Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Sri Lankan government

Sri Lanka PR Part 2

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday September 10 2014

Colman's Column3

Last week I wrote in Ceylon Today about an article in the Calgary Herald by Manisha Krishnan. That article dealt with Ryan de Hoedt’s efforts to get his sister to Canada from Sri Lanka, where, according to him, she is in grave danger. I circulated the article among many Sri Lankan contacts, all of whom had difficulty in believing that de Hoedt’s sister was being persecuted in 2014 because her family helped Tamils in July 1983. I had copied a draft of my first article to Ms Krishnan using an e-mail address given at the foot of her own article. I said that I was giving her the opportunity to comment before I published and wanted to clear up some of the points in her article that had puzzled many people. She did not respond. I copied my published article to her using the same e-mail address. My e-mail bounced back as “undeliverable”. I sent her a message on Facebook, again giving her the opportunity to comment. To date she has not responded.

I have done another Google search for Ryan de Hoedt. I can see no response from the Sri Lankan government or police to the story in the Calgary Herald. The only information about Ryan de Hoedt is new print or online outlets repeating the Calgary Herald story. There is a Ryan de Hoedt on Facebook but there is no information at all on his timeline. Does Ryan de Hoedt exist? Perhaps the Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa might look into this case and make a public statement?

Perhaps we should not expect that, as it seems that the responsibility for representing Sri Lanka has been taken away from diplomats and handed over to expensive foreign PR firms who know nothing about the country.

Bridge that Gap

Perhaps GOSL could consider handing the country’s PR contract to Tony Blair.GQ Magazine recently caused great hilarity by giving its Philanthropist of the Year award to Blair. GQ justified the award thus: “Alongside his role as a Middle East peace envoy, Blair’s channelled his energy into philanthropy… His most ambitious [project] is the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative. Launched in 2008, the foundation operates in six African countries – Sierra Leone, Rwanda Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Senegal – where teams work alongside government bodies to bridge the gap between African leaders’ visions for a better future and their government’s ability to implement it.”

Good Governance in Kazakhstan

Blair does not seem to be very successful at fostering his own public image but his philanthropic work included some PR work for others. He had a two-year contract worth millions of pounds to advise Kazakhstan’s leadership on good governance. Human rights campaigners say Blair has produced no improvements for Kazakh people apart from Nursultan Nazarbayev, “Leader of the Nation”. Nazarbayev has ruled oppressively for over twenty years. During the time was advising him Kazakhstan’s human rights situation deteriorated. Nazarbayev won re-election in 2011 with 95.5% of the vote. Blair gave suggestions on how to improve Nazarbayev’s image after his police killed 14 unarmed protesters. Oksana Makushina, a former deputy editor of one suppressed newspaper, said: “If Mr Blair was advising Nazarbayev on something, it definitely wasn’t freedom of speech. Over the last two years the screws have only been tightened on the media.” Borat might have done a better job.

Blair’s New Clients

Blair has added Mongolia and Albania to the list of clients. Albania’s new socialist government says it wants him to help Albania to achieve EU membership. Mongolia is seeking advice on foreign investment, health and education, health.

Blair’s office dismisses reports of reaping £16m in fees from Kazakhstan, and says Blair makes no personal profit. Perhaps he could philanthropically assist Sri Lanka pro bono.

Bell Pottinger

Tim Bell, now Baron Bell, who advised Margaret Thatcher on media matters when she was UK Prime Minister, is a co-founder of Bell Pottinger. The company came under public scrutiny after managers were secretly recorded talking to fake representatives of the Uzbek government and meddling with Wikipedia by removing negative information and replacing it with positive spin. It is the largest UK-based public relations consultancy. They have had many dodgy clients, such as General Pinochet, a recent one being Rolf Harris.

According to PR Week dated January 2010, Bell Pottinger hired Qorvis Communications as a subcontractor for its work with the government of Sri Lanka. Qorvis was to provide “media relations and monitoring, crisis communications planning, and stakeholder representation in the US. The budget is approximately $483,000.”

What return did Sri Lanka get for this investment? Despite Bell Pottinger’s dark arts, Rolf Harris got a sentence of five years and nine months in prison for twelve indecent assaults on children as young as seven. He is losing weight and being spat upon in prison.

Patton Boggs

Back in January 2009, the Washington Embassy of Sri Lanka retained the firm of Patton Boggs with a fixed fee of $35,000 per month, payable quarterly in advance. Democratic lobbyist Tommy Boggs helped run the account, which calls on Patton Boggs to “provide guidance and counsel to the Embassy of Sri Lanka regarding its relations with the Executive and Legislative Branches of the US Government.” How did that work out? Did we get value for money?

Patton Boggs did not influence then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Sri Lanka’s benefit. She said: “I think that the Sri Lankan government knows that the entire world is very disappointed that in its efforts to end what it sees as 25 years of conflict, it is causing such untold suffering”. Patton Boggs’s efforts did not prevent Bruce Fein filing a 1,000-page report with the U.S. Justice Department charging violations of the Genocide Accountability Act of 2007. Fein referred to “a grisly 61-year tale of Sinhalese Buddhists attempting to make Sri Lanka ‘Tamil free’”.

Patton Boggs recently merged with Squire Sanders. Will that enable them to give a better service to GOSL?

Burson-Marsteller

GOSL signed a contract with Burson-Marsteller for US$ 75,000 a month (more than US $900,000 a year). B-M’s website boasts of its sophisticated campaigns: “Clients often engage Burson-Marsteller when the stakes are high …. Most of all, clients come to us for our proven ability to communicate effectively with their most critical audiences and stakeholders.” Some critics have said that these sophisticated campaigns often include dirty tricks.

B-M is the largest PR firm in the world; it has represented some unlovely regimes. The Nigerian government engaged B-M during the Biafran war, to discredit reports of genocide.   The fascist junta in Argentina hired B-M during the 70s and early 80s, to attract foreign investment. South Korea hired them to cover up human rights abuses for the 1988 Olympics. B-M represented the communist Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu.

As well as asking if it is a good idea for Sri Lanka to be associated with these regimes, one could ask if B-M was successful in improving the public image of Nigeria, Argentina, South Korea or Ceausescu.

Thompson Advisory Group

GOSL paid millions of rupees to Thompson Advisory Group (TAG). A lump sum of Rs 4.5 million (as well a monthly fee of Rs. 910,000) went to a driver called Tilak Mohan Siriwardena. Apparently, there are plans to give TAG millions more. In a previous effort, more than once TAG referred to this island nation as “Sir Lanka”.

TAG produced a documentary, Sri Lanka: Reconciling and Rebuilding, which Groundviews described as “rank propaganda… albeit produced very well, with compelling visuals and a well scripted storyline”. Did this film change anyone’s mind about Sri Lanka?

Macro or Micro?

Other PR firms advising the Sri Lankan government have included Vigilant Worldwide Communications of New York. Their task (for six months at a cost of $5,000 a month) is to “develop a strategic communications plan and conduct outreach to Members of the Congress and other US government officials with the purpose of raising awareness of Sri Lanka’s strategic importance to the US.”

There may be some logic in this macro strategy of trying to influence influential people. The nitty-gritty though is does it work? It does not seem to.

Should a micro approach be tried? Why are such large sums being spent at the same time that challengeable items like the Calgary Herald story are allowed to go unchallenged? Embassy staff should be challenging these stories. The huge funds paid to western PR behemoths should be diverted to the diplomatic service to equip embassies to serve their country effectively.

Perhaps Mr Lional Premasiri, Acting High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Ottawa, could issue a press release about the Calgary Herald story.

 

 

Fantasies of Virtue

This article was posted on The Agonist on July 29th, 2009

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 admits 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, is dead, while Osama Bin Laden is 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.”

The Sri Lankan government defeated, within its own sovereign borders, with the support of its electorate, what Kaplan admits to be a terrorist group ”among the best organized and most ruthless to have emerged anywhere since the Second World War”. The US has for long used and continues to use even more brutal methods than those condemned by Kaplan.

The birth of the American nation was mired in the genocide of the indigenous races and its development depended on slavery. In his book, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920, Jackson Lears describes how many Americans embraced militaristic fantasies of national rebirth through war and empire. US soldiers were awarded medals in 1890 for firing Hotchkiss cannons at unarmed Indians at Wounded Knee. When Filipinos resisted US imperial claims, the US Army “civilized” them with indiscriminate slaughter as Mark Twain put it “Maxim Guns and Hymn Books”.

America is today an imperial power with military bases instead of colonies. George Orwell commented in 1943, ”It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory.” Citizens of many nations today get that same feeling. Those populations hosting US bases are expected to be grateful that the bases are contributing to democracy and freedom, but instead feel exploited because the bases are used to control trade, resources, local supplies of cheap labor, and the political, economic, and social life of host countries. They also force them to support American imperialism, including foreign wars, despite harmful fallout to local populations.

There are 38 U.S. military facilities on Okinawa. They account for 78 percent of the bases in Japan and use up 30 percent of the land mass of the island. The U.S. military bases on Okinawa also cover over 40 percent of the arable soil, once some of the best agricultural land in Japan.

Figures up to 1998, show that since 1972, 4,905 crimes were committed against Japanese people by U.S. military personnel, their dependents and U.S. civilian contractors and employees. More than ten percent of these crimes involved serious crimes of murder, robbery or rape. In most cases, the Japanese authorities were not allowed to arrest or question the alleged perpetrators.

Possibly the most famous case was in 1995, when three U.S. soldiers abducted and raped a young schoolgirl. This provoked massive protests. One demonstration drew a crowd of over 92,000, demanding the bases be removed and that the soldiers be turned over to the Japanese authorities for trial. This was never done.

The US is the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons. They dropped atomic bombs  on civilians. 90,000 (this is the low estimate) died immediately at Hiroshima. The estimate for Nagasaki is 20,000.

During the Vietnam War up to 5 million civilians (including citizens of Laos and Cambodia) lost their lives.

On May 26, 2009, a report by Australian law professor Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, was published. The report focused mainly on transgressions during the Bush administration’s”war on terror”. The report found that accountability in the U.S. has been “deplorable.” Few would doubt that the USA has killed innocent civilians and used torture in Iraq. According to The Lancet, the US adventure in Iraq has led to a death toll in excess of 650,000 and four million civilians have been displaced.

The CIA has kidnapped people and outsourced their torture. Torture is illegal under international law; the Obama administration is reluctant to face the issue, but supports calls for Sri Lanka to be investigated for war crimes.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, civilians continue to die because of US air attacks. Kaplan dismisses this: “The Americans have carefully targeted select al-Qaeda members and, in the process, killed a few, at the most, dozens of civilians among whom the fighters were surrounded.” Small drone attack – not many babies or wedding guests killed. Sri Lankans feel that, in a world where innocent Afghan and Pakistanis are killed on a regular basis by unmanned Predator drones in the name of fighting terrorism, the west should not preach to Sri Lanka.

President Obama said:”If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban, or allows al-Qaeda to go unchallenged, that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.  For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralysed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people, especially women and girls. The return in force of al-Qaeda terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership would cast Afghanistan under the shadow of perpetual violence.”

Sri Lanka had an even greater interest in avoiding falling to the Tigers. As Kaplan points out 3,000 died on 9/11; perhaps as many as 100,000 Sri Lankans have died because of the Tigers.

The most worrying thing for those of us not fortunate to be US citizens is the delusional nature of US policy. As Rory Stewart wrote recently in the London Review of Books, ”It papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy. It conceals the conflicts between our interests: between giving aid to Afghans and killing terrorists. It assumes that Afghanistan is predictable. It is a language that exploits tautologies and negations to suggest inexorable solutions. It makes our policy seem a moral obligation, makes failure unacceptable, and alternatives inconceivable.”

Ian Birrell wrote about elections in Afghanistan in the Independent: ”Once again, we are chasing a chimera, falling for the myth of democracy rather than the reality. Buttressed by our own history, we see the ballot box as the ultimate expression of democracy… The dream is back on. Meanwhile, warlords wash the blood from their hands and dress up as democrats, doing deals to carve up the country… At the end of the process, there will still be some tribal tensions, gangsterism and poppy fields. Even to get to this point will cost billions. It will take many years. And sadly, there will be scores more teenage soldiers slaughtered and maimed. ”

There is an assumption that the US has a moral justification and obligation to intervene in other nations’ affairs. There is also the fantasy that it has the capability to address terrorism and, simultaneously, support ill-defined humanitarian objectives. The US is not as tough and powerful or as humane as thinks. It is unlikely that it can defeat the Taliban forever. In trying to make its fantasies real, it causes havoc and suffering.

Who could dare to argue that “morality” is a bad thing? Morality can be dangerous in politics, particularly if it is not clearly thought out, if it is just used as a buzz concept, part of the jargon. Blair and Bush told many lies (a justifiable immorality?) about Iraq and ended up with Saddam’s “evil” as the only justification for the mess. Saddam was killed; Prabakharan was killed. Large numbers of people were killed in Iraq but the purpose was noble wasn’t it? President Rajapaksa could also argue that difficult decisions had to be taken in order to achieve the ultimate good of ending the horror wrought by the Tamil Tigers.

There are certainly very real concerns about human rights and freedom of speech in Sri Lanka. However, Kaplan should look at the beam in the USA’s eye before calling attention to the mote in Sri Lanka’s. The Obama administration said it could continue to imprison non-U.S. citizens indefinitely even if they have been acquitted of terrorism charges by a U.S. military commission.

“In fact, there are no useful pointers to be gleaned from the Sri Lankan government’s victory.” I hope that Kaplan is correct and that the US does not try to learn from the Sri Lankan experience.

One lesson that might be learnt is that even those Sri Lankans who were dubious about the government’s decision to pursue the military option, are relieved, Tamils among them, that the venture has been successful.

Does the fact that those accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes are not free of guilt themselves, mean the issue should be ignored? Some would argue that a full investigation of war crimes would be a distraction from the reconciliation process. Others argue that the bitterness felt by many of the Tamil community will make reconciliation impossible if this issue is not addressed.

Other  countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Chile and Northern Ireland are sometimes cited. Sri Lanka does not have direct parallels with any of these countries.Whatever discrimination and violence Sri Lankan Tamils may have suffered, Sri Lanka is not an apartheid society like South Africa, Palestine or even Louisiana. Whatever notion the western media might convey, Sri Lanka’s entire Tamil population has not been confined to a narrow strip of beach being bombarded by a racist government intent on genocide; the entire Tamil population is not currently imprisoned in concentration camps prior to extermination. Tamils are spread throughout the country and generally live normal lives. Many of them are prosperous and influential. Some held senior positions in government until the Tigers killed them.

In Chile, General Pinochet overthrew a democratically elected government; in Sri Lanka a democratically elected government increased its popularity with the voters by overthrowing a totalitarian, fascist, military dictatorship in part of its internationally recognised sovereign territory and intends to restore democracy to that area.
In Northern Ireland, peace was achieved through negotiation when both sides became exhausted and accepted that neither could win. The IRA gave up its goal of a united Ireland. The LTTE went into every negotiation with an uncompromising demand for nothing short of a separate homeland, comprising two-thirds of the territory of Sri Lanka.

Reconciliation will be difficult but it is possible. Sri Lanka needs help in this process rather than sanctimonious lectures.

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