Some day, an enterprising PhD student will produce a mathematical formula for the distribution of liberal concern over international crises. His or her research might begin with the extraordinary graph created by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, charting deaths in the Congo and in Darfur against the coverage they received in the New York Times.

The misery of Darfur is familiar to most of us but the Congo, in which more than five million people have died since 1996, only registers as an exotic backdrop for Angelina Jolie.

FAIR suggests a variety of explanations. Darfur fits neatly into the “war on terror” narrative, portrayed (dishonestly) as Arab Muslims terrorising black Africans. The Congo, on the other hand, presents a complex story not susceptible to a quick soundbite. Moreover, as FAIR notes, “paying attention to the Congo would also mean reporting on the main factor fuelling the conflict: the plunder of the country’s resources, which primarily benefits multinational corporations. The conflict areas of the Congo are rich with minerals like copper, tin, gold, diamonds, cobalt and coltan, a mineral used for cell phones and other common electronic devices. Rebel groups who hold these areas sell off the minerals at cut-rate prices, using the profits to maintain power as big companies look the other way.”

A similar explanation might be forthcoming over the relative silence in Australia about the catastrophe unfolding in Sri Lanka, a conflict that’s both too distant and too close.

On the one hand, most commentators (and that’s a mea culpa as much as a j’accuse) don’t know Sri Lankan politics as well as, say, the familiar running sore that is Palestine.

But there are also reasons why the world doesn’t want to look too closely.

After 2001, Sri Lanka — like Russia with Chechnya and China with its Xinjiang province — seized hold of the War on Terror to frame its counterinsurgency campaign. Sri Lanka successfully managed to cut off support for Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam from the Tamil diaspora in part because, in the wake of 9/11, western nations passed their own more-or-less draconian anti-terrorism laws. The charges against Dr Haneef and Jack Thomas were well documented; the equally disturbing case against three Tamil men in Melbourne much less so.

The connections between Wars on Terror around the globe have only become more intense now that the Sri Lankan military has so thoroughly crushed the Tigers. In the past, the consensus held that internal rebellions, even — or perhaps especially — those with a reputation for brutality would only subside when their legitimate grievances were assuaged. You couldn’t, the theorists agreed, simply kill your way to peace.

Now, apparently, you can.

Christopher Hitchens, a reliable bellweather about such things, explains:

It’s just not true, as some liberals tend to believe, that insurgencies, once under way, have history on their side. As well as by nations like Britain and Russia, they can be beaten by determined Third World states, such as Algeria in the 1990s and even Iraq in the present decade. Insurgent leaderships often make mistakes on the “hearts and minds” front, just as governments do, and governments are not always stupid to ban the press from the front line, tell the human rights agencies to stay the hell out of the way, and rely on the popular yearning for law and order.

All of the enthusiasts for counterinsurgency tactics in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan thus have a vested interest in looking at Sri Lanka through rose-coloured glasses. Ban the press, get rid of human rights groups and you too will emerge victorious.

It’s more or less the strategy that Tacitus critiqued when the Romans employed it at Carthage, “You have made a desert and call it peace”.

The final campaign against the Tigers killed perhaps 7000 civilians, although no-one seems really sure. It displaced 250,000 civilians, many of whom will now be confined behind razor wire in internment camps for the next two years as the Sri Lankan military, an institution with an appalling human rights record, continues to search for Tamil loyalists. Instead of seeking reconciliation with the ethnic minority who make up 14% of the population, the Sri Lanka government has launched an orgy of ethnic chauvinism. As one observer writes:

The government itself has plastered the countryside with enormous placards lauding the military with the slogan, in Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese majority to which I too, belong, stating: “Soldiers, our race salutes you!” Not “the people”, not “the country”, but the race. And all these placards exhibit the stated provenance of the Ministry of Defence or other government institutions.

The Tigers might have been brutal, with a penchant for assassinations and suicide bombs. But hundreds of thousands of people held in detention centres for years? Does anyone really doubt that the seeds of future bloodshed are now being sown on a massive scale?

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12