Sri Lanka’s own goal
In September 2009 I wrote about the Sri Lankan government’s failure to convey a positive image of the country to the world after its impressive victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended the national nightmare that began in 1975 when Vellupillai Prabhakaran shot dead the mayor of Jaffna. Prabhakaran went on to be leader of the LTTE, a ruthless terrorist group which began to seem invincible in its fight for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran was killed in May 2009 and there have been no terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka since. Yet the Sri Lankan government has almost managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – by bungling the PR war. There is something of a siege mentality in Sri Lanka – a feeling that, after winning a long and brutal war, the country’s independence is threatened by unfair criticism from abroad.
The release by WikiLeaks of a batch of “diplomatic” cables gave encouragement to the “told you so” tendency. Those leaks relating to the former UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, have caused particular smugness. When Miliband visited Sri Lanka towards the end of the war against the LTTE, pressing for a ceasefire and negotiations, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa scolded him and reminded him that Sri Lanka was no longer a British colony. The cables now 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.
Sri Lankans at the time thought that Miliband was backing Tamil terrorists for electoral advantage: 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. The Sri Lankan government strongly believed that a ceasefire would be foolish when victory was imminent because it would, as had happened many times before, have allowed the LTTE to regroup and fight again. 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” (1).
The leaking of the cables should have put Sri Lanka in PR heaven. But the president’s advisors managed to play it all wrong, and new life was injected into the moribund overseas rump of the LTTE.
As the revelations were taking place, President Rajapaksa travelled to the UK to address the Oxford Union. The event was cancelled because of security fears – not because President Rajapaksa himself posed any threat to the good citizens of Oxford or its students (the Thames Valley police later said they would have had no trouble policing the event). As someone pointed out, Kermit the Frog had also been invited on one occasion, and it was “unfortunate that the Sri Lankan High Commission in London did not file an intelligence report on such security threats.” Another source said: “It is a strong shot of oxygen to a dying LTTE. Fundraising will pick up again.”
Yet, as Namini Wijedasa wrote in Lakbima News, “Mystifyingly for a government that shuns the West, the event was flaunted as an honour of the highest proportions” (2). “The ideal path would be to work towards restoring relations to their former warmth, engaging with the West as much as we do with China, Libya, Myanmar, Iran and Cuba. Diplomacy is not a zero sum game where your developing ties with some countries give you courage to cold-shoulder the rest. It’s about dealing with everyone that can give you comparative advantage. … The president is already ahead in the game in Sri Lanka. But the direction he wants to take the country in internationally remains a perturbing mystery.”
Confirmation of the hypocrisy of the US, UK and EU always plays well in Sri Lanka; and the 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 Bradley Manning is not likely to be treated kindly. The Sri Lankan government is reported, after initial fierce resistance to perceived threats to the nation’s sovereignty, to have relented and decided to allow a UN panel advising Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on Sri Lankan war crimes to visit the country. The foreign ministry has been criticised for its handling of this matter, which has added to the confusion over government policy. At the same time, favours have been seen to be rewarded: retired military staff have been given embassy posts after their war service, in preference to career diplomats. The Sri Lankan government pays more than a million pounds a year to the PR firm Bell Pottinger. It does not seem to have been a good investment.