|Sri Lanka: Jehan Perera and International Romance|
|Thursday, 18 September 2008|
by: Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
In the plethora of allegations being flung against the Sri Lankan government with regard to what is claimed to be a humanitarian crisis in the Wanni, Jehan Perera’s most recent essay may serve as an object lesson as to how the discussion has been so sadly affected by prejudice. I have long believed that, unlike many who assume the government is necessarily bad, Jehan tries to be balanced. Unfortunately he fails because he begins with preconceptions without considering the facts.
The essay entitled ‘Humanitarian Crisis has larger implications’ is primarily about the decision that ‘all international humanitarian organisations’ should leave the Wanni, which he thinks ‘signals a war without limits and without witnesses’. But this in itself is just plain nonsense. A war without limits means a war which ignores international law, and this is something the government has never done. A war without witnesses implies a determination to do things which will not bear witness, but as Jehan later acknowledges, the government has ‘permitted the ICRC to remain’. Indeed, when the government issued its instructions for others to relocate, it had asked that both ICRC and WFP wait behind, and it was the UN that, in a Three Musketeers mood, announced that it should be all or nothing. – ‘I informed him that …. It is not possible for the staff of one UN agency to work alone’.
Later on, Jehan also criticizes the government for expecting civilians to ‘move out of the LTTE controlled area in the absence of an organized movement of people that is supervised by reputed humanitarian organisations’, i.e. it is the fault of the government that the UN, etc. are not in Wanni to help the people move out. What Jehan has conveniently forgotten is that, when the UN was asked to assist in this respect, it got all sanctimonious and said that this was not its business – that, at any rate, was the impression conveyed by reports of what its spokesman had said.
The UN indeed seems to have been in two minds about the whole business throughout, simply acknowledging the Government’s attempts ‘to facilitate the freedom of movement of civilians’ while claiming to have ‘raised with the LTTE its urgent concern that civilians be allowed maximum freedom of movement at all times’, all this shortly before saying, virtually, a plague on both your houses, and that this was for the government and the LTTE to decide.
Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Dr. Jehan Perera
Thus, again, after a very positive statement about the government request that ‘UN and NGO staff should relocate’, there was a much harsher statement from New York, pressed for by the ‘Interagency Group in Colombo’. Jehan was critical of a response to this statement, probably mine, claiming that it pointed out that the situation in other countries with similar problems is much worse, whereas he claims ‘the Sri Lankan conflict is one of the very worst in the world in terms of deaths, including battlefield deaths’. What he ignores is that I was talking not in general terms, but with specific reference to civilian casualties and the comparatively excellent record of our forces in this regard.
Jehan’s claim that the current situation signals a ‘war without limits’ indicates that he is willing to go along with the canard about our forces. If I did not know that Jehan was terribly naïve – claiming that his assertion about tit-for-tat, as regards terrorist activity, was made in a hurry – I would have said he seems to be strengthening the case for the misconception in New York. As it is, I can only say that he really must learn to be more careful in his insinuations, and take greater care about language, both what he reads and what he writes.
Thus, having granted that the government had ‘demonstrated a measure of flexibility’ in permitting the ICRC to remain, two paragraphs later, he declares that ‘the government has not shown willingness to compromise on its decision with regard to the eviction of humanitarian agencies from the Vanni region’. If he can ignore his own words, it is not surprising that he failed to note it was not a question of ‘eviction’, but that the government decision was based on its incapacity to ‘ensure the safety of aid workers in the Vanni’, as the local UN statement acknowledged.
This perception of difficulty arose from several factors. First, there was the LTTE location of military installations near NGO offices, evidently to raise the spectre of threats to humanitarian workers when the military installations were attacked. Second, there was the takeover of the vehicles of a couple of NGOs, with some secretiveness about this which indicated that, at best, the NGOs were under pressures they could not resist. Finally, there was an actual attack on an NGO vehicle, after it had been kept for hours at an LTTE checkpoint and then made to travel in the dark. The conclusion was inescapable, that the LTTE would be ruthless in the use it made and the advantages it would take of humanitarian staff and other assets.
And, clearly, the NGOs are not going to stick their necks out and stay in the midst of such danger. Indeed, even when the government gave them safe passage, they decided discretion was the better part of valour. On the very day Jehan made his pronouncement, his vision of gallant international humanitarian workers, clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, standing bravely by their charges, they were categorically refusing to go to Kilinochchi though the government had cleared the journey. Indeed, the brave Sri Lankan humanitarian NGOs, ignored in their analyses by romantics like Jehan, did travel. But the Interagency Group, which had pressurized New York to ask that they should be facilitated ‘to reach persons affected by the fighting’ sat tight and claimed that ‘In these kind (sic) of situations the humanitarian agencies tend to err on the side of caution. We had to weigh this risk up against the situation for our staff on the ground.’
So much for the knights in shining armour of Jehan’s dreams. What he has to realize is that, in the end, Sri Lankans have to rely on Sri Lankans. This does not mean that there are no wonderful foreigners, willing to help, willing even to take risks on our behalf. But to assume that they can be relied on is to mistake the whole nature of the aid and advocacy industries that have developed in the last couple of decades. We must lay down the policies ourselves, and the parameters of work, whilst acknowledging that fresh ideas and different perspectives are always useful.
We now must ensure the safety and fulfil the needs of our fellow citizens in the Wanni. It will not be easy, for it is in the interests of the LTTE to ensure that we fail. But with the care the forces have thus far employed, with the commitment to our own that this government – and indeed, previous ones – have evinced, keeping services going for so long even through the period of LTTE abuse, with the dedication of our government officials in the Wanni who have done so much under difficult circumstances, we will succeed. Jehan should support the government in its efforts, like the brave NGO officials who travelled to Kilinochchi yesterday when the white knights stayed behind; and together with all of them, he should urge the LTTE to let our people come into safety.
Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
|Last Updated ( Monday, 09 March 2009 )|
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