Charles Haviland - BBC

I have long had a soft corner for Charles Havilland, the local BBC Correspondent. Indeed, as Marlow said of Lord Jim, have I not stood up for him, when Sri Lankans to whom one white reporter is just like another thought the BBC and Channel 4 were identical? I have argued, quite often recently, that the BBC (though not its rather strange Sinhala Service, with its conglomeration of old fashioned leftists) tries to be objective in its coverage of Sri Lanka, without succumbing to the temptation to stereotype.

I was saddened therefore to find in a report on the verdict on the Sarath Fonseka case that the BBC referred to him as Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘Ideological soulmate’.  This was stereotyping with a vengeance, whereas the Voice of America, which I have always thought more simplistic, actually referred to Fonseka falling out with the President over differences as to political ideology.

Anyone looking at the evidence, not least that provided by Fonseka himself, in his letter of resignation, would realize that the latter was a more plausible interpretation. Fonseka referred to the President’s rejection of his proposal to expand the army, and also criticized him for too swift resettlement of the displaced. To assume then that one Sri Lankan nationalist is identical with another seemed totally unworthy of the BBC.

US Ambassador - Patricia Butenis

I suppose it is a mark of how little interest there is really in Sri Lanka that no one has bothered to explore the implications of the differences between the two, and more particularly the divergence between what Fonseka was advocating for a few months after the war ended, and the position he took up later. Not only his interview with Federica Jansz (whether or not one believes him or her as to what he actually said with regard to the White Flag Case), but also the persona Patricia Butenis seemed optimistic about according to Wikileaks, suggests a 180 degree turn from the chauvinist rather than nationalist ideologue who fell out with the President.

More surprisingly, no one drew attention to the elephant in the room, which somehow never found its way into the Courthouse either, namely Sarath Fonseka’s claim in Ambalangoda just a couple of months after the war ended that he had resisted instructions to accept the surrender of people carrying white flags. This was to my mind the most worrying allegation that was recorded in the State Department Report that was conveyed to us around October 2009. I suggested then that we answer that report promptly, as had very politely been requested by the Americans, and I believe we would have saved ourselves a great deal of trouble had that been done. But the panel the President appointed delayed meeting, and the report was overtaken by events, not least Sarath Fonseka’s candidacy and his very different interpretation, according to Frederica, of what happened in the White Flag case.

The language he is supposed to have used in July 2009 is most interesting. In the web report about the Ambalangoda speech to which the Americans referred, he was quoted as saying ‘I managed the war like a true soldier. I did not make decisions from A/C rooms. I was under pressure to stop the war even during the final phase. I got messages not to shoot those who are carrying white flags. A war is fought by soldiers. They do so by putting their lives on the line. Therefore, the decisions about war should be taken by the soldiers in the battlefront. Not the people in A/C rooms in Colombo. Our soldiers have seen in life the kind of destruction carried out by those people before they decided to come carrying a white flag. Therefore, they carried out their duties. We destroyed any one connected with the LTTE. That is how we won the war,’ Fonseka said at an event held in Ambalangoda to felicitate him on July 10.’

This has however been ignored subsequently, most notoriously by the Darusman report, even though it shows itself well acquainted with the State Department report otherwise. Of course it could be claimed that the West was only following Sri Lanka in this regard, since we too seem to have forgotten that earlier claim. But, given that Western journalists do not follow a Sri Lankan lead in other respects, I think there is another reason for their deafening silence.

Quite simply, had they noted that earlier claim, the question must have arisen as to why Fonseka changed so much. The man who had been pushing a supremacist ideology earlier, with longer detention for the displaced, had now turned into the great rescuer of the oppressed. Far from ignoring orders from Air Conditioned rooms to spare surrendees, Fonseka was now presenting himself as an innocent abroad, as compared to terrible war criminals.

It was an extraordinary performance, and as we know it backfired terribly, so that Fonseka promptly withdrew the claim (or claimed to have done so, though Federica declared that he ‘never showed any enthusiasm for the denial always admitting that he had said what he had said’). Why then had he got into all this? It could not have been only that Federica, who seems to have decided to support him simply out of animosity for the Rajapaksas but who needed to claim that he was the ideologically softer candidate, had pushed him into this embarrassing position. On the contrary, Fonseka himself was angling for such a characterization, for he had realized that that was his only hope of success. So he moved on to the wooing too of the TNA, which seems to have been taken in, surprisingly, given what a wily old bird Mr Sambandan normally is.

Robert O. Blake, former U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka

But the Americans seem to have been taken in too, if Wikileaks is anything to go by.That is the charitable position, and ignores the view that they were responsible for the conversion of Fonseka in the first place to an unconvincing saintliness. Indeed, even if they were responsible, I would argue that Robert Blake certainly would not have been taken in, but would rather have thought this a useful tool with which to apply pressure on the government. But sadly, not everyone is as intelligent as Robert Blake, and perhaps there were those who really thought that Christmas had come, and Fonseka as President would dish out all sorts of goodies to President Obama and Ranil Wickremesinghe as well as to the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam or whoever was flavor of the month at the time.

The BBC I had always thought to be much wiser. Not Charles, but his counterpart in Delhi, had Fonseka squarely in sight, when he told me that, had Fonseka won the election, it was not the Rajapaksas who would have had to fear being killed, but rather Ranil. Ranil I think had begun to suspect something of the sort. But in the strange game of double bluff that Ranil and Fonseka and the TNA and their Western adulators were playing, everyone would also have been taking out insurance. If the West thought Fonseka as President would hand over power to Ranil as Prime Minister, they would have had ways of convincing him to do the gentlemanly thing if he were proving recalcitrant – but if Ranil were out of the way, that strategy would not work.

It was strange then finding young Charles reiterating the old story that the President and Sarath Fonseka were ideological soulmates. This is perhaps the BBC’s way of affirming its conviction that, even when Frederica and the TNA were supporting him, he had not changed his spots. But it is sad that they have to drag the President into all this.

In that respect the very different perspective presented by the Voice of America suggests I hope that the Americans are now older and wiser. It is of course conceivable that they are potty enough to continue to think that Fonseka was the best hope for reconciliation and pluralism. I suspect that is too much for even American naivete, or idealism, or whatever you choose to call it, though that is a quality I have learned never to underestimate. But I would hope that they have finally realized that, charming though they may once have thought him, the ideology that the country actually voted for is preferable. Working harmoniously with that, building on its strengths, the rapid resettlement, the swift rehabilitation of former cadres, the intense programme of development in the North, would make more sense, because that would be the best way of helping to overcome any weaknesses, instead of using the man who took pride, according to the Report they wanted investigated, in destroying  ‘anyone connected with the LTTE’.

Daily News 22 July 2011