Zurich, Switzerland.

There was much speculation some months back about the provenance of the meeting of minority parties in Zurich. The usual suspects were thought to be behind the event, with the usual suspicions. My own view was that the move was to be welcomed, because unlike in the past the balance of power at such meetings could no longer be held by the Tigers. Given the strength of mind displayed in resisting them by a host of others in the past, even while their backs were to the wall, I felt that the outcome could only help in promoting a united Sri Lanka. The initiative seemed designed to promote discussion as a method of reform, rather than violence, and it seemed that the forum would get this message through to those who had been forced into acquiescence with terrorism and efforts to subvert democracy.

I still think this positive approach may not prove mistaken, but I must admit to some worry when I saw the name Peter Bowling amongst those who had facilitated exchanges. We have unfortunately been here before. He was one of the leading instigators just over a year ago of the petition sent to the UN Secretary General that accused the government of all sorts of crimes in its efforts to suppress the LTTE in Sri Lanka.

Sadly memories in Sri Lanka are short, and I suspect few will remember the Coffee Club of International NGO personnel (not, I trust, the NGOs themselves in terms of deliberate policy) who spent much time and aid money at gatherings designed to subvert government policy. Their chosen technique in August 2008 was to draft nasty allegations which were then to be presented to the UN through Sri Lankan NGOs. The moving spirits behind the initiative however were foreigners, with a principle role in the drafting being taken by Peter Bowling of what I think was called the International Working Group on Sri Lanka.

International Interventions

I have never met the man, and know nothing of the institution he represents, but I had been told by officials at our High Commission in London that Bowling was close to the Tigers. There was also some uncertainly about the sources of his funding. Others involved included Alan Keenan of Gareth Evans’ International Crisis Group, which had tried along with the infamous Mata Hari of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies to allege what they called a Responsibility to Protect situation in Sri Lanka. I was also surprised to find Yolanda Foster of Amnesty International playing a part, since I had always thought that a more respectable organization than most – though sadly I was to find later that their approaches too depended on the individuals involved, and characters of high principle like Amnesty Head Irene Khan and Peter Splinter of the Geneva Office do not always hold sway.

Guy Rhodes - Coordinator of the Solidar Consortium in Sri Lanka

Meanwhile in Colombo a dubious group of individuals seemed to be calling the shots, overwhelming the many decent individuals (such as the head of WUSC) who were simply trying to help. The most notorious of the characters out of what seemed le Carre central casting was the head of Solidar, which it transpired was the chosen agency of the European Union in its Julian Wilson days. But the petition, though it was indeed submitted, as Radhika Coomaraswamy confirmed when we met in Geneva, was not taken seriously by the UN. And so, as government stayed firm, and the full enormity of Tiger terrorism became clear, many of these shadowy characters faded away, from Sri Lanka and from clandestine interference.

Sadly, though, the shadows seemed to spring to life again towards the end of last year, with carefully chosen barbs against the government and the many agencies, including UNHCR, that were trying to restore normalcy to the North, and indeed the country as a whole. Some seemed to think the Fonseka candidacy has undermined the government to the point at which the intrigues of the past could be revived (unless indeed, as is sometimes alleged, that candidacy was promoted by those who resented an assertion of national sovereignty that has cut deeply into their profits and their pleasures).

So we had sneaky interviews challenging the resettlement process, for instance by someone identified as the Country Head of Oxfam, we had allegations that the mining process was inadequate, and we had efforts to activate the Security Council through allegations about abuse of children during the struggle. None of these amounted to much, and government continued to work swiftly in terms of the plans it formulated six months ago. We made it clear that we would expedite resettlement when residential areas had been demined, when basic infrastructure had begun to be put in place and when we were satisfied as to security considerations. Now that we are moving, those genuinely concerned with the welfare of our citizens, as we are, have agreed that the process is heartening.

So, though the barking will continue as the caravan moves on, one would have thought that there was little reason to worry. However the presence of Peter Bowling in Zurich, brought there by those willing to spend vast amounts of money on what should have been a discussion to promote democratic debate in a united Sri Lanka, made me worry. I still believe that the majority of those who promoted the debate were positive in their approach. But the agendas of idealists are very easily hijacked by those with more sinister motives. I would like to think that Peter Bowling has reformed but, in the light too of the other developments noted, I think Sri Lanka needs to continue vigilant about the company he keeps and the possible impact of such interventions. Particularly now, when all Tamil parties have reason to work together with government to ensure permanent peace, we need to ensure that international influences, Sri Lankan or otherwise, do not disrupt things by bringing their own parochial agendas to bear.