Having spent a week over the New Year in Laos and Cambodia, exploring ancient Khmer temples and gazing at spectacular waterfalls, I thought it would be difficult to return to the mundane realities of Human Rights in Sri Lanka. However some of what I saw and was told relates to one of the problems we are going through, and sheds some light on the polarization that is taking place.
I refer to the question of War Crimes, which still bemuses me. The charge was led in 2009 by the British, for what seemed primarily electoral considerations, while now it is the Americans who have come to the fore. When everyone else welcomed the LLRC report, their demand for more indicated that they wanted their pound of flesh, though I have no doubt they are in some confusion themelves about whether it has to be cut from breast or thigh, with or without blood.
Unfortunately given the games they played with Sarath Fonseka, claimed by a senior American diplomat to an Indian friend to have been a secret weapon to extract concessions from the Rajapaksa government, their seriousness must be in doubt. Certainly this particular criticism of Sri Lanka seems the height of hypocrisy, after what I saw and heard of what the Americans had done in Laos and Cambodia. They would only command credibility in this regard if they hauled Henry Kissinger up before the Courts, and I regret that no one has tried to do this in the decades that have passed since his vicious period in power.
A little boy who insisted on following us at the Temple Complex in Sombhur kept pointing out craters caused by American bombs, and also showed us a temple that had been flattened. And in Laos we were constantly reminded, travelling in the Bolaven Highlands, of the secret war that had been conducted in the American effort to eradicate not only the Ho Chi Minh trail, but all those who contributed to the supply chain. I was reminded too of the coup that had brought Lon Nol to power, and its similarity to what the CIA had done in Chile, where Salvador Allende was murdered and Pinochet propelled into power.
Coincidentally in Cambodia I bumped into my old friend Mark Gooding, who had been Deputy High Commissioner in Colombo, and then been elevated to the Embassy in Phnom Penh. He was with the intrepid Tom Owen Edmunds, who had been officially only the third in rank at the High Commission in Colombo, but was clearly the brightest person there (and a Balliol man to boot). He went straight from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, so I have no doubt his responsibilities are not slight.
Mark it was who first enlightened me to the strategy of the more decent Britishers (such as himself, and unlike the consciously hypocritical David Miliband), when he told me that the British effort to have us condemned at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2009 was to pressurize us to resettle the displaced and release the former combatants soon.
I still recall telling him then that that was what they should have said, and asked for, instead of claiming as his boss did in the House of Commons that they were determined to get us for War Crimes. I pointed out that they should take a leaf out of the Indian book, for the Indians had never hesitated to condemn the Terrorist Tigers and help us overcome them, while always urging us to do more for the Tamils.
Mark was later to claim that he had not meant to say that the charge of War Crimes was not serious. This has sadly continued to be Foreign Office policy in London, though the sensible John Rankin seems to lay less stress on that. This is what makes his critiques of our other shortcomings the more plausible, but I fear that the decision makers in London were delighted when the Americans took up the baton, and this will continue to haunt us. Unfortunately, given the indignation with which we respond to these charges, we may end up ignoring other criticisms which I believe are more serious, though less dramatic.
While I can understand the sense that whatever we do, we will be hung, and therefore there is no point in responding positively to more plausible concerns, I still think we should – if only for our own people – work harder at making clear our basic commitment to democracy and the Rule of Law. Leaving aside current problems, we should even now respond intelligently to the report prepared for the American Congress in late 2009. It was given to us in a proper and decent fashion, and it seems to me a balanced document, quite unlike the Darusman and Petrie reports that have since been publicized.
Unfortunately I don’t suppose anyone here has registered that that report was issued in the name of John Kerry, who will shortly take over as Secretary of State. While I am sure that the Eelam lobby is busily courting him, we could at least make a start in preparing our defences against the assaults we will soon have to face by using the material in that report that makes clear the distortions of the Tiger propaganda machine during the War. Kerry, as a veteran of the Vietnam War – a factor he emphasized when he stood against George Bush in 2004 – will understand both the need for defensive measures to protect one’s own troops and the imperative to avoid the sort of excesses that Kissinger encouraged.