|Sri Lanka Peace Chief writes to the Economist|
|Tuesday, 20 May 2008|
The Editor ,The Economist , Dear Sir
I read with much sadness your article of May 10th about Sri Lanka entitled ‘The War Dividend’. It is not like the Economist to engage in one-sided reporting but, as on the last occasion on which I took issue with you, with regard to flawed reporting about military action in the North of Sri Lanka, I fear that your reporter has been misinformed. On that occasion, if you recall, he cited the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission, and investigation revealed that its spokesman may have misled him while denying this to the Head of the Mission. The result was that the spokesman was removed from his position, and over the next six months relations between the SLMM and the government continued smooth and productive.
I do not know whether this article was written by the same reporter, but if so perhaps he should get in touch with government spokesmen too before he pronounces. Certainly there are distinct inaccuracies in his presentation, some of which seem to play into the hands of the Sri Lankan opposition, others into the hands of terrorists. For instance he claims that ‘The government will even pick the east's chief minister, either Mr Chandrakanthan or a defector from the SLMC, M. L.A. Hisbullah. Before the poll, it promised the job to both.’
Secretary General of SCOPP
The reason the government will choose the Chief Minister is that they both contested through the government party. It did not promise the post of Chief Minister to both, it promised it to one or the other, depending on which one secured more preferences. That commitment was widely publicized beforehand, and was fulfilled inasmuch as Mr Chandrakanthan secured more preferences than Mr Hisbullah. Sadly there were attempts after the election to reduce the question to one of ethnic groupings. This problem had arisen beforehand because the major opposition party, the UNP, had no significant Tamil politicians on its lists, but had an agreement with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress that its leader should be Chief Minister if their alliance won. This introduced acommunal element into the electoral campaign, ie Muslims being told that they had to vote for the UNP alliance so as to stop a Tamil Chief Minister.
Fortunately a substantial number of Muslims were more sensible than to fall for this line, perhaps because the LTTE issued a directive that the government was to be defeated. The idea of a Muslim Chief Minister owing his election to terrorists doubtless contributed to Muslims supporting Mr Hisbullah, who incidentally hails from the East unlike the UNP candidate for Chief Minister, Mr Hisbullah’s erstwhile leader Mr Hakeem. This may help to explain what you found curious, that ‘in an election marked by widening ethnic and communal tensions, the TMVP's candidates won in several areas dominated by Sinhalese and Muslims.’ That ridiculous statement ignores that there were no TMVP candidates, since all candidates, Tamil and Muslim and Sinhala, stood on the government slate, and that candidates chosen on preferential votes in the three districts were perfectly in congruence with predictable patterns of voting. Your failure in this context to note that the UNP slate won in Trincomalee District, from which Mr Hakeem was contesting, would seem culpable, were it not that selective reporting is often based as much on ignorance as policy.
Unfortunately, given the efforts of the UNP to divide the East on ethnic rather than political considerations, the choice of a Chief Minister became an issue, and even within the government there were pressures to renege on the commitment on the grounds that there were more Muslims than Tamils amongst the government’s elected MPCs. The government resisted these pressures, which was vital since had it not done so the UNP would doubtless have combined with the LTTE to declare that the Tamils had been betrayed. Had your reporter then fallen for that line, it would have been claimed that international condemnation justified continuing terrorism. That, in effect, is what such flawed reporting leads to.
Your sentence ‘Defying international condemnation of its brutal methods, and a 2002 ceasefire that was officially scrapped in January, Mr Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) promised to bring development and devolution to the “liberated” places’ is a classic example of the smuggling in of falsehoods. What are the brutal methods that were condemned? What is the international condemnation that was defied? What constituted the defiance? How can a ceasefire be defied? Why should the word ‘liberated’ be in inverted commas, but not ‘Defying’,‘international’, and ‘brutal’? If you are talking of the liberation of the East, there was no brutality, indeed there were no allegations of brutality except with regard to one incident in which civilians were killed, following retaliatory fire which fell on a refugee centre. That was the only justification presented in a lengthy emotive Human Rights Watch Report for its allegation that there had been indiscriminate attacks on civilians. However, immediately after the incident the government pointed out that its fire had been based on mortar locating radar, and the HRW report gave details of armed LTTE cadres moving around the camp and of bunkers having been dug there.
Certainly when terrorists use human shields governments should hold fire, but in this instance the Sri Lankan army had no idea this was happening, and assumed they were firing at mortars located through radar. Significantly I have not seen in similar reports by you on such incidents elsewhere adjectives such as brutal, along with assertions of international condemnation, presumably because unless condemnation comes from particular Western agencies it is not deemed international.In other respects the campaign in the East was a model, with the employment of tactics that ensured LTTE fighters could flee the area so that there was limited loss of life even of combatants. That is what makes operations in the North more difficult, but the Sri Lankan government will face such challenges since it believes that minimizing suffering for civilians is a paramount obligation.
Had your correspondent bothered to study records of for instance airstrikes (170 over the last 18 months with even allegations of civilian deaths being confined to 6), he would not have engaged in simplifications that can only play into the hands of terrorists. And you fail to note that, even having tied one hand behind its back, the government has liberated significant areas of the Mannar District, including the Madhu Church precinct, in which the LTTE had stockpiled weapons. Though they were spoiling for a fight, in which they could claim that the sanctuary had been violated, careful surrounding of the area while leaving a line for retreat ensured that the LTTE withdrew, after which the area was handed back to the Church.
Elsewhere you claim that the government informally reignited the civil war, ‘partly in response to terrorist attacks by the Tigers’. Is your reporter not aware that, between 2002 when the Ceasefire Agreement was signed, and 2007 when the SLMM had to stop issuing formal rulings, the Tigers were ruled as having violated the CFA nearly 4000 times, the government just 351 times? Under the CFA the government was entitled to engage in defensive action, and this is what it started to do in August 2006 after two massive attacks, in the East and the North respectively, nearly led to the loss of Trincomalee and Jaffna.
Before that, following the election of this government, the LTTE had so egregiously violated the CFA that the SLMM, in January 2006, issued a report that questioned whether, given repeated violations of the CFA by the LTTE, it existed any longer. Instead of giving credit to the government for its restraint however, and its success in getting the LTTE back to negotiations (only to find them withdrawing with hardly any notice), you and others with short memories continue to blame the government, which has manifested a restraint seen nowhere else in the world in dealings with terrorism. Then, in common with a few select Western funded agencies, you imply that the TMVP is still a vicious militant group and that it is responsible for the human rights violations of which the government is accused. In fact the TMVP does not function in the North, where a few former militant groups, which entered the democratic process in 1987 with the Indo-Lankan Accord, found themselves decimated after the CFA when the then government disarmed them.
Those groups came back with a vengeance in 2006 when the Tigers began to be weakened, and the government was not able to restore the rule of law expeditiously. Had you looked at the statistics however you would have noted that in 2007 the number of allegations of human rights violations declined considerably. The melodramatic HRW report for instance, giving details of 97 disappearances, records 96 that are over twelve months old, and just one in June 2007. The situation has improved, and the government is committed, in part through rapid restoration of empowerment through a democratic process, to restoring the rule of law as expeditiously as possible. It is also strange that, even though this government has held an election for a Provincial Council in the East and appointed a Tamil Chief Minister, even though it has established a Task Force for the Northern Province headed by a Tamil Minister, you assert that ‘Unsurprisingly, many Tamils think the government is trying to subjugate them, not win them over.’
The LTTE clearly does not agree with you because, as your own article shows, it has done its best to disrupt this process. What you did not mention, doubtless because it happened after you had gone to press, is that the Legal Advisor to the head of the Northern Task Force was killed on May 13th, when she had gone to Jaffna to visit her sick mother. He himself has escaped several assassination attempts, the most recent a suicide bomb carried by a disabled woman who tried to see him in his Ministry. A lesser man would have given up, or tried to work with the LTTE, as other Tamil moderates did, but that is the road to totalitarianism. This government will not betray the moderate Tamils, and it is heartening that, after years of believing that the LTTE were the sole representatives of the Tamils, the Norwegian facilitators have now begun to talk to Tamil moderates, whom they had had to ignore until a year ago.
Unfortunately, or should one say unsurprisingly, all this is ignored by the human rights groups you talk to, and the diplomats you cite, who happen – coincidentally or unsurprisingly or unfortunately – to fund those particular groups. It is they who have propagated the idea of brutality on the part of a government, CPA for instance having set up a media outlet that refers to ‘the President and his coterie of murderous brutes’, with funding it claims comes from Canadian and Australian development aid (Australia has denied this). In such a context it is very strange to find public and strident assertions that media freedom is under threat in Sri Lanka. Finally, the best comment on the government’s attempts to restore pluralistic democracy come I think from the attempts of some of these so-called human rights activists to stop the Eastern local government elections that were held in March. They wrote then that ‘Though weapons are currently only visible in Batticaloa in the hands of the military, there is a deep, widely held conviction that armed groups have not permanently disarmed….An observer could be forgiven for thinking that the holding of elections every few months might actually mitigate human rights violations in the east’.
Despite this they demanded that the elections be stopped forthwith. The government did not give in to this preposterous demand, and it will not give in to further demands by unelected, unaccountable forces to stop the progress of democratic pluralism. The situation may not be perfect, but it is much better than it used to be when the LTTE held sway. Whilst Sri Lanka welcomes criticism with regard to facts, and assistance to improve a difficult situation, it will be not swayed by crude criticism based on unwarranted preconceptions. We are prepared to engage in discussion anytime with anyone, and it is a pity that the Economist should continue so selective in its sources, so determined in its denigration of a state dealing more successfully with terrorism, with displacement, with reintegration of former militants, more successfully than many others.
Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretary GeneralSecretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
|Last Updated ( Sunday, 04 January 2009 )|
|< Prev||Next >|