Vol:24 Iss:11 URL: http://www.flonnet.com/fl2411/stories/20070615004904600.htm
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SRI LANKA

In the web of war

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY

SRI LANKA, a country of just about 20 million, is overpopulated in the cyber world although it has only two million computer users. The relatively high level of computer literacy makes the Lanka-related e-traffic phenomenal, considering the fact that less than 10 per cent of the population has access to the Internet.

Faced with a conflict situation for over three and a half decades, beginning with the failed insurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 1971, players and stakeholders in the `war(s)/peace industry' have taken to the Internet with a vengeance. Since the Internet hit the Sri Lanka airwaves in 1995, it has been a story of non-stop e-proliferation.

For parties in Sri Lanka's ongoing conflict as well as the peaceniks, the Internet has emerged as a vital and potent weapon. The target audience usually is either the international community or expatriates and Lanka watchers. The principal actors involved in the `war re-play' are the state and non-state players. The establishment actors on the e-stage, such as the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, invoke their authority on the basis of the legitimacy they have derived from the electorate. Legal emissaries on the Web include a host of United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organisations, plus the likes of Norway, the official facilitator of peace, and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission.

These players face a tough competition from non-state actors in the e-world. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is the chief non-state player, but there are other organisations that are not quite so blatant in pushing their agendas on the Internet.

The conflict on the ground has its pauses but the war in cyberspace goes on round the clock. This war follows no code. Lies, half-truths, slanders, blasphemies and character assassination(s) dressed up as news, analyses and opinions are routinely peddled as `The Truth'.

The so-called `peace secretariat' website hosted by the LTTE - www.ltteps.org - is in reality a war secretariat. Ironically, it is funded by Norway. It regularly dishes out "facts, figures and statistics" about the situation in the north and the east of the island as perceived by the LTTE. Here are a few instances of the means adopted by the Tigers to push their agenda.

An extract from a March 31 report posted on the LTTE `peace secretariat' reads: "Vallipunam High School is located in Puthukkudiyiruppu in Mullaithivu... . Part of their preschool song includes, `One and one is two, the Kfir [Israeli-built fighter jets, said to be used by the country's air force in fighting the Tigers] dropped two.'"

The LTTE seems to have no qualms about advertising the kind of education children get in areas under its control. Is this the way to educate children, even in a `war-like environment'? What purpose does it serve other than sowing seeds of hatred in an already polarised society?

A report posted on the website in February notes, "Hindu Priest Parameshwara Kurukkal was murdered by paramilitary after he blessed Sri Lankan President Mahintha Rajapakasa when the Sri Lankan President visited Vaharai town in Batticaloa.

"Priest Parameshwara Kurukkal was asked by the paramilitary to bless the Sri Lankan President on his visit. The priest was killed five days after the visit of the Sri Lankan President. Family members of the priest said that they suspected the paramilitary for the murder because the paramilitary suspected that the priest informed the LTTE about military positions. This is not the first time Sri Lankan military operated forces killed a Hindu priest."

The military, on the other hand, claimed that the priest was murdered by Tigers. Irrespective of the truth of the matter, what objective is served by publicising the religious identity of the unfortunate victim?

For all its pretensions, the LTTE does not seem to care about international opinion. A report posted on its website in September 2006, days after the LTTE ideologue, the late Anton Balasingham, made a strong plea to India to set the past aside and strengthen the hands of the Tigers, best illustrates the point. Titled "Lt Col Thileepan through his sacrifice raised the political awareness of the Tamils", it goes on to say: "It was 1987 July. The Indian military had just landed to the euphoric welcome of the Tamil people who hoped the Indians arrived to bring the just peace that the Tamils yearned for.

"Lt Col Thileepan, an LTTE porali (fighter/member) who was instrumental in bringing women into the LTTE membership, began a fast unto death on September 12th 1987 putting forward the following five demands to the Indian government that had just landed its military two months earlier....

Thileepan died, his demands unheeded, on September 26th, 12 days after he began his fast.

Tamil people gathered in hundreds of thousands for the 12 days at the historic Nallur temple in Jaffna where Thileepan held his fast. These 12 days have been commemorated by the Tamils ever since... .Through his fast and the ultimate sacrifice, Thileepan taught the Tamil people a great lesson. Tamils learnt the deceptive ways of the powerful, a lesson only those who struggle for freedom will ever learn. That lesson strengthened the Tamil freedom struggle and keeps it strong to this day." TamilNet (www.tamilnet.com) is the unofficial mouthpiece of the Tigers in English. It is a kind of news agency chronicling the conflict as perceived by the LTTE. The site is a `must hit' for any serious Sri Lanka watcher. A senior official in the Presidential Secretariat told Frontline, "My first port of call on the internet is TamilNet. Though it is brazenly pro-Tigers, it is a good guide to know the mind of the Tiger leadership tucked away in the safe havens of the Wanni jungles."

Imitating the Tigers, several `paramilitaries' have built their own little Web estates: www.voiceofeelam.com is a good example. Though its authors are anonymous, it is suspected to be a joint venture of the Karuna faction and the psychological operations (psy-ops) unit of the military. The avowed objective is to provide an alternative perspective from the areas under LTTE control. But it does not go much beyond Tiger-bashing.

Minister Douglas Devananda, who heads the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), runs his own site; its contents are of the `neither here nor there' kind. Moderates such as the Tamil United Liberation Front led by Anandasangree seek the attention of Net users with information and with analyses on possible ways out of the ethnic conflict. Anandasangree is prolific in his commentary, but his sober and sanguine voice is lost in the e-wilderness most of the time.

Political instability, confusion at the policy level, red tape and bureaucratic lethargy all contribute to make the government-run websites boring and dull. Of late, however, a realisation of the importance of grabbing cyber attention, and of ensuring credibility while retaining reader interest, seems to have dawned on the managers of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. But it is proving to be an uphill task.

The government wages its cyber war/propaganda mainly through three websites: www.peaceinsrilanka.org run by the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process, www.nationalsecurity.lk managed by the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) and www.defence.lk operated by the Ministry of Defence. The Defence Ministry site is considered as the most authoritative, providing relatively accurate information about the government's military strategy since it is directly under the control of Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, who happens to be the President's brother. Some reports posted on this site are, however, blatantly offensive to neighbouring countries, including those friendly to Sri Lanka, and must be embarrassing for the Foreign Ministry.

On the occasion of the 16th death anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, a report on the website said: "It was 16 years ago, Independent India's ninth Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Thenmuli Rajaratnam alias Dhanu, a suicide bomber of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at Siriperumbudur near Chennai by a conspiracy hatched by Velupillai Prabhakaran and his intelligence Chief Pottu Amman...

"After 16 years of the killing the two main accused of the murder Velupillai Prabhakaran, the supremo of the LTTE and Pottuamman, his intelligence chief could not be arrested by the Indian authorities and are still operating the same insurgency, which led to the assassination 16 years ago, from the Northern jungles of Sri Lanka. But many say the irony of the matter is that the LTTE has staged a come back to Tamil Nadu, once again getting involved in murders and kidnappings of Indian citizens while procuring arms for them and aiding other separatist movements in India."

The most biting jibes are reserved for Norway. The Ministry recently posted an item quoting the Sri Lanka envoy in Washington as having said that the Tigers have stolen 1,30,000 Norwegian passports and sold them to the "highest bidders", including operatives of Al Qaeda. Oslo's rebuttal was never seen on the site.

Other countries also get a fair dose of `sermons'. A report about a demonstration outside the British Embassy on May 9, following a parliamentary debate in the House of Commons on the situation in Sri Lanka, says: "Venerable Elle Gunawansa Thero who led a demonstration of about thousand people against alleged British interference in Sri Lanka's internal affairs said that the move of a so called all party committee of the British parliament has no ethical right to interfere in the affairs of Sri Lanka.

`The committee,' alleged the Thero, `stinks of partiality towards the insurgency of the terrorist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).' The demonstration was organised by the Sri Lanka Patriotic Movement (SLPM). Venerable Gunawansa was flanked by some leading intellectuals of the country like Professor Nalin de Silva, Professor Mendis Rohanadheera, Professor Somaratne Balasuriya and Professor Bandula Endagama."

There are hundreds of community websites and individual bloggers commenting on the conflict. D.B.S. Jeyaraj, an expatriate currently based in Canada, runs a site: http://transcurrents.com. This former journalist amazes even experts back home with his meticulous reporting on the ground situation in the north and the east of Sri Lanka.

One site that deserves a special mention is www.crazylanka.com, which provides welcome comic relief. Also run by an expatriate, it shows that at least some islanders retain their sense of humour amid all the blood and gore. It prides itself as "The Number Two Sri Lankan Crazy Site!" and warns the reader that it is not recommended by Rupavahini Corporation, the government-run broadcasting house, which operates several television and radio channels.