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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Censorship, Disinformation & Murder of Journalists

Child Soldiers in Sri Lanka: Manufacturing Moral Outrage
The Stories of Nayirah and Malar

Ilango Rajendran
Courtesy: Tamil Guardian 9 September 2000

[See also: 
How to build support for war � Columbia Journalism Review

How to Create a War by J. Orlin Grabbe
Lies Damn Lies and the PR Industry]

Modern conflict is as much a propaganda war as a military struggle. The support of other parties against your enemies is vital, given the complex nature of today�s conflicts. The most important aspect of securing support from third parties is to demonise the enemy, to make them reprehensible in the eyes of ones potential allies and those whose support one needs. In effect, taking the moral high ground is as important as taking enemy territory.

There is no better avenue to this end than to question the humanity of the enemy. Projecting your opponent as amoral, unscrupulous, and opposed to shared international values is necessary if the world is to support your fight. This is particularly important when your opponent is capably arguing a just cause, and your potential allies are either undecided or supportive of his case.

All, they say, is fair in war. And if necessary to this end, to massage the truth a little, sometimes tell outright lies, then even those who claim to fight �the good fight� may succumb to falsehoods. After all, the truth can always be owned up to at a later stage � when the war has been successfully concluded. The end is, as always, seen to justify the means.

When the United States led an international coalition against Iraq following the latter�s invasion of Kuwait, there was considerable domestic opposition to American military involvement. Indeed, the Iraq-Kuwait issue was seen as a matter of economics, and public support was lukewarm. It was necessary to turn it into a moral crusade, a cause, something to which ordinary Americans could rally and would be prepared to accept casualties for.

But Iraq had not provided a suitably outrageous rallying point. Until the issue of Kuwait babies suddenly arose. The basic story was that Iraqi soldiers burst into the premature baby ward of a Kuwaiti hospital and threw the preemies out of their incubators so that the incubators could be sent back to Iraq.

However, as horrifying as the story was, the American public did not get emotionally involved � there was no tangible, visible manifestation of this atrocity. 
So a human face to represent the incident became necessary. That element was added when a fifteen-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only as �Nayirah� appeared before the Human Rights Caucus of the US Congress to tell her story. 

The televised segments of her testimony showed her emotional retelling of the story, and how she struggled to get through it. �She did it brilliantly, choking with tears at the right moment, her voice breaking as she struggled to continue,� says Phillip Knightley, in �The First Casualty�. The television also showed the anger and resolution of the faces of the Congressmen who listened to her story. 

After her appearance, President Bush referred to the story six times in the next five weeks as examples of the depths to which Saddam Hussein�s regime could sink.

During the US Senate debate on whether or not to approve military action against Saddam Hussein, seven Senators specifically referred to the incubators babies� atrocity. The motion in favour of the war was eventually passed by just five votes. It took two years for the truth to emerge.

�The story was a total invention, a fabrication and a myth, � reveals Knightley. The teenage girl who so convincingly told of the horrors in that ward was in fact the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States. She had been coached and rehearsed by a US public relations company who was hired by the Kuwaiti government in exile to campaign for American military intervention to oust Iraq from Kuwait. But the purpose had been served. Morally outraged, the US public backed their government�s military campaign against Saddam.

Sri Lanka has attempted to follow this tried and tested route. The government attempted to paint the Liberation Tigers as fanatics, hated by the Tamils, criminals who are involved in narcotics trafficking, piracy, and so on. None of it succeeded in provoking international emotional sympathy for Sri Lanka�s cause, particularly as there was no tangible evidence.

Traditionally, non-state actors are easy to demonise as they lack access to basic information propagation tools � they neither control a form of mass media, nor have access to the ear of the international community. Sri Lanka has found it difficult, even given their relatively advantageous position.

One of the charges that the Sri Lankan government has traditionally leveled against the Liberation Tigers is that of using children as soldiers. This particular accusation has now become the main thrust of Sri Lankan propaganda given the global focus on the issue of children and conflict. Up to now, this accusation has proven difficult for Sri Lanka to substantiate, and the international community has failed to rally to this cause. The nature of the conflict is at odds with Sri Lanka�s accusation: a fighting force advancing rapidly on multiple fronts against a numerically superior Sri Lankan military, engaged in a high-tech conventional war and dealing with the complexities of command control and logistics is not child�s play.

These allegations are hard to prove because Sri Lanka does not allow journalists into the war zones, except on conducted tours organized by the Sri Lankan military. But the allegation can still be �proven� if the journalists on one such tour could meet just such a person � a child-soldier of the LTTE.

Last month, a select group of Western journalists were given a conducted tour of the Sri Lankan Army held areas of the Jaffna peninsula, and as part of that visit, were taken to meet a girl in military custody. Speaking through a military interpreter, the girl told the journalists a story of abduction and forcible conscription at the age of seven, and of being sent to combat at the age of fourteen. She gave a heart-rending account of not having had toys to play with, of being unable to keep pace on marches and being punished.

Subsequently, two reports were published, in the International Herald Tribune and Britain�s Independent (Britain is currently considering a Sri Lankan request to proscribe the LTTE as a terrorist organisation).

�Arumuyam Malar, is 14 years old and already knows how to fire a semi-automatic assault rifle, throw grenades and take a cyanide pill,� wrote John Greenway for the Independent.

�Seated in a plastic chair on a hot and dusty street in front of a bombed out building, she was surrounded by a dozen camouflage-clad and heavily armed government soldiers� reported Thomas Crampton for the International Herald Tribune.

Apart from the girl, the only person who spoke Tamil was the military interpreter, the journalists wrote. �A small group of foreign journalists who interviewed her... were refused access to the compound where she is held. Nothing she said could be independently verified, and she was interviewed under stressful conditions that could easily have appeared to her as an interrogation� said the International Herald Tribune. The Army strictly controlled what the girl said. �She begins to tell how the soldiers who captured her gave her a beating but is cut short by the army translator� said the Independent.

It is not possible to verify if Arumuyam Malar was indeed a Tiger or not. Neither her age, nor other details of her story can be independently corroborated. She remains secluded in the remote Jaffna peninsula, in the custody of the military, while the journalists have returned home to print their reports.

Malar�s carefully structured story is being presented as �proof� of the LTTE�s use of child soldiers. The objective of the exercise is achieved if moral outrage can be provoked.



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