The propaganda war and its wily protagonists

A Sri Lankan friend of mine asked me the other day whether I believed the official version of events on the battlefield that is now so enthusiastically spread around by the Government. Miles of territory are being recaptured every week. Dozens of fighters are getting killed. Stories like these are essentially unverifiable, but they are increasingly filling the pages of newspapers and taking up ever more space on television screens. The Army insists that real progress is being made towards its goals and claims to be on the verge of winning at least the conventional part of its struggle against the LTTE. Does anybody take it seriously, he questioned.

I accused him of having an overactive imagination. He is part of a crowd who likes to support the underdog in any confrontation and that means dismissing reports of state accomplishment in whatever field happens to be under discussion. I suspect that this is what drew him to set up his own NGO.

The Government wouldn’t be the first administration to inflate its military position for one reason or another. Motives vary from narrowly political to strategically relevant, as results may increase support for a party, galvanise opinion when additional money or troops are needed, or upset plans of the opposing forces. Propaganda has long been an integral part of warfare, and demoralising or misleading an enemy is probably good tactics in any situation, whatever the troublesome ethics of lying to the public.

But there are definite limits. The Government can multiply the number of cadres it kills by a factor of three and occasionally float a rumour about the wellbeing of their topmost leaders, but more outrageous exaggerations would be quickly uncovered. The Wanni is not another universe, whatever is said by those advocating international monitoring of the situation. People speak to their relatives, relief organisations move around the districts in question, and the internally displaced find their way out to safety in time. The ground situation can’t be too different to what is alleged. People can also see what the other side has to say. Prabhakaran is no less capable when it comes to publicity, and everybody knows how to get around the few totally ineffective measures in place like the blocking of websites to read his best efforts at presenting the latest developments as a tactical retreat like in the East. The Government knows that it would soon come undone if it presented a false image of its achievements in the war.

Propaganda is far less dangerous than it has been in other times and places. World War II saw the word itself first acquire negative connotations with the excessive activities of the information master Joseph Goebbels. But Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States were just as guilty as Nazi Germany. American government departments worked overtime to vilify their opponents, describing the Germans and Japanese as subhuman, beastly, ungodly ape men that had to be exterminated like rats. Officials justified discriminatory policies such as internment of Americans of German and Japanese descent on the basis of so-called inbuilt racial characteristics. Sri Lanka is a long way from this kind of hate speech.

Later in the same conversation, my friend declared that if these stories of frontline advances were actually true, it could only be due to the fact that anything is possible if enough bombs are dropped on people. The Government is only winning by using overwhelming and therefore also undue power, he asserted.

I had to point out that this statement was poppycock of the highest order. Even the LTTE doesn’t attempt to suggest that it is being subjected to an indiscriminate barrage from the air. A couple of weeks ago, there was a fierce dispute over claims that artillery shells had struck the Mullaitivu hospital, killing a young child and injuring several civilians including the Government Agent. The Army strongly denied having attacked those locations. We don’t know the truth of this specific case, but the fact that the incident was so enthusiastically highlighted while it involved only a few individuals shows the likely extent of any problem. The Government certainly doesn’t have a policy of intentionally targeting civilians with its heavy weapons in the Wanni.

But World War II automatically came to mind again courtesy of the language used. The German Luftwaffe killed 45,000 civilians during only a three month period at the height of the Blitz. And this was after millions of women and children had been evacuated to the countryside. The British and American Air Forces also followed a policy of striking at the general public in deliberate acts of terrorism such as the firebombing of German cities and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. Images of ordinary people dying as their homes collapsed around them are synonymous with that conflict, and they are evocative.

It is a common strategy of those attempting to sway opinion against this country. Two very different situations are compared under the disclaimer that they aren’t totally alike.

An Island columnist with a similar mentality had a go at this recently in connection with the internment of Japanese Americans. She presented the all too familiar case of a Tamil faced with difficulties at a checkpoint despite having the necessary identification, and said that the authorities ought to learn from the mistakes of their counterparts elsewhere. The American government held at least 30,000 of its citizens under arrest for years, often under very difficult conditions. Its judiciary concurred, and the decision was upheld by the Supreme Court. Sri Lankan Forces sending unfortunate individuals to the police station until their credentials are looked into clearly isn’t of the same order, and it has already been demonstrated that there are checks and balances in place with judges last year ruling against the forcible transport of a hundred or so Tamils from Colombo lodges.

We should note that Japanese Americans weren’t the only ones to suffer in this way. Britain subjected more than 10,000 Germans and Austrians to a curfew following the outbreak of war in Europe, despite the fact that most of them were refugees from the Nazi regime. Within a year, 15,000 people had been interned in military camps on the Isle of Man. British officials reported considerable mistreatment as well. Canada followed suit, and measures were taken against more than 20,000 German and Japanese Canadians. Australia declared another 20,000 people to be enemies of the state on the basis of their ethnic origin or citizenship, and many were interned for the duration of the war.

Such linguistic tactics can just as easily lead us to conclude that the situation here isn’t very worrying after all. World War II saw many restrictions on normal life that simply do not compare to what we are sometimes told is unbearable here. Britain promptly introduced conscription for both men and women. Food was rationed only months after the outbreak of war. Within a year, fuel for private use was completely disallowed. Some publications were banned for a period of time because of their unfavourable editorial lines. New taxes were also swiftly introduced to pay for all the military needs. At its peak, Britain, America, Germany and Japan all spent more than 50% of their GDP on war production.

These comparisons may not be very useful but they are regularly ignored in favour of more conveniently negative ones. Balance and careful reasoning seem to be rather out of fashion these days.

Sri Lankan NGOs feed this kind of so-called thinking to their funders in the West. It is effectively what they are paid to do, for the day that they say that the Government is more or less doing what it ought with regards to the conflict, their donors will cut them off. Furthermore, they seem to be afraid that if they so much as hint that the problems in this country aren’t so bad after all or are gradually improving, competitors from other unfortunate places will sneak in and deprive them of their livings. Blackening the name of the incumbent administration is the only way to maintain their organisations. I hereby challenge them to prove otherwise.

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