigner. But as a journalist you have a duty to be fair and accurate.

There is a fetish in British journalism, which is this fetishization of impartiality. As far as I’m concerned impartiality is actually not the word that we should use. As far as I’m concerned impartiality is misused. If you are describing a society that is unjust, if you have to say on the one hand this and on the other hand that: When the bankers get a bit out of control are we going to criticize them as the press, and bring them down a bit and get them back under control. And when the trade unions get a out of control and start really threatening production were going to get them under control.

The BBC would describe that as “impartiality”. But what you are actually doing is you are maintaining the status quo. Making sure that those who are in power stay in power. Its not impartial, it is reactionary, because your role becomes to maintain the status quo. In terms of what I think we do have a duty as journalists is to be fair and accurate. If you are not accurate or you are not fair, then you’re a bad journalist.

Curiously that also applies to campaigners. If you lie to make your campaign win then you are a rubbish campaigner as well. I don’t have a problem being seen as a campaigner. But I do it on the basis that I defend my journalism as 100% as far as absolutely possible, accurate, and fair.

Rohini: That thing of “impartiality” is something that I don’t this is only British, but it is so deeply ingrained, that you really worry about just seeing something and you say this is wrong. What you said is about impact actually. What I see in common, and what I also see as a journalist, is the goal for the story to have an impact, and when it is questioned, you defend it. That’s why you try to be as accurate as possible. That’s why you try to tell the story in a way that people care. All of it is about impact. If it takes talking about it, even though you can probably give someone the book and ask them to read it, if its part of it seems like campaigning, it’s okay, because its all part of the impact.

When I care about something, that’s why I do the story. I don’t know what exactly I care about until I’ve written the story out, until I’ve done the reporting. You know that something is wrong: you’re not just choosing to write about some abstract people. You’re choosing to write about a set of events, about something happening. I’m not for or against “a people”, but I am definitely for and against things that are happening. I don’t know how many things I can be for in Sri Lanka, but there’s quite a lot of things that I’m against. And that’s where the form comes in and the politics. Perhaps many journalists would want—and I count myself amongst them—we want the story to be impactful in the readers’ mind, that they know more about Sri Lanka, that they know more about the kind of war a civil war is, what happens to people and how we can be carried away by lies and deception and not even know it.

And the other impact, this is the ideal impact—I don’t know if it will ever happen, in that I see myself as part of the organization around war crimes in Sri Lanka—to get people to talk: the situation needs people arguing, it needs contesting opposites, where one side says zero casualties and no deaths at all, this is a peaceful country and the other says genocide. There is an intention on the part of the government to control, maybe even destroy any identity that doesn’t fit in, but I’m wary about using the word genocide. I’m not against it, per se, it’s just a discomfort, because once you say genocide and someone else says no there is no conversation. So you put enough data out there and perhaps somewhere something will stick and people will talk to each other and there will be a way for people to have a dialogue, investigate, negotiate, and maybe come to something. That’s the kind of effect I want to have.

I’m also trying to get my book translated into Sinhala and Tamil, maybe because I want to start some fights. When I go back, I actually see people among the Sinhala community becoming more critical of the government, and even those that are, are finding it difficult to find a platform to actually say that out loud. Those that are being critical, the triggers have been very personal, things that hit them more correctly, like corruption, nepotism, and attacks on the south, villagers asking for water and being shot at and dying.

The repression is targeted towards poor people, and towards dissent, and in the communities you want support from, the fissures are showing and that’s the beginning of criticism and dissent. In just the arc of my understanding of Sri Lanka, around 2013, after the second term of the president, small things like the naming of the village after Rajapaksa’s son causes an explosion among people who are annoyed that it’s not humble, which is a thing that’s valued. And it was surprising because humility is not something that his government had shown at all, but it was not criticized before. So in the context of criticism against the government I see more space to talk about the bad side of the government, which they might have justified in some way. Everyone remembers ’83, the riots, because it happened in Colombo and everyone saw it and felt it and saw refugees. But the killing is something that happened far away, so they don’t really have access, or only have access to certain information. I do believe with more criticism and with more information coming out and with more organization and journalists writing, there is a slow move toward more criticism.

And there is deep shame that many express often. These are small things we can think of, small opportunities, but I do think there is, and in my book I show a lot of people, a lot of the activists that are taking risks, doing a lot of work, those who cannot be named in my acknowledgments, many of them are Sinhalese people who are working invisibly. It is a quiet and invisible group that is very strong, I think, there is definitely some knowledge of what the government has really done.

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Minor amendments for accuracy were made on February 8, 2015