The Western Use of Toilets - 13 June 2009
The saddest aspect of the war of attrition that some prospective donors are conducting against the Sri Lankan government is that its main victims will be the poor civilians who were rescued from the Tigers. It will be remembered that their prolonged captivity was also due in part to the connivance of some Western interventionists in the Tiger strategy of dragging them along with the terrorist forces as they retreated. History now repeats itself in the determination to subject Tamil civilians to squalor in what the West presents as its subtle effort to ensure swift resettlement.
Since however this is a principle they have never bothered about in the past, it is a moot point whether some at least are not serving another agenda. The majority, one has to hope, are full of good intentions, though with their usual ignorance they are allowing themselves to be led by the nose by the nasty.
When the Tigers were preparing their hostage crisis, the so called humanitarian community, led by the UN, kept silent about this strategy, about the forced recruitment by the Tigers of children and one person, then two, per family, about the refusal to let Sri Lankan humanitarian workers and their families leave the ever dwindling space controlled by the Tigers. Their staff, one hopes acting on their own and not with higher sanction, though nevertheless confident of impunity, kept providing information to the media, Bernard Dix taken on by the UN from the shadowy Solidar group that were responsible for the vehicles the Tigers used to build their defences, John Campbell with his British military background, the anonymous Western diplomats who were quoted as claiming that the Sri Lankan government wanted to destroy the Tamils and who obligingly revealed what they claimed were UN figures of civilian casualties, the hirelings in Geneva who accidentally put satellite information on their website and then rang up journalists to tell them to make sure they checked this out.
The strategy failed. While some Europeans were busily cultivating Mr Pathmanathan, in spite of his being wanted by Interpol, and others were trying to collect signatures to put Sri Lanka into the dock before the Tigers were destroyed, the Sri Lankan forces destroyed the Tigers, or rather those who were not in safety amongst their European cash cows. They also rescued the rest of the civilians whom the Tigers had entrapped, making clear the care with which the whole operation had been conducted, even TamilNet not being able to claim during the first part of May that, except on a couple of occasions on which the Tigers are on record as having shot at fleeing civilians, there had been significant civilian casualties.
But all these displaced Sri Lankans seem now to have given the bleeding hearts of the West their second bite at the cherry. The strategy now is to make sure that they suffer in the camps, put into tents in which they cannot stand, that they do not have enough to eat, that they have to endure squalid toilets and perhaps suffer the epidemics that were predicted so confidently month after month over the last year, and which the sustained work of our Ministry of Health so skilfully avoided.
The proof of what is going on is provided by the contrast between the facilities made available to the displaced in Zones 0 and 1, which were prepared by the Sri Lankan government, and the facilities elsewhere. I remember being horrified myself when, at the beginning of May, I first saw Zone 2, in which UN tents were piled up, with disgusting toilets and none of the open spaces we had been promised. The tents were not at all the dignified structures the UNHCR head had described to us when I objected to some of the tents I had seen in Zone 3 on my previous visit.
But that had been in April, before the massive influx, and I excused UNHCR on the grounds that they had hurriedly airfreighted in a large number of tents to meet emergency requirements. It was only later that I realised that they had ignored the suggestions of one of my secretarial colleagues who had pointed out that much cheaper tents were available locally, that much of one of the tranches of assistance the British bestowed whenever they were allowed to visit had gone on the airfreighting, and that duty too had to be paid on these tiny tents that would last for only a very short time.
I was also told that these were cheap Chinese tents, which was the best the UN could provide for the limited amount permitted for what was termed emergency shelter – only to find the following week that the Chinese government gifted with no fuss at all extremely comfortable high quality tents which gave the poor displaced people some sort of dignity, dignity that the emergency provisions laid down by the UN seemed determined to deny.
But Sri Lanka is not allowed any input into the quality of the facilities given to our citizens. Nor can we point out that it is obviously wasteful to deliberately provide stuff that cannot last more than three months, and then spend more on replacing it, when much better longer lasting stuff can be provided for not much more than the initial cost.
And then, if what was happening with shelter was bad enough, with sanitation it was infinitely worse. After my initial complaints UNICEF has rung up regularly to tell me that they are doing better, and that they will consult local agencies about better standards, but what seems to be going on still is quite disgusting. Though the Ministry of Resettlement has actually issued a notice about the standards required as to toilets, our Western decision makers, with no idea about how Asians use toilets, continue to provide rubbish, on occasion using wooden structures which may survive a few months when water is not used, but which will rot swiftly in Sri Lanka.
But the UN insists that they can only put up structures that will soon disintegrate. They make a virtue of this by claiming that they are protecting the poor suffering people from what they call protracted internment, but they seem to me to be succumbing to the temptation of many of those clothed in brief authority, which is to engage in as much construction as possible, and give out as many contracts as you possibly can. So there will be new toilets every few months, and they will disintegrate well before they are expected to, and then the humanitarian community can exult at the squalor they themselves have precipitated, and issue contracts for more short term toilets.
How wicked some of these people are can be seen in the intensity with which they objected to the cheap and simple and durable toilets constructed by the Confidence Building and Stabilization Measures Project in the more civilized part of Menik Farm way back in December. There were massive objections to these, by the donors we were told, on the grounds that the project was funded by UNHCR and toilets were not the business of UNHCR. The claim was that these should have been entrusted to UNICEF, but in the end I believe the reason for the venom directed at decent toilets was nothing to do with a turf war. It was simply that Sri Lankans had built something that would last, but the anally retentive international community wanted to do it their way. In the process they could precipitate some of the horrors they have been predicting, ensuring that things go wrong in an exercise they have disapproved of from the start.
With fiendish glee, the humanitarian community is doing the same with regard to what is termed complementary food as well, insisting despite the enormous sums they have mopped up through what is termed the Humanitarian Appeal on behalf of Sri Lankans that they will only use the money on their terms. This means that, unless they get their way, they will pull the plug in July, which they think (with their usual brilliant mathematical skills) is three months after the last IDPs arrived in the camps. Needless to say, the sums given on behalf of Sri Lankans will continue to be used to pay the salaries of the expatriates who have been flooding in in greater and greater numbers that parallel (in dollar cost terms at least) the numbers of the displaced.
It will be ironic if the displaced, who suffered so much at the hands of the Tigers, who were brutalised for many years whilst the internationals who built up at such cost their capacity to be exploited kept quiet about the conscription and much else, will continue to suffer because these same internationals withhold the funds they have accumulated. Perhaps the Sri Lankans who also suffered for so long, while the Tigers collected funds abroad, will step in to help their fellow citizens. They may not be able to do as much, but they are not likely to allow further suffering to become a weapon of war in the way the international humanitarian community has planned. And in the process we would at last have learned how hollow are the protestations of decency when compared with the naked self interest that has so successfully exploited the rest of the world for so long.
Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process