Based on a talk given at the SF training centre in Kilinochchi – Part 1
A few weeks back I was asked to speak at a workshop arranged by the Kilinochchi Special Forces Commander on ‘Information Operations and Civil Affairs’. It seemed an excellent initiative, and the concept paper sketched out several areas civilian administrators should also have thought of. Sadly they don’t, so it was left to the forces to think about
Communicating immediately and consistently with the community
Establishing and nurturing good relations with the media
Reinforcing support relationships with others
Describing and updating progress on the post-conflict peacebuilding effort
Gaining and maintaining a reputation as a trusted source of reliable information for the effected population
Implementing an information strategy that enhances operational credibility and effectiveness
I was deeply impressed by all this, for I have long argued that the remarkable achievements of this government are being nullified by its failure to put forward clearly its remarkable successes. I have also noted that the civilian branches that have, nationally and internationally, the responsibility of setting the record straight have failed miserably. That is why I feel strongly that it is time some of the efficiency which characterized the operations of the military through the conflict period, and beyond, were conveyed to those who have let down the country so badly.
When I talk of this government, I should make a distinction between achievements before the last General Election, and what happened afterwards. There is no doubt that, before government got a large majority in Parliament, its actions were much more effective.
It had two very simple goals in mind, and to these ends it devoted all its energies.
First was the destruction of terrorism, and this it achieved through the careful planning and energetic activities of its forces. The second was to involve all stakeholders in the operation by ensuring that information reached everyone, and that disinformation was promptly corrected.
Stakeholders involved both Sri Lankans, and the international community. In the case of the former, the situation was rendered easier by the universal recognition amongst all Sri Lankans, except for those who still thought of the LTTE as a force with which one could negotiate, that the LTTE needed to be destroyed for peace to be possible in Sri Lanka. This also helped us externally, because it was clear that those who tried to slow down our military successes were not averse to the LTTE regrouping.
But, though the task was easier than it is now, when alternative interpretations of what we are doing are possible, government took good care to ensure that it had excellent communicators in place. Most obviously, it used individuals with sterling records of pluralism and commitment to a unified multi-racial Sri Lanka to rebut false allegations. At the risk of sounding immodest, Dayan Jayatilleka and I were the chief speakers at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, and we carried a great deal of conviction. It was also apparent that, while we would have no truck with terrorism and the LTTE, we were deeply committed to Human Rights, and wanted international support to improve our efforts in upholding such Rights. While we dealt very firmly with those who attacked us for political reasons, we engaged actively with what are termed UN Special Procedures, and facilitated successful and helpful visits by two of them.
Unfortunately, we did such a good job that the idiots in Colombo decided that any idiot could achieve similar success. So Dayan Jayatilleka was dismissed, and the Peace Secretariat, that had been the first to rebut false allegations, and to do so on the basis of knowledge and reason, was closed down. I was put into Parliament where, though I have contributed much to procedure, and to Parliamentary oversight through COPE, I have not been able to do anything to deal with adverse propaganda, except when occasionally one or other of our brighter ambassadors abroad called on my services. I was asked once to help write statements, but I pointed out that it would be more useful for me to train others to do this, since we need teams, not reliance on individuals like me who are growing old, and whose shelf life is limited. But my suggestion fell on deaf ears, and we continue to ignore loose balls we should deal with firmly, while reacting hysterically to what we deem provocation, without understanding that letting ourselves be provoked is the biggest error.
And so we have had a chaotic few years, with no attempts to rebut systematically allegations made against us. Even more seriously, we have made no attempt to construct a coherent narrative about the many good things going on in this country. And because we have abandoned planning and reasoning, we react almost blindly to criticism we do not understand, and fail to produce crucial evidence that makes it clear how well we are doing in rebuilding a country that had been ravaged for so long by war.
Thus, though we produced two massive tomes in response to the Darusman Report, these did not deal direct with the most insidious allegations. When I pointed this out, I was told that this would be done in another report, but that has yet to see the light of day. And even more sadly, we did not produce a narrative of what is happening in each Division in the North, to make clear the speed with which we have resettled the displaced and provided them with facilities, such as educational and medical services, that take years to be put in place in other countries in similar situations.
The absurdity of our approach is I think exemplified by the abolishing, when the new Cabinet was created in April 2010, of two vital portfolios. Human Rights was forgotten, to be looked after, I was told, by the Ministry of External Affairs. This was almost as though we were acknowledging that Human Rights is nothing to do with our people, but rather is something which concerns foreigners. I should add that the Secretary to the Ministry told me that they were incapable of handling the subject, but I suspect that he did not say this to anyone else, and the Minister would certainly not have admitted to any such shortcomings. So my former staff were wasted, while letters went unanswered, and even the Action Plan I had left almost complete when I vacated office took well over a year to be ratified by Cabinet. I should add that there is still no clear cut responsibility for Human Rights.
Equally serious was the extinction of the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation. Before the election the Secretary to that Ministry and I had done a paper for the Secretary to the President about enhancing the role of that Ministry, but that paper, like much else, was forgotten. Planning is supposedly done by the Treasury, or by the Ministry of Economic Development, but there is little communication publicly of goals and achievements – which is why I was so pleased to find the forces finally deciding that they had to develop a strategy in this regard.