The most telling attempt by the UN to send a clearly inappropriate person to Sri Lanka occurred at the beginning of the year, shortly before the Presidential election. This was a Nicholas Horne, another British citizen, though he seems to have spent much of his working life in America. His last posting, after a fascinating career, was in Afghanistan, where he worked with Peter Galbraith, the former American Deputy Head of the UN in that country.
This roused my interest, because it was Peter Galbraith who had been sacked by the UN after open differences with the UN Head over the Afghanistan election. Galbraith had believed the election was fraudulent, and that Karzai, the incumbent who was declared the winner, had cheated. He had said so openly, and also done much more. Recently there was a report to the effect that he had threatened Afghan officials if they released results favourable to Karzai.
Horne had resigned in high dudgeon in support of Galbraith’s stand. He proclaimed this proudly in the cv that was sent to us. I was astonished at this, since even the UN must have realized that we were in the throes of an election, and that someone as volatile as Mr Horne could prove embarrassing if he got it into his head that the Sri Lankan election was fraudulent. Since there was already reason to believe that those who wanted General Fonseka to win were getting ready to cry foul, it seemed at the very least odd that the UN wanted to send to Sri Lanka at precisely this time someone who could well think himself a hero if he lent grist to the opposition mill.
I thought this should be brought gently to the notice of Zola Dowell, Head of OCHA in Colombo, and wrote accordingly that I was worried about ‘Mr Horne’s reasons for leaving his post in Afghanistan. His being there was of course not a problem, but internal problems at the UN are not something we would like to cope with at this stage.’ Zola’s response however suggested that she had not understood what I meant, which I thought strange since she is a bright and sensitive person.
We therefore met in my office and I asked whether she really had not realized what I was talking about. She is also an honest woman, who does not lie easily, though she tends to look upset and go red when you point out something that she would rather not discuss at length. In this case then she very simply nodded, and said she quite understood the point, and made it clear that she would not push the nomination.
This response served to confirm my view that the senior UN officials in Sri Lanka are actually quite positive about this country, and have understood the actual situation. Unfortunately they have to serve masters who still hanker after the good old days of the nineties when the writ of the New World Order ran unquestioned. They are also dependent on donors who, while wanting their agents to work under UN aegis, fund them through mechanisms that allow them to nominate their own nationals to positions in which they will not show so obviously that they are serving their national interests.
Zola, I suspect, understood very well the game that was being played out. I believe she did not approve of it, and certainly I think even most representatives in Sri Lanka of countries that would have liked the government to align itself single-mindedly with the West were not prepared to play the game to a ridiculous extent. Not so however the NGOs which they had funded for the purpose of attacking the government, with any tools that lay to hand.
In January the tool that was being honed was the possibility of a close election. In December, when the gossip circles of Colombo work overtime, it seemed possible that a wave was developing in favour of the General. In January, when the President himself began campaigning, the wave began to recede, but then there was a danger of violence developing to proportions in which the results of the election could be questioned.
Fortunately some opposition activists made it obvious that this was what was needed, and government managed to get the message across clearly that violence, even retaliatory violence, which these opposition activists were counting on, was taboo. So, after the first four deaths, which made one fear the worst, killing stopped, and the ten days before the election were remarkably peaceful, as was the day of the election itself.
This did not stop Dr Saravanamuttu, Head of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, which had also housed Sunanda Deshapriya of the Free Media Movement until CPA had to look into the latter gentleman’s financial improprieties and get rid of him. The good doctor, working overtime in Sunanda’s self-imposed exile, deployed all his analytical skills to declare on election day that the country was in a state of ‘dysfunction and breakdown‘.
I had great fun then asking diplomats at the Indian National Day celebrations whether they thought there had been major problems that day, and they all said no, the election had been peaceful. They were therefore astonished when they heard what had been said by Dr Saravanamuttu, since many of them affect to believe that he is the best if not the only hope for democracy and pluralism in Sri Lanka. Indeed the Dutch Ambassador, who is a distinct improvement on her predecessor, the one who managed to alienate even the most easygoing of Ministers, thought I had got it wrong, and that we should check with Dr Saravanamuttu.
However even she I think was convinced, when his diagnosis appeared in a CNN report, though I am not so sure that she will cease to believe that CPA provides an objective account of the Sri Lankan situation. I certainly doubt that any of her colleagues will think twice about the massive sums they have poured into this institution, the journeys they have funded for the good doctor and his colleagues to denigrate this country and its government, the books they have commissioned to pay exorbitant salaries to these footsoldiers of alien and alienating priorities.
Imagine then the chaos that would have resulted if the people of Sri Lanka had not voted so decisively. General Fonseka would have marched out with his swans pirouetting before him to challenge the result. Doubtless one ambassador at least would have appeared on the scene to promote democracy, perhaps holding Mr Sambandan’s hand. The international media would have cited Dr Saravanamuttu endlessly, and shown footage of the swans brandishing the guns they had deserted with, and provoking reactions in kind from the forces.
Meanwhile the General, convinced that he was Cory Aquino, would have marched on to wrest the power he believed he was entitled to. Some of his backers, who would have realized that Ranil was much better equipped to emulate Cory, would have been working out ways to ensure that the General shared the fate of Ninoy Aquino instead. And the Deputy Head of OCHA in Afghanistan, convinced he could now play a decisive role, which he had failed to do in that country, would have been pronouncing merrily, in competition with Dr Saravanamuttu, to the international or at least the Western media. The world at large would have been told then that the UN as well as all thinking people in Sri Lanka were convinced that the people of the country wanted the General (or preferably Ranil) as their leader.
The people of Sri Lanka saved us from that fate. But this strange combination of unscrupulous paymasters and idealistic pontificators can always pop up again. We need to recognize then that constant vigilance is the price of freedom and democracy.