As children we often heard our elders using a Sinhala saying “koheda yanne, malle pol.” Though its meaning eluded us at the time in later years it became much more meaningful, especially as we started listening to politicians yelping at each other in argument. Reading a statement from the Foreign Ministry the other day in [...]


Looking a gift horse in the throat


As children we often heard our elders using a Sinhala saying “koheda yanne, malle pol.” Though its meaning eluded us at the time in later years it became much more meaningful, especially as we started listening to politicians yelping at each other in argument. Reading a statement from the Foreign Ministry the other day in response to a media query regarding Lord Naseby’s revealing speech in the House of Lords last month, I was reminded of the pithy old Sinhala saying etched in our minds from those early days.

Wasantha Senanayake: A timely thank you note

But given the cost of coconuts in Sri Lanka today, it seemed too much of a price to pay for a bundle of obfuscation and verbiage. The statement starts with the new government’s 100-day programme and treats it with great reverence as though it was the present-day Sri Lanka’s Magna Carta. The next time Lord Naseby unearths, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, some vital information that lies buried in piles of confidential documentation in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office one could well imagine the Foreign Ministry’s curious narrative beginning from the Dutugemunu and Elara encounter forgetting that we are dealing with the here and now and future.

Maybe the ministry, so engaged with the affairs of the world from North Korea to Spain has forgotten to count. It is almost three years since the 100-day programme was launched with great flourish like a Kim Jong-un missile. While the missile took off into the Pacific the 100-day promises tailed off like one of our local sky-rockets.
We are dealing with two of the leading sponsors of the 1st October 2015 UNHRC resolution — the UK and US — which we now consider our friends. Curiously we took the noose that they were shaking before us in Geneva and very deliberately put it round our own necks. As though that was not enough of a show of masochistic intent we tightened the noose an inch or two.

Now those great diplomatic wonders who guided Sri Lanka’s head into the noose with alacrity stand before the Sri Lankan people and the world talking of debates, scoring points and cabbages and kings. Thankfully all those appointed to steer our foreign policy are not dim-witted. Though new to the task, they have learnt to pay due respect to those who have single-handedly tried to help Sri Lanka out of the morass into which our self- glorified politicians have unthinkingly led us.
While the Sri Lanka Government was looking a gift horse in the throat and the foreign ministry was searching for something not to say, Wasantha Senanayake, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs wrote a letter of thank you to Lord Naseby, praising him for his efforts on behalf of Sri Lanka.

However belated the reaction, Wasantha Senanayake’s polite gesture rescued Sri Lanka from total embarrassment. Until his intervention it seemed that those who continue to poke their stodgy fingers into foreign affairs would by their discourteous, condescending conduct and their ritual obeisance to western governments make us the laughing stock of the world. In a letter to Lord Naseby, too long to be quoted here in extenso, the Minister of State thanked him for the “invaluable work” he has done on behalf of Sri Lanka and particularly in the last few months.

What I find intriguing in the foreign ministry statement is a particular paragraph which said: “Engaging in debates in the international domain over the number of civilians who may have died at a particular time in the country will not help resolve any issues in a meaningful manner, locally, except a feel good factor for a few individuals who may think that they have won a debate or scored points over someone or the other.”

It is surely a rare foreign ministry that responding to a media query on a serious matter that has not only engulfed Sri Lanka but has been, and still is, an unsettled issue for sections of the international community including the UN, would try to treat the deaths of civilians in war in such a dismissive and desultory manner.
Now that the statement has been made by the Spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry and therefore becomes the responsibility of the ministry it should explain to the public who the “few individuals” who enjoy a “feel good factor” are as a result of Lord Naseby’s continuing efforts to get at the truth which will be of benefit to resurrecting Sri Lanka’s image tarnished by a hypocritical west.

That comment in an otherwise labouriously-written statement appears to my mind the language and work of a politician rather than of experienced diplomats. Many of the words used and the thoughts expressed such as “won a debate” or “scored points” are very much those that one would hear in so-called debates in parliament or on TV. They appear to come from a politician whose has had a hand in the Geneva process and, on the way, committed Sri Lanka to a position from which extrication is difficult if not impossible.

What does Lord Naseby’s persistent burrowing of the pile of reports and analyses sent by the British Defence Attache’ Lt. Col Anton Gash ‘in situ’ in Colombo intend to achieve? As a veteran parliamentarian who has been in both Houses (he was once Deputy Speaker of the Commons) and is now armed with the Freedom of Information law to help him, is trying to get to the truth.

One of the contentious issues during the last months of the anti-LTTE war and in its aftermath has been the number of civilians killed in the conflict in the last five months and whether the Sri Lanka armed forces deliberately targeted civilians. On an answer to this hangs whether the armed forces are guilty of war crimes or other offences that violate international humanitarian law? Those who have been able to study closely the reports released to Lord Naseby as I have done, would see that despite the heavy redaction there are snippets that give the lie to some of the widely held views in the west.

Interestingly some comments at a Colombo conference by the US Defence Attache’ of the day Lt. Col Lawrence Smith complement the Gash despatches.
These highly inflated figures of civilian deaths were first propagated by the Darusman Panel which picked up bits and pieces of speculation from here and there like poultry scratching in a fowl yard, and estimated that 40,000 or more civilians died and that the armed forces acted ruthlessly.

The information released to Lord Naseby seems to challenge that view and therefore that information provides a more balanced scenario of the last stages of war than was presented to the world by western media, the Tamil diaspora and rights activists. Civilian casualty figures available from several other sources also challenge western assessments. That is one main reason why much of the reports were redacted despite the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s explanation that it is to preserve relations between UK and other friendly nations.

The truth lies elsewhere. On Sri Lanka the political establishments and their foreign offices having taken a highly moral stance in contradistinction to the defence establishments that look closely at what is happening on the ground and provide analyses and predictions based on that, find the defence reports particularly embarrassing.

So they do not want the world to know that the political/diplomatic stand they have taken — especially the UK, the central dramatis personae in the Geneva drama — was driven by fantasies created by sources they have accepted for their own political purposes and to decry governments they dislike. The problem is that we have political parties here with international connections that are ever ready to pay pooja to these western governments they have been cultivating even at a heavy cost to the integrity and reputation of their own country.

Lord Naseby’s attempt to get at yet another side of the picture that remains buried in the files of Whitehall has revealed something in our own style of governance. Who is really running the Foreign Ministry? The initial statement of the ministry that tried to belittle the efforts of a foreigner with a genuine attachment to Sri Lanka trying to help that country saw a virtual retreat, if not a capitulation, two days later with another short statement by the ministry.

The government which did not seem to recognise Lord Naseby’s valuable information, which the average reader appeared to notice, does a unexpected somersault with the Minister of State writing formally to Lord Naseby and thanking him profusely for all the work he has done and is doing on behalf of Sri Lanka. What does this mean? Is the foreign ministry being run by persons of sharply divergent views which will only add to the chaos in governance already in evidence?

Or is there something more personal, a belief that because he spoke on behalf of Sri Lanka contesting often heavily partial views both inside and outside the Houses of Parliament during the height of the LTTE conflict, he was defending the Rajapaksa administration. I have known Lord Naseby long enough to know that he was supporting Sri Lanka not a particular government or a bunch of politicians. If such petty thinking even from outside the foreign ministry drives policy making, then it is better to close shop and hand it over to Wimal Weerawansa who likes to play Guy Fawkes in the environs of the Diyawanna Oya.

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