ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 29
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Departing diplomat tells some chilling home truths

By Neville de Silva

This column has not always agreed with the departing British High Commissioner Dominic Chilcott. It is not his style of diplomacy (the new diplomacy?) that irked but the substance of what he says.

Naturally, as a representative of his country he tends to minimise, if not conveniently ignore, political shortcomings and the moral lapses of his own country. I am not referring to Britain's imperial past but much more recent history from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan and Iraq. And, of course, there is Britain's despicable role in the depopulation of Diego Garcia which would continue to remain a blot on the UK's escutcheon.

While Britain, not to mention Dominic Chilcott, talks to us about human rights and the need to respect international law, the country does not have a clean record in this field. Recent official reports of European investigations into the "rendition" of terror suspects by the US and Britain's role in helping in the transfer of these suspects out of US jurisdiction into detention and possible torture in a third country, has tarnished the morally pure image that Chilcott and his western diplomatic colleagues have tried to paint for us.

Sad to say the invitation to me from Mr Chilcott for an exchange of views since our last encounter would have to go by default. He is leaving soon for Bush country where he would be able to strengthen the Anglo-American partnership and discuss what to do with the people of Diego Garcia who the highest court in the UK has ruled have a right to return to their homes from where they were forcibly evicted.

Perhaps Mr Chilcott would also encourage his American colleagues to learn English- I mean the Queen's English- as he suggested you and I should. I am writing this not as a fond farewell to him but on reading the talk he gave at the Dudley Senanayake Commemoration about a week ago.

Mr Chilcott had covered much ground in his lecture. If some of his remarks were only tenuously linked to the late prime minister, I suppose it is pardonable. In what might well be his valedictory speech he was trying to get off his chest thoughts he would have wished to express earlier but was probably stopped by diplomatic reticence.I dare say some of what Mr Chilcott has said is valid and deserves to be said, some open to debate and still others needed to be said because elementary lessons are being deliberately ignored..

There would surely be critics of Mr Chilcott's speech who would say that it typifies that Sinhala saying "ya ne ya ka koraha binde gene yan ne." Translated for Mr Chilcott's benefit it means the departing devil delights in breaking the pots and pans. Since taking up all the major points raised would take up too much space, I would like to restrict my comments to a couple of domestic issues, leaving the others for another day.

As the high commissioner has mentioned the Northern Ireland conflict in the context of our own imbroglio, it deserves examination. Whenever foreign and local analysts and politicians mention the Northern Ireland and Sri Lankan conflicts in the same breath this column has pointed out that there are significant differences between them that should not be forgotten if we are to learn useful lessons.

In his lecture Chilcott said: "In Northern Ireland, the peace process included all political parties and other groups who had a legitimate interest in the future of the province and who could establish that they represented a significant group of Northern Irish people." He is saying what this column has said often enough that one of the shortcomings of the CFA and the subsequent peace talks is that they involved only the government and the LTTE. By limiting the peace process to two parties, albeit the two most important, it eliminated other Tamil groups as well as the Muslim community that had a stake in a sustainable political settlement. This was a fundamental flaw that should never have been allowed to persist. The main culprit in this regard is Norway, the international facilitator that brokered the arrangement.

But the so-called international community, particularly the co-chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference that seem to have converted themselves into a permanent standing committee, continue to present bouquets to Oslo when any right thinking person would have realised that the LTTE did not represent the entire Tamil community though it insisted on being recognised as the sole representative. This was far too narrow a base on which to build a permanent political settlement. So, surely the key members of the international community including Britain, connected with the peace process have acquiesced in this charade while British MPs continue to talk of the Northern Ireland peace deal as an exemplar of successful negotiation that would serve as a lesson for Sri Lanka.

That is not all. When key members of Britain's All Party Parliamentary Group(APPG) for Tamils demands that the British government lift the ban on the LTTE as it is an obstacle to negotiations, they forget the very lessons they want us to learn. The British government never negotiated with the IRA but with the Sinn Fein (seen as the political wing of the IRA but with an independent existence) and other recognised groups. All that time the IRA remained a banned organisation.

Mr Chilcott says that "in order to get through the door into the peace talks all groups had to commit themselves to democratic standards and to the non-use of violence to pursue their political goals." One other key element of the Good Friday Agreement that set the stage for the final settlement was that the IRA should disarm-decommission their weapons was the euphemism-before the final settlement. The then Prime Minister Tony Blair underlined this several times in the same parliament where the chairman of the APPG, Keith Vaz and its deputy Simon Hughes sing a baleful duet for the LTTE in the guise of helping the Tamils. Blair insisted that weapons had to be given up during the negotiations and that any party that resorted to violence during the talks would be excluded from them. The IRA did surrender the weapons under verification and renounced violence.

Mr Chilcott talks of the need for the government to present political proposals that would be credible in order to win over what he calls "moderate Tamil opinion." Unfortunately those in the international community who involved themselves in the peace moves don't seem to have helped that moderate Tamil opinion to organise and articulate its needs, obsessed as they were with placating the LTTE and going along uncritically with whatever the Norwegians did. Had the foreign powers done so and taken strong measures every time the LTTE tried to silence the voice of the other Tamils we might have had a platform on which to work towards an acceptable political solution.

The departing high commissioner makes a very valid point that should be made available to all those in both houses of the British parliament and to borough councillors who seem to know little of the situation and are easily influenced by some of their vociferous colleagues.

"I have serious doubts as to whether the LTTE leadership would be sincere about reaching a negotiated settlement that reinforces democratic values within a united Sri Lanka. They have never accepted that anyone else should be able to speak for the Tamil people, a fundamentally anti-democratic position. But, unless and until they embrace democratic non-violent methods, they will exclude themselves from any future peace." If Chilcott represents the voice of the British government then these views should be conveyed to Keith Vaz of the Labour Party and Simon Hughes of the Liberal Democrats who seem to be leading the Tamil community up the garden path for their own temporary political gain rather than in the interests of the larger Tamil community.

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