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Ensuring rights and reputations

CONCEPT: The recent kerfuffle over the debate on Sri Lanka in the British House of Commons seems to me profoundly interesting not so much for what it tells us about Britain, but for what it reveals about ourselves. Or, rather, it confirms aspects of our political culture that should have been obvious before, but always astonish when they recur again and again.

I will begin with the concept that has been reiterated, most prominently by the JVP if media reports are accurate, that the debate represents an attack on our sovereignty. Underlying it is the assumption that no country has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of others.


Ranil Wickremesinghe


Somawansa Amarasinghe


David Gladstone

This assumption is patently nonsense in the light of reality, and in particular modern reality. From time immemorial big powers have interfered in the affairs of smaller countries.

Certainly in recent times there has developed a concept of morality in this respect that has gained international currency, so that interference for personal reasons is now generally condemned.

But interference for what can be presented as moral reasons has never received much condemnation, and in recent years the parameters within which interference has been not only accepted, but even positively encouraged, have been fairly comprehensively established.

These were set out in the article I wrote a couple of months back which discussed the role of India in our internal affairs, when I pointed out that the conditions that made its involvement in 1987 internationally acceptable no longer obtain.

Those conditions, to put it roughly, are firstly humanitarian deficiencies, where the failure of a government to ensure basics for all or some of the population under its aegis allows for humanitarian interventions even against the wishes of that government; secondly, abuse of a particular section of the population within a country, which is seen as evidence that the legitimacy of the established government is in question with regard to at least some areas of the country; and finally a proliferation of refugees, creating problems for other countries, that will justify even interference on its own of any country particularly affected, without formal international sanction.

It should be added that, as I pointed out in identifying these guidelines for limitations on the doctrine of national sovereignty, I do not think Sri Lanka has serious problems in any of these areas. But we have to recognise that perceptions are more important than reality in this respect.

We must therefore ensure that perceptions are not skewed, within countries that might take the initiative in suggesting that intervention of whatever sort is desirable. Given the facts that I believe are on our side, any failure to present these facts coherently, either to those who reach decisions or to those who create opinion, is our fault rather than theirs.

I say this because it is crystal clear to us that there are forces working overtime against the country and its government in this respect and, if we cannot prevent them, we must at least be ready to counter their propaganda.

Chief amongst these is the brilliant Tiger network of information and disinformation, which we are very far from matching because we still have not registered how serious its impact is. But sadly for the Rajapaksa government, we also have now a very efficient campaign run by Wickremesinghe, which has witting or unwitting support in the influential segments of urban society that are his natural constituency.

President Rajapaksa has I believe realised the gravity of this campaign, if reports on his discussion with Wickremesinghe before he accepted the UNP defectors is accurate. A few months earlier I had wondered whether he had been taken in by the latter when he signed the MoU, which made no mention at all of the international dimension.

I thought this a particularly grave omission, given the advantage taken by the Tiger controlled networks in highlighting for instance his speech at MIT in America, in which he laid blame for the breakdown of the talks foursquare on the government, despite his own experience of having had the Tigers walk out on him. Fortunately for Rajapaksa, he realised soon enough that he was being bad mouthed amongst governments that matter; unfortunately, he has since done little to counter this.

This is sadder, in that there is reason to believe that governments in general are not hostile to him. Certainly the solid measures taken against the Tigers in recent months indicate that they are no longer accepted unquestioningly as freedom fighters.

But this is where the escalation of the campaign against the government on human rights issues is so serious, and why it is important to refute the allegations that, if they flourish unchecked amongst those susceptible to such propaganda, will in the end influence governments too.

This is where it seems to me the reactions to the debate, which somehow implied that the British government was at fault, confirm the view that we really do not understand the way politics work in any country except our own.

In part because of the continuing triviality of our teaching in schools of civics, so that the distinction between legislature and executive is totally unknown, in part because of the conglomeration of power here is not just the central government but in a small group within it, it is assumed that when any official body in any other country does anything, the government of that country is somehow responsible.

On the contrary, even a cursory reading of the debate in Britain suggests that government spokesmen were quite objective, and did not rush on a bandwagon that criticised the government. Indeed, most speakers tried to be evenhanded, and it was only a few who seemed to have swallowed wholesale the propaganda of the Tigers.

But unfortunately, as we know only too well in this country, it is the vociferous minority that makes the running, that stirs up feelings, and then dragoons decision makers to follow in its wake.

Given then that even those Members of the British Parliament who understand the enormity of terrorism are susceptible to stories about humanitarian lapses, the upshot is a general feeling that our government could be doing more to solve the ethnic problem, and that the British government should promote this.

To counter this, we should - apart indeed from doing more to solve the ethnic problem, on the lines suggested by Anandasangaree and his ilk, while at the same time continuing with the current tough initiatives and responses that deal firmly with the terrorist problem - respond to all those who took part in the debate, thanking them for their interest and pointing out particular inaccuracies (for instance the claim that the Tigers negotiated until the Wickremesinghe government was changed, the suggestion that the films of attacks on Tamil civilians represented an ongoing situation rather than relentless repetition of the horrors of 1983).

But we should also ensure much more public awareness of and accountability about rehabilitation programmes.

From what I gather from non-governmental sources, genuine efforts are being made in this regard. But, given the paucity of capable personnel, given the lethargy and in many cases dishonesty of our bureaucracy (which rebounds on the government if firm action is not taken, which now seems impossible in Sri Lanka given the networks of protection and tolerance that have developed), given the failure to establish networking with confidence between government and NGOs, it is not surprising that claims of culpable neglect gain credence.

And of course we complicate matters by adopting a hostile attitude. The demonstration outside the British High Commission by those whom the Wickremesinghe style propaganda alleges to be the driving forces of the Rajapaksa government can only contribute to further suspicions between the two countries.

It is useless to claim that this is nothing to do with government, particularly when there are enough propagandists to claim that the move was initiated by the government (whereas no one in Britain or even here for instance would claim that Tony Blair or Margaret Beckett had asked Keith Vaz to criticise the Sri Lankan government in the House of Commons).

Indeed this demonstration reminded me, entertainingly if it were not also sad, on the demonstration that took place twenty years ago, after the Indians dropped food parcels over Jaffna.

To quote from my forthcoming book, Declining Sri Lanka - ‘The next week a monk close to the government organised a demonstration outside the Indian High Commission...., At the government parliamentary group meeting the previous day Jayawardene was reported to have exhorted his followers to be present, and Harry Jayewardene joined the demonstration along with several UNP politicians.’

This was just a couple of months before Jayewardene signed the Indo-Lankan Accord. Of course, as I have said before, he was entirely responsible for the situation that precipitated the Accord and the suffering the country went through before and after; President Rajapaksa is simply suffering the consequences of the ethnic strife Jayewardene engendered.

But he should ensure that problems are dealt with practically, and that demonstrations designed to score domestic points do not become a substitute for thought and constructive action.

Meanwhile there is a delightful irony about the JVP demonstrating outside the High Commission, with platitudes about the sanctity of sovereignty. I don’t suppose many people remember now the pro-active stand of David Gladstone when he was British High Commissioner here during the crucial period from 1988 to 1991.

The horrors of those days are now largely forgotten, as came home to me vividly when a friend referred to the unprecedented abductions of the present period and the constraints on the media.

Such allegations are nonsense. The nineties and now are a sea change from the Jayewardene period, when the state had a monopoly on the electronic media, and there were only minor alternatives, generally beholden to the government, to the state press.

And though much is made of abductions now, a careful perusal of papers since these allegations began to spread suggests that the number is small if you exclude those connected with extortions.

Of course extortion flourishes in a state of lawlessness, but in this respect we are a far cry from the eighties when all leading politicians had their own tame thugs, even Lalith Athulathmudali whose man - I forget his name now - was shot outside the Lionel Wendt, and of course Ranil Wickremesinghe with Gonawala Sunil and Kalu Lucky who led the state sponsored demonstration against Supreme Court judges who had found against the government in a Fundamental Rights case.

Those were the days when the JVP, while trying to give as good as it got, suffered from abductions and the murder of its cadres. In those days perhaps their most prominent refuge was the British High Commissioner, who arranged safe conduct to England for many of them.

I have no idea whether Somawansa Amerasinghe was amongst these, but certainly the JVP today must give credit to Gladstone’s commitment to basic rights, specifically the right to life, which led him in fact to subvert the strategies of the government to which he was accredited.

It was in part because of his involvement with so many young men destined for death that Gladstone developed his bitter hatred of Wickremesinghe, whom he characterised in those days as a young Fascist.

I think his prejudices sometimes went too far, as when he told me after Ranjan Wijeratne’s death that Ran-il as he called him had hoped to replace him as Deputy Minister of Defence, and was bitterly disappointed when the ridiculous D B Wijetunge was appointed instead.

But, now, given the involvement of our opposition leader in criticism of our government that influences the House of Commons, it astonishes me that we have not at least tried officially to renew contact with Gladstone, who could provide some sort of balance to the ahistorical critiques of the government that are permitted to flourish internationally. We need much more concerted efforts to counter the current wave of anti-government.

Of course the best way is to ensure that the few abuses that do occur, that are then recycled ad nauseam, are dealt with firmly so as to prevent their recurrence. But we should also be able to maximise positive achievements, and highlight them internationally.

Unless that happens, we have to expect that those concerned with human rights will, whether mistakenly or not, focus attention on our shortcomings. And we should not regret this, for like the JVP we have to be aware that at some stage we too may be the victims of abuse.

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