Why does Everybody Hate Sri Lanka?
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A Facebook friend asked me to explain why the Sri Lankan government has come under such criticism. A recent example was David Cameron’s November 2013 visit to Sri Lanka for CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of government Meeting). “Can you tell me why you think the country is coming in for criticism? Did the Tamil Tigers manage to get favourable international media coverage? Can you fill me in a little on how they were defeated and why Sri Lanka gets criticised for that?”
I have written about this in the past and, after receiving that question, canvassed the views of my Sri Lankan contacts.
“No one likes us, we don’t care”
In the late 70s, Millwall football fans in the Cold Blow Lane stand used to sing this to the tune of Rod Stewart’s (We Are) Sailing (written by the Sutherland Brothers). This was in response to sustained criticism of their behaviour and the media assumption that Millwall fans were the worst kind of hooligans. Various commentators, including Rod Liddle, have questioned why the name of Millwall became synonymous with hooliganism, creating a siege mentality amongst ordinary, law-abiding Millwall fans.
South London writer Michael Collins wrote: “At the end of the 19th century around the time Millwall FC was formed, middle-class journalists used to descend on the area like Baudelaireian flaneurs, to report on the urban working class as though they were discovering natives from the remote islands of the Empire.”
It is interesting that Rod Liddle is one of the few English journalists to have criticised David Cameron’s flaneurist behaviour in Colombo recently. Liddle wrote in The Spectator back in 2005 about a riot at a game between Liverpool and Millwall after which three Liverpool supporters were jailed. The FA exonerated Liverpool and fined Millwall. Liddle commented: “the FA wished to make a political point and saw Millwall – a small club, unfashionable and not especially popular as an ideal target.”
Here is the title of Liddle’s recent article on the London Sunday Times blog about Cameron’s behaviour in Sri Lanka: “That s the president of Sri Lanka, PM, not one of your fags”. American readers should note that “fag” refers in this instance to the system of servitude in English schools for toffs like Cameron. A fag at Eton would be bullied by the Bullingdon Club.
I will have a look at the simplest answer first. What if criticisms of Sri Lanka are fair? What if Cameron, William Hague and Alistair Burt are acting from a genuine concern for human rights? What if Stephen Harper and Barack Obama genuinely want to see justice done in Sri Lanka?
There are certainly many things that could be improved in Sri Lanka.
- The 18th amendment to the constitution was a bad idea.
- The impeachment of the Chief Justice showed the government in a bad light.
- It is not good for the army to shoot dead unarmed protesters.
- For ordinary people the never-ending grind of rising prices is debilitating.
One of my respondents said: “I think, perhaps the UK is concerned that more civilians have been killed than they were assured would be, and they feel some guilt for not having intervened in 2009”.
Unfortunately, Cameron, Harper and Obama invite the charge of hypocrisy by focusing on what happened in the final months of the military action that defeated the Tamil Tigers. People in Sri Lanka are likely to say what about Iraq, Kenya, Guantanamo, drone strikes?
Cameron’s thinking seems to be directed by simplistic sound bites that totally discount the realities of war.
The Sri Lankan government was proud of its victory and keen to share its experience with the world. The Ministry of Defence organised seminars to which it invited foreign observers. The third of these was held in September 2013. There were many calls from human rights organisations to boycott the seminars. US Defense Attaché to Sri Lanka, LTC Lawrence Smith, attended the 2011 seminar and questioned the credibility of surrender offers made by senior LTTE leaders. He got in trouble because of it. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “My understanding is that the defense attaché was there as an observer and a note taker. His comments reflected his personal opinions. There’s no change in the policy of the United States, and his remarks do not reflect any change in our policy.”
In his article in The Atlantic dated 1 July 2009 entitled To Catch a Tiger, Robert D Kaplan acknowledged the success of the Sri Lankan government in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Kaplan admitted that tiny, cash-strapped Sri Lanka, generally thought of as ”third world” or ”developing”, has succeeded where the mighty USA has failed. The man who dominated Sri Lankan life for the worse for thirty years, Vellupillai Prabakharan, leader of the Tamil Tigers, was dead, while Osama Bin Laden was, at the time, still living, a free man.
Kaplan asks if the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s success but answers:
”These are methods the U.S. should never use.”
My detailed critique of Kaplan is here: https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/fantasies-of-virtue/
The gist of my critique is that the US has, indeed, used methods far worse.
A respondent in Colombo says: “as you know, the Sri Lankan side refused to carry out the wishes of the UK and US embassies during those last hours of the ending of the war. They now think that we should be taught a lesson for being naughty. It’s stupid and shows a total misreading of the realities on the ground of that time.”
Domestic Electoral Considerations
Many of the Sri Lankans that I canvassed for this article made the point that western politicians were motivated by electoral concerns.
A respondent who lives in Toronto, a hot-bed of pro-LTTE activity, told me: “The only answer that I can give would be the ‘local politics’ in any country…It is a fact that the elite and the influential and the rich, English-speaking Tamils live either in Colombo or in England /Canada…“All these English politicians have figured out that the diaspora is a deciding factor in winning elections. … They need the diaspora which has money to spend on them and get them to power. The Tamil diaspora is pretty much active in Toronto, unlike the Lazy/divided/ Sinhala Buddhist diaspora”.
A Sri Lanka resident echoed that view: “LTTE supporters among the Diaspora are part of the electoral constituencies of some of the political leadership in the UK, Canada and the US and are exerting pressure on them.”
The release by WikiLeaks of a batch of diplomatic cables endorsed this view. Then UK foreign secretary, David Miliband visited Sri Lanka towards the end of the war against the LTTE, pressing for a ceasefire and negotiations. Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa scolded him and reminded him that Sri Lanka was no longer a British colony. The cables reveal that Miliband exerted his influence to get Sri Lanka’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games rejected: the UK did not want Sri Lanka to be given legitimacy for its actions in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Another cable revealed that Miliband supported US efforts to delay an IMF loan to Sri Lanka.
In a cable dated 7 May 2009, the British Foreign Office “Sri Lanka team leader”, Tim Waite, wrote that, with UK elections soon due, and with many Tamils living in marginal UK constituencies, the UK government was calling for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka and would later pay close attention to the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. Miliband said that he was spending 60% of his time on Sri Lanka. Miliband and his aides wrote about “ratcheting up” the case for humanitarian relief efforts: “[That] cable,” said one Sri Lankan writer, “exposes how a matter of a few thousand British votes took priority over the fate of a small state battling against a ruthless terrorist enemy”
Before the November 2013 CHOGM, Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh had warned Cameron that UK participation in Colombo would be nothing but endorsement of the massacre of civilians. McDonagh represents Mitcham and Morden in the south London Borough of Merton (an area in which I lived for ten years). She likes to present an image of left-wing libertarianism and sell herself as a champion of human rights. However, her voting record in the House of Commons tells a different story. Siobhain McDonagh voted very strongly FOR the Iraq invasion, very strongly AGAINST an investigation into the Iraq war, very strongly FOR Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, very strongly FOR introducing ID cards, very strongly FOR a stricter asylum system. Her libertarianism and concern for human rights seems very selective.
The Wimbledon Guardian, which I fondly remember as being full of rapes and perverts (how unlike the Wimbledon I knew and loved) reported that McDonagh was given a petition signed by 196 residents at Morden’s Civic Centre on October 10 2008. “Representatives from the British Tamil Forum met Siobhain McDonagh to ask for support in tackling human rights abuses. They asked her to join the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, a group of MPs campaigning to highlight the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka.”
The subtext is that McDonagh recognised that the support of pro-LTTE campaigners might be useful to her in her constituency. Hers is by no means a safe Labour seat. She won it from Conservative Dame Angela Rumbold on her third attempt. It would require a 16.4% swing for her to lose it. McDonagh had a majority of 13,666 in 2010. A Tamil with Muslim support, Rathy Alagaratnam, was an independent who ran against her in 2010 and 2005. McDonagh’s parliamentary work-rate is not impressive. She is below average for the number of times she has spoken in debates, and for her written questions. She is well below average for the number of times she has voted in the Commons.
Robert O Blake was US ambassador in Colombo at war’s end. Later, he moved to the State Department. Blake caused some alarm in Sri Lanka when he made a statement before the Senate subcommittee on the Middle East (West Asia) and South Asia. His address included a telling phrase. This was the first time he had gone on record to publicly state, “Positioned directly on the shipping routes that carry petroleum products and other trade from the Gulf to East Asia, Sri Lanka remains of strategic interest to the US.”
Once in Sri Lanka, he tried to soft-pedal. ”In my official meetings today, I assured the Sri Lankan government that the US is committed to a strong long-term partnership with Sri Lanka and that reports of our alleged support for ‘regime change’ have no basis whatsoever. I expressed support for the government’s efforts to recover from its devastating civil war, and encouraged further steps towards reconciliation, and a peaceful, united, democratic Sri Lanka. I think the government has made some positive progress. It is very important that this progress be sustained. ”
One of my respondents noted “a certain amount of concern with regard to SL’s lean towards China, and away from India, the latter being ‘one of us, as it were”.
Profit and Globalisation
A respondent who had migrated to Australia but is now back in Colombo told me: “UK is hell-bent on criticizing us to make the LTTE rump in UK happy. Their dream was to see the creation of an Eelam here. Many Western nations are angry with us because they profited from this war by being able to sell arms but today it is not possible thanks to peace. No matter what we do, UK will think that we are still their colony!”
Another respondent who lives in Sri Lanka told me: “The neo-colonial powers want to push through globalisation, which reduces national sovereignty, and hence the power of governments to interfere with global corporations. Weak governments are made weaker by separatism. Western criticism of the GoSL was muted while JR (President Jayewardene) was in power, although it began to get shriller after Sri Lanka strayed into India’s ambit. However, the real escalation of criticism took place after Sri Lanka became part of China’s zone of influence.”
Arrogance and Hypocrisy
When David Miliband became foreign secretary in June 2007, there were already allegations about possible British involvement in overseas torture by other countries’ intelligence services. Ironically, the UK’s involvement in the revolution in Libya brought to light evidence of its dirty dealings with Quadaffi. Libyan Islamist Sami al-Saadi, also known as Abu Munthir, claims that in 2004, he and his family were detained by MI6 and handed over to authorities in Libya, who tortured him. Documents show that MI5 gave Tripoli reports on Libyan dissidents living in Britain and identified at least one organisation using UK telephone numbers.
In the London Review of Books, Gareth Pierce wrote about Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian given leave to reside in the UK. “British intelligence and the Americans and Moroccans for 18 months slashed the most intimate parts of his body with razors, burned him with boiling liquids, stretched his limbs causing unimaginable agony, and bombarded him with ferocious sound.” Binyam Mohamed claimed Moroccan interrogators tortured him by using scalpels or razor blades to repeatedly cut his penis and chest.
As David Miliband was personal advisor to Tony Blair while Labour was in opposition and played a major role in the election victory of 1997, it seems unlikely that he was unaware of what was happening before he became foreign secretary.
Philippe Sands was Binyam Mohamed’s lawyer. He wrote that Miliband cannot avoid charges of complicity demonstrated by his actions as foreign secretary: “he could have announced that he wanted to establish a proper inquiry. He didn’t do that – and was a senior member of a government that later actively resisted calls for an inquiry. That is not to say he was idle throughout this period; he seems to have put considerable energy into defending a number of claims in the English courts relating to torture against his department.”
A special investigation, published in the 29 August issue of the New Statesman, showed how British troops regularly handed over suspected insurgents to the Afghan authorities with little guarantee that they would not be tortured.
Miliband personally approved some interrogations involving countries with poor human rights records. While campaigning for the Labour leadership Miliband was forced to confront claims that he allowed the interrogation of three terror suspects who allege they were tortured in Bangladesh and Egypt. Faisal Mostafa, a chemistry lecturer from Manchester, who has twice been cleared of terrorism offences in court, was detained in Bangladesh. He claims he was hung upside down and electrocuted while interrogators interrogated him about two Islamist groups.
Sands wrote: “Many would not be surprised if all roads led to Tony Blair (who described Guantánamo as ‘understandable’ in his memoir)…It is not unusual to hear the suggestion that Miliband’s actions may have been motivated in part by a desire to protect the reputation of his colleagues… His attitude to the Iraq war is equally unhappy, invoking the refrain that ‘if I knew then what I know now I would have voted against’. This recognises that the war was the wrong decision but falls well short of an expression of regret”.
The British adopted a rather superior tone about the Americans in Iraq. They claimed that British experience in Northern Ireland made them experts at counter-insurgency in urban areas. News reports now coming out suggest that their methods included under-cover agents shooting unarmed civilians.
Gareth Pierce on the UK’s hypocrisy: “We inhabit the most secretive of democracies, which has developed the most comprehensive of structures for hiding its misdeeds, shielding them always from view behind the curtain of ‘national security’. From here on in we should be aware of the game of hide and seek in which the government hopes to ensure that we should never find out its true culpability.”
Professor Michael Roberts makes the point that western journalists felt a sense of solidarity with beleaguered Sri Lankan journalists and were unlikely to give the Rajapaksa government the benefit of any doubt. I have dealt in detail elsewhere with the distorted churnalism that emerged as a result of this.
Professor Roberts cites the example of an article in the London Times in early July 2009, by Jeremy Page. Page told the world that 1,400 people were dying every week at the Menik Farm IDP camp. No evidence was provided to support this. No evidence could be provided because it was just not true. Page quickly moved on to deal with the Eastern province where there were no camps and the war had ended two years previously. The government had asked the Red Cross to scale down its operations in the east because the situation was under control. Page elided this with the canard about deaths at Menik Farm to give the impression that the government was callously booting out the Red Cross while people were dying.
The LTTE propaganda machine took global advantage of this.The western media were and are prone to see the Tamils (and thus the LTTE) as underdogs. My Toronto respondent said this: “ The LTTE collected millions during their tenure so that money still can be used to fight a different kind of war…. Many media organizations have been bought by the diaspora to work from them for example CP24 here in Toronto has connections , and the money can buy publicity easily while the truth takes a long time to emerge of its own.”
Displacement and Diversion
My Toronto respondent continued: “The US/UK are getting hit for their own human rights blunders so they need something to hold on to. Even at the UN, while Syria was burning, they paid attention to Sri Lanka where there is peace now. They will make a big issue next time to play the cover up game of their own for sure. This will not stop for another generation until such time our kids grow up as they are the only diaspora that was not affected by war. They get the education they deserve and will one day work against it.”
Siobhan McDonagh tried to explain her support for the invasion of Iraq and her opposition to an inquiry: “Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do.” That seems to distance herself from any direct personal responsibility. McDonagh declared: “We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs.” How about deposing that murderous tyrant Prabakharan? What about the Sri Lankan soldiers who fought in good faith?
Confirmation of the hypocrisy of the US, UK and EU always plays well in Sri Lanka; and the WikiLeaks cables revealed what everyone already knew about the use of cluster bombs and abuse of civilians by the US and UK. Freedom of speech is an important issue for the West when it deals with Sri Lanka, and there was much legitimate concern about the murder of the Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. Yet western politicians have called for Julian Assange to be assassinated and the whistleblower Chelsea (Bradley) Manning has not been treated kindly.
I will leave the last word with Rod Liddle: “Ah, off you go, Dave. The reason that you can go to Jaffna at all is that this Rajapaksa-wallah, over the course of three years, eliminated the terrorist threat of the Tamil Tigers. The country is now at peace, not merely economically stable but with a rate of economic growth that would inflame the loins of George Osborne. I dare say Rajapaksa has been a ruthless authoritarian, that not everything he has accomplished would earn the approval of the European Court of Human Rights. But for 26 years the murderous, maniacal Tamil Tigers waged war in Sri Lanka -assassinations, suicide attacks, using children as hostages, planting bombs. And they were able to do so thanks to the money that flooded in largely from the UK via the Tamil diaspora in, mostly, London.
For decades we turned a blind eye to the relentless fundraising for these terrorists and the Tamil Tigers were themselves only proscribed as a terrorist organisation (rather than lauded as freedom fighters) in 2001, a year, incidentally, when we all opened our eyes to terrorism. So maybe after ticking off this gentleman for the way he runs his country, a short apology from Cameron might not go amiss.”