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A comedy of errors

Captain Ali

‘Captain Ali’ which was supposed to bring supplies to the displaced in Vanni but was turned away by the Government is to off-load its cargo at last, at the instance of India. The ship was coming for a long time starting from the time that the LTTE was fighting its last battle. The information about the ship was hazy and scrappy at that time. Who were the shippers? What was her cargo? Where would she unload?

‘Captain Ali’ was to come from England initially but it transpired later that due to objections by the British Government she took off from France. There was apprehension at the time whether she was coming in peace or in war. The Sri Lankan Navy declared its readiness to deal with the ghost ship, if it tried to enter our territorial waters.

The impression was that the ship was chartered by the Tamil Diaspora. While the Government claimed that permission had not been obtained for the voyage, there were counter claims that permission had been sought. The good Samaritans who were chartering the ship appeared to prefer anonymity for themselves and non-description for the cargo.

By the time ‘Captain Ali’ arrived, Prabhakaran was no more and the fighting was over. The Navy boarded the ship and did a thorough survey of her cargo. They declared that the entire consignment consisted of food, clothing and medicine but the Government resolutely shut out the cargo. Next we heard that ‘Amir Ali’ was anchored off Chennai to obtain water for her crew that had fallen ill. A couple of days later, the papers reported that after a high level discussion in Delhi, Sri Lanka had relented and agreed to receive the cargo. The latest news is that the cargo is getting routed through the Indian Red Cross. That however is a clever face-saving move.

Lessons for the Diaspora

This incident raises several issues of relevance to both the Diaspora and the Government. Why did the Diaspora fight shy of declaring the cargo and its consignees to begin with? May be they were still hopeful of landing at Mulathievu. There was apprehension that the ship was coming to rescue the trapped Prabhakaran and his army. Now in retrospect it appears to be clear that the unarmed ship could not possibly have harboured such violent ambitions.

Perhaps the consignors were themselves not sure of the ships destination when she started as things were in the melting pot here at the time. But why did they elect to remain incognito even after the end of the war? The simplest thing to do was to have made a public declaration of the cargo, claiming that it was meant for the refugees in Vavuniya. Such transparency might have put an end to the matter without allowing it to snowball to a confrontation.

The ‘stage-fright’ of the Diaspora has already cost them much. Even at the peak of the war they failed to come into open negotiations with the Government. They preferred to act by proxy through Moon, Brown, Milliband and Clinton and it was too late in the day when they discovered how ineffective those cat’s paws were.

Imaginably the bulk of the LTTE investment on the war came from the Diaspora but they did nothing to manage that investment, preferring to remain back-stage. The result has sent billions down the drain. The Diaspora had all the rights and stakes to come forward and negotiate with the Government on behalf of their people when the battle was on. Such direct intervention would have provided a plausible mediator who had a legitimate role to play in the escalating conflict, unlike third parties who were ineffectively praying for peace in chorus.

Perhaps the conflict might have had a happier ending with direct mediation and saved thousands of lives on both sides. This reminds me of the following observation I made in an article published in the ‘Groundviews’ of February 18. 2009;" A prompt hands-on, pragmatic approach by the Diaspora should be more meaningful and fruitful to the Tamils than all the efforts to get Clinton, Brown, Obama and Moon to help by remote control".It is hoped that at least at this late stage the Diaspora would manifest itself to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for their less fortunate brethren at home, by filling their leadership vacuum. They have all the brains and resources to play that role better than any other imaginable substitute. ‘Government in transition’ may look fashionable but even for that the foundation has to be laid at home. The immediate problem is to grant relief to the refugees who are suffering ‘untold hardship’ according to them and obtain the best possible berth for their kind at the ongoing negotiations by putting together the infighting leaders on their side. Unfortunately the Diaspora itself appears to be divided

Lessons for the Government

As for the Government, ‘Captain Ali’ contains two lessons, one strategic and the other diplomatic. If the Government was determined not to allow the ship to offload the cargo, they ought to have given her marching orders, without inspection. That would have gone down with the rest of the world due to the suspicion on what the vessel contained. Instead officers boarded the ship, rummaged it thoroughly and declared to the whole world that it only contained relief supplies for the refugees. Turning the ship away thereafter would naturally appear to be an act of meanness. That was a diplomatic faux pas.

The Government has all the reason to be proud of ending the war but none to be arrogant. Arrogance is oblivious to reality, propriety, reason and consequences. Turning away the ship in the first instance betrays oblivion to all these aspects. Having debarred the ship however the decision had to be kept inviolate for the sake of national prestige. That could not be due to the intervention of the ‘Big Brother’. He could not be ignored not only because of his power but also for reasons of gratitude arising from his favours during the war.

This time the Diaspora chose an effective arm-twister. That was the neighbouring Tamilnadu. And the chances are that the same agent would be employed again and again in the future. That will be irksome and embarrassing to the Government. The remedy is to be circumspect and diligent before such decisions are taken hereafter. Circumspection and diligence require the absence of prejudice. As the Dhammapada says, "What is said or done with a prejudiced mind, necessarily produces negative results, as surely as the cart wheel follows the footsteps of the drawer".

The Dhammapada saying would apply even to the reported threat to prosecute Prabakaran’s aged and decrepit parents. Besides, the move, if any, appears to be a reversal of the fable in which a lion that wanted to devour an innocent lamb, did so by alleging that his father had muddied the stream above.

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