ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 9, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 15
Columns - Thoughts from London  

The cogent case should drown the raucous din

By Neville de Silva

One of the major problems the Sri Lankan government faces in winning support for its case is that it has not been cogently and competently presented to the world in a manner that generates thinking and invites understanding.

Where the government has tried to defend itself against criticism of its conduct of the war against terror and the fallout from it, it has been pursued with rancour, the belittling and haranguing critics rather than by engaging them in carefully crafted argument and intellectual debate.

The fault lies largely with cantankerous ministers, officials and others chosen by the government to represent it at various levels and forums in the vain belief that patriotism worn on the shirt sleeves is a more convincing alternative to coherently expressed views that do not antagonise half the world including those that might otherwise support it.

This is the real test of diplomacy. The government and its representatives must be seen as the saner, moderate voice in the conflict rather than one that is as bad as or even worse than, the other.

If the government needs to do what vituperative ministers and officials are doing, there are other means by which to do so – through the media for instance – rather than the oft-seen-bull-in-the-china-shop approach which does more damage to its cause than the enemy at home.

If President Rajapaksa is a President Putin such an approach might not only be feasible but even productive. Russia under Putin is a resurgent country determined to re-establish itself as a world power. Most importantly it has the means to do so.

Sadly we do not have the same or similar resources. Nor the power that comes from a re-activated military. We do not have the power that goes with our big mouth.

If Sri Lanka is to sell its policies in the international market place it is imperative that its case is so articulated that it would not only be understood but appreciated and even strongly supported.

Had the pursuit of our foreign policy interests been in better hands and not in fumbling ones and self-serving and not entrusted to those who labour under delusions of adequacy, we might not have suffered some of the damage we have or mitigated the irresponsible and self destructive course we have trod because of the open mouthed rather than open minded approach.

What the government needs right now is to have a coherently argued case put to influential foreign governments and international audiences, including human rights bodies, think-tanks and powerful media associations, by people who have the depth of knowledge, the intellectual capacity and linguistic skills to gain the attention of those that matter.

Accusing those who do not necessarily agree with your point of view of being terrorists, bribe takers or some other term of abuse borrowed from the dregs of Mariakadey might win some plaudits from nationalist blowhards but it would hardly garner support outside the narrow confines of the like-minded.

This is why it is important that the saner and more articulate voices in government should be heard above the din of the raucous circle that today presents the government view to the media and through it to the world outside.

London has increasingly become a critic of Sri Lanka, especially since the Rajapaksa administration took office and veered from the course followed by the previous government on our domestic conflict.

Besides critics in the House of Commons and indeed the Labour Government itself, London is also home to Amnesty International, the London branch of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, BBC and several think tanks and institutions, some of which have been increasingly critical of Sri Lanka.

There are other capitals where governments, human rights activists and now influential media organisations devoted to the protection of journalists, have also chided Colombo for policies and actions which they consider beyond the pale.

This is all the more reason why the more articulate and internationally-oriented individuals in government be given the task of carrying its case to foreign audiences and governments.

Last week the British Government and UK audiences had the opportunity to hear the government’s case explained and defended very coherently and persuasively by G.L. Peiris, Minister for Export Development and International Trade.

Now there are those who would not agree with G.L. Peiris’s politics having, since his entry into politics, served both major parties. But then, so have many others who have crossed the political divide in the history of politics in Sri Lanka and thriving famously.

To say that is not to defend his politics. It is to say that he addressed the concerns of many here who have been genuinely concerned that the present administration seems committed to a war strategy as a means to end the conflict or bring the LTTE to the negotiating table.

One advantage Lakshman Peiris has over many others including most of his cabinet colleagues is that he could speak without a script or even a note. I have heard him do so in London before, speaking for an hour or so without recourse to notes and this has really impressed his multicultural audiences here, as I am sure, it has done elsewhere.

It is not really his vehement denial that the government is following a military solution that matters so much as others including the president himself have denied it before and often.

Speaking to audiences at Cambridge University, the International Institute of Strategic Studies and at Chatham House, he made several points concerning the 2002 cease fire agreement and why it failed, why it is difficult to put one in place now without writing into it conditions missing in the earlier one, the need to put a political process in place to make the ceasefire meaningful and why proposals for a political settlement must have the acceptance of the overwhelming majority of the people.

Others have no doubt argued various aspects of the failed ceasefire and stressed the vital need to carry the majority when presenting political proposals. But often this has been put in such an aggressive manner that it has sounded chauvinistic rather than realistic which is where Minister Peiris tried to make sense without sounding abrasive and unrelenting.

While Lakshman Peiris spoke of how the international community could play a supportive role – therefore not a dominant or domineering one – my immediate interest is a point he made about a lacuna in the CFA which I had pointed out several times when the Northern Ireland settlement was referred to as a possible lesson to us.

The Good Friday Agreement had been linked, as Peiris said, to some agreement on the decommissioning of weapons. I remember then Prime Minister Tony Blair saying in the Commons and elsewhere that at some stage the decommissioning should start and certainly before any final agreement is reached.

He went so far as to say that the talks will not continue with the Sinn Fein if the IRA does not begin destroying the weapons or have them destroyed under international verification.

There is no such provision in our CFA and, no doubt, Norway which drafted it with help from the late Anton Balasingham, saw to it that this would not happen.

The British Government was negotiating with the Sinn Fein not the IRA though everybody knew of the link. But technically the Sinn Fein was a separate entity and so it was more difficult to impose the condition of decommissioning on the IRA.

But with us, we were doing so with the LTTE which had the weapons and so it should have been part of the negotiating process. Had the decommissioning being linked to political progress where every tangible step towards power sharing was accompanied by limited decommissioning until the final settlement is followed by total decommissioning under international supervision, it would have made sense. But that arrangement as Peiris stated was totally missing.

One other defect which he did not mention but I have raised previously with regard to Northern Ireland, is that the negotiations involved all parties to the conflict and the wider interests.

Our CFA was only between two warring parties and totally excluded other interests such as the Muslim community and other Tamil groups independent of the LTTE.So the CFA was flawed from the beginning. Moreover, there were other loopholes which allowed the LTTE to commit so many violations, far exceeding those by the armed forces, and there was no punitive action by a powerless SLMM which only made noises now and then.

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