The American dilemma
Now that the LLRC Action Plan is out, it has drawn the usual reactions. Those who find good things in it claim that these have been forced on government. Others claim that it does not go far enough.
Kusal Perera does both. Interestingly we do not yet find criticism that it goes too far, though I suspect this viewpoint too will be expressed in time, for the usual reason. Meanwhile, predictably, we do not find credit given to government, and we certainly do not find expressions of regret that the government has indeed produced a plan, when the claims of the critics were that nothing would be done.
I can think of several instances of such failure to admit to unwarranted suspicions. Firstly, when the war ended, there were claims that we planned to use the army to occupy the North, that we would keep the displaced in camps for several years, and that we would incarcerate the former LTTE combatants. None of these things happened, but no one has granted that their predictions were wrong. Indeed hardly any credit has been given by the usual critics of government – though I should note that Mr Sumanthiran is an honourable exception with regard to the former combatants, for he has publicly granted that the government did well in that instance.
As part of this programme of predictions of doom, when the LLRC was appointed, it was claimed that they would produce nothing of consequence. I should note though that, when the Report appeared, we found some sort of exception to the rule, in that most critics of government welcomed it. I was at the farewell given by the then Australian High Commissioner on the evening of the report being issued, and found general satisfaction, in some cases accompanied by disbelief, by most members of the diplomatic community present. Surprisingly, though the statements issued thereafter were more grudging than the immediate reactions, by and large they were very positive.
There were three exceptions. One was the statement of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, which it may be recalled had been amongst the most vociferous critics of government at the event arranged by the American Ambassador to discuss the Darusman Report, along with the representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – who had been invited by Ambassador Butenis, without the knowledge of the Acting UN Resident Representative. The second was the statement of the TNA, which was doubly unfortunate since it came at a time when the talks between the government and the TNA were going reasonably well. After that there were no more talks.
And, thirdly, there was the American pronouncement, not in Colombo, but by Victoria Nuland in Washington. I found this surprising, because it seemed so vindictive. It was only later that I heard about the performance of the American Ambassador in Geneva who, when the move against us that had been planned in September fell flat, had indicated to our Ambassador there that, come what may, they would get us in March. Obviously welcoming the LLRC Report in December would not have fitted in with that strategy.
I was not entirely surprised by this. We had, after all, been there before. In 2010, when all those who were relieved the war was over but wanted a positive approach to the Tamils realized that Mahinda Rajapaksa was a better bet for this purpose than Sarath Fonseka, there were three astonishing exceptions. One was the TNA, another was the CPA led group of NGOs, which specialized in shouting at us in Geneva and see the agent of the UNHCHR as their natural ally, the third were the Americans, sadly at that stage supported by the British – to the surprise of the European ambassadors who discussed the matter with me afterwards, having known, as one of them put it, all about Sarath Fonseka
At the time I put it down to Ms Butenis’s naivete, for she was new in Sri Lanka, and liable to be led by the British agenda, which was then being dictated by David Miliband. But later I was told that the Americans were the prime movers, having decided that Sarath Fonseka was their best weapon against the Rajapaksas. Given the new accusatory attitude he took up about war crimes (as opposed to what the Americans had reported to us before they grew up and learnt to love Sarath Fonseka), I can see why they thought him an ideal tool – like so many military men they have used in the past for their various efforts to, not necessarily win friends and influence people, but win influence and control countries.
I was immensely sad about this, because I had been fond of Bob Blake, who had been very positive about our liberation of the East. His aid programme, run by the idealistic Rebecca Cohn, had been a catalyst in restoring not just normalcy there, but also commercial activity. His Public Affairs Officer, Jeff Anderson, was also enormously positive about helping Sri Lanka out of the rut into which terrorism had thrust it, and of course the Defence officials had given seminal support to us to deal with that terrorism.
Blake had told one of my staff at the Peace Secretariat, who asked him about what seemed a different approach in 2009, that he now served a new government. Still, even though he also seems to have played along with the Sarath Fonseka act, I suspect that, had he continued here, he would have modified the new approach so that, while American interests were being served, Sri Lankan interests would not have been treated as unimportant.
What American interests involve became clear to me in a strange episode involving Rebecca Cohn. It occurred after a meeting at the Ministry of Resettlement, at which many of us, including Minister Badiudeen, were worrying about what seemed the slow pace of resettlement. This was now August 2009, and 3 months had passed of the 6, which the Indo-Sri Lankan joint communiqué just after the war had set as the deadline for resttling the bulk of the displaced.
Incidentally, when the charming British Deputy High Commissioner told me that the British had pressed for a resolution in Geneva against us because they were worried about the displaced and so on (ie, the concerns noted in the second paragraph above) I pointed out that they should then have acted like the Indians. They, having supported us solidly to get rid of terrorism on our soil, had, immediately after this occurred, discussed their humanitarian concerns with us, so effectively that we had issued a statement along with them noting how these should be assuaged. This was a more sensible way of influencing us, I said, than claiming in the House of Commons, as Miliband had done, in pursuing his electoral concerns, that the British would ensure we were prosecuted for War Crimes.
At the meeting in the Resettlement Ministry, we decided, after the other foreign representatives had gone, except for Rebecca Cohn, whom we treated as also someone with Sri Lankan concerns at heart, in this case the displaced, that I would write to Mr Basil Rajapaksa, urging that Resettlement be expedited.
I did so, and when he got the letter, he rang me up, and gave me a earful, telling me that I was wrong to doubt him. He had said six months, and he would do it in six months – he paused and added that might be difficult, it would probably be seven or eight, which added to the evident sincerity. I was convinced that he would do what he had pledged, but then he added that I should tell my American friends that they need not worry.
I was surprised at this, and asked what he meant, and he said that he had got a similar letter from Rebecca Cohn before he got mine. I now understood his anger, and tried to make it clear that I had no idea she had written, but I am not sure that he believed me. I then rang Rebecca and asked her whether she had written, and she admitted that she had done so. She added that she had not thought it a good idea, but she had been instructed to do so.
Blake had gone by then, and I believe it was the Deputy, James Manor, a great friend of Mark’s, who had made the decision. I wondered at the reason and can only conclude that the Americans wanted to take credit for the rapid resettlement we all wanted. Reading Wikileaks later I am more than ever convinced of this, and can almost see the cable that would have been sent following resettlement had it begun then, beginning ‘Following representations by post, the Government of Sri Lanka began resettling displaced persons…..’
In short the Americans need to take credit for all good. In a sense we have seen this before, in the finest flower of British imperialism in India, when the British wanted both to dominate, and to be loved. As Paul Scott so brilliantly shows, in the Raj Quartet, many colonial administrators sincerely believed in their own decency. The problem was, when tough decisions had to be made, British interests came first, and this included standing by those who behaved badly. It was in the end the Merricks and the Brigadier Reids who made the running, with the aggression born of their own insecurities, and I fear that has been exemplified by the dominant Americans in dealings with Sri Lanka over the last three years.
So we had the bizarre performance with Sarath Fonseka, and then the determination over the last couple of years to hold the threat of war crimes against us (even to the extent of trying to suborn serving officers – a wickedness I still find appalling) until we rolled over and put our paws up in submission. I certainly hope we have not done that, but the triumph of the more Americans than the Americans in our Ministry of External Affairs, after the vote in Geneva, indicated that the Americans could feel they had brought us to heel. Dayan Jayatilleka was threatened with dismissal, Tamara Kunanayagam was removed from Geneva, and the claim was that this showed a drastic shift in foreign policy. That it was accompanied by efforts to alienate us from India, and indeed to blame India for the Geneva vote, was no accident, for obviously bringing us to heel means we must feel dependent for favours only on America, without a primary role for India in our international relations.
Hence indeed the sharp attack on the LLRC Action Plan by Kusal Perera, with its contemptuous references to the meetings of our Foreign Ministry mandarins with Hillary Clinton and her staff after the Geneva vote. Perera’s point is that, in keeping the Americans happy, we have not really seriously addressed the concerns the LLRC Report laid out.
I do not agree with Kusal Perera, for I think much has been done with regard to the problems that must be solved, and we are clearly committed to the compensatory and trust building measures that are recommended. But I have a certain sympathy for his perspective because I believe that, in responding to the American concerns that have been raised, we are not focusing sufficiently on the need to empower all our people, and in particular the Tamils who suffered during the war period.
The order in which the Action Plan has been laid out is symptomatic of this distorted perspective, because we should be highlighting efforts with regard to restoration and restitution, especially as concerns land issues, not the strange vindictive version of accountability that has been in the forefront of attacks on us in recent years (and which the TNA sadly still harps on). We also need to spend more time and effort on social integration, which is just sketched over. Of course this Plan is only an outline, and it is now up to the agencies identified to spell out what they propose to do, with clear timelines. But I hope we concentrate on the needs of our people, rather than merely keeping happy what is termed the international community – by which our Foreign Ministry leaks to newspapers indicate they mean the Americans.
The Americans can contribute to this, if they allow their better nature to come to the fore, rather than the gamesmanship they have engaged in over the last three years. The Austrian Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig, in Beware of Pity, a title those who now indulge the LTTE rump and the current game of asylum seeking should digest, wrote of the distinction between ‘what we are and what we make ourselves out to be’. If only the Americans could now take a leaf out of the Indian book, and be firm with the diaspora while encouraging us to move towards reconciliation through restoration and social integration rather than recrimination, they would probably come closer too to achieving their own political ends without conflict – and without plumbing the moral depths themselves.
By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
August 6, 2012