Wednesday, May 9, 2018

New light on last stages of the war Michael Roberts unpacks the ‘ Gash Files ’ 

A speech by Michael Morris, Baron Naseby, during a debate in the British parliament made news in Sri Lanka last October on account of the testimony he provided relating to the last stages of Sri Lanka’s 30-year war. Lord Naseby cited dispatches from Lt. Col. Anton Gash, Defence Attache at the British High Commission in Colombo, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London during this crucial period. They showed the conduct of the Sri Lankan forces in a very different light to the negative one generally projected by western governments and reinforced in mainstream western media.   

It appeared that nobody bothered to gain access to those dispatches to find out what was actually in them – even in the heavily redacted form in which they were released. That task has been undertaken not by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) as one might have expected, but by an independent academic, Dr. Michael Roberts, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology, University of Adelaide. Roberts approaches the material with a scholar’s diligence and a sociologist’s analytical eye, drawing on insights from his interviews with military personnel, diplomats, scholars, journalists and a variety of other sources. His commentaries on ‘The Gash Files’ have appeared in his blog (‘Thuppahi’s Blog’) in recent weeks.   

“Gash is still a serving officer attached to the British High Commission in Jamaica” writes Roberts. “It is doubtful if he can ever divulge his sources of data, but we must remain grateful for the access to his assessments of the unfolding battle and refugee scenes. Praise be to the Lord… Michael the Lord Naseby.”   

Roberts’ humorous asides make for entertaining reading at times, while he delves into a tortuous area of study, a veritable mine field of controversy. The main point of interest for Sri Lanka is that Gash’s testimony flies in the face of the allegations of human rights abuses during the last stages of the war, that laid the groundwork for a US-UK led resolution in the UN Human Rights Council in 2015. Could the UK reject the testimony of its own officer?   

With the clinical detachment of a military man, Gash reported on the manouvres carried out by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), Navy (SLN) and Air Force (SLAF) to defeat the LTTE under extremely challenging conditions in those last days. He was a first-hand witness to their operations to secure the release of hundreds of thousands of civilians (IDPs).   

In a dispatch dated February 12, 2009 he described the arrival of an ICRC ship bringing Tamil civilians to safety in Trincomalee. This activity supervised by the SLN went on from February 9, 2009 till as late as May 9, 2009. Gash wrote to his masters:   

“The operation was efficient and effective, but most importantly was carried out with compassion, respect and concern. I am entirely certain that this was genuine -- my presence was not planned and was based on a sudden opportunity; I had free access to the 300m-long stretch of beach over a 4-hour period and was able to observe upwards of 200 SLN personnel working extremely hard under difficult conditions. Their high morale was notable; they were enjoying the work and clearly finding it satisfying. There were constant examples of thoughtful assistance - looking after babies while mothers were being searched, helping elderly ladies or mothers of babies with their bags, cheerfully offering food etc.”   
It appeared that nobody bothered to gain access to those dispatches to find out what was actually in them – even in the heavily redacted form in which they were released

Gash noted in a Comment that “… There is real risk that a suicide bomber could cause mass casualties in the beach environment. I was genuinely surprised how calm the atmosphere was in the aftermath of the suicide bomb at the Vavuniya screening centre, and by how much compassion was being shown.”Gash went so far as to say, “Welfare appeared to be overriding some security considerations.”

Roberts does not necessarily agree with Gash’s analysis on every point. On March 12, 2009, Gash sent this appraisal:   

“The LTTE has been forcing the civilian population to move in accordance with their tactical requirements. The NFZ is rigorously policed and patrolled by LTTE cadres, who control access to food and medical facilities, ensuring that their own needs are met before any capacity is allowed for civilians.”   

Roberts, noting that this observation ‘points in the right direction,’ further contends that, “The mass of Tamil civilians was not merely a tactical element. They were a central pillar in the LTTE’s grand strategy.” He says, “They were to (A) function as a defensive fortress of ‘sandbags’ (i.e. victims, casualties) restraining the offensive weaponry of the GSL forces and (B) serve as an incentive for forceful intervention by Norway, USA and other Western governments – intervention primed by the outcries of HR organisations and concerned peoples (including Tamil organisations) in the West.”   

It is in line with this strategy, Roberts argues, that the LTTE from around 2008 began building a picture of ‘an impending humanitarian catastrophe’ and the prospect of ‘genocide.’ He goes on to detail the manipulations of diplomats of the US, Norway and others who kept pushing Sri Lanka to drop its goal of defeating the LTTE. “…the HR agencies, the Western governments and their UN emissaries fell in with the LTTE strategy (induced in part, as it seems outwardly, by humanitarian concerns). They were not mere bystanders. They were active participants in the warring context.” 
Gash’s Situation Reports contain vital information and insights on conditions that prevailed during the war’s end, that have been glossed over or ignored in western mainstream media’s coverage of it. For example:   

- That “… It is not possible to distinguish civilians from LTTE cadres, as few cadres are now in military uniform.” (Sitrep 28 January 2009).   

- “… the language on TamilNet and other similar platforms is clearly striving for international intervention to force a ceasefire on the GoSL. “ (Sitrep 28 January 2009)
- UN reports suggest increasing forced recruitment of women and children by the LTTE, and that many of the LTTE casualties are unwilling recruits (Sitrep 12 March 2009)   

- That the LTTE has been “consistently trying to prevent the egress of IDPs other than the most seriously injured” (refers to suicide bomber killing nine civilians and wounding 41 at a screening centre near Pulliyampokkani, and the killing of 19 civilians and wounding of 75 by the LTTE as they tried to escape to government held areas. (Sitrep 12 March 2009)   

- “… TamilNet allegations continue along the familiar themes of attacks on orphanages, hospitals, cluster munitions, chemical weapons. These are no longer credible,albeit there clearly have been heavy civilian casualties from small arms and mortar fire.” - military analysis, 07 April 2009.   

On the much-hyped issue of civilian casualties too, Gash’s estimate contradicts the figure put into circulation by the Darusman Report (on which the HRC resolution relies) when he says “Leaked UN casualty figures calculate 6,432 civilians killed and 19,946 injured over the last 3 months.” The dispatch is dated 26 April 2009. In the three weeks that followed, is it credible that this figure could have rocketed to 40,000?