Thursday, June 1, 2009

Sri Lanka and Tiananmen: Time to accept the truth

It used to be said the first casualty of war is the truth. But today
we do not even need wars to see truth destroyed. Even domestic
conflicts in distant countries can do the job, with a flood of black
information and news distortions produced, some causing enormous harm. The distorted interpretation of Sri Lanka's war against Tamil
insurgents is one example. Another has been the way Beijing continues
to be pilloried for a mythical student massacre during the June 3/4,
1989, Tiananmen incident.

Let's begin with Sri Lanka. Western governments now have the bad habit
of using indiscriminately the word "terrorist" to denounce groups they
do not like but which use force to promote causes. At last count the
British had listed more than 50 such groupings around the globe as
terrorist organizations, the United States more than 40, and the
Australians more than 30.

The United Nations might still be struggling to give us a definition
of "terrorist." And if using force to promote a cause is terrorism
then what was the American revolution against the British, or the
French resistance against Nazi occupation? But for our Western
governments these are not problems. Those fighting on our side are the
good guys. Those opposed are "terrorists.'

Afghan Islamists are heroes if they are fighting Soviet occupation but
terrorists if they are fighting Western occupation. Kurdish militants
are terrorists if they fight Turkey but deserve support if they fight
Iran. The Chechnya separatists who fought so bravely against Russian
troops are terrorists simply because they are Islamists whose victory
might encourage other Islamists. The Russian troops who tried to
defend South Ossetian separatists from a savage Georgian attack are
invaders simply because they are Russians. And so on.

As in Chechnya, so in Sri Lanka. Elements in the Sri Lanka regime —
not necessarily the government itself — have long had a reputation for
extreme measures against dissidents. The 1983 of suppression of Tamil
dissidents objecting to racial discrimination led to the growth of an
antigovernment guerrilla movement there, supported by many in an
educated and politically conscious diaspora, and able to survive with
extreme skill and bravery in very difficult conditions against the
overwhelming might of government forces. But since the insurgents were
labeled as "terrorists," the government was able to claim global
approval for what some reports claim was an excessive use of force to
defeat the insurgents, causing immense civilian casualties.

Which brings me to Tiananmen. The true record of events there has long
been clear. In 1989 the Chinese regime was still only gradually
emerging from long-lasting incompetence, Cultural Revolution traumas and petty despotism. Student activists, supported by long-suffering Beijing citizens, protested by occupying the iconic Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. Even the regime to some extent realized why the students were demonstrating, which is why they were allowed to remain in the Square for so long.

But clearly the regime could not allow the students to remain there
forever, particularly after they had rejected concessions offered by
Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. The first move was to
send in unarmed troops to clear the square. That was quickly stopped
by angry citizens.

When armed troops arrived, the citizens, helped by students, set up
blockades and fire-bombed the trucks, incinerating many inside.
Inevitably the troops panicked and began shooting wildly in return. In
short, on the night of June 3/4, in the streets of Beijing leading to
Tiananmen, there was something close to civil war, with dozens, maybe
hundreds, of citizens and students shot and killed and quite a few
soldiers beaten or burned to death. But by the time the troops finally
reached the square, U.S. Embassy and other reports confirm that the
fighting had largely ended and most of the students had left.

The popular version of events is quite different, however. It says the
troops simply marched directly into a square crowded with students and
began to mow them down with machine guns. This, despite the fact that several observers, including a Reuters correspondent and a Spanish TVE television crew, who were in the center of the square the entire night of June 4 not only deny the massacre story; both also confirm how the remaining students negotiated peacefully with the troops and left quietly.

There may have been killings on the periphery of the square. A U.S.
Embassy report speaks of students killing a soldier at the square
entrance and photos suggest a vicious tank response. But the
machine-gun massacre story is fabricated.

So how did we get the fabricated story? Researchers have tracked it
down to an anonymous front-page Hong Kong newspaper report by someone claiming to be a student who had fled the Square. No one has been able to find the author ever since. But that did not stop the report from traveling the globe, and continuing to be regurgitated ever since despite published denials by some of those researchers, including the then Spanish ambassador in Beijing (I have a copy of a book he wrote indignantly denying the massacre story).

That anonymous report has had its effect, however. It is now journalistic license to write about the "blood-stained Tiananmen Square," "thousands of students mown down by machine guns" (commentator David Brooks in The New York Times) and so on. Along with Tibet, where reports are also distorted, it has entered the pantheon of Beijing evils that critics who ignore far worse outrages against student demonstrators in other countries love to use to denounce China.

Ironically those critics miss the true ugliness of events that night,
namely the violence of the proletarian citizen revolt against a
government that based its legitimacy on claiming the full support of
those proletarian citizens.

No wonder Beijing has been angry ever since against the students who
triggered that revolt. But that anger in turn is then turned around to
perpetuate the claim that Beijing remains quite unrepentant for the
mythical machine-gun massacre.

Indeed the EU governments still use the massacre myth to deny arms
exports to China, including the riot police equipment that, if
available at the time, could have prevented the riots and killings.
The casualties from truth denial are many and varied.

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 チェチェンと同様なのが、スリランカである。スリランカ政権内の一部 必ずしも政府自体と限らないが は長い間反体制派に対する過激な取締りでよく知られている。人種差別に反対するタミール人反体制派に対する1983年の弾圧はその地に反政府ゲリラ運動を拡げる原因となった。その運動は、海外在住の教育ある政治意識の高い層の支持を受け、並外れたスキルと勇敢さを発揮して、力でははるかにしのぐ政府軍との非常に困難な闘いの中で生き伸びた。ところが、反体制派がテロリストとレッテルを貼られたために、一説には膨大な数の市民の死傷者を出したといわれる行過ぎた反体制派撲滅の行為に対し、スリランカ政府は国際的支持を取り付けることができた。