Columns - Political Column

End of a bloody era

  • Island-wide celebrations and possibility of national holiday amidst speculation over Prabha's fate
  • International community increases pressure on Lanka; IMF loan on hold
By Our Political Editor

Last Wednesday, whilst President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was conferring with his Cabinet colleagues about the concluding stages of the military campaign in the Wanni against Tiger guerrillas, in the United States capital of Washington, President Barack Obama, was doing just that with his senior officials. However, the two Presidents had two different reasons.

Rajapaksa, who has boldly rejected calls from the west and India for a cessation of hostilities, was to counter adverse worldwide publicity against Sri Lanka. Otherwise, the war would go ahead, at least for two more days. Hours after arriving in the Jordanian capital of Amman on Thursday, he told the Sri Lankan community there that civilians held hostage by the guerrillas would be "liberated within the next 48 hours."
Only on the day of his departure, had he chaired a meeting of the National Security Council. He had learnt from security forces top brass that the re-capture of a sliver of land, the No-Fire Zone or the Civilian Safety Zone and its surroundings, was now a matter of days, perhaps during this weekend. Troops making a pincer movement on the eastern edge of the seafront are due to link up. Elaborate plans are under way to celebrate a national victory - the total defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), at least in a military sense. That will see live telecast of countrywide jubilation and all sections of society paying glowing tributes to the armed forces and the police. A national holiday to mark the victory is not being ruled out.

In the light of this, the cynosure of all eyes would no doubt be on LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Army officials in the Wanni believe he is holed up in the No-Fire Zone, taking cover behind a large group of civilians. With him, they say, are a number of other senior guerrilla leaders. If indeed he is there with his long-time lieutenants, the question is what will happen to them?

Will they bite the same cyanide capsule they had compelled their cadres to bite to avoid capture and compromise? On the other hand, if Prabhakaran and others had fled for safety outside the shores of Sri Lanka, what next? Answers to these critical questions become relevant and even significant in a post-conflict scenario. It is premature to comment until the events unfold and lays bare the realities. Since Thursday, e-mails and sms texts were criss-crossing the globe with speculation as to what had been their fate.

Global diplomacy

In the United States, the voices raised by officials in the Department of State and thereafter at the White House, have now extended to President Obama. On Thursday, (it was still Wednesday in Sri Lanka), he was set to board the Air Force One flight from Andrews Air Force base outside Washington to fly to Phonenix (Arizona). He was to make his first commencement address at the Arizona State University. This state, which voted against Obama at the presidential race this year, leads much of US in foreclosures.

Some viewed the event at the University as a snub for Obama. Commencement speakers are customarily awarded honorary degrees as a sign of respect. "His body of work is yet to come. That's why we're not recognising him with a degree at the beginning of his presidency," the university spokesperson said after the college's own newspaper first reported the decision. However, Obama was smart enough to respond. "I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life," he said and added "First of all Michelle (his wife) concurs with that assessment. She has a long list of things that I have not yet done waiting for me when I get home."

Foreign Ministers of France Bernard Kouchner (R), Britain’s David Miliband (C) and Austria's Michael Spindelegger, talk to the media after a meeting on the situation in Sri Lanka at the United Nations in New York.-AFP

Before Obama could leave Washington, his aides had lined up an unscheduled event, a hurriedly summoned news conference referred to in US parlance as 'media availability'. He walked up to a lectern on the South Drive of White House to read out a statement on Sri Lanka. That it came hurriedly shocked officials at the Foreign Ministry in Colombo. They believed the urgency was the result of an event only the previous day and thus underscored the priority given by Obama. He found time to make the statement before his departure.

That was the meeting between UK's Foreign Secretary, David Miliband with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton at the State Department in Washington. Miliband, who together with French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, visited Sri Lanka only two weeks earlier failed to persuade Rajapaksa to halt hostilities to pave the way for civilians to be evacuated. The latter pointed out that troops had paused in their fighting on two different occasions but the LTTE had not availed itself of the opportunity nor allowed civilians to leave.

During talks with his Sri Lankan counterpart, Rohitha Bogollagama, the British Foreign Secretary had a verbal duel with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. This week, he made public remarks in London that there should be investigations to ascertain whether war crimes have been committed in Sri Lanka. Miliband also called upon the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to delay the US $ 1.9 billion standby facility to Sri Lanka.

The same day, Britain's mood at its Foreign and Commonwealth Office was reflected by a statement made to the House of Commons by the Junior Foreign Minister Bill Rammell, who referred to the situation in Sri Lanka as "truly shocking", and went on to say that "we would support an early investigation into all incidents that may have resulted in civilian casualties…, to determine whether war crimes have been committed".

It was not only the IMF loan that Britain was targeting, but now introducing talk of 'war crimes' being committed.

IMF loan delayed

On Thursday, Hillary Clinton fell in line publicly with the Milliband view when she said in Washington that it would be "inappropriate" for the IMF to extend the facility at present. The Government's response was articulated by one of its spokespersons, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, Non-Cabinet Minister of Information. He termed Miliband's remarks as "immoral and uncalled for." Yet, the Central Bank, which repeatedly declared the IMF loan was still in the pipeline, has now shifted mode. Governor Nivard Cabraal told business executives that the Government was ready with plan "B" and "C" if the IMF facility was not forthcoming. Earlier, he had not spoken of such plans but continued to insist the facility was very much in the pipeline and discounted media reports to the contrary.

It was only the other day that the Central Bank expressed confidence that the IMF loan was 'on track' with a statement by the Deputy Governor Ranee Jayamaha who said that "technical level discussions regarding the funding facility from the IMF have been finalized. The safeguards assessment mission, which is in Colombo, is in the process of finalizing its report". She went on to say that the mandate of the IMF does not allow for "political considerations to be taken into account and therefore the staff report should be placed before the Board in a few days time". She thought that there would be no reason for the facility to be delayed any longer. It is however clear that political considerations have indeed crept into the IMF loan to Sri Lanka.

President Obama's remarks on Sri Lanka are pregnant with some serious nuances. Here are excerpts:
"……….. I want to take a few moments at the top to talk about something that, with all the big issues going on, hasn't received much attention, but I think is worth talking about briefly.

"………. we have a humanitarian crisis that's taking place in Sri Lanka, and I've been increasingly saddened by the desperate news in recent days. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians are trapped between the warring government forces and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka with no means of escape, little access to food, water, shelter and medicine. This has led to widespread suffering and the loss of hundreds if not thousands of lives.

"Without urgent action, this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe. Now is the time, I believe, to put aside some of the political issues that are involved and to put the lives of the men and women and children who are innocently caught in the crossfire, to put them first.

"….. I urge the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and let civilians go. Their forced recruitment of civilians and their use of civilians as human shields is deplorable. These tactics will only serve to alienate all those who carry them out.

"I'm also calling on the Sri Lankan government to take several steps to alleviate this humanitarian crisis. First, the government should stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives, including several hospitals, and the government should live up to its commitment to not use heavy weapons in the conflict zone.

"Second, the government should give United Nations humanitarian teams access to the civilians who are trapped between the warring parties so that they can receive the immediate assistance necessary to save lives.

"Third, the government should also allow the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross access to nearly 190,000 displaced people within Sri Lanka so that they can receive additional support that they need.

"I don't believe that we can delay. Now is the time for all of us to work together to avert further humanitarian suffering. Going forward, Sri Lanka must seek a peace that is secure and lasting, and grounded in respect for all of its citizens. More civilian casualties and inadequate care for those caught in resettlement camps will only make it more difficult to achieve the peace that the people of Sri Lanka deserve."

No doubt, President Obama's message has appeals for both the Government and the LTTE. He wants the Government to stop what he calls "indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of civilian lives including several hospitals" and adds that it should "live up to its commitment not to use heavy weapons in the conflict zone."

The nuances of these two remarks are serious though the response of Government's spin-doctors would be to say officials had misled Obama again. There is an accusation (though repeatedly denied by the Government) that shelling is taking the lives of "hundreds of civilians."

The other is a reference to a "commitment not to use heavy weapons in the conflict zone" - an allusion to the Government's official announcement of April 27 that combat operations have concluded and there would be no use of heavy (or indirect fire) weapons. President Obama is asserting that despite this "commitment" the use of heavy weapons is continuing. These are no doubt accusations that have far reaching consequences.

So much so, that some international media stations went as far as to interpret the Obama statement as to suggest that what Obama was saying was that the Government of Sri Lanka was "lying".

Obama tells the LTTE to lay down its arms and let civilians go. Their forced recruitment of civilians and their use of civilians as human shields, he says, is deplorable. "These tactics will only serve to alienate all those who carry them out," he points out. Those accusations against the LTTE have been made earlier too, largely by officials at the State Department. As against repeating them, President Obama, the leader of the world's most powerful nation, has made some pointed accusations against Sri Lanka. Even if one is unable to go into the merits and demerits of them, there are some grim truths that stand out.

Foreign Ministry bungles

Main among them is the abject failure to project Sri Lanka's position to foreign Governments. The vast majority of the statements put out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, often drafted by the Minister himself, speak of things he plans to do or has done. It is thus centred on building his own image than that of Sri Lanka. This is not only in respect of events leading to Obama's strong statement but over others too. Even his own staff members have gone to court challenging the veracity of statements issued by the Ministry. The situation has been made worse by the selection of some weak political appointments to Sri Lanka diplomatic missions to deal with politicians and media in the countries they serve in. Like the Foreign Ministry's 'press release' or 'propaganda' diplomacy, they reflect their work output to the Sri Lankan media, and through it, to the Sri Lankan public.

Despite diplomatic moves by Sri Lanka following a move spearheaded by Mexico when it headed the UN Security Council (many in Colombo believe to be at the behest of Norway), the 15 members of the UN Security Council at a formal session on Wednesday unanimously endorsed a statement on Sri Lanka. Here are highlights of the statement on Sri Lanka read out by pro-Sri Lanka Council President Vitaly Churkin, the Ambassador for Russia:

"The members of the Security Council express grave concern over the worsening humanitarian crisis in north-east Sri Lanka, in particular the reports of hundreds of civilian casualties in recent days, and call for urgent action by all parties to ensure the safety of civilians.

"The members of the Security Council strongly condemn the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for its acts of terrorism over many years, and for its continued use of civilians as human shields, and acknowledge the legitimate right of the Government of Sri Lanka to combat terrorism. The members of the Security Council demand that the LTTE lay down its arms and allow the tens of thousands of civilians still in the conflict zone to leave.

"The members of the Security Council express deep concern at the reports of continued use of heavy calibre weapons in areas with high concentrations of civilians, and expect the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitment in this regard.

"The members of the Security Council demand that all parties respect their obligations under international humanitarian law.

"The members of the Security Council call on the Government of Sri Lanka to take further necessary steps to facilitate the evacuation of the trapped civilians and the urgent delivery of humanitarian assistance to them."

"The members of the Security Council take note of the steps taken by the Government of Sri Lanka to address the humanitarian situation of displaced persons and call on the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure the security of those displaced by the conflict and to cooperate with the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and other international humanitarian organizations in providing humanitarian relief and access to them as soon as they leave the conflict zone………….."

Though not legally binding, the Security Council statement, like the one made by President Obama, says that they "express deep concern at the reports of continued use of heavy calibre weapons in areas with high concentrations of civilians, and expect the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitment in this regard." The inference one could draw from this is that all 15 members, including Russia and China, have by their remarks, endorsed unanimously in a statement, have made out that Sri Lanka's commitment not to use heavy weapons has not been fulfilled. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is yet to issue a formal statement to set the record right.

According to a Reuter report from New York, the western powers managed to swing this statement against Sri Lanka only after conceding to a debate on the situation in the Gaza, where Israel has been accused of shelling Palestinian civilians indiscriminately.

A t the United Nations, it was a historic first for Sri Lanka. Although Sri Lanka is still not on the formal agenda of the Security Council, the 15 members met behind closed doors last week to discuss the humanitarian crisis. And at the end of the day, they issued a joint press statement critical of both the government and the LTTE. For Sri Lanka, the statement may well be a precursor to a more aggressive stand by the Council.

A censure against Sri Lanka-- by the most powerful political body at the UN-- has been prevented primarily by two veto-wielding countries: China and Russia, who have argued that the 25-year-old military conflict is a domestic affair and does not warrant international intervention. The two permanent members have been backed by two non-permanent members in the Council: Vietnam and Libya.

Russia and China have continued to consistently support Sri Lanka, not out of love, but partly out of self-interest and political expediency. If both countries support the move by Britain and the US to put Sri Lanka on the agenda of the Security Council, that decision may come back to bite the Russians and the Chinese.

Like Sri Lanka, both China and Russia are battling veritable separatist movements of their own. The Chinese are pre-occupied with the Dalai Lama and Tibet, while Russia has been suppressing separatism in Chechnya.

If China and Russia do support UN intervention in Sri Lanka, there is nothing to prevent the Council turning its attention one day to Tibet and Chechnya. So, "hands off Sri Lanka" also means: hands off Tibet and Chechnya.

For the US and Britain to take another shot at Sri Lanka, and resume their push to have Sri Lanka on the Security Council agenda , formally, it would require nine out of 15 members supporting it, with no vetoes (from China or Russia).

Inner City Press report

What Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN had to say was this; "In a compromise heavily dominated by China, the European Union's UK, Austria and France congratulated themselves Wednesday on the passage of a nine-paragraph "Press Statement" by the Security Council on Sri Lanka.
While the government shells the civilians trapped in a dwindling area now smaller than New York's Central Park -- more like Tompkins Square Park, said one wag -- paragraphs two and three of the Statement condemn the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Paragraph four expresses concern about "the continued use of high calibre weapons in areas with high concentrations of civilians," without directly saying who is responsible for the shelling. From paragraph nine, the word "political" in the phrase "find a long term political solution" was taken out.
Inner City Press asked Council President Vitaly Churkin of Russia about this change. "I am not discussing previous versions," Ambassador Churkin said.

After Britain's Ambassador John Sawers emphasized that the press statement kept the Council unified, Inner City Press asked him why it didn't mention access to the conflict zone by journalists, particular the reporters from Britain Channel 4 who were expelled by the government after their broadcasting exposed of rape allegations in the camps for "Internally Displaced People." Sawers said it was a good point, but another Council diplomat soon told Inner City Press that no delegation, so including the UK, had felt strongly enough about journalistic access to raise it as an element.

Austria's Ambassador Thomas Mayr-Harting explained that there are underlying causes of the LTTE's fight, and that there is long term concern about how the government will run the IDP camps. Inner City Press asked why the EU hadn't pushed to put Sri Lanka on the Council's agenda, if there is long term concern. "We didn't have to," he replied, we got the press statement".

In an earlier report, Inner City Press asked if France and the EU were seeking to put Sri Lanka on the Council's agenda via a procedural vote, French Ambassador Jean-Maurice. Ripert replied that he is "not interested in procedure." But the lead political advisor of a Permanent Five member opposed to Sri Lanka being on the agenda told Inner City Press that it is his country's position that with it still off the agenda, no meeting in the Chamber is possible, and therefore no Presidential Statement can be adopted. His country is interested in procedure, even if Ripert is not.

To put Sri Lanka on the Council's agenda would require nine affirmative votes. Four members are known to be adamantly opposed to Sri Lanka being addressed in the Council: China, Russia, Viet Nam and Libya (which is moving to give Sri Lanka a $500 million loan while its $1.9 billion loan application remains delayed at the International Monetary Fund). Turkey -- due to its PKK issues, is predicted to abstain.

The Ugandan Ambassador on Tuesday night told Inner City Press his country would not oppose including Sri Lanka on the Council's agenda. Burkina Faso is thought likely to go along with the West, as it did on Zimbabwe. Japan is also likely to back Sri Lanka considering its long standing friendly ties with the country. A worst case scenario for Japan would be an abstention.

Sweden's Minister for International Development Cooperation Gunilla Carlsson told Inner City Press that the European Union, of which Sweden will next assume the presidency, should and will link human rights to the renewal of agreements like the EU's tax-free treatment of textiles from Sri Lanka.

"The EU has a lot of instruments at hand," Minister Carlsson said. "We also have to see when we renew agreements and things like that, that we as a global player need to see the human rights perspectives. So we need to link it, and often what we do, different ways now, because people would like to have trade agreements with us."

At the UN's noon briefing on May 14, Inner City Press asked Ban Ki-moon's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe why he is sending Vijay Nambiar, for the second time, rather than going himself.

The UN transcript of the Q & E goes like this;
Deputy Spokesperson Okabe: ...the very fact that he's sending his Chef de Cabinet again to underscore his message I think speaks loudly on what the Secretary-General in his personal capacity is trying to do to bring an end to the situation on the ground.

Inner City Press: A follow-up on the Chef de Cabinet. There has been substantial criticism, not just that because Mr. Nambiar comes from India, but because his brother, an Indian General [Satish] Nambiar recently wrote an op-ed praising the offensive of the Sri Lankan Army in the north and General [Sarath] Fonseca who's led it. Is the Secretariat aware of this criticism and how does it address it? Also, that Mr. Nambiar went before he got a commitment to visit an open conflict zone and it never took place. What's the, I guess, response and why isn't Ban Ki-moon himself going if he's invited and the French and others have said he should go ASAP?

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe: Matthew, as you know the Secretary-General's position on going to Sri Lanka has been reiterated from this podium many times this week. And the fact that Mr. Nambiar happens to be of a nationality does not in any way get in the way of his work as a UN official. As you know, everybody from the UN does come from one country or another; but once they sign on to work at the UN they go as UN officials.

Inner City Press: Isn't there generally a sort of an unwritten rule of not, for example, I mean, when Mr. Gambari was going to do Nigeria, are you unaware that they see that... within diplomats in the UN often say that a person from a country too close to a conflict is not the right person to be sent.
Deputy Spokesperson Okabe: Mr. Nambiar is not from Sri Lanka.

No, he's from India which has a major stake in the Sri Lanka conflict. On Thursday May 7, Inner City Press asked Associate UN Spokesperson Farhan Haq:

Inner City Press: I wanted to ask about this invitation that's been made to the Secretary-General to visit Sri Lanka. First I wanted to ask if on Monday when he met with the Ambassador of Japan, whether he was briefed on a visit by Mr. [Yasushi] Akashi to Sri Lanka and was urged by Japan that he should take this visit. And I also wanted to know whether he would be in New York 11 May for the Middle East debate, and 15 May to meet with the Chinese diplomats, that in fact this is one reason that he is considering not going, as I have been told by senior Secretariat staff.

Associate Spokesperson Haq: Well, first of all, we don't announce the trips of the Secretary-General until they are close to occurring. And in that regard, I don't have anything to announce about a trip to Sri Lanka at this stage. At the same time, as Michèle told you yesterday, and is still true for today, if the Secretary-General believes that visiting Sri Lanka can have an impact in terms of saving lives there, he will certainly try to go. So he is considering that. But part of what he is studying is what the impact of a potential trip would be.

Norway backs UN move

Even Norway, the one time peace facilitator that maintained a close rapport with the LTTE, now wants the UN to be more actively engaged. A NRK press release that appeared in the Norway Post newspaper quotes Erik Solheim, Norwegian Minister of the Environment and International Development, as saying "a humanitarian ceasefire in Sri Lanka must be put in place as soon as possible in order to stop the bloodbath."

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store was also quoted in the same report as saying "we take a very critical view of the fact that the parties are continuing to fight and resisting the strong international effort to find a solution……"

Added Store, "we urge the authorities to let the UN into the war zone to help to bring the fighting to an end and assess the humanitarian situation. The UN and the Red Cross must be given free access to civilians wherever they are."

It is in the light of such a UN Security Council statement that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is sending his Chief of Staff, Vijay Nambiar to Colombo. This is his second visit in three weeks and his mission is to personally deliver the message contained in the UN Security Council statement. During an earlier visit, Nambiar, UN sources in New York said, had won an assurance from the Government to allow UN officials to visit the Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ) to make a first hand on-the-ground assessment.

However, a senior Government official who spoke on grounds of anonymity said the changing scenario in the battle zone made it difficult to fulfil the assurance. However, the source said, "in principle we had agreed to it. But, things changed and we explained ourselves."

Without doubt, things have changed even further now. Even before Mr. Nambiar returns to New York to tell his boss the outcome of talks with Sri Lanka Government leaders, troops would have, in all probability, re-captured the remaining area that encompasses the No-Fire or Civilian Safety Zone. Hence, even a new Government in India, after parliamentary election results were announced yesterday, will find it difficult to say "halt the war." It would be over on the ground.

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