We can understand why some sections of the diaspora are so intent on persecuting us with regard to war crimes. While dealing firmly with their allegations, we should forgive them and see how they can be convinced that the situation has changed since the times when they left Sri Lanka in understandable bitterness.

We can also understand why some sections of the political opposition, including their fellow travelers in the politically motivated advocacy sector, push the same agenda. Their rationales, and the benefits they obtain through this agenda, should be checked on and placed before the public, to ensure the transparency and accountability they honour in the breach.

But  most worrying, and most difficult to understand, is the agenda of those in foreign countries who go on and on about atrocities in a manner that echoes and lends strength to the efforts of the Sri Lankans with political aims. Often they work in tandem with Sri Lankans, as we found with Rolf Timans, who was supposed to advise the European Union on Human Rights, and who knew nothing about Sri Lanka except what he was fed by Sri Lankans inimical to the government (whom the EU regularly funded). They even make clear their political views sometimes, as when Lord Mandelson laid into a Sri Lankan Minister who had left the UNP to join the government, complaining that the Sri Lankan people had rejected a great statesman in the form of Ranil Wickremesinghe. And the EU certainly continued to play into the hands of the Sri Lankan opposition, when they made the reactivation of the 17th Amendment a condition for renewing the GSP+ Trade Concession, when it patently had nothing to do with the principles considered relevant in such matters.

But, as several Europeans, both in Colombo and in Brussels, have since made clear, the EU position was largely dictated by the British. The reasons for the Labour Government being so vicious about Sri Lanka, which we had long suspected, were made clear by Wikileaks, which revealed that David Miliband had spoken about the electoral considerations that prompted him to act as he did. Certainly we may assume that the new British government will be less aggressive about us than its predecessor. However the virtual slap in the face that the new Foreign Secretary delivered immediately after his meeting with our Foreign Minister (admittedly after he had also met our Opposition Leader), the pressure on Liam Fox to postpone his visit to Sri Lanka, the treatment of the delegation that was supposed to accompany the President to Britain last year, all suggest that we should not be sanguine.

I have looked into this before, and I fear that, though we should aim at a positive relationship with Britain, we should bear in mind the techniques that for instance promoted the partition of India[1]. Given the authority they wield in Europe with regard to relatively unimportant parts of their former Empire[2], they will continue to make life difficult for us unless we respond to them with greater consistency, both as to our determination to safeguard our sovereignty but also a willingness to treat their concerns with sympathy.

Significantly, other European nations have been much less negative about Sri Lanka with the departure of ambassadors who seemed to think, as Peter Mandelson did, that Ranil Wickremesinghe was the rightful leader of Sri Lanka[3]. But, while information on the ground will often prevail, given the absence of serious study of Sri Lanka at the home capitals, we have to realize that that can be ignored when there are stronger influences abroad. Thus the very objective assessments of the former French Ambassador counted for nothing in comparison with the predilections of Foreign Minister Kouchner, an idealist with little understanding of practical realities[4]. And unfortunately we did not seem to have a concerted approach to argument as well as the supply of information, with little understanding it seemed of the importance of France as a player on the world stage[5]. Thus countries that I believe have no special political agenda with regard to Sri Lanka became easy prey to those who did, and in particular Britain with its continuing desire for influence over former colonies.

It is with regard to Britain then that we need the most effort, to ensure a complete turnaround in the attitude that has caused us so much trouble in the last few years. Fortunately there are positive features we can build on, in particular the good relations that were developed with the British security establishment. Though sadly we no longer have a Defence Attache in Colombo, we should encourage students of strategy in Britain to examine how we won our war against terror, and put into practice some of what we did.

Current efforts to accuse us of war crimes perpetuate a dichotomy  between ‘a doctrine of counterinsurgency that tempers military action with nation-building and careful community work’ and what are described as ‘the more effective counter- insurgencies, like Sri Lanka’s, (which) are hideous in practice’[6]. A proper look at what we did will however make it clear that, while we had to be very tough with the Tigers, we did our best to protect the civilians they were using as human shields. We should therefore encourage those who are currently faring much worse against terrorists (in terms both of losing ground while also losing hearts and minds) to abandon the crude and false characterization of what happened in Sri Lanka, and instead look at the actual results.

This will require a sea change in attitudes, amongst people who have not yet granted that everything they claimed to fear when the war ended did not come to pass, and instead we have implemented a more successful resettlement programme than anywhere else in the world. But some voices have expressed appreciation, so perhaps in time we can hope for appreciation also of what we did during the war. I suspect there are people in Britain who already understand how studying what we did might help them too. We need to work with such people, not just to help them in dealing with terrorism, but also to overcome the prejudices of those who do not understand the seriousness of the problems we faced and they are still facing.

But to do this successfully, we would obviously have to have the Americans on board. We need therefore to consider why, if briefly, the British managed to get American complaisance for the Miliband agenda, when by and large the Americans were more sensible about what we had to face and what we were doing to overcome the problems humanely.


[1] I have explored this question elsewhere, in discussing the works of Sarila and Jaswant Singh that deal with Indian independence. Though we must now feel sorry for the British who, in their fear of a socialist Congress Party, promoted a Muslim state on the grounds that they could rely on its support, the fact remains that such techniques still find favour amongst those who think foreign policy is part of a Kiplingesque Great Game. Weakening those who do not fully accept one’s authority can be an entertaining pastime, and while the possibility of a wholly subservient government in the form of Ranil Wickremesinghe beckons on the horizon, Britain will continue to be tempted not to play fair. Though obviously methods and I hope aims are not as crude as they were half a century ago, we should never forget the manner in which the elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mossadegh, was got rid of, and replaced by the long-lasting autocracy of the Shah – which was encouraged to crush all opposition so that, when he did finally go, there was only a theocracy to replace him.

[2] It can hardly be a coincidence that the last two European Union Representatives in Sri Lanka were both British. The former was seen as actively hostile to the Sri Lankan government and, though the latter has been less bumptious, the strange interview in which he seemed to endorse Ranil Wickremesinghe’s assertion that Sarath Fonseka was much loved in Brussels suggested that little had changed.

[3] Under Jurgen Werth, for instance, the German Liberal Foundation poured money into Ravi Karunanayake’s political foundations, even though the UNP had settled itself firmly in the international Conservative family, which helped doubtless with the cultivation of William Hague. Projects with regard to Human Rights ignored official Sri Lankan institutions and instead relied on the Centre for Policy Alternatives – as well as Basil Fernando’s Asian Human Rights Centre, which has been one of the most assiduous proponents of the War Crimes claim.

[4] Though it should be noted that he was at least diplomatic in his approach, when he visited Colombo, unlike his British counterpart

[5] This seems to have been remedied with the appointment of Dayan Jayatilleka as our ambassador to Paris, which will also I hope lead to regular consultations with ambassadors in other countries that are part of the European Union, with the formulation of common strategies to develop good relations

[6] By Jon Lee Anderson in a recent article in ‘The New Yorker’.

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