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Sri Lanka’s image builders

Broadly speaking, one can identify five distinct constituencies that shape Sri Lanka’s image abroad: First Western Governments - which I define from a politico-cultural


Ravinath Aryasinha

standpoint, as countries that are geographically located in North America, Western Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand, second, Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) - these include both International NGOs, as well as local NGOs who are dependent on foreign funding and hence often adopt policies dictated from outside, third, Sri Lankans abroad, particularly those living in Western countries; fourth, foreigners visiting and doing business with Sri Lanka and fifth, the international media.

It must be noted that each of these five constituencies weave different narratives on Sri Lanka, which successive Governments of Sri Lanka have had to grapple with. While being informed by this past, today my focus will be on the challenges that lie ahead. I do so conscious that, unlike in the earlier period, we also have a historic opportunity of succeeding; that of not having to fear whether our carefully laid out plans could be derailed by the next bomb.

Western Governments

I justify my differentiation of Western Governments from governments elsewhere, not only because their actions receive greater media attention and contribute to image formation, but more so because other countries that engage Sri Lanka, better understand the nuances concerning developments in the country, than most Western Governments do.

Although much of the current criticism of Sri Lanka emanating from the West is posited in terms of what is referred to as the ‘last phase of the conflict’, it would be fair to say that most issues arose over a longer period of unprecedented turbulence in Sri Lanka’s contemporary history due to a fundamental difference of perception, as to how the Sri Lankan Government should deal with the LTTE.

Most Western Governments’ believed that there was no military solution to the conflict and that the LTTE must be engaged in talks at any cost.

Some even had the audacity to suggest that the LTTE was invincible and that it would be unwise for the Sri Lankan Government to try to confront them. A complicating factor was that some others were seeking to find a role for themselves in Sri Lanka’s quest to resolve their own problems, regardless of the efficacy of their contribution.

However, having had the benefit of the experience of his four predecessors in negotiating with and confronting the LTTE during their respective terms and having gone the extra mile to engage the LTTE in 2005/2006 the first year of his own administration, President Mahinda Rajapaksa can hardly be faulted, as all of his predecessors did, for seeking to militarily defeat the LTTE. That he succeeded, carrying the people of Sri Lanka and influential neighbours with him, was what defied the theory - that terrorism cannot be militarily defeated. Ever since, some Western countries have been unwilling to do what all good scientists do - that is to acknowledge that when facts no longer fit a theory, it is the theory that must change.

Infrastructure development


Colonel Henry Steel Olcott

Despite many of the concerns that had earlier given rise for some Western countries to pass strictures on Sri Lanka having been largely addressed over the last 18 months (i.e. all child soldiers recruited by the LTTE released, 90 percent of the IDPs resettled, more than a third of the former LTTE cadres rehabilitated and re-integrated into civil society, restoration of livelihoods, infrastructure development and recommencement of the electoral process etc.), the continuing external pressure that is sought to be exerted on Sri Lanka is highly unwarranted and indeed offensive.

What is particularly troubling is the lack of objectivity by some Western Governments in their assessment of the Sri Lanka situation, relying to a large extent on questionable information provided by parties with vested interests, who constitute a vociferous minority- some INGOs and academics, sections of the media, as well as the pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora.

Notwithstanding the dilemmas confronted by the Sri Lankan State, a democracy seeking to defeat terrorism being no different from other theatres of conflict, the absence of a common set of parameters within which one could have judged questions of necessity and proportionality in dealing with terrorists, has complicated the different narratives that have been written in the aftermath of the conflict in Sri Lanka.

It is ironic that this happens, despite no tangible evidence having been placed before the world to date, to support the allegations levelled against the Sri Lanka Government, at a time when incontrovertible evidence is emerging from certain other theatres of conflict of such atrocities and gross human rights violations that have been committed, but glossed over due to the political clout of such States.

NGOs

We are aware that NGOs yield considerable influence on the decision-making processes in the West. From a Sri Lankan perspective, while I am conscious of the fact that one must not paint all NGOs with the same brush and admittedly there are many who played a significant role during the long years of the conflict and its immediate aftermath, the activities of some NGOs operating in Sri Lanka at present and of those making pronouncements from abroad on the situation in Sri Lanka, leave much to be desired.

While the purported intentions of these NGOs may seem noble, their actions leave one with the unmistakable impression that rather than helping Sri Lanka move forward, their primary pre-occupation appears to be to advance their own agenda.

If one was left in any doubt about this tendency, the recent refusal to present evidence before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) by at least three such INGOs - the Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International (AI) and the International Crisis Group (ICG), reinforces the impression that they prefer to voice allegations from afar, rather than subjecting them to scrutiny.

It is particularly unfortunate that they should do so, given that the LLRC was established on May 15, 2010 as a domestic process to address the emotional trauma of the decades-long conflict and to lay the foundation for reconciliation, a step that has been encouraged and welcomed widely both nationally and internationally.

To be continued

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