Towards Zero - 05 February 2009

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Being a Professor of English may not seem the best training available for heading a Peace Secretariat, but it has certainly proved invaluable in trying to understand the way people function. Unfortunately I have generally had to have recourse not to the more sophisticated literature I have taught, but rather to fairly simple works.

Thus, I could not initially understand why so many statements by those who purport to be well wishers of the Sri Lankan people so sedulously avoid mention of the LTTE. The ICRC recently managed to complain about ambulances not being allowed to evacuate patients from the Vanni, in a manner that suggested it did not know who was responsible, which meant that this was immediately taken up by various news agencies so as to cast blame on the Government. Ironically, this occurred on the very day that the LTTE suddenly refused permission (including for two foreign UN employees) to leave the Vanni, even though it had indicated earlier that this would be allowed.

This followed hard on a statement by the UN Secretary General, which failed to indicate who precisely was responsible for holding thousands of civilians in danger areas. That statement too did not mention the LTTE at all, again allowing news agencies yet another opportunity to blame the Government.

Given that two UN agencies had just previously categorically requested the LTTE to let the civilians leave, it was clear that the Secretary General could not be ignorant of the actual situation. Why then had he, like the ICRC, failed to name names?

As I was wondering, literary precedents came to mind. In the Harry Potter books, most people will not name the evil Lord Voldemort. The superstition that giving him a name will somehow increase the reality of his evil influence was not of course created by J K Rowling, she merely took up an old folk superstition that naming evil things gave them greater strength. So it was not really support for the LTTE that held the ICRC back from naming them, it was understanding of the depth of the evil they represented. Unfortunately, as the Harry Potter books made clear, failure to confront evil head on was much more likely to extend its influence - but at least, one felt, the ICRC diffidence was based on some sort of good will.

But, if that was comforting, continuing complaints by not only the ICRC but all sorts of Europeans brought further literary precedents to mind, and these were not so heartening. What, after all, would the cumulative effect be of relentless criticism of what was happening in Mullaitivu, drawing attention to the danger the displaced Sri Lankans there were facing, as though this were largely the fault of the government?

The naïve assumption would have been that those who expressed worry about these people were actually concerned about them. But, in that case, surely they would have intervened earlier, and have categorically asked the LTTE to let them leave. This had not happened, instead they had issued half hearted statements, which included critiques of the arrangements the Sri Lankan government had made for the displaced. These had been highlighted and, in the storms that rose, institutions like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International using phrases such as 'internment', people seemed to lose sight of the fact that the LTTE was driving people into smaller and smaller areas.

Were the people who ignored all this, while wearing bleeding hearts on their sleeve about everything else, simply blind to reality? Did they not realize - what was obvious to the Sri Lankans who really cared - that the LTTE was firstly trying to create a humanitarian crisis, secondly intending to use these people as human shields, and thirdly hoping that they might suffer in the fighting so that it could then be claimed that the Sri Lankan forces were targeting civilians?

The International NGOs, who had turned a blind eye to forced recruitment while they claimed that they were all that stood between the people of the Vanni and untold horrors (untold by them, as it turned out), declared that their workers had not been given passes to leave the Vanni, but refrained from public condemnation of this, claiming that they were worried for the safety of their workers. The UN did the same, hoping they claimed that this sort of appeasement would encourage the LTTE to let those people go, a hope that collapsed last week when the LTTE, having led them on, gave a categorical refusal - so that even the two heroic foreigners who went back with these victims had finally to abandon them last week.

In the absence then of any categorical condemnation, in the turning by many of blind eyes to the killing by the LTTE of people trying to get away, the LTTE could without any difficulty drive these people along with them, meanwhile trying frenetically to convince the world that the people were starving and would soon be subject to epidemics. They were helped in this by one former UN worker who was taken round Geneva by Amnesty International to do a show and tell about how bad the situation was, until the UN stopped him for so egregious a breach of contract. Then another UN worker claimed that the situation was as bad as Somalia, even while admitting that there was no actual shortage of food. Needless to say, there has been no public condemnation of these outbursts, though the UN has apologized in private - unfortunately we graciously accept such apologies, and then wait for the next storm to hit us, just as our armed forces for years put up with LTTE assaults, simply holding them off, until it occurred to them that self defence meant putting a stop to opportunities for such attacks, not just waiting until one of them struck lucky.

Meanwhile, until belatedly the UN Coordinator said that the Sri Lankan Ministries of Health and Education deserved prizes for the work they had done under difficult circumstances, there was no recognition at all of the extraordinary efforts made by the Sri Lankan government to ensure the continuation of high level social services. Surely all the foreign ambassadors who express humanitarian concerns so eloquently must surely have gone on management courses, even to head as small an operation as the one in Sri Lanka, where they would have learnt that expressing appreciation of positive efforts will help to ensure good performance? But no, nothing positive can be said about the good work of Government, anything even possibly bad must be pounced on, and anything about which there is uncertainty must be highlighted in a way that suggests the Government is responsible.

Thus, whilst now there are all sorts of calls about not breaching international humanitarian law, while there are endless declarations of the need for proportionality (a concept to which the Israeli Prime Minister gave short shrift recently), there was absolutely no recognition of the fact that the Sri Lankan armed forces had been scrupulous about observing high standards throughout its offensives. Indeed there were hardly any allegations even of breaches by the Sri Lankan forces for much of the current offensive.

But, instead of any recognition of this, whatever other weapon came to hand was made use of to attack the armed forces and their leadership, beginning with the former British High Commissioner's preposterous dash to the desk of a newspaper editor who complained about being threatened (and then carefully rang up again the person she claimed threatened her when the call failed).

What was the reason for all this? So much strange behaviour deserved much application of little grey cells, supported quite readily as I found by specific precedents from the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. A little thought made it clear that the main purpose of all these interventions was to impose a halt on the operations of the security forces.

Unlike in her novel 'Towards Zero' however, where the aim of all the wicked deeds was similarly the condemnation of an innocent person for crimes she had never committed, this particular Operation Zero was not being perpetrated by a single person. Rather, it was an extended operation, with many of those participating in it doubtless not being quite aware of what their combined efforts would produce, thinking they were simply moved by humanitarian considerations. After all, if you arrive in Sri Lanka towards the end of your career, there is not much hope of fulfilling your childhood dream of making a difference in the world through your work. So, as in that brilliant cameo by Ingrid Bergman in 'Murder on the Orient Express', you express tearful sympathy for little brown babies, and hope that your interlocutors will take you seriously.

But, as Hercules Poirot put it, that performance was too preposterous to take anyone in. So we need to be aware of possibly a more sinister purpose, albeit one full of moral self righteousness. In short, what is planned is the imposition of a halt on the operations of our forces, which will have the inevitable consequence of giving the Tigers a new lease of life, just as happened nineteen years ago.

We should perhaps feel sorry for all these cacophonous protesters, hankering after the influence they exercised for so long when all decisions were made in the sophisticated drawing rooms of Colombo, with the consequences for the rest of the country ignored. But while we can understand how much they regret their dominance slipping away, we need to make sure that there will be no further threat to the Sri Lankan state through all this sudden concern for people who were ignored for so long, people whose children were forcibly conscripted, people who were forced to build bunkers and walls and ditches, people who had to give hostages before they were allowed to leave.

It was tolerance of all that, over many years when Tigers entertained them in style, over many years when they hankered after that adulation, that has led to this appalling situation. Whilst the Sri Lankan government must take maximum care to safeguard these our people, it must make sure that they are never again left prey to the callousness that maintained silence about all they suffered in the past.

Rajiva Wijesinha

Secretary General

Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process

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