|Signs of the Times|
|Monday, 16 February 2009|
Yet another splendid example of the misuse of the English language emerged last week with an article in the Times headlined ‘Barbed wire villages raise fears of refugee concentration camps’. The first line of the article was in the passive voice – ‘Sri Lanka was accused yesterday of planning concentration camps to hold 200,000 ethnic Tamil refugees from its north-eastern conflict zone for up to three years — and seeking funding for the project from Britain.’
A careful reader of the article would have noticed that only two persons made that particular accusation, both of them anxious to secure votes of those who support the LTTE. The more prominent was Robert Evans who, when in Sri Lanka last year, sabotaged a visit of European Members of Parliament to the Eastern Province, and then submitted a report claiming that the visit was aborted by the Sri Lankan government. The EU Parliament, after an inquiry, accepted that the Sri Lankan government was not to blame.
Meanwhile Evans announced to a pro-LTTE audience in London that he had not gone to the East because he did not want to shake the hand of the Eastern Province Chief Minister. The Chief Minister is a Tamil politician who, having been a child recruit of the LTTE, left them and took to democratic ways. Evans knows that the LTTE refused the opportunity to have elections even at their point of greatest influence during the Ceasefire period. But once you have taken hold of the tail of a Tiger, you cannot afford to let go.
Evans claimed about the places where those fleeting from the Tigers were to be housed that “These are not welfare camps, they are prisoner-of-war cum concentration camps.” The best comment on that emotional outburst was provided by a subsequent Times editorial that began, ‘It was one of the 20th century's most bestial images, and one that was invented by the British. The concentration camps set up by Lord Kitchener to intern Boer women and children were officially intended to shelter civilians while the British Forces conducted a scorched-earth policy to deprive Boer combatants of food and shelter. In fact, they were places of brutality, hardship and death. More than 26,000 people died in some 50 makeshift camps across South Africa.’
British bestiality is not something we in South Asia should hold against them, because it is relatively rare, and on the whole it can be recognized for what it is. Hypocrisy is something else, since its ill effects can be pervasive. Thus it is unfortunate that even the Times cannot understand that the whole point about ‘concentration’ camps was that they were places of internment, where whole groups of people were placed forcibly, having been taken away from their usual homes. The British started it in South Africa, the Germans did it to the Jews and, as the Times put it, ‘copied the brutal regime of starvation and death’. By then the British were more civilized, as they rounded up Germans in Britain, as were the Americans with the Japanese, and they did not starve and kill.
In the Sri Lankan case, what happened was that the Tamils of the Wanni were forced to leave their homes when the LTTE was defeated, and they were dragooned into moving into ever smaller areas. Nobody cared except the Sri Lankan government, which appealed to the LTTE to let our people go. The appeal fell on deaf ears, as did the appeal to the international community at large to ask the LTTE to allow freedom of movement for these Sri Lankan citizens.
It is only in the last month or so that even the United Nations has begun to say clearly that the LTTE must release these suffering people. It would be nice for the international community to think that finally their pronouncements have had an effect, but it may also have been that the situation had become intolerable, with the LTTE taking to firing indiscriminately and killing civilians even in the safe areas the government had designated. At first they had hoped that the world at large would assume this was the Sri Lankan army, but with the UN saying clearly ‘we believe that firing this morning most likely was from an LTTE position’, most people (except Robert Evans and his ilk) understood what was really happening.
So firstly it should be noted that these civilians have made their way of their own volition to refuge in areas controlled by the Sri Lankan government. Secondly, far from engaging in the British or German practice of starvation and death, the Sri Lankan government is feeding and sheltering these people, providing health facilities (recognized as being amongst the best in the world in terms of the provision of universal health care), and ensuring education. These last it provides free of charge to all its citizens, so there is nothing to be amazed at, except perhaps to those now used to the recent erosion of basic services in Britain. But it should also be noted that we will be supplying vocational training to older people, and have begun classes already. Perhaps the British will now understand why many of the Boers they forcibly transported to Sri Lanka chose to stay on.
To get back to the misuse of English, in a manner that George Orwell would have found characteristic of what he termed ‘doublespeak’, Jeremy Page who wrote the Times article puts the government term ‘welfare villages’ in inverted commas, while omitting these for terms he privileges, such as ‘concentration camps’ and ‘barbed wire villages’. The latter term springs it seems from a long conversation Page had with me, in which he asked repeatedly how the perimeter of the camps would be protected.
Interestingly enough, I had an Indian correspondent in the room while I took the telephone call, and the journalist, who had made a prior appointment, agreed to listen in on my answers to the Britisher, since both were interested in the same matter. The Indian article shows the difference between what might be termed disinterested journalism, and the interpretations of a man with a cause.
The Indian article, which appeared in the Deccan Herald on the same day as the Times piece, quoted me as saying, "There will be no steel walls and no Alsatian dogs, so don't worry. But since safety of the residents is paramount, there will be proper screening of the people before admittance and adequate guarding while at the village, without compromising on their dignity." Unfortunately, a man from a cold climate does not realize that, in the sub-continent, barbed wire is the most common material to establish secure boundaries, to permit ventilation as well as views. Of course barbed wire would be ghastly if it were the only protection available in Europe, or even in South Africa, which is doubtless why the British and Germans used it against people they saw as alien. But where security is necessary, the type of material people are used to in their own environment is much better than the high walls and mastiffs beloved of the more bestial Anglo-Saxons.
As to whether security is necessary or not, Page trots out the terrible twins, Yolanda Foster and Charu Hogg, who have begun now to interchange staff as well as opinions. The general impression is that they represent Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch respectively, but it is now clear, the one having taken Sam Zarifi from the other, that these institutions are a bit like the voices in the ‘Waste Land’, which all ended up being the same voice.
Both of them condemn what is described as ‘arbitrary’ detention and clearly do not believe that the exceptional circumstances exist under which international norms accept detention for a reason. They have obviously not heard of the suicide bombing that the Tigers have used against those trying to cross over, they are not aware that several of those who were housed in the camps admitted after some time that they had been trained by the LTTE, they have never heard of sleeping cadres such as have recently engaged in violence in the East – in short, they think that risks are worth running since, if lots of people die, that is a small price to pay provided the standards of the terrible twins are upheld.
Yolanda, who declared recently that suicide bombing was wrong because it violated international legal provisions and exposed civilians to danger (not because it actually killed people), went further and said, in the cadences she has now perfected, that ‘The Government wants international assistance but not international standards.’
Such effortless rhetoric deserves applause, even if it detracts from that fact that what the government wants is security and prosperity for these our people. It will do its best to satisfy the concerns of those who wish to help us, but it will not compromise on security so as to obtain help. If people wish to be dogmatic, or to impose conditions that go against the interests of the country, nothing can be done. But obviously many of those concerned about these our people who have suffered for so long will appreciate the situation and assist, and indeed many have begun to do so already.
The Times however seeks to convey the impression that Sri Lanka is seeking funding for the project from Britain. Page claims, falsely, that I said the government circulated the proposal ‘to foreign embassies and aid agencies to raise funding.’ I said nothing of the sort. The proposal had been given to various NGOs because they wanted to know what was happening, and had expressed interest in assisting. It was distributed at a meeting which they attended doubtless because they wanted to assist. United Nations Agencies asked later for copies of the plan, and seemed disappointed that they had not received it till they asked, which would scarcely have happened had the purpose of the plan been to raise funds.
After all the UN provides much more aid than international agencies, many of whom are simply implementing agencies for UN funds, a practice that has developed after the tsunami – so that it can be claimed twice over that Sri Lanka has benefited from aid. Indeed, the so-called donor community has now brought munificence to a fine art, with donors giving to the UN which then sub-contracts aid agencies, so that three separate sets of fairy godmothers can claim, for the same initial donation, that without them Sri Lanka would sink.
Page claims that I said that access for these NGOs to the camps would be limited because ‘international aid agencies are prejudiced towards the Tigers’. That again is nonsense. I said that the government would allow such agencies access to the camps if they were really prepared to assist, in accordance with the government plan, with proper transparency and accountability. The government could not allow funds intended for our citizens to be spent on projects about which we knew nothing; though many agencies have done a lot, in some cases, there seem to be no visible outcomes of the work they are supposed to have done.
The NGOs have registered our concerns, and have now signed the letter of intent that was drawn up. Many of them have now begun to work in the Centres, and we are grateful to them, but we are even more grateful to the national NGOs who began to work in these Centres when there were far fewer escapees than at present – and also to UNHCR which began some months back to assist with Confidence Building and Stabilization Measures, even while the Hoggs and Fosters of this world were bleating that the Centres did not measure up to what they claimed were international standards.
Page also seems to suggest that the figure I mentioned in connection with the British was part of our attempt to raise funds. That again is sleight of hand. He kept asking whether the British had offered aid, and if so how much, and I said that there had been talk of an offer, in connection with a proposed visit by a junior British Minister. I had been asked by my Minister to meet him, since the President was not available, nor were the two Ministers with whom he had sought appointments, scarcely surprisingly since the British government had announced his visit with a day’s notice.
I was due to dine that evening with the head of UNHCR, but said that if I had to I would meet him earlier, and it was in that connection that I was told that there was talk of a couple of million pounds. Whether that was in any way connected with the request for meetings with Ministers I have no idea, but certainly it did not seem a reason for the Minister to change his schedule.
The Times claimed that Britain’s Department for International Development, to which the junior Minister is attached, denied ‘that’, which was another absurdity since, whether they liked it or not, there was talk of such an offer. The talk may have been erroneous, but I don’t think my Minister made it up in an attempt to persuade me to give up my time to see the young man, since he knows that I always find it fun meeting Britishers.
This meeting would have been even more pleasant, given the prospect of dinner with the UN to follow, but sadly the young man failed to turn up. About the time we should have met, his Ministry told the Times that ‘Prolonging the displacement of this vulnerable group of people is not in anyone’s interests. There is no UK government money going into the camps.’ Why, his High Commission evidently having got the plan, the poor junior Minister for what amounts to Aid Assistance was initially being packed into a plane to come to Sri Lanka remains a mystery. It could not have been to discuss matters not connected with his portfolio since, around that very time, Britain had decided to appoint a Special Representative for Sri Lanka, who was doubtless supposed to discuss everything else.
But the British move in mysterious ways, and we have learned over a couple of centuries that it is not ours to wonder why. We continue to love them dearly, knowing that very few are really bestial, and that their bark is much worse than their bite. And even if the London Times is no longer what it used to be, and the intellectual rigour of an Orwell or even a Levin sorely missed, any colonial must be grateful for so much space in its columns. With a Sri Lankan MP and a local worker for UNHCR also permitted a couple of sentences each in an article on Sri Lanka, alongside one Indian, four Britishers and the British Department for International Development, our cup truly runneth over.
Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
|Last Updated ( Friday, 09 October 2009 )|
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