Blackmailing Sri Lanka’s friends


British Defence Secretary Liam Fox finally did not turn up for the Lakshman Kadirgamar memorial oration he was due to deliver yesterday. This despite the fact that his aide, Adam Verity, was in Colombo ahead of him and even the topic of his oration ‘International Security’ had been announced. Fox has been a friend of Sri Lanka for many years and the reason why he accepted the invitation to deliver the Kadirgamar memorial oration is obviously because of the regard he had for the late foreign minister with whom he would have had many dealings over the years. This was for all practical purposes a private visit to deliver a memorial oration at the invitation of Mrs Suganthie Kadirgamar, the head of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies.

Liam Fox’s plan to come to Sri Lanka to deliver the lecture, was opposed from the beginning by William Hague the British Foreign Secretary with one British newspaper even reporting that the British Foreign Office was even planning to appeal to the prime minister David Cameron to prevent Fox from visiting Sri Lanka. The ostensible reason why Hague and the British Foreign Office opposed Fox’s proposed visit to Sri Lanka was because Sri Lanka was facing war crimes allegations. However, Kadirgamar was not around during the last days of the LTTE; nor did he ever serve in the Rajapaksa government. Kadirgamar was held in high esteem by Britain as well, and there is absolutely no reason for the foreign office to object to any British politician delivering an oration in memory of Kadirgamar except due to the utilitarian consideration that he is dead anyway and that since he can not be brought back to life there was no point in damaging the electoral interests of the Conservative Party by needlessly angering the LTTE voters in Britain.

The last minute cancellation of Fox’s memorial oration adds a new twist to the embarrassingly undignified scramble between British political parties to woo Tamil votes in Britain. Lakshman Kadirgamar is considered a traitor by the pro-LTTE Tamils in Britain and the Conservative Party was no doubt acutely aware of the fact that if a prominent member of their party delivers the Kadirgamar memorial lecture, that will anger the LTTE rump in their country which controls about 25,000 votes which could make a difference in certain marginal seats. The British Conservative government turned a Nelsonian eye to the fact that the flag of the LTTE was prominently displayed by protestors during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent visit to Britain. If the police had asked the protestors not to display the LTTE flag as that was a banned terrorist organization in Britain, that would have angered the LTTE voters, which they obviously wanted to avoid.

Pressure was brought on Fox from both sides of the political divide with his cabinet colleague Hague publicly opposing Fox’s visit and opposition Labour parliamentarians like Jim Murphy and Yvette Cooper stressing that if Fox was visiting Sri Lanka, then he has to come back with something like an agreement by the Sri Lankan government to submit itself to an international war crimes investigation. Such demands made on a politician who was going to make a private visit to deliver an oration in memory of a universally respected former Sri Lankan foreign minister amounts to an attempt to browbeat and blackmail anybody with a reputation being a friend of Sri Lanka into either abandoning that position or forcing that person to extract from the SL government pledges that are not in Sri Lanka’s national interest.

The fact of the matter is that the LTTE has leverage over domestic British politics cannot be grounds for Sri Lanka or any other sovereign nation to take decisions against its own national interest. It is unfair of British politicians like Yvette Cooper to literally expect Fox to come back from Sri Lanka with a pledge to have for example the field commanders in the war all bound hand and foot and ready to be transported to The Hague. That’s just not going to happen.

Indeed for any nation to be so much in thrall to 25,000 votes controlled by an international terrorist organization which even the Indian prime minister has to take special precautions against at this very moment, is not consistent with the national interest of that nation. Fox’s inability to turn up for the memorial oration is in many ways reminiscent of the manner in which for nearly two decades, the Indian Army was not able to commemorate the 1000+ Indian soldiers who laid down their lives fighting the LTTE in the late 1980s for fear of inflaming opinion in Tamil Nadu. That is not an enviable situation for any nation to be in and the sooner the British establishment realizes this, the better it would be for them.


UNP braces for wrenching conflict

Last Sunday, the people of Sri Lanka were treated to a sight that many thought they would never see, a huge, deliriously enthusiastic crowd of UNP supporters clamouring at the gates of the party headquarters Sirikotha, trying to get in. All this while people were trying to get out with the same enthusiasm. The reason for all that delirium was because everybody thought they had come to see the old order out and a new order in. Indeed at this convention certain radical changes were made in the party constitution which makes the party leadership elective with the working committee and the parliamentary group being able to elect the party leader and other office bearers of the party. At last Sunday’s party convention, there was hardly any doubt as to who the party rank and file had in mind as the next leader.

Technically Sajith Premadasa had no status to be a speaker at last Sunday’s party convention. He was not a politician from the area where the convention was held, nor was he a key office bearer of the party or a member of the Reforms Committee that brought forward the constitutional reform proposals. Sajith seems to have been given a speech simply as the generally accepted ‘leader in waiting of the party’. Indeed the party could not have avoided giving Sajith a speech as they knew that the majority of the crowd present on that day would be for Sajith Premadasa.

The first to address the crowd was Shiral Laktilleke the Kotte organizer. Next came Ravi Karunanayake as the district leader for Colombo. Tissa Attanayake, read the notice announcing the convening of the convention. Then Karu Jayasuriya, Ranil Wickremesinghe and finally Sajith addressed the gathering. Then it came to the question of voting for the new constitution. Attanayake explained the provisions of the new constitution and proposed that it be approved by the convention. Wijedasa Rajapakse seconded the motion. Thereafter Joseph Michael Perera and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, both members of the Reforms Committee that ushered in the new party constitution, addressed the gathering before Ranil Wickremesinghe asked the crowd whether they are for the new constitution. Everybody enthusiastically voted in favour by show of hands and that closed the proceedings for the day.

Then all chaos broke lose with the delirious crowds cheering and waving, completely oblivious to the fact that the national anthem was being played in the back ground. The footage of UNP members of parliament waving and jostling one another on the stage while the national anthem was played provided much grist to the government’s propaganda mill – another embarrassing reminder that we live in a digital age when every word or gesture can be captured on camera and used against you.

In his speech, Premadasa thanked Maithri Gunaratne, Ronald Perera and the others who had made the present convention possible by meeting the legal challenges that had been brought against the holding of this convention. "We can’t keep losing every day, we are all exhausted." He said, "This party has to win, it has to be taken on a social democratic path. JR also believed in social democracy in 1977." In enunciating his political theories at the party convention Sajith was clearly giving an indication that he was going to make a bid for the leadership at the first round.

Wickremesinghe is well known to be an ardent follower of neo-liberal policies. Sajith’s clear repudiation of neo-liberalism and the espousing of social democratic values is an indication of what the future holds. Sajith also stressed the need to eliminate the ‘yes man’ culture from within the UNP and the giving of positions to friends and cronies. However, he also made it a point to stress that nobody should be sidelined or thrown out, and that even the party leader is a valuable resource that needs to be made use of.

With the passing of this new party constitution at last week’s convention, many people thought the conflict within the UNP would die down. But now it seems more likely that the conflict will exacerbate with the first election of party office bearers under the new constitution in the offing. After the convention Ranil Wickremesinghe has been stressing the need to ‘unite and go forward’ which is the standard phrase he uses when he wants people to stop trying to push him out. Coupled to this is the statement made by Kithsiri Anuradhanayake, the leader of the opposition of the North Central Province at a press conference on Wednesday at the UNP media center to the effect that the new party constitution was not meant to effect a change in the leadership. Anuradhanayake is a known Wickremesinghe loyalist. What the crowd that was present at the convention wanted however was obviously leadership change.

About four months ago, a suggestion had been made to the committee that was drafting the new party constitution that the position of ‘Senior Leader’ be added to the key positions in the party; but Wickremesinghe had vehemently opposed it out of fear that if such a position is created, the working committee and the parliamentary group may not be able to resist the temptation to kick him upstairs into the new position. So now there is no position of Senior Leader and if Wickremesinghe loses the contest for the leadership, he will be simply thrown out of the party. Given this situation he is now basically fighting with his back to the wall.

In this context, the UNP reformists will have to be mindful of Article 8.3 in the new party constitution. This crucial article deals with the interim arrangements from now until the new office bearers are elected by the working committee and the parliamentary group. The agreement arrived at a previous working committee meeting was that the existing working committee will be the interim working committee until the new office bearers are elected and the new working committee appointed in accordance with the provisions of the new constitution. So the idea was that it would be the existing working committee that elects the new office bearers of the party. However Article 8.3 in the constitution that was approved last Sunday says something completely different. It enables the party leader in consultation with the deputy leader, general secretary, party chairman and treasurer -all of whom are Wickremesinghe’s creatures anyway, to appoint the ENTIRE interim working committee which in turn will appoint the new office bearers!

There is nothing in Article 8.3 which says that those who were in the working committee at the time the party convention was held should be appointed to the interim working committee. The party leader has complete and unfettered power to appoint whoever he likes to the interim working committee. The only restriction is that the number he appoints to the new interim committee will have to be equal to the number of working committee members at the time the convention was held. The reason why this clause was drafted this way, was apparently because Lakshman Seneviratne is still a member of the working committee and a member of the party as per a court order, so they could not include a clause in the constitution saying that the existing working committee will be the interim working committee. But having worded Article 8.3 to keep Seneviratne out, there is nothing to prevent Wickremesinghe from using it to keep anybody else out as well.

Apparently, the party deputy leader and general secretary were to give a written undertaking to the reformists to the effect that the previous working committee (with the exception of Lakshman Seneviratne) will all be members of the interim working committee. However, no such letter has been given as yet and the constitution has already been passed. Given this provisions in Article 8.3, Wickremesighe can fill the interim working committee with his nominees and have himself elected party leader and his nominees elected to the other positions in the party as well. Since the convention, Wickremesinghe has been in an upbeat mood telling people that he has won the day. Indeed he may have if he chooses to avail himself of the opportunity provided by Article 8.3. The only way to prevent him from giving in to baser instincts would be for the UNP parliamentary group to decide to sit separately if he misuses Article 8.3 to ride roughshod over the decision arrived at a previous working committee meeting that the existing working committee will be the interim working committee until the new office bearers are elected according to the new constitution.

The countless dead

Last Wednesday (Dec. 15), the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka concluded receiving submissions. This three member panel of experts appointed to advise the secretary general on accountability issues relating to alleged war crimes committed during the last phase of the war against the LTTE, would now be writing its report. Now that yet another report on alleged war crimes committed in Sri Lanka is in the offing, there are a few points that that need to be made about previous reports on this matter that have been published. There is a danger of the truth being buried under all these reports.

The first to start writing reports on war crimes in Sri Lanka was the European Union which hired a three man team of experts for the purpose. This team published their findings in October 2009 and the estimate they made of the number of civilian deaths during the last phase of the war between January and May 19, 2009, was 20,000. This estimate was based on the basis of a single newspaper report in the London Times. The London Times, for their part, claimed to be basing their estimates on ‘leaked UN documents’ which gave a figure of 7,000 civilian deaths for the first four months (from January 1 to the April 30, 2009) and around 13,000 deaths at the rate of about 1,000 per day from May 1 to 19, 2009, making up the grand total of 20,000.

The EU made the decision to withdraw the GSP+ trade concession which Sri Lanka had enjoyed since 2005 largely on this figure of civilian casualties. However, at around the same time that the EU’s final report was put out, the US State Department also prepared their own Report to Congress on ‘Incidents during the recent conflict in Sri Lanka’. In this report, the Americans have given an exhaustive day by day breakdown of all the information received direct by their Embassy in Colombo and also the information that other western embassies, aid agencies and International NGOs operating in the conflict areas had shared with the US Embassy. This kind of information is usually shared between INGOS and diplomatic missions in Colombo and the American report gives us a good idea about the actual number and nature of the reports they would have received during the period from the beginning of January till the war ended on May 19, 2009.

Even though the London Times report quoted above claimed that there was an average of 1,000 deaths per day from May 1 onwards, the American report does not confirm that. There is only one entry in the American report on May 9, 2009, when an unnamed organization’s ‘local source’ had reported that the no fire zone had been under artillery fire ‘from all four directions’ for 12 hours and that over 1,000 had died with a similar number being injured. The American report has only this one instance of a casualty figure of 1,000 deaths in one day even though they had been exchanging all the information they got with other organizations and missions in Sri Lanka. This then raises questions about the estimated figure of 1,000 deaths every day from May 1 until Prabhakaran’s death on the 19th which appeared in the London Times. How could the American Embassy and the other diplomatic missions and aid agencies in Colombo have missed receiving reports of such a large number of deaths on a daily basis when they themselves were monitoring the situation closely? Obviously, somebody has been taking liberties with the numbers.

The American report is more reliable because they have put their name to it whereas the London Times was quoting ‘leaked UN documents’ which don’t appear to exist. When the EU experts were preparing their report on Sri Lanka, they made no attempt to trace the source from which the London Times got their figures. They simply accepted them as true. However, when the International Crisis Group (ICG) was preparing their own report on alleged war crimes in time for the first anniversary of the end of the war in May this year, they did try to trace the UN documents that the London Times referred to but came up against a blank wall because the UN had refused to confirm any figures. In the absence of anybody to confirm anything, the International Crisis Group then set about doing their own calculations.

The ICG says that they have ‘credible evidence’ that there were 330,000 IDPs in the second no fire zone in mid to late February 2009 while another 33,000 to 38,000 IDPs were already in government run camps in Vauniya which brings the total to around 365,000 IDPs in the ICG’s reckoning. However, they say that when the war ended there were only around 290,000 people registered at government run IDP camps. So the ICG claims that leaving provision for those who may have fled to India and so on, there would still be around 75,000 people unaccounted for.

Of this figure, the ICG is willing to write off as many as 30,000 civilian deaths who in their own words, ‘may have been killed lawfully’ as they may have been taking direct part in the hostilities when they were targeted. Even after this they are still left with over 30,000 killed or missing. (It should be noted that the number of civilian deaths the ICG is generously willing to write off as ‘lawful killings’ exceeds by 50% the total number of deaths originally estimated by the Times London!) Thus the quest to search for the leaked UN documents about the 20,000 deaths mentioned by the London Times ended with the ICG coming up with their own figure which was much higher than the original estimate they were investigating. Even though the ICG report is more than 20,000 words long, they have not told us how they came to the conclusion that there were 330,000 IDPs in the second no fire zone in February 2009 to begin with. Who did the counting? We just have to take it on trust that they have ‘credible evidence’ to that effect.

If we go by the way the London Times, the EU and the ICG have been giving estimates of the total number of civilians killed in the last phase of the war, what we see is that the numbers are limited only by the imagination of whoever happens to be writing the report! Tamils who were never born appear to have died during the last phases of the war in Sri Lanka. And now we wait in anticipation to see what the UN Secretary General’s experts are going to cook up for us.

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