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If you make a mess on your own doorstep clean it

By Neville De Silva

Like the Bourbons of France, our governments learn nothing and forget nothing. One thought that the tragic events of July ’83 would have been a sufficient reminder of the consequences of overstepping the bounds of acceptable human behaviour. The harsh yet undeniable truth is that the anti-Tamil riots of July ’83 earned us the opprobrium of the world from which Sri Lanka took years to raise its head again in the international arena.

Even then that blot on our national escutcheon has not disappeared. It is resurrected now and again by those within and without our borders who wish to do the country harm.

The vast majority of Sri Lankan people learnt an important lesson from that dark episode in our history. Despite numerous challenging provocations by those who preach secession, the people have not responded in the same abominable manner.

Have our governments -politicians and state agencies- however learnt the lessons that the people have and refrained from acting in a manner that would lead to a repetition of the past mistakes that made us a pariah in the eyes of the world?

Two recent events, one coming hard on the heels of the other, have once more focussed world attention on Sri Lanka. The first is the aerial bombing of the former orphanage Chencholai in which some 60 adolescents were killed and then the killing of 17 aid workers of a foreign NGO at Mutur.

There is no doubt that the Air Force was responsible for the first. The debate is whether it was an LTTE training facility where the adolescents were undergoing training or the girls were engaged in an innocent exercise in first aid.

Rightly or wrongly the army has been accused of the second. Though the number of deaths in the Mutur incident is much smaller, it is this that has figured very much in the charges and criticisms levelled at the government.

This was inevitable. Those killed, worked for a French NGO and therefore the whole force of European governments, the NGO fraternity and the media would be mobilised against the Sri Lanka government.

The catalyst for this was the report- however loosely worded and somewhat flimsily documented it might be- by the retiring head of the SLMM, Swedish Maj- General (Rtd) Ulf Henricsson.

Some might well say that Henricsson had several axes to grind and that he was working hand in glove with the Norwegians who had done their best to prevent the European Union from listing the LTTE as a terrorist organisation.

It might be recalled that Sweden was one of a couple of EU countries that resisted to the last moves to have the LTTE listed by the EU.

Henricsson is obviously peeved that his advice to the EU not to ban the LTTE was rejected. Moreover he had been chastised by the Sri Lankan authorities on previous occasions for what were perceived as prejudicial reporting of events.

There is an old Sinhala saying which, poorly translated states that the departing devil delights in breaking the pots and pans. The Hong Kong people have a word for what they call the “White devils”- gweilo.

Whatever Henricsson might have done to embarrass the Sri Lankan government by alerting international agencies and particularly European governments to act against the Rajapaksa administration, much of this could have been averted had the government acted with promptitude and greater professionalism.

One of the great failings of this administration is that it has not understood and appreciated the importance of world opinion and how to deal with it.

If Rajapaksa’s kitchen cabinet thinks that since the president was elected by a section of the Sri Lankan population it is sufficient to satisfy them and ignore the rest of the world, so be it.

But then they should stop running round the world trying to cultivate foreign governments and win their sympathy. Were we Israel we could probably thumb our noses at the rest because we have the United States, the most powerful nation on earth, behind us. Who do we have? Nobody.

The world-the EU and some of the Co-Chairs for instance- know that. We are a small country that could easily be bullied into submission because we do not have the resources to withstand that.

When fighting broke out recently most of these countries called for an immediate end to hostilities. But when Israel attacked Lebanon and used what was called “disproportionate” force, did the EU call for an immediate ceasefire? No, it merely called for a “cessation of hostilities” which, in diplo-speak means something quite different.

One of the major problems facing the Rajapaksa administration is that there is no appreciation of international opinion and how to handle it in difficult circumstances. In short there is little understanding of diplomacy and by that I do not mean shaking hands, saying hello and sipping a cocktail.

Professional diplomacy has been downgraded by the Rajapaksa presidency and handed over to upstarts who as Shakespeare said are “Drest in a little brief authority.”

If there is a dangerous lacuna in our diplomacy, there is an equally perilous lack of professionalism in the handling of the media. One of the problems is those appointed as spokesmen appear to love the sound of their own voices. So they turn unnecessarily vocal at every drop of a diphthong. The result is so much is said where they should be circumspect and they make quotable quotes in media reports.

Almost a month back Iqbal Athas writing in this newspaper reported how Defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella had told CNN that he had evidence in the form of eyewitness accounts that the LTTE killed the aid workers.

While Sri Lanka is being battered internationally and there are calls for the country to be reported to the Human Rights Committee and for war crimes, Rambukwella appears to be clinging on to this evidence as though he was safeguarding his boodelay.Is he keeping it for a magisterial inquiry or an international investigation while Sri Lanka’s name is being dragged once more in the mud? Curiously, as Athas pointed out, Rambukwella’s assertion was denied almost immediately by the IGP who said “no evidence whatsoever” was available at the time.

If the government wishes to sing a song of innocence, then for heavens sake sing from the same lyrics sheet instead of breaking into an inconsistent cacophony.

Was this not the same Rambukwella who said immediately after the bombing of Chencholai that they had video evidence it was an LTTE training facility but it ended up as a show of indistinguishable figures and no incontrovertible proof.

Apart from incompetents handling media briefings, the government has certainly not distinguished itself in the field of publicity. On September 5, the Information Department carried a press release on the government’s official website about the security forces finding large stocks of tsunami relief supplies undistributed in Sampoor.

The headline read : “LTTE has robed tsunami relives”, meaning I suppose, that the LTTE has robbed tsunami relief goods. It is not the first time that the Information Department and other websites run by state agencies have come up with such unmitigated gobbledegook.

If such important government departments such as Information is left in the hands of accountants no wonder others find it difficult to figure out what on earth is meant.

Lack of space prevents this column discussing some of the so-called evidence used to rebut Henricsson’s allegations and the rather cursory evidence on which he bases his conclusions.

It would have helped people understand better the tragic happenings in Mutur had the media, the SLMM or some other agency provided us with graphics showing the layout of Mutur town, where the nearby army camps were located, the site of the ACF office in relation to other landmarks, areas into which the LTTE advanced, the direction of their later retreat, the direction of the army advance and which areas eventually came under its control.

This would have been of some help in the face of conflicting reports of when the LTTE came into Mutur and when it left and the army took control. Depending entirely on news reports from one agency, particularly when it is seen as pro-LTTE would not suffice. As they say, truth is the first casualty in war, especially if that news source has to shore up the confidence and spirit of its supporters abroad. [via… The Sunday Times]

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September 10, 2006 - Posted by | Media Journalism, News and politics, South Asia, World News

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