Behind the Headlines

by V Gunaratnam

These are my comments on the news behind the headlines quoted below from various Sri Lankan sources.

Less than ten percent of Sinhalese want Norway to continue as the key facilitator of Sri Lanka peace process - survey - July 22

According to the "Social Indicator" published by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, only 9.8% of Sinhalese want Norway as the key facilitator, but 47.5% like India in that role.  What can we make of this?  It is a good bet that less than 10% of those surveyed know much about what Norway is doing in Sri Lanka, except perhaps that they are there to do the government’s bidding and to get the LTTE to agree to a peace accord, because the vast majority of the Sinhalese are plain rural folk.  Whatever value the survey carries, it has to accord with the facts on the ground, if it is to have any credence.

The only people who would have been inclined to respond to the ‘research’ poll are not the rural and poverty-stricken masses, but the Sinhala chauvinists in Colombo, the Buddhist monks, and the radical leftist elements, people who believe their own lies, their constant refrain about how Norway is siding with the LTTE.

There is a big hole in the chauvinists' story, however, because how do they explain why the government of Sri Lanka has been happily going along with what Norway is doing?  The truth is, without ever acknowledging it, Sri Lanka has been reaping rich dividends from Norway’s efforts: the ceasefire that spawned the ongoing peace, and the vital economic lifeline it provided for the country to develop and prosper for more than three years.  There is no denying that, without Norway’s staying-power, skill and, at times, tough talk, to wade through very difficult problems, and keep the ceasefire and peace alive, it would have led to utter chaos, and possibly another destructive war.

Let us not also forget that it was Kumaratunga who first invited Norway in 2000 to get involved.  If the Norwegians have been acting out of line and damaging Sri Lanka’s vital interests, she could have just as easily sent them away, or have the Norway-bashers forgotten that Sri Lanka is still a sovereign country?  But, if the Norwegians had been sent home, it would certainly have created a very difficult vacuum to fill.  Kumaratunge made a lot of threatening noises about Norway for domestic consumption, but there was no real need to fix something that was not broken, indeed working well for Sri Lanka.  It would therefore be the height of absurdity for anyone to think or pretend that Sri Lanka is Norway’s helpless victim!

It is a different kettle of fish altogether if India is preferred as the key facilitator, but strange, because the Sinhalese really do not have any great love for India or the Indians.  That is a historical fact.  They have never ceased to demonize the Indians.  The abuse got much worse after the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.  India, for its part, has also not forgotten its disastrous military campaign in Sri Lanka between 1987-1990.  However that might be, India has too many things on its plate just now to be directly drawn into Sri Lanka’s problems.  And, as the regional superpower vying for a place on the UN Security Council, the Indians do not want to be making the wrong moves.

India will no doubt be exerting its influence to shape the peace process, but for now it appears to be content to keep a watchful eye on events in Sri Lanka as they develop, and let Norway do its work; and so will Sri Lanka, because the stakes are incredibly high for it to be risking any changes now, after going so far with the Norwegians.

Minister says Aussie PM’s statement over presidential polls inSri Lanka is 'an intervention in the internal affairs' - July 22

The minister was Anura Bandaranayake, but strangely doing Foreign Minister Kadirgamar’s job.  But that is another story... Sri Lanka has been scrambling ever since coming to power in 2004 to get India to ‘intervene’ in their internal affairs to deal with the LTTE, but here is Anura being so touchy about a question of hot debate within Sri Lanka and abroad, ever since President Kumaratunga declared that her term ends only in 2006.  Scandalously, her term was sealed at a secret swearing-in ceremony in the presence of only the Chief Justice and Foreign Minister Kadirgamar.

When democratic norms are being flouted, and a country’s constitution is misused, or becomes an instrument of oppression, the international community has never drawn back from voicing its concerns.  The Australian Prime Minister was merely expressing the collective decision of the International Democratic Union, of which he is the chairperson, indicating that the presidential election in Sri Lanka should be held this year, because there are very troubling concerns. 

Obviously there are serious questions about the term yet to be answered, since the bare facts indicate that the election is due in 2005.

Sri Lanka to give ultimatum to donors who fail to start tsunami reconstruction - July 23

This is such an absurd stance for Sri Lanka to take with hardly any resources of its own to provide relief to the tsunami victims.  Sri Lanka government is at fault for this state of affairs.  It has not fulfilled its obligations to ensure aid is channeled to victims efficiently and without discrimination; let NGOs work without being constantly hampered; and get the stalled peace process going, because international donors are concerned about the political stability so necessary to ensure the viability of the reconstruction effort down the road.

An act that typifies the government’s discriminatory practices by attempting to control the free flow of aid to the northeast principally is the imposition of customs duty on aid items.  It has aid and charitable organisations around the world scratching their heads in disbelief and anger as they scramble to find the means to pay the duties and keep aid flowing to victims.  And six long months after the tsunami hit the country, the victims are still struggling to put their lives back together.

If the NGOs have said reconstruction is going to be done, it is going to be done, but when the Sri Lanka system is full of holes, with barriers to the equitable distribution of aid, corruption, and inefficiency to threaten NGOs with an ultimatum is like cutting one’s nose to spite oneself.  It is downright insane, inhuman, if not criminal, for Sri Lanka to be doing this.

India and Sri Lanka to hold talks on Sethu project on Aug. 1 - July 23

Big powers like India invariably act unilaterally when it suits their own interests, brushing aside the concerns of smaller nations like Sri Lanka.  That is how India is going ahead with the Sethusamudrum project despite vigorous opposition from Sri Lanka, notwithstanding the cozy relations that appeared to be developing between the countries in recent times, with defence pacts and economic cooperation.  Sri Lankan complaints are now getting a hearing almost as an afterthought, because the decision has already been made.  Sri Lanka is left with a salty taste, like that from the sea spray of the Sethusamudrum.

Sri Lanka President complains to donors about the LTTE's continuing violations - July 25

Kumaratunga’s complaint to a meeting with the Colombo-based diplomatic representatives of the four co-chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference at President’s House, saying that it was unfortunate that the four co-chairs were repeating the contention of the LTTE that the government was supporting the "paramilitary groups," only served to confirm what impartial observers knew all the time to be the true position.  It spoke volumes about how the co-chairs viewed the situation and who the culprits were, because they had no reason to take sides.  No one was fooled by what the Sri Lanka government was doing.  Kumaratunga should double-check her facts before rushing to make such complaints again.


Posted August 12, 2005