Reading through the revelations about Sri Lanka in Wikileaks, I am struck most of all by how they confirm the assumptions on which I have been working over the last few years. I cannot pretend I knew all the ramifications of government policy over this period, but obviously, in fulfilling my responsibilities, as Head of the Peace Secretariat, and also Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I had to relate to interlocutors in terms of their essential attitudes to the Sri Lankan government.

This was particularly important since a fair amount of my work was with the international community, both in helping to coordinate international humanitarian assistance, which was a responsibility allocated to my Ministry, and also in assisting my Minister and our Ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, with the various attacks on us that were being launched at the Human Rights Council.

Dayan had realized, soon after he went to Geneva in 2007, that the British were our main enemies. He was practically told as much by Nick Thorne, the then British Ambassador, and also by various others who, though they had to follow the British line, were not so happy with it. Thorne was a bit of a bully, and one did not mind responding to him forcefully. More upsetting was the approach of his successor, who was clearly a very nice man, but permitted his young ladies, who had been trained as it were by Thorne, to be crudely, and often inaccurately, critical.

In a sense the situation was similar in Sri Lanka, where Dominic Chilcott went out on a limb to be harsh about us, in particular the Secretary of Defence. Peter Hayes, though less flamboyant, was no better, indeed probably worse, having served previously in David Miliband’s private office – and not really being ambassadorial material, given his unfortunate interpersonal skills, so that he is unlikely to get any important ambassadorial position in the future. Meanwhile other British officials, in particular the Defence Attache, seemed much nicer and more sympathetic. This did not mean they did not toe the line, but they did not adopt a sanctimonious approach as Chilcott and Hayes did.

That, unfortunately, is the trouble with the British, whom in general I love exceedingly, having spent the best years of my life amongst them. Like everyone else, they ultimately do what is best for themselves. However, having a more active conscience than others – my Chaplain claimed it was because the decision making classes were terrified of their nannies – they needed to prove to themselves that they were being high-minded. So they get all moral about what they do, even though, as with all countries, they are essentially just fulfilling their own interests. Sometimes they get so moral that, anxious to please as we ex-colonials are, we search desperately to find out what we have done wrong.

On the whole I felt we had not done much wrong, and the British critiques were unfair. But it was nice to find this proved in the Wikileaks account of Miliband’s confession to the Americans as to why he was so obsessed with Sri Lanka. Unfortunately his hyper-active period coincided with one of extreme vulnerability to such pressure on the part of the Americans. The Obama administration was just finding its feet, and it had many officials who had preconceptions about Sri Lanka. Unable to act on their feelings about Iraq and Afghanistan, given the need for continuity that Obama could not escape, they indulged their consciences to the full with regard to Sri Lanka. That I think explains the one blunder Hilary Clinton made, revealing what underlay her generally nuanced approach, when she made her preposterous claim about Sri Lanka using rape as a weapon of war.

Ambassador Butenis made up for that pretty smartly, and by and large I think she has confirmed my view about American policy towards Sri Lanka, which is that they have a better understanding than north Europeans of what terrorism is, and how one needs to deal with it, and that they were therefore more sympathetic to our government. This did not mean that they were not concerned about possible Human Rights abuses. Though they know as well as we do that they have done much worse things, and sometimes as a matter of policy, in their struggle against terrorism, many officials involved in the civilized dimension of international relations do not like such things, and excuse them only because they think them essential to safeguard the American way of life. Others, who do not enjoy such a life, have less reason to deviate from the straight and narrow, and must be judged accordingly.

Within that framework however, they were less negative, and indeed successive American ambassadors realized very soon the actual ground situation in Sri Lanka. Thus, though Robert Blake came out with preconceptions about the Karuna faction soon after he arrived here, it was not long before he realized that the real horrors were the LTTE. We in turn should not forget that, when the Europeans, led by that other wonderful British specimen, Julian Wilson, were being negative about the East, the Americans stepped in smartly and joined our Asian friends (and a couple of the South Europeans) to help with development.

So too, while I was sorry to see Patricia Butenis too seeming to leap on the Sarath Fonseka bandwagon, who could blame her, given how extravagant were the claims made by Colombo society on his behalf, with concomitant noises presumably from the bleeding heart brigade back in Washington? I believe however that, even if the evidence of his negative approach to politics was not apparent, she was soon disabused by her fellow Western ambassadors who, to a man (including the ladies amongst them, though not Dr Hayes) understood very well, as one of them told me, what Sarath Fonseka was about.

The other cables relating to Sri Lanka show a much more sensible approach to the Tigers than Norway for instance evinced at times. And yet, with Norway too, excepting always Mr Solheim, who I have always felt was a shady character (as was Jon-Hanssen Bauer, who was really no character at all, but seemed rather a schoolboy apprentice to Solheim, when I met them together), there was much more balance than is generally supposed. Indeed, when the then government wanted to hand over transmitting equipment to the Tigers, the Norwegians were astonished (incidentally, as I suggested three years ago, that is a deal that should be examined further – I wonder indeed whether Ranil were not dragooned into it by his advisers, who had agendas that sometimes I think he never properly understood).

Finally, what comes out most positively is the enormous integrity of the Indians in supporting us throughout the most difficult period. Japan too comes out well, and we know China was a tower of strength, though obviously American diplomats are not in a position to let us know the inner thinking of the Chinese. But, given the pressures on India from politicians in Tamilnadu, given the arguments of the West at a time when India was developing stronger economic ties with it, we must be grateful for India’s unswerving opposition to terrorism and appeasement, and its willingness to let the Sri Lankan government go ahead with the struggle against the Tigers, when other nations were dubious about us.

In short, then, Wikileaks confirms to us that those who matter were with us when we needed them. These included the Americans, though I hope the revelations will suggest to them that they need to be less ambiguous about supporting democratic governments than those with dubious agendas advocate. Finally, though the rot Miliband initiated may take some time to heal, and some elements in the Foreign Office will still be negative, the opportunity presented by the new British government should not be ignored. The new British High Commissioner will have much to do, but we should accept any positive measures and reciprocate with the affection that a nation in thrall to its nannies surely deserves.

Island 21 Jan

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