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Dealing with Disinformation

[Politics & people] MISLEADING CAMPAIGN: When I wrote last week about Ranil Wickremesinghe’s campaign that supplements the Tiger efforts to undermine the Sri Lankan Government, I thought that palpable proof of this would be placed before the public on that very same day.

For there appeared, on that same Wednesday, also in the print media, what was introduced as being a ‘country report on the situation in Sri Lanka’ which ‘The United National Party (UNP) submitted’ on April 26. What was not mentioned was to whom or what that report had been submitted.

Thilak Marapana Ranil Wickremesinghe Premadasa Udugampola

This however, was made clear in the body of the report. The report ends ‘It is here that we appeal to all of you abroad to support us by launching campaigns in your respective parliaments and outside, to pressurize the Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the LTTE to safeguard human rights, to restore democratic freedoms (including the media) and to resolve the humanitarian crisis facing our people’.

In short, the report was submitted to a gathering of foreign politicians to evoke extra parliamentary agitation as well as the sort of debate in England which has led to such irrational reactions in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately the government, and its less rational supporters, do not understand that it is precisely such reactions that Ranil wishes to provoke. His point is that intimidation is practiced on anyone trying to raise important issues.

If we seem to substantiate this by reacting in the way his government reacted in the eighties, when they thought the world could be set aside with impunity, we will deserve adverse criticism and worse, as J R did in 1987 when India fell on him like a ton of bricks with the acquiescence of the world at large.

What the Government should do instead is deal with Ranil on his own terms. This would not be difficult, given his record. However, coherent responses to criticism have been difficult for Sri Lankan Governments, given the shame culture that dominates us, prompting efforts to save face when saving the country would be more important.

What should be done instead of knee jerk reactions is acceptance of international criticism where it is relevant, and detailed rebuttal where it is not. Such rebuttal should be simple, as I pointed out last week, given the many misrepresentations that are current, which now characterise the brief Ranil has given his associates abroad.

Meanwhile, the Government should insist on parliamentary debate on relevant questions, of which there are several which Ranil’s report raises, where his own actions are suspect.

Sadly, though I think the Government has understood the gravity of the threat Ranil represents, it has no coherent strategy to deal with it and has managed effectively to deal with the threat presented by its principal enemy in the past, Prabhakaran.

Though there will continue to be grave incidents, in effect the Ministry of Defence under Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has managed to make even the Tigers recognise that they no longer have the military advantage that Ranil conferred on them after the CFA.

But it would be tragic if the achievements of the forces against heavy odds are nullified by diplomatic failure, as happened in 1987 (when, it should be noted, it was not India alone, but the international community that stamped on us, as I have previously pointed out, with for instance a tough resolution in Geneva).

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa himself is a good enough strategist to realise that military victory is not possible, for a range of reasons that include the international dimension. It is therefore vital to secure international support.

This the Government has done successfully as far as the Tigers are concerned. However, the current campaign, based on emotive words such as democratic freedoms and humanitarian crisis, requires equally forceful opposition, and this is sadly absent.

Ranil claims that the Government is a Government of Rajapaksas’ is based mainly on the large number of portfolios held by the President.

Unlike the hypocritical Ranil, I have never concealed my view that this practice is unfortunate, but the fact remains that the precedent was established by Presidents Jayewardene and Premadasa and most appallingly Wijetunga (who first took on Finance in addition to Defence and Education, when Ranil was Prime Minister).

Given the Supreme Court ruling on the subject, the President cannot now divest himself of the Defence portfolio, which, for reasons that have a lot to do with the imbalance Ranil allowed to build up when he was running the country, now consumes such a large proportion of the budget.

The report then details abuses which it insinuates are all the responsibility of the Government. With regard to allegations of bribery, and also the allegations of the former ministers, the government should obviously ensure transparency.

As I have pointed out, an inquiry into all purported deals with the Tigers will be much more dangerous to Wickremesinghe, given the evidence that SSP Udugampola and Thilak Marapana and Austin Fernando will supply if properly questioned by a Parliamentary Committee, to say nothing of some former UNP Ministers.

More serious are the assertions about abductions and human rights violations, where it would be easy to show that the bulk of these are the responsibility of the Tigers, continuing a practice that was begun in 2002 when the Ranil’s Government permitted them to murder Tamils with impunity.

But statistics about these facts are still ignored, allowing the report to suggest for instance that all abductions in Jaffna are the responsibility of the Government. Then there is the claim, which is put in absolute terms, that the media is controlled ‘through coercion and the active collaboration of some of the media personnel’.

This is a ridiculous statement, if only given the excessive criticism of the Government in some newspapers, but such assertions will pass muster unless they are actively combated.

And when they become part of campaigns ‘in your respective Parliaments and outside’, in a context in which most parliamentarians would not know the facts, and would not be interested in finding them out, decisions will be made by default on the lines dictated by Ranil’s supporters.

Who are these supporters? Here I must confess to a sense of irony, because I believe, from the date on which the report was issued, that these are members of the International Democratic Union, into which Wickremesinghe took the UNP a few years back.

I say ironically, because a couple of decades ago, when the Liberal Party joined Liberal International, Wickremesinghe was one of those who, along with his erstwhile mentor, President Jayewardene, scoffed at such links.

When we got a motion passed by LI requesting both the restoration of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights, and the holding of a General Election (put off for six years by the 1982 referendum - now that, if you like, was an unquestionable assault on democracy), President Jayewardene thought such interference an infringement of sovereignty.

A year later however he did restore Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights, and she herself paid tribute to the Liberal International for having raised the issue.

From this it will be clear, as I indicated last week, that I do not believe in a doctrine of absolute sovereignty for, when human rights are in question, there are higher obligations than allegiance to a Government elected for a limited period.

But there are also certain norms in appealing to such bodies, which include scrupulous adherence to the truth. This is not a Ranil strong suit, though he works through insinuation, and usually manages to get others to do his dirty work for him.

Secondly, the usual practice is the passing of motions, or parliamentary questions or debates, that are then conveyed to the government in question.

The idea of launching campaigns outside parliament, such as the preposterous Amnesty Campaign during the World Cup was intended to be, seems to be transgressing the bounds of the dignity that the international political unions should uphold.

Unfortunately Wickremesinghe will not show any restraint in his efforts, which is understandable given how much he has to lose if he cannot continue to convince his party that he is on the verge of returning to power.

Given that he has got rid of the brighter characters in his party, convincing the rest will not be difficult. But there are still a few independent spirits left who will certainly challenge him if he cannot continue to claim that, with the help of the stars or his foreign friends, he will soon be back in power.

For that to happen, he has to bring down the Government and precipitate a general election. But this will only happen if the JVP abandons the Government, which they are not likely to do until they have a reasonable chance of being the chief beneficiaries of a new election rather than the UNP.

Though that will take some time, the JVP tends to miscalculate, and given the one-upmanship on which they have now embarked, it is possible that they will decide to commit hara-kiri if their bluff is called.

With the economic situation deteriorating, this may well happen. Hence Wickremesinghe’s campaign to restrict economic assistance, and destroy the confidence that is desirable if the economy is to continue to grow.

This is one reason for his current concentration on the international community. In addition, he may also have finally understood that he is alien to the people of this country, and even that his own party is getting tired of him. So the less time he spends here, even leaving aside the calls of his horoscope, the better.

But underlying all this is the simple fact that, were he not the Leader of the Opposition, he would be at a complete loss as to what to do.

Certainly he would be hard pushed to maintain his current lifestyle, with regular foreign trips and free stays at five star and even more luxurious hotels, even in this country, gratis for him and his entourage.

And, sadly, the sort of person whom for instance he took with him on his recent jaunt to China, will not treat him with the same respectful devotion if he could not offer them this sort of lifestyle.

Certainly his wife might be quite content to return to a simple life, but could the same be said of the rest of the hangers on who form part of the delegation on such occasions? A life for them without Kandalama and Chinese Pandas would be no life at all.

So Wickremesinghe has, like Alice, to run twice as hard as before to stay in the same place. Unfortunately for the country this running involves systematic denigration of the country, through subtle falsification and innuendo.

To cite his words, in arguing that Tiger violations of human rights is less culpable than the alleged actions of the Government, ‘such conduct can be identified with a terrorist organisation’.

When equally excessive assaults on a democratically elected government are practised by what should be the nation’s loyal opposition, it is incumbent on the Government to deal with it firmly, using the tools available in a democratic dispensation, Parliament and the courts, where the record can be clarified.

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