‘The nuns we studied under were tough and they disciplined us, but I am here because of them.’

US Ambassador – Patricia Butenis

The quotation is from a fascinating article by an employee of the US government which provided interesting insights into the legacy that the departing American ambassador seems to want to leave. She is advising the girls of Uduvil College in terms of her own education. It is a touching article, that places Ms Butenis in a charming light, at a time when, as the article states,  ‘the US Government played out its most controversial engagement so far in Sri Lankan affairs in the history of US-Sri Lanka relations.’

The article however immediately issues a sort of disclaimer, in that the ambassador is cited as saying that ‘I think it is a mistake if people think that we can dictate to this Government’. It seems that the impression sought to be created is of a country resisting calls by Tamils for intervention in a context in which ‘We can’t trust India. Karunanindhi and Jayalalithaa are only looking after their interests. Only the US can dictate.’

This is presented as the view of ‘a group of people representing school principals, teachers, community workers and young graduates’.  But Ms Butenis resists the temptation to touch her heart and play savior, and says with becoming modesty that the Americans can ‘only request’ government to be ‘responsive to the needs of the Tamil population’. That she does play a unique role she grants, since she does ‘meet Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa very regularly and I convey what I hear. People are afraid to speak to ministers, and, when they visit you the meetings are very controlled, so because I tour the country I talk to him about what people tell me. Beyond that, frankly, we don’t have the will or the capacity.’

So with regard to the LLRC too she is modest. Having asked her interlocutors whether it would make a difference, she reassures them when they say that nothing has happened, by noting that she was at a dinner where she gathered that Lalith Weeratunga was ‘working on a plan to implement the LLRC and I have a lot of faith in Lalith. I think the Government will make a public announcement soon.’

So it proved, and this has to be placed of course in the context of other articles at the same time asserting that ‘it is undoubtedly the efforts of the USA and later India through the resolution introduced in the Human Rights Council that the LLRC took center stage’. But, while there may be satisfaction at the Embassy at the perception that ‘after the defeat of Sri Lanka at the UNHRC good sense prevailed and a strategic shift was taken by the President, to renew relations with the USA, and the western powers and India’, it would not do to rub the point in. Good relations require reciprocity, so there is no trace now of proconsular authority in Ms Butenis’s pronouncements in Jaffna.

The article nevertheless makes the point that dissatisfaction is rife. It suggests that reasons for this are less than before, in that ‘demilitarization is taking place …. But very slowly’, ‘the white vans….are gone’, ‘sexual harassment….has gone down, or it is not being reported.’ In this last case she makes the valid point that ‘gender violence takes place mainly in homes and workplaces and by people known to the victim’ but she does criticize the government by saying that ‘the immediate connection the Government makes when you bring this up is that the army is being accused of raping women.Gender violence is really a reflection that society has broken down. There is a need for a lot psychosocial work. But the Government is reluctant to accept this.’

Did I not know that the lady had a strong mind of her own, I would have thought she had been reading what I have written about this issue, noting that in the early days, until we actually asked for actual cases, the allegations were generalizations about the forces – which turned out to be almost totally baseless. It was not that Government was reacting defensively when the real issue of sexual violence was raised, it was that the issue was being falsified, a process that had begun in Manik Farm. But it is understandable that the ambassador could not refer to the deliberate confusion that those claiming to work in protection had engaged in, just as she is perhaps not aware that the need for psycho-social work is well understood by government, and indeed that the police have taken the lead in training counselors.

On missing persons she is better, finally noting that ‘the issue of missing persons is not as clear-cut as it seems, because there are many Tamil people seeking refugee status in other countries who haven’t been accounted against those reported as missing here.’ She even notes that ‘The UNHCR tells me that even now the largest number of missing persons is from the South, from the conflicts arising from JVP insurrections. People seem to have a way of moving on, here.’

This may be significant, for it seems to move away from the position that was being relentlessly pushed, that reconciliation was not possible without accountability, and accountability meant retribution on the Sri Lankan forces. Such an approach was not calculated to promote reconciliation, so one welcomes this current more enlightened position. However it seems to have been told only to her staffer, not the people of Jaffna.

It is interesting that she cites the UNHCR here, because records of the missing are not I believe their responsibility. But there seems some confusion here, because the article also refers to Ms Butenis telling the Bishop of Jaffna, with regard to ‘resettlement of people in the North…..that the ICRC is working closely with the Defence Secretary on this issue’. Resettlement is not the responsibility of the Defence Secretary or the ICRC, and I wondered whether something else was meant.

The article also perpetuates another myth, namely that the ICRC was asked ‘to leave during the last phase of the war.’ The Bishop of Jaffna is supposed to have tole her that this was one of the biggest mistakes the government made, and she ‘agrees that a lot of the accusations made against the Government after the war could have been prevented if the ICRC had been allowed to remain at that time.’ Since the ICRC did stay till the end of the war, and since the US ambassador in Geneva questioned the ICRC about that phase, though none of what the ICRC recorded in our favour appears in the Darusman report, one can only wonder at the ambassador perpetuating the mistake, if indeed the Bishop made such an error.

But on the whole one realizes that the article is full of poetic licence, designed to give a reassuring view of the position of the United States, even while noting the resentments in Jaffna which the US alone is seen as capable of overcoming. The sharp, swift dismissal even of the Indians in comparison with expectations of the United States is elegantly done.

Given that the article would have had the blessings of the ambassador, I suppose Sri Lanka should feel relieved that the hostilities of the past, the attempts to get generals to incriminate the government, are now over. But we have to remember that we will soon have a new ambassador, and also new officials in Washington, if not a new administration. Remembering what we went through in the last three years, I think we need to be careful, despite the consolations that are now being offered.

Daily Mirror 8 August 2012 – http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/172-opinion/20931-farewell-to-armsthe-us-ambassador-in-jaffna.html