Monday, February 23, 2009

US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations – Hearing on 'Recent Developments in Sri Lanka'

For all those who argue that there's no military solution for terrorism, we have two words: Sri Lanka

By Hassina Leelarathna
Editor & Publisher
Sri Lanka Express (Serving the Sri Lankan community in the US since 1981)

Chairman Senator John F. Kerry
Ranking Member Senator Richard G. Lugar

Dear Senators:

I am the editor and publisher of a newspaper that has served the Sri Lankan community in the US for more than twenty-five years and I am writing to express my concerns and views regarding the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's upcoming hearing on 'Recent Developments in Sri Lanka.'

The announcement comes at a time when Sri Lanka and the US stand at the very crossroads of change: we have a U.S. president who has promised a fresh approach to foreign relations and a Sri Lanka that is reawakening and is in the first throes of post-war rebuilding and reconciliation, after virtually eliminating the 30-year old stranglehold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. For any discussion on Sri Lanka to be relevant and meaningful to the people of that county and for any future policy decisions by the US to have the force of the moral leadership promised by the President Obama, all of the nuances of recent developments in Sri Lanka must be taken into account.

The upcoming hearing with its lineup of just three witnesses does not suggest the potential for such a desired effect.

In fact, the committee is going to get an incomplete, inaccurate, and, predictably, bleak picture of recent developments in Sri Lanka. For example, can Mr. Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who is expected to speak about the murder of editor Lasantha Wickrematunge be relied upon to present all the nuances of that case? Will he mention that Wickrematunge was allegedly a 'double agent' who provided information about fellow journalists to the US Ambassador Robert Blake in Colombo, that he ran for political office once, changed political affiliation and became a supporter of the opposition United National Party on whose ticket he was expecting to be made the justice minister? None of that justifies his murder but they do redefine his life and values and broadens the circle of suspects. In fact, the world of Sri Lankan journalism is in itself quite convoluted and not without its own dirty secrets and scandals – a fact that CPJ may have chosen to ignore. For instance, Sunanda Deshapriya, the president of the Free Media Movement on whom CPJ has relied heavily for information when researching press freedom in Sri Lanka, has now disappeared from the scene after being fired for alleged embezzlement of NGO funds. So much for the credibility of CPJ's sources.

Ms. Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch (HRW), will also paint a dim picture of disappearances and abductions. Could the committee depend solely on the testimony of an organization whose stock in trade is the existence of human rights abuses? In at least one instance, (the arrest of journalist Tissanayagam) the Sri Lankan authorities took Ms. Niestat to task for misrepresenting facts and brought out what appeared to be credible evidence in support of their case. It must also be mentioned that questioned about allegations of abductions and disappearances, Sri Lankan authorities have answered that the numbers are exaggerated and that names of the disappeared are not being provided by rights groups such as HRW.

Additionally, if the witness base is not balanced out, the committee will continue to work with existing biases and propaganda. The following is an example of such an outcome.

·On Feb 2, 2009 Committee Chairman Senator Kerry co-authored a statement on Sri Lanka with you, Senator Lugar, which mentions the shelling of a hospital in the conflict zone. This allegation was based on a totally erroneous Associated Press (AP) report dated January 27, 2009 that said: " At least 300 civilians were wounded and scores feared killed by government artillery shells fired into a designated "safe zone" for ethnic Tamils trapped by fighting between the government and Tamil rebels." The report quoted a Sri Lankan health official as saying that relatives had brought some 300 people wounded by the government artillery fire to Puthukudiyiruppu hospital, some 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Mullaittivu, and 'the dead have been buried immediately or abandoned by roadsides as the families flee attacks.'

A day later, after the 'health official' denied ever making such a claim, AP issued an advisement to editors to 'kill' the story and to make certain it is not published. However, the 'kill' advisement and the subsequent information that the hospital had not been hit and that it was part of obvious LTTE propaganda, was never publicized by the media.

Making things worse, a few days later, the United Nation's Colombo based spokesman Gordon Weiss fell for the same propaganda and told the media that the Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital had been hit by cluster munitions, intimating that the Sri Lankan military was using cluster bombs. Later that same day, after being challenged on the accuracy of the report, the UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Neil Buhne extended a verbal apology. The Sri Lanka airforce subsequently issued a video showing the hospital as being intact.

These are just a few of the examples of how easily LTTE propaganda is picked up and disseminated by even the most highly-respected news organizations and world humanitarian groups.

Will the Senate Foreign Relations Committee continue to make conclusions based on such propaganda or will it make an honest attempt, to the best of its ability, to get a complete and accurate a picture of 'Recent Developments' in Sri Lanka?
With all due respect, I also believe that this is the time for the US to make a reassessment of its approach to Sri Lanka's attempts to resolve the separatist issue.
Such a reassessment would include:
Recognition of the current situation where the Sri Lankan military is within reach of totally eliminating the LTTE and expediting that process by pressuring the LTTE to release the civilians they are holding as 'human shields'

Immediate assistance for reconstruction and rebuilding the areas recaptured from the LTTE

Moving away from the highly-critical moral tone inherent in most hearings, resolutions, or discussions on Sri Lanka. As much as Abu Ghraib and other human rights scandals have tarnished the US' own human rights record and lowered her moral altitude, surely, they must also have brought home to you the reality of fighting a terrorist war. Imagine, a year-round 9-11, stretching over 30 years – which is what Sri Lanka has endured. Captious resolutions introduced from time to time by US politicians (some of whom received campaign funds from LTTE front organizations) and various shortsighted decisions have led to Sri Lanka gravitating towards China, Japan, Russia, and even Iran. Granted, for the US, Sri Lanka may rank low on the scale of desirable allies; nevertheless, it has remained an ally, and one of the few democracies in Asia. With the US' diminishing orbit of influence in world affairs, the value of such an ally must not be discounted.

And, not least: Recognition of the monumental achievement of virtually eliminating the world's most brutal terrorist group. To quote the Wall Street Journal: " For all those who argue that there's no military solution for terrorism, we have two words: Sri Lanka." (WSJ 1/16/09).

Yes, Senators, go ahead, time for some applause!

Thanking you for your interest in Sri Lanka,


Hassina Leelarathna