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The siege is over

“What made sense then is no longer appropriate. Instead of making use of the newfound peace to rebuild its image, Sri Lanka is busy digging trenches in anticipation of prolonged discord.”

By Kath Noble

(October 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Five months after the Security Forces recaptured the last square mile of territory and wiped out the entire leadership of the LTTE, Sri Lanka is behaving as though it is still at war. This may be understandable, after so many decades of fighting such a dangerous terrorist organisation, but that doesn’t make it clever.

Nowhere is this clash between perception and reality more obvious than in the sphere of foreign policy. The situation created by Prabhakaran when he forced thousands of civilians to accompany his cadres as they retreated from Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu saw many countries press the Government to declare a ceasefire and then arrange a surrender. They were ignored in what I believe was the national interest, although I wouldn’t describe everything that was done in the process with equal sympathy. It was simply the best course of action at the time. Sri Lanka had to press on with the military operation and accept the consequences, including a serious deterioration in relations with the West.

What made sense then is no longer appropriate. Instead of making use of the newfound peace to rebuild its image, Sri Lanka is busy digging trenches in anticipation of prolonged discord.

Consider the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s interjection in the UN Security Council debate on Resolution 1888. In stressing how widespread the use of rape in armed conflict was, she mentioned that it didn’t only happen in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Bosnia, Sri Lanka and Burma had been afflicted by the same problem, she said. It was a passing reference of little importance. The Government wasn’t at risk of being denied aid or trade concessions. There was no talk of sanctions. The UN Security Council members weren’t even proposing to issue a statement.

She might as well have announced that the United States had launched a nuclear missile at Cinnamon Gardens. Politicians rushed onto the airwaves to shout about it, and there were several poster campaigns and vocal demonstrations outside the embassy. The JHU started one of its ridiculous petitions. Add to that about half a dozen newspaper editorials and more than twenty letters and articles condemning her with what could most politely be described as extraordinary vigour, and that was just in English. Colombo looked poised to sail on the Statue of Liberty.

I’m not suggesting that there was nothing wrong with what Hillary Clinton said or that she ought not to have been challenged. Her statement gave the impression that the Security Forces had been sexually abusing women as part of their advance through Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, which I don’t think is the case.

It is a question of tactics. What was needed in response to the incident was a polite note to Ambassador Butenis requesting either a retraction or the forwarding of information on such crimes for the purpose of further investigation. That would have been proportionate and in keeping with the actual situation as regards Sri Lanka and the use of rape in armed conflict.

Screaming that members of the United States army have been responsible for sexual violence from Okinawa to Abu Ghraib and Colorado isn’t going to help. Hillary Clinton knows about it, and she probably believes that the issue in Sri Lanka is different.

I am simply befuddled by the people who think that it is sensible to argue that Hillary Clinton mentioned Sri Lanka in this way because she received and then gave back a few thousand dollars from sources connected to the LTTE when she was running for the Democratic Party nomination for president. First, that could never be enough to buy the Secretary of State. More importantly, this accusation can only encourage her to press on with her criticism of Sri Lanka. It is rather like the other mad suggestion being thrown around that the remarks were part of a plot by the United States government to overthrow Mahinda Rajapaksa because Barack Obama is jealous of his victory over terrorism. It’s completely stupid.

A frightening number of people brought up Monica Lewinsky. If they keep going on this line, Hillary Clinton will very soon be convinced that Sri Lanka is run by an offshoot of the Taliban.

The impression given is that this country does not respect women and cares little about rape. I sometimes wonder myself.

Mindsets have been so warped over all these years of war that a lot of people now seem to be completely incapable of dispassionate and rational analysis of criticism. They don’t believe that any unfavourable remarks could possibly be true or at least offered with genuine intentions, even when that is the most likely possibility.

Some commentators went so far as to argue that the Security Forces hadn’t ever been accused of sexual violence, never mind its officially sanctioned use as a weapon in the war against the LTTE. They are sadly misguided. The list of allegations is disturbingly long. That incidents didn’t happen on the battlefield makes such blanket denials even more worrying now that the main task for the Security Forces is among civilians. It is not reassuring to argue that the general inability of the criminal justice system to punish the guilty is responsible for the lack of prosecutions.

One person even suggested that rape was not part of Sri Lankan culture. Wake up, sir.

This blinkered attitude is clearly a barrier to progress in ridding society of such crimes, but it also reinforces the negative image of the country that has found its way around the globe. Hillary Clinton is hardly the only person to think badly of Sri Lanka. Effecting a change in global public opinion requires intelligent presentation as well as supporting facts.

What was most ludicrous about the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s brief speech was that most of the venomous insults were spat out after her office had despatched a letter admitting that it had no knowledge of rape being used by the Security Forces in the most recent phase of fighting. This is what really mattered, as the Government said itself. Nothing more was ever going to be forthcoming, and it didn’t come.

It is about time that Sri Lanka stopped regarding interaction with other countries as an all-out battle. There is no need for it, and such an approach has consequences.

Now that the fighting on the ground is over, the tasks facing the Government in countering the threat posed by the LTTE have changed dramatically. The primary theatre of operations has moved overseas to where the funds and political leaders are to be found, which is mainly in the West. Cadres have been making their way abroad too. The situation is obviously much less urgent than when Prabhakaran was holed up in the No Fire Zone with thousands of civilians, but it still requires action. That will need the collaboration of the authorities in Washington and other national capitals, which is unlikely to be forthcoming if the old strategy of confrontation persists.

Sri Lanka has to take note of its new circumstances and adjust. This is true in many ways, as I have argued elsewhere.

(The writer can be reached at kathnoble99@gmail.com )
-Sri Lanka Guardian


nadesan said...

Here is a sensible article.

tno4 said...

hey mr.editor
so u think we should obey wot the america say wot ever it is...and u think we should worship them....typical colonialissm....dont think sri lanka wil do wot ever west says..

Alinosof said...

Thank you so much for your thoughtfulness. Your article is a breath of fresh air compare to what we have read else where since Secretary Clinton made her remarks. I wish other publications will follow your example of addressing the issue at hand without being sidetracked by heated rhetoric.

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