Hardtalk, Gothabaya and Sri Lanka’s future

by Luxman Arvind

(June 11, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) While All the President’s Men in and around Temple Trees must be surely whispering the good tidings (?) to his ear – and, of course, to those of the Brothers Inc that now goes as GoSL, to the average well-informed reader, things are not going too well for the regime. Tamilnadu sources convinced MR is out to complete the task of removing from the island the Tamil physical presence that began during the regime in 1956 where his father was a minister, took him (MR) on the challenge where the Lankan regime was out to establish Tamilnadu does not matter in Delhi. The regime, with Amitabh Bachan and some elements within Bollywood, were contracted to ensure the IIFA is an outstanding success so that the President can land at Delhi on June 8 in a blaze of glory for his crucial meeting with Dr. Manmohan Singh and the GoI. Some of those favoured by the regime from the local film industry were asked to coordinate with one Sabbas Joseph of WizCraft (India).

Money - said to be in excess of a billion - was mentioned while Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena says it is only Rs.850 million. But even this is something we can ill-afford. Many other facilities were made available to the organizers. 400 rooms from 5-Star hotels and booze provided by a foreign supporter- were all for the take. Certain parts of the City of Colombo got a face lift and the array of beggars in the streets (many professional and some with Mobile telephones) were made to vanish. In spite of all the anti-Indian rhetoric of leading government men now and then when it suits their convenience, one minister was even reported to have used all his influence to get a room in the same floor as that in which Sharukh Khan was due to occupy. The guy may have wanted to smell the floor his idol was going to stay in. In the final balance sheet the Mega event was a flop with even the President and Amitabh Bachchan ignoring the main event. Surely, if someone thought tickets at Rs.25,000 per person will sell like hot-cakes to fill the Sugathadasa stadium just for a few minutes with some Sri Lankan cricketers, a few Bollywood stars and the President’s son - then these people have another think coming their way. Yet another negative was some of the visitors were mislead to think the country has been otherwise taken over by India. Fading actor Shatruguhan Sinha is said to have spoken for over 30 minutes in Hindi to a Colombo audience.

But there appear to be others in the world not quite prepared to accept what is dished out by this government as the “truth and current history” here. The celebrated BBC from the UK is known not to offer time and space for more than 30 minutes for even exceptional events and yet it was coming out to Sri Lanka with their Hardtalk and Stephen Sachur for four x 30 minutes consecutive global broadcasts June 7 – 10 to report on the Post-May 19 events here. Why - should have been a question that government sources should have asked themselves? The pre-programme advertising of BBC was such, a large number of the Tamil diaspora (close to a million) joined regular BBC watchers to tune in. The main actors in the drama – Stephen Sachur(SS) and Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse (GR) did not fail to impress. In Cricket parlance – a game common to both countries. SS was in the attack and GR in an attacking form of defence. For the purpose of space and brevity, I will touch only on the main points in the 4 part/days interview. The report is not ad verbatim as I constructed it out of memory.

On the 1st day – June 08 (Monday) - When SS asked GR about post-May 19 events and added that in his visit to Jaffna he found people there were not with the government, GR posed the question “Why do you want to go back to the past?” He said we have all suffered and we must now together face the future.

SS was to insist a study of the past is necessary to find the key to the future. GRs argument was strange. Imagine those found guilty of War Crimes in WW2 and tried at Nuremburg or Slobodan Milosovec at the Hague taking this position. Or Charles Manson after slaughtering Sharon Tate. GR was to further ramble “we have met every condition of modern warfare” “our soldiers have not raped any Tamil women” “our disciplined soldiers have not killed civilians” and more. SS was to then trap him with the query “if you are so certain that all was fine from the side of the SLA why are you against independent inquiries and why did you disallow the foreign Press” The meek and unconvincing reply was “Why should we? We have enough capable people to do this here???” SS thrust the knife further and mentioned the telephone conversation he had with General Fonseka (that was also telecast). That was enough for the man to shriek irrationally “He can’t do that. He was the Commander of the Army. He is a liar. That’s a treason. We will hang him” SS – knowing fully well he had the man was to quietly say “Are you going to execute him because he agrees to come before a tribunal and testify?” Well! Now the whole world knows - and no further comment is necessary.

Day 2 (Tuesday) June 09 saw GR getting deeper into the mire – crudely interrupting, fumbling and - in halting English, more often than not losing his way. This centred around the Lasantha Wickramasinghe issue, where SS trapped GR again. In stating in England one cannot walk away from one hotel to another without being “watched (by the State)” and “we know your telephones are tapped” GR was exposing how shallow his know-how of Britain and the universally celebrated freedom there. Not merely Karll Marx but our own version of Lenin – Somawansa Amarasinghe of the JVP is in cosy refuge there.

When GR foolishly said “in America and in your own country there is similar security. You cannot criticize the governments there the way you want” SS ended the nonsense with the curt reply “Mr. Secretary, In England I will not find myself with a bullet in the head for writing critically about the Govt” On the Sunday Leader issue GR was insistent he did the right thing by going to Courts against the newspaper. SS was to ask “a million rupees is a huge amount for a small newspaper – one of the few independent here. Why did you want to do that?” GR obliged by conceding “If they cannot to pay, they must close down” to which SS was to reply triumphantly “Exactly” Further trouble was on for the regime when SS asked “Is it not true one of your brothers is known as Mr. 10% - why?” which was taking our sordid stories to the eyes of the world.

Day 3(Wednesday) June 10 - won the day for the government. SS was interviewing Child soldiers – some being rehabilitated at Hindu College at Colombo’s Bambalapitiya. One wishes this part of the programme was given publicity both locally and overseas to the attention of the Tamils – because the government here, clearly, seems to be doing much by way of trying to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people. Here were many young boys and girls – one according to UNICEFs Javier Aguilara “ was 9 years old when “ he was thrown into battle” The UN man quite rightly stated was “a war crime” for which the LTTE is responsible. The talk SS has with a young boy and a girl child-soldier separately shows the cruelty and inhumane features of the LTTE side. The boy said he went to fight against his wishes – not that he shared the LTTEs philosophy. Unless these children agree to join the LTTE, these two children said, members of their families would be harmed – in many cases by death. How could he resist. He was only 9. And how could the others aged 12- 17. The Matron in charge of the girls said they resisted when the women supervisors tried to help them cut their hair. Reason being many of them had knife-razor cut wounds when the LTTE forcibly cut their hair. The Rehab programme appears to be done professionally, kindly and with reconciliation in mind. Brig. Sudantha Munasinghe in charge of the operations was to say he has given strict orders no mention of the children being with the LTTE should be made, no reference to their past be attempted and insisted the entire objective is designed to help these youth. SS suggested to the Brigadier once these children get back to their homes in the NEP they may be targeted for ebjoying the army's hospitality. The question was also posed what if they go back to militancy. The Brigadier was to answer philosophically “These are our children. We will do everything within our power to help them, rehabilitate them – although they were used to target and kill us “their enemy” He went on to say the government will help these children as far as they can and that they can even chose to live the rest of their lives in the South. He added the government will help them to finish their education to any level, which was truly remarkable. This is one of the most comforting messages by way of reconciliation I have heard in a long time and those few in the diaspora still with the LTTE might take note of this.

There was the question of singing the National Anthem in Sinhalese by Tamil children at Hindu College to which the Brigadier answered in all sincerity “in all countries where there are people using different languages the anthem is sung in that of the majority” While there does not appear to be much to take issue here, I believe the Tamils have a case where they do not feel too happy about this in the present context. Is the way out in changing the lyrics of the National Anthem to be sung both in Sinhala and Tamil? To those nationalists who might argue the National Anthem should not be trifled with, one recalls the late Ananda Samarakoon - the author of the original anthem. He is said to have committed suicide (1962) upon learning his original lyrics were changed during the regime of Mrs. B. Arguably, this “sacrosanct” factor of the National Anthem does not run too deep and is subject to political manouverings.

GRs attempts to defend the regime as allowing maxium freedom has to be taken with a pinch of salt as SS is all too aware the regime denied local subscribers the copy of the “Economist” of May 22 and 29 th which had within articles critical of the government. Since I am travelling I am not aware if this 4 part BBC series was broadcast in Sri Lanka. Juding from the Colombo newspapers I see on the internet, it appears it has not. So much so for the freedom of information in the country.

Day 4 (Thursday) is today - Much of it was repeat of the earlier 3 programmes.

The BBC demonstrated they took no sides in the issue in speaking to a former LTTE cadre silhouetted “will you go back to the earlier days whereas the government has announced they are going to develop the Tamil Provinces and help the Tamil people in improving their quality of life” The affirmative answer brings a great deal of hope to the divided country. Yet another former fighter – now in the IDP camps – said “the struggle began and we took to arms originally because of language rights. Thereafter, because our areas were deliberately undeveloped. There was no help from the State for our agriculture, fishing activities. There were no efforts to find jobs to our youth. That is the situation today as well. Some of us, therefore, took to arms. We will continue the struggle to regain our own country we lost”

Those in the government knew fully well the BBC was coming. In putting the Defence Secretary to lead the government’s case they have not chosen well. But in fairness to the Defence Secretary one must say, as SS did, he speaks "with much passion" and probably misplaced

patriotism. One thing, however, cannot be denied to him. He was one of the leading instruments through which the Lankan Tamil people were spared the evils of a one-time romantic freedom fighter who veered away to be a hated killer. As it was pointed by SS in parts of the interview VP caused the death of hundreds of innocent, unarmed Tamils trying to

escape the clutches of the LTTE in May 2009.

The nett result of the prominence given to MR, I fear, is those bent on roping in the regime before International tribunals do not need a dossier anymore. Gothabaya Rajapakse seems to have made their task much easier. That part of the “we will hang him” section shown in all 4 interviews while the world was watching cannot do the regime good in the event of a possible HR and War Crime trial.

Stephen Sachur and the BBC did well. They leave Sri Lanka probably with the inevitable feeling despite 30 years of war and a peace secured at a terrible cost of over 150,000 lives and enormous loss of the country’s meager resources, the country more than ever is emotionally divided into Two Nations – One Sinhala and the other Tamil. The only consolation is that the new Tamil leadership is ready to live in an undivided country provided they are given their inalienable right to run the affairs in that part of the land where they were in the majority until it was taken away from them at the turn of the 17th century and thereafter, admittedly for administrative purposes, the land of three kingdoms was joined into a single unit by the British around the 1930s.