Oh what a lovely disaster? Nooo!

by Rajpal Abeynayake

(February 15, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Disaster brings memories of more disasters.

At least, when the floods are searing the collective conscience of the nation, a column penned by this columnist which appeared in a national newspapers in 2005 serves as a good reminder that disaster is not uncommon - nor are disaster responses.

The verbatim column which appeared on 9 January 2005 speaks for itself:

Post-tsunami: A ‘changed state’, not a failed-state.

The tsunami changed everything.

To many, that statement would sound almost clich‚-like. They would probably get their backs-up, and respond that nothing has changed, really. The LTTE and the government are trading insults as if it was business again as usual.

But that’s where the reality check is required. The tsunami didn’t change things in the obvious areas that people expected. But as nature and forces bigger than man always seem to succeed in doing — the tsunami changed the bigger picture.

10-2For example, it has challenged the JVP, the government’s coalition partner in ways that people have not by and large noticed. One of the JVPs solid policy planks was the one against foreign aid. The JVP identified itself as the authentic nationalist force, that eschews all kinds of foreign assistance.

But the tsunami came, and the government was almost on bended-knee appealing for disaster relief, and the government was right because it did not have much of a choice in the face of unprecedented human suffering. The JVP was shell-shocked because it could not protest in this situation as it could not reject an aid appeal that was justified.

But the JVP is not just shell-shocked, its mute on the whole issue of the tsunami by and large. It has had to change its calculations, about aid in particular - - and about other issues such as the presence of American troops etc., in general.

The second thing that the tsunami changed significantly, was that very issue indeed: the presence of American troops in Sri Lanka, in full combat gear — the Marines.

This column does not have inside information from Colin Powell’s staff, but it definitely has the next best thing, the insight of indigenous wisdom. This says one thing: there is no such thing called a free lunch. There is no doubt that the US input here needs to be appreciated, because it is welcome humanitarian relief in time of unprecedented disaster, which calls for an unqualified Thank You.

But an unqualified Thank You does not necessarily mean that all long-term implications of the US troop presence needs not to be monitored. There is no free-lunch here, because the US too has been offered a great opportunity to do its hearts and minds thing when it is bogged down in an unpopular war in the Middle East. The US is no benevolent caregiver, period. How can the government to which Colin Powell belongs, which is responsible for the deaths of over 15,000 children in Iraq, send Powell to look into the plight of so many tsunami-struck children in Sri Lanka??

In light of all this, like the approaching tsunami waves themselves — the tsunami’s political and social fallout is not immediately visible; its approach has been by stealth.

There are even larger “stealth-changes’’ to the big picture. There is a paradigm shift in conflict resolution which has to take into considerations a gamut of factors, from increased international involvement, to the diminished fighting capability of the LTTE. In other words, the picture has changed so fast, and so comprehensively since December 26th that it will take a long time to figure out exactly where all the jigsaw-pieces fit from here on, to make that big picture...

The Americans have a ‘’press-conference.’’

The U.S government representatives in Colombo on Friday purported to have a ‘press-conference’ when Colin Powell, Secretary of State ended his whistle-stop tour of Sri Lanka to inspect tsunami ravaged areas in the country.

They wanted the 30 + press men and women on the Colombo airport tarmac to have their “hands raised’’ to receive the microphone to ask questions. The “press-conference’’ was little more than a photo opportunity, because it was scheduled for 10 to 15 minutes.

But within these 10 or so minutes, the woman who represents the channel that broadcasts CNN in Sri Lanka (“the one in the dark glasses’’!!) got 2 question opportunities — whereas some other correspondents who had their arms outstretched right out there in front, almost under Powell’s nose, were not given a single question opportunity.

The questions that were asked had the appearance of having being planted. (For example the one in which the questioner exulted “Mr Secretary of State, the US aid to Sri Lanka was very magnanimous indeed — your response.” (!!!!))

Talk of bowling full tosses, pardon the cricketing idiom. (Somebody, more colourfully, called it a bl-w job, not a question.) It was all a shade reminiscent of former US President Kennedy’s speechwriter and Press Secretary’s memoirs (which were recently recalled by many writers when he died) in which he writes of he and Kennedy having a good laugh about the questions they planted on pressmen before the White House Press briefings.

This appearance of a scripted presser seemed to get more credence and confirmation when a US embassy official Phillip Fayne (no US official was available at the time of going to press to confirm his second name) asked this writer and another after the press conference, agitatedly, “who asked the question about Powell meeting the LTTE.’’

This is an interesting situation. Questions were allowed only if Mr Phillip F gave the go-ahead by prompting the other official who accompanied Powell. Phillip F was there, right up front, directing the official to hand the mike only (strictly only) to journalists that he approved of. But one intrepid type physically grabbed the mike on its way back to the official, and fired a question to Powell! That was the question about the LTTE.

It’s presumably why Mr. Phillip F had his knickers in a great twist, asking this writer and another repeatedly and frantically “who it was that asked question about LTTE.’’ When this writer suggested that “it was outside of your little arrangement that this particular question was asked’’, Mr F just managed a wan smile.

Why would a Colombo based official want to pick the questioners at all anyway? The point this writer is making is, this is a much freer country than the United States of America which is Chomsky’s fabled nation of “manufactured consent.’’ We have real press conferences in Colombo. Here, nobody picks questioners by saying ‘’the one with the blue shirt,’’ ‘’the one with the grey hair’’ the “one with the nice blow-dry.’’ Everybody with his hand up is given a reasonable chance to ask questions, and that’s why these are called press conferences and not stage-shows.

But obviously the US government did not want their exalted Secretary of State to face any kind of challenging questions. Writers like this one who had their hands up as instructed, didn’t have a ghost of a chance of asking anything — Mr F knew their views were independent, as opposed to those from some men and women who offered bouquets couched as queries. But isn’t it pathetic that an official of the calibre and stature of Colin Powell, is presumed not to have the ability or the capacity to face-down a few authentic unrehearsed unscripted (..and I almost forgot, unplanted) questions from a few journalists from Sri Lanka? Besides, if it was going to be10 to 15 minutes of questioning, why invite the whole press corps — is it to give Powell a great send-off with a huge and fawning crowd waving him off at the tarmac? Sure makes for good sound bytes and video ops for CNN and the worldwide networks, because this is America’s primary intention in this whole exercise of (belated) aid giving.

It’s to shore up its badly mangled image in Iraq as an inept aggressor, by supplanting Iraq-images with global television pictures of a benevolent caregiver.

PS: Mr F had the audacity to tell us that the lady who got 2 questions got them because when he said “purple top’’ — the other guy heard it as “dark glasses’’..(!) Now shouldn’t he go tell THAT to the Marines??

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