One is unsure whether to laugh or cry at this week's literally 'flying visit' of the Foreign Ministers of Britain and France carrying the White man's burden as it were to ensure that all was well in these uncivilized parts of the world. They suddenly descended, and left even faster, like bats fleeing out of hell. So much so that one is reminded of the wisecrack of yesteryear about the 'foreign experts' who came to Sri Lanka to find out - and left before being found out.
No doubt there is an orchestrated ganging-up of the Western powers -- the so-called 'International Community'. They say they are concerned about the humanitarian problem in the Wanni, the plight of thousands trapped due to the fighting between Sri Lankan Security Forces and what is left of the LTTE's fighting cadres.
Consider not only the fire-bombings of civilians in Dresden and the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring a speedy end to World War II and thereby Fascism in Europe, but also what's happening right now in Eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan's Waziristan tribal area? In the circumstances, do these Western powers have the moral right to talk of combating terrorism without collateral damage to civilians?
By all accounts, it would seem that the British Foreign Minister was particularly offensive. India too has found him so. He had disregard to protocol, been obtrusive quite unlike his French counterpart so much so that one wondered whether he thought himself to be the Secretary of State for the Colonies of Great Britain rather than the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs of plain Britain.
One might concede some portion of this coordinated effort by the Western world is prompted by genuine humanitarian concerns. No-one can deny the humanitarian crisis that has arisen due to the advances made by the Security Forces and LTTE guerrillas holding these civilians as a 'human shield' for their own protection. But the overwhelming fact of the matter is that there is an element of domestic pressure as well for these Western politicians. But genuine concern and electoral compulsions aside, the Government's own handling of this sensitive issue leaves much to be desired. The misunderstanding with the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt - a one-time Prime Minister - flippantly asked to come another day without joining his British and French colleagues was totally unnecessary.
Nuisance value apart, as these visits may be, Sri Lanka must avoid looking in the eyes of the impartial world like a blinkered Taliban-style regime, suspicious of every foreigner. We really can't afford to do this if our economy and the well-being of our people is so tied to the world economy, begging as we are for loans from the International Monetary Fund and pleading for duty-free concessions from the EU etc.,
There is a well-known quip about what the fine art of diplomacy is all about; it is how to tell someone to "go to hell" in such a way that the person actually looks forward to the trip. We seem to be telling the world to 'go to hell' in the bluntest possible way. While some argue that this is the only language the West understands, it is not without its repercussions. A snubbed British Foreign Minister is now suggesting that Sri Lanka be elevated to the UN Security Council agenda, where noises are being made against this country. By this approach what has happened is that the Rajapaksa administration has inadvertently internationalised Sri Lanka’s internal issue, the very thing they accuse their political rivals of having done. Only worse, that this time, the so-called IC is ganged up against Sri Lanka.
The Govt’s burden
The United Nations marks World Press Freedom Day today -- celebrating the principles of freedom of expression, defending press freedom and honouring those journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Sri Lanka unfortunately has a hopeless record on Press Freedom, and is one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist. Recent attacks on media practitioners have been done in the name of National Security, morale of the Security Forces etc. There is some comparison with the time when the US and Britain went to war in Iraq, and media practitioners were labelled 'traitors' if they did not support the war.
The President publicly invites political discourse. But the reality is that either the Press has been brow-beaten by means of a 'chilling effect' syndrome, or won over. This Government and this Parliament have introduced no progressive legislation to upgrade the country into the ranks of having a well-informed citizenry. A draft Freedom of Information Act - standard fare in any well-meaning, self-respecting democracy interested in good governance – gathers dust without being brought before Parliament. This draft is now stuck in the Media Ministry and the Justice Ministry with no political will to push the legislation through.
The Government that waxes eloquent on press freedom must convert its words into deeds -- and convert its poor standing in the world press freedom index from the bottom of the table to an honourable position.