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Frances Harrison

The following was sent to the Dawn Newspaper in Pakistan in response to a mendacious article by Frances Harrison, former BBC correspondent, but they have not been able to print it.

Frances Harrison has written a book. In her determination to sell it, she will leave no stone unturned. Her latest effusion has appeared in the Dawn in Pakistan, apparently to denigrate the Sri Lankan President as he visits that country.

She sells herself as a former BBC correspondent based in Sri Lanka and Iran. Unfortunately she seems to have no regard for truth whatsoever, and cares little for consistency either. One of her more melodramatic statements is that ‘Unable to dig bunkers because the dry sand just collapsed, women chopped up their best silk wedding saris to stitch sandbags’, despite which she later talks of .grenades being thrown into bunkers ‘where injured rebels lay, unable to flee.’ She talks of a priest whose leg was amputated, without noting that most witnesses (as cited in the US State Department Report) thought that attack was by the Tigers, angry that the priest was trying to limit their conscription.

Frances is perhaps the most hysterical of those currently on the warpath against Sri Lanka, as I noted when she twittered madly to object to my being interviewed by the BBC on Hard Talk. But the general level of honesty of those attacking Sri Lanka is indeed shocking.

Most recently I was reading through a report produced, at the request of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in May 2009, by the American Associagtion for the Advancement of Science on  satellite imagery in the Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ) in northeastern Sri Lanka.’ This was announced with much hype by those two agencies, which are part of the witch hunt, but then suddenly it was forgotten.

.. the millions of Palestinian refugees, driven from their homes to satisfy European guilt ..

The reason is that it makes clear that much of what is alleged is nonsense. For instance, the figure now cited as to possible civilian deaths, shamefully also by individuals asked by the Secretary General to advise him on accountability issues, is 40,000, used also by Ms Harrison. This sort of inflation began with the Times of London which spoke only of 20,000, and gave three different sets of reasons for this, the first two of which I was able conclusively to demolish. The final reason given was that the claim was based on satellite imagery of war graves.

The AAAS however notes that ‘In all three gravesites reviewed, a total of 1,346 likely graves are estimated to be in the imagery by May 24, 2009. The majority of the graves were present by May 6, with little change after that except in the southernmost graveyard. The southernmost site grew an estimated 28% between May 6 and May 10, and grew another 20% between May 10 and May 24’. Incidentally the report also notes that it was what were reported as LTTE gravesites that showed increase, whereas in the ‘burial ground for civilians’, ‘In total, 44 burials were identified at this site on May 6, with no changes observed between May 6, May 10, and May 24’.

There are several such details, which Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have ignored. For instance, whereas Ms Harrison declares that ‘the Sri Lankan military indiscriminately shelled and bombed hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in a small rebel enclave in the north of the island’, AAAS notes with regard to one source of this canard that ‘These roofless buildings were initially interpreted as possible evidence of shelling or burning. However, on-the-ground photos taken immediately after the conflict instead indicate widespread removal of rooftops, which were composed of sheet metal, for use in constructing shelters throughout the area.’

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Undoubtedly the greatest challenge in Sri Lanka at present is the restoration of trust. On the one side there is fear that a separatist agenda has not been abandoned, on the other there is fear that unity will be enforced by subordination of minorities to a dominant centre.

Connected with this latter fear are fears about demographic change and militarization. Conversely, the other fears of the majority are in fact distinct from the fear of separatism. They relate to worries about domination by a minority through disproportionate influence on governance.

I will look first at the challenges represented by these last worries, since they are the easiest to assuage. They spring from two sources, the first being the high number of Tamils in positions of importance in government in the period leading up to and just beyond independence. This factor arose however simply because of the better educational facilities available in the North, as well as the commitment to education evinced by Northerners, in view of the paucity of other opportunities in the area.

Overcoming any imbalance caused by this is easy, since it only requires ensuring that good facilities are available islandwide, and that students all over the country are committed to education that will develop good administrators as well as entrepreneurs. At the same time it should be recognized that the earlier imbalance was based not on race but on geography, and that there are minority areas with appalling education systems, just as there are many majority areas that have good facilities. Reforms in the education system must be based on equity on a national basis, and the ideal outcome would be employment relating to governance that ensures equitable representation of all communities.

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

1.       Simon Hughes launched an attack on Sri Lanka and its government in his speech intended to welcome members of  Liberal International. He did this knowing that the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka is part of that government. He also did it in knowing contravention of facts.

2.       To cite one obvious example, he implied that the ICRC  was not allowed in during the conflict in Sri Lanka. In fact the ICRC was present throughout, and I had informed him of this when we last met. He affected surprise at this, and said he would check, but clearly he failed to do so. I attach two letters, one from the ICRC, the other from the Commissioner General of Essential Services, making clear our joint efforts to help our citizens held hostage by the LTTE. An extract from a UNICEF publication makes clear what was being done to these people.

3.       Two days previously Mr Hughes had been invited to a meeting in the House of Commons at which the Sri Lankan government presented its version of what had happened. I was told that Mr Hughes had asked to attend, but he failed to turn up. I asked him why, and he said he had sent a researcher. However he added that he had not had a report from that researcher. While he may have been busy, it was utterly irresponsible to have made such categorical comments about Sri Lanka without having checked. Read the rest of this entry »

SG112I was pleasantly entertained by Prof Savithri Goonesekere’s references to myself and Dayan Jayatilleke in her long critique of recent developments with regard to Higher Education. The thrust of the article is to attack the reforms proposed by the Minister, S B Dissanayake, whose photograph features twice in the article. Apart from Minister Mervyn Silva, the only two individuals referred to disparagingly by name are Dayan and myself.

I was reminded on reading this of the attack on Minister Dissanayake in the recent US review of Human Rights in Sri Lanka. Apart from Ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Douglas Devananda, two individuals the Americans in general would love to hate, S B was the only Minister mentioned by name. As I wrote at the time, there seemed no obvious reason to hate S B, so that the reason for the attack, prepared I believe by the less civilized elements in the U S Embassy, was probably the flirtation they were carrying on with the JVP. The JVP were doubtless as cynical in their reasons for accepting the advances made, though perhaps that little side-show has been suspended by other developments in the JVP now.

Saner elements in the West, as I have had proven again and again in conversation, have a much higher opinion of S B, and believe as I do that his efforts to reform the University system must be supported. They may not of course agree with all his initiatives, but by and large they recognize that he is an effective Minister with very progressive ideas, and that unless his reforms are expedited, education and thus society in Sri Lanka will not move forward as demanded by the current world situation.

Just as those who prepared the US Report on Human Rights realized that denigration of S B was a way of attacking reform, so too it would seem that Prof Goonesekere, with some intellectual confusion regrettable in one of her renown, thinks attacking Dayan and me would be useful in pursuing her ends. The gratuitous reference to Mervyn Silva, the only member of the government mentioned by name in this article, is typical of propaganda techniques unworthy of a distinguished academic.

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Mr. Tom Whipple (Journalist): I am reporting from The Times, I’ve got two very good questions, the first is, thank you for inviting us to come and visit Sri Lanka  because as you yourself know you have not granted any visas to journalists from The Times and to me personally and you say this after a year where you personally refused my visa to visit Sri Lanka to write of all things a travel piece about visiting newly opened hotels My second question is, I watched the Channel 4 documentary this morning in preparation for this. I got slightly confused. The key allegation from gathered evidence was as far as I can tell the video footage of assassinations and Tamils being tortured. I think after your video showed happy people doing basket weaving, you seemed to imply that that was video footage taken by LTTE soldiers pretending to be Sri Lankan soldiers speaking in colloquial Sinhalese shooting LTTE soldiers. Is that the correct interpretation of your position, and the key allegation in the film?

H.E. the High Commissioner: I’d like to hand that question over to Professor Wijesinha but first just one point, I did not personally refuse any visas because I was not here until the first of September (Mr Whipple subsequently apologized for his mistake)……

Professor Rajiva Wijesinha: There has been a lot of discussion about media access, some of us were very strong advocates of letting all the media in in 2009, and I’m glad we did so because a lot of the papers there reported extremely accurately and I think it helped us a lot because of the Indian situation. There were some politicians in India and some here in Britain who were up for elections and wanted to take political advantage, but we were able to refute some of the allegations because of the Indian papers, which reported very fairly. Immediately after the operation some Indian reporters were up there with the troops to report.

But the flip side for instance is a chap called Jeremy Page of the Times who I think deliberately twisted things. He called me to my office, and there was an Indian journalist there, and he stayed since they were similar questions. You should have read the two articles, the Times and I think the Deccan Standard, the same interview, and one glass was half empty and the other half full.

I went to India a few months after the war and the High Commission in Delhi was issuing visas but they did not issue visas to the Times and the Guardian. The latter had a man called Gethin Chaimberlain. I asked Jeremy Page, why do you tell lies, about supposed UN claims which the UN had specifically reported, and he said that he was told by some people in the UN that their bosses were too close to the Sri Lankan government and they told us these things.

I told him then what he should write is that certain people will disagree with their superiors and make certain revelations which the Times thinks are true, but it is not the UN that says these. One claim was specifically refuted by I think John Holmes, the British head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.

Gethin Chamberlain wrote in The Guardian – there were about four instances in which The Guardian corrected what he said subsequently – that 13 women  were found with their throats cut near the Manik Farm Welfare Centre. I asked the UN protection agency what is the basis of this? They said nothing, no basis at all, not even one such incident. Gethin said he realized the story was not true, and that he could not rely on the source he got it from, but he would not correct the story.

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Siobhain Mcdonagh's Researcher

I seem to have struck a raw nerve in making public my account of what Siobhain McDonagh’s researcher was up to, in publishing false stories and possibly making up false videos too. He finally got in touch with me again, not to send me the clips he had promised of attacks on hospitals, the evidence he had second thoughts about sharing, but rather to upbraid me and tell me about his prominent friends.

Amongst them it seems it the British Defence Secretary. This seems to me highly unlikely, since Philip Hammond is not the sort to consort with terrorists, even if they might bring him a few extra votes. Perhaps Daran is counting on those who have recently, ever since they realized David Miliband was not going to bring home the bacon, been contributing massive amounts to Conservative Party coffers. But I cannot see Hammond succumbing to such blandishments.

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Siobhain McDonagh’s researcher

After the meeting held recently in the House of Commons, a young man who claimed to be Siobhain McDonagh’s researcher (and also to work for the Bank of Scotland, during a later conversation) agreed to send me video footage of attacks on hospitals. He claimed he had a lot, and this substantiated a clip he had prepared of Dr Shanmugarajah saying that the Sri Lankan forces were attacking the hospital at which he was working.

Predictably he did not send me that footage. That decision was, he said, after careful consideration, which I could understand. I suspect that footage was what had been supplied to Channel 4. We know from that meeting that Siobhain McDonagh had been in touch with Channel 4 over the making of its film. It would certainly have been very telling if material for that film had been supplied to Channel 4 by her researcher, after which she claimed that the film was an objective account on which she based her allegations against Sri Lanka.

Fortunately her researcher, Canaa as he told me his name was, or Daran as he signed himself in and then emailed me, could not let well alone. In addition to sending me the clip of Dr Shanmugarajah talking, he sent me two more clips. One was gruesome, and seemed to be of the dead body of a soldier being carried by fellow soldiers talking in Sinhalese. It dwelt horrendously on his mutilated face. I could see no reason for this except triumphalism, to be used perhaps as propaganda, to show how effective LTTE terrorism was.

Daran however told me, when I asked him, that he had obtained the clip from a site selling film clips made by Sinhalese soldiers. When I asked him how much he had paid for this, he said he had got it free, as a sample. I think the story most unlikely, because it is extremely unlikely that fellow soldiers, even if filming the bringing back of a dead body, would have dwelt quite so ostentatiously on a mutilated face.

Even more suspicious was the second video, that of what seemed to be an aerial attack. The first part had planes flying and smoke rising, but the main substance was the footage of wailing over dead bodies. Some of the wailing also seemed exaggerated and false, but that is of course a subjective view. Clear was the fact that nothing actually connected the latter pictures to the former, and it seemed clear to even an amateur eye like mine that there had been a great deal of editing.

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The day after I wrote about the suspicious nature of the attack on Dr Fox, I found greater reason for worry in the fuel Channel 4 was adding to the fire. Jon Snow had tweeted ‘Amid morass of Fox/Werrity: the Sri Lankan aspect builds’. He claimed too that ‘we shall have more today from the same high up SL source’. The other principal suspect as to undue influence of the Tiger rump on British media, Jonathan Miller, said tweeted ‘Sri Lankan sources tell C4 news Werritty discussed arms deals in Colombo’.

Needless to say Channel 4 itself got in on the act with ‘Channel 4 sources say Adam Werritty’s many Sri Lankan visits were connected with arms deals. Jonathan Miller reports’. Needless to say this was taken up, for instance by a Sinthu Vijayakumar who ‘Commend CH4’s continuing coverage on SL – Liam Fox friend accused over Sri Lanka ‘arms deal’. The comparatively civilized but nevertheless anti Sri Lankan MP Mike Gapes had noted a question ‘to get PM assurance Fox and Werrity did not benefit financially from Sri Lanka Development Trust’.

Liam Fox (centre) with Adam Werritty (right) and Colombo politician Ravi Karunanayake pictured in Sri Lanka in 2009

The next day however all this seemed to have died down, perhaps because Snow did not get what he wanted from his ‘high up’ Sri Lanka source. We did see a picture in the ‘Independent’ of Ravi Karunanayake, described as a diplomat, with Fox and Werrity, and I would presume that had been provided by Ravi himself, since I would be surprised if the ‘Independent’ kept a bank of pictures of him with the several politicians he has been photographed with over the years. But by and large the press seemed to have moved to other matters with regard to Liam Fox, and Sri Lanka did not loom large as Channel 4 had predicted the day before. That does not mean they will abandon their Fox Hunt, and I am sure the Sri Lankan connection will be recycled again before long.

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Liam Fox (centre) with Adam Werritty (right) and Colombo politician Ravi Karunanayake pictured in Sri Lanka in 2009

Liam Fox has been the subject of much criticism, and some of it seems to relate to possible financial benefits to Adam Werrity, his former flat-mate. If indeed it turns out that Werrity has benefited from business deals through Fox’s influence, or that he has been funded by British tax-payers, then I presume such criticism is deserved.

I have been astonished however by other aspects of the hounding of Fox that have to do with Sri Lanka. I was alerted to this by Jason Burke of the Guardian, who called me up from Sri Lanka, where he now is, to ask about Fox. He seemed to assume that I would know about Fox’s visits to Sri Lanka, or perhaps it was only that I tend to answer questions and would provide good copy for a journalist. Unfortunately I could not help him since I met Liam Fox only once, and that four years ago when he came to see me soon after I became head of the Peace Secretariat. This was in the context of his having brokered several years previously what was known as the Liam Fox agreement, between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Though the agreement was no longer a reality, it seemed that Fox was still interested in contributing to peace in Sri Lanka, and I thought his commitment genuine.  However, though I tried once or twice, I was not able to see him when I visited England, and unfortunately I missed his Lakshman Kadirgamar talk earlier this year, since I was abroad.

Jason Burke’s questions however ranged far and wide. He asked me if I knew of a Trust Fund, which he believed Fox had set up soon after the defeat of the LTTE, to assist in rebuilding the North. I had not heard of this, but told Jason that I had not been involved in that programme, but he should talk to the Secretary of the Presidential Task Force, Mr Divaratne. Then the questioning got stranger, since I was asked if I knew about Bell Pottinger, and whether they had any connection with Fox. Since I had worked with Bell Pottinger for about a year, when they were handling public relations with regard to Britain, I knew the firm, but had to tell him that they had not mentioned Fox at all in my presence – nor Adam Werrity, since that was his next question.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2017
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