The Sunday Times journalist Tyron Devotta was on the World Bank`s e-mail list for news releases. One day last month he received a two-page announcement about World Bank support to Sri Lanka for tsunami recovery. It said total financing needs for Sri Lanka was estimated to be approximately US $ 1.5 to 1.6 billion.
This was on the basis of damage and needs assessment conducted by the World Bank in conjunction with the Asian Development Bank and the Japan Bank for International Co-operation.
What struck Devotta most was the final paragraph in the announcement. It said that the Bank would now be participating with all other development partners and key stakeholders, `including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and in close collaboration with the Government on the development of district-based reconstruction plans for the affected areas.`
Did the World Bank officially consider the LTTE a `development partner and key stakeholder`? Was this an official position of the World Bank since the news release containing the announcement had originated from Washington D.C.?
To find answers, like any good journalist would do, he sought an appointment with Peter Harrold, Country Director for the World Bank in Sri Lanka. He thought, Harrold being the international lending agency`s top man in Sri Lanka, could explain.
He had known Harrold and had met him previously during the course of his journalistic duties. An appointment was fixed for 2.30 pm on March 4 (Friday) at Harrold`s office, just a block away from the St Andrews` Scots Kirk church in Kollupitiya.
Devotta began his interview by asking Harrold about `development partners, stakeholders` and whether there was a shift in World Bank`s policy. He replied there was no such shift but Devotta pushed further.
`You say the bank will now be participating with all other development partners and key stakeholders including the LTTE - what does this mean?` asked Devotta.
Replied Harrold: ` Correct... well, we have always regarded the LTTE as a key stakeholder. I have often been roasted by various members of the press and no doubt will again after you print all of this interview. There are various members of the press and for example the Patriotic National Movement who have regarded the fact that we have wished to have conversations with and consultation with the LTTE as inappropriate. We have regarded...given that there is such a thing as the LTTE controlled area, an unofficial state and an officially recognised part of the country as the LTTE controlled area... given that they are a party to the Ceasefire Agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka which confers on them a certain status as a legitimate stakeholder.....`
Devotta had his digital tape recorder running throughout the interview. An international bureaucrat of the World Bank, Devotta believed, was someone who was conversant with not only the economic conditions of Sri Lanka. He also thought was equally consummate with social, cultural and political realities of the country. With the subject he interviewed now on tape, Devotta had no reason to doubt any possible turn or twists.
So he wrote a front-page news story for The Sunday Times. The crux of that story was that the World Bank will channel six billion rupees through state agencies for the re-building of houses in LTTE-controlled areas but will consult the LTTE on the disbursement of funds. He backed that story with quotes of what Harrold said. That was from the tape recording.
As copies of The Sunday Times hit the streets last Sunday morning, Harrold`s statement infuriated many quarters. Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar declared in a statement to the Island newspaper last Monday `it was a provocative statement.` The front page headline declared `WB country chief`s statement provocative - Kadirgamar`. This newspaper had devoted almost the entirety of its front page to developments arising from what The Sunday Times said.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna said Harrold should immediately withdraw the statement since it was a threat to Sri Lanka`s sovereignty. The World Bank`s assistance to the LTTE, to develop areas under their control and the Bank`s acceptance that the areas come under an unofficial state must be condemned by all patriotic forces, declared the Jathika Hela Urumaya.
Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike, whose Ministry is among those receiving World Bank assistance, lost no time in saying that Harrold`s statement goes beyond the mandate of the World Bank. The former Speaker of Parliament said his remarks were `unexplainable, obnoxious and highly provocative.`
There were a plethora of others who mirrored patriotic sentiments though a few, as usual, were obscured or even blind to reality and what The Sunday Times says. Placing a smokescreen on the truth, the naked truth, has become a modern day practice to those lone and muted voices.
On Sunday afternoon President Kumaratunga was told of Harrold`s statements. She could not believe Harrold had made such remarks. `Surely, he could not have said a thing like that,` she told an aide. Yet she wanted the matter gone into.
Harrold for his part was coming under an avalanche of criticism. He hurriedly took damage control measures by issuing a two-page news release. Titled `World Bank Director Misquoted by The Sunday Times: clarifies position on World Bank Aid to North East Sri Lanka` Harrold had only two lines about the news report. He said: `I never used the phrase `a kind of unofficial state.` He added: `A careful review of a recording of the interview shows that what I said was that `given that there is such a thing as the LTTE-controlled area.`
The dispute is not over the words `a kind of.` It is over whether Harrold said in his interview about the existence of an `unofficial state` or not. Harrold claims he said `given that such a thing as the LTTE controlled area--that`s an official statement, an officially recognised part of the country is the LTTE controlled area.`
A careful and repeated review of the tape recording shows this is not what Harrold said. He says quite clearly that .... given that there is such a thing as the LTTE controlled area, an unofficial state and an officially recognised part of this country as the LTTE controlled area....`
Using his full official weight as the Country Director of the World Bank, he issued a statement to accuse The Sunday Times of misquoting him. The gullible who believed what anything a non Sri Lankan says, more so a westerner, swallowed it hook, line and sinker. The full transcript of his interview appears on Page 4 and 5. Also appearing on the same pages is Harold`s press release alleging that The Sunday Times has misquoted him. This has been faxed to the Business Desk and bore no signature. Harrold said they do not sign news releases. The World Bank Country Director was unaware of the common courtesy of directing a letter to the newspaper that he accuses of misquoting him.
Copies of the taped interview are available with The Sunday Times. For reasons of clarity, credibility and in the national interest, they can be obtained by electronic media committed to baring the truth, nothing but the whole truth before the public of Sri Lanka. This recording clearly reveals what Harrold spoke.
He says in English: `....given that there is such a thing as the LTTE controlled area, an unofficial state and an officially recognised part of this country as the LTTE controlled area.....`
We leave it to our readers to decide whether the Country Director of the World Bank is empowered to declare that there is such a thing as `an unofficial state.` Is this a view endorsed by the World Bank in Washington DC as its official policy? Or is it the reason why Harrold had second thoughts and chose to declare he was `misquoted.` The gullible no doubt swallowed what was declared. Some chose to pour scorn on The Sunday Times whilst others accepted his version with open mouths, like the starved who would receive food aid. But for many who were righteous, The Sunday Times report stirred their conscience. That is why they not only believed the front-page report but spoke their mind out pronto. Must anything more be said about credibility?
So why did Harrold change his tune? Is it not because of the mounting criticism over his remarks? Why does he now say he swallowed his words and that journalist Devotta would not have heard it properly. Surely, a tape recorder is not meant to record a speaker swallowing his words!! If as he claims he made a remark, that would have gone on record. Is this not an admission that he did not make one.
Of course, there were those sections of the media that lapped up Harrold`s version. They had a field day right through the week knowing very well that The Sunday Times must wait a week to respond. They can now see how they fared.
A privately run TV and a State-run newspaper took Harrold`s version of the interview as gospel, and delighted in rubbing the nose of The Sunday Times` credibility to the ground. Strange bed-fellows indeed, these, coming together in common cause, knights in shining armour, rising to the defence, by Gad Sir, like Sir Galahad, to the defence of the beleaguered Peter Harrold Esquire.
Surely, they might have heard of that classic rejoinder of yesteryear, from historian, lawyer, politician and patriot Dr. Colvin R. de Silva who, when told that `the Sun will never set on the British Empire`, an oft-repeated quote during the colonial era, responded with the tart remark; `That`s because God does not trust the British in the dark.`
Not all Sri Lankans, though, trusted the World Bank`s Sri Lanka chief, nor took him for his word. Nor wished to pay ` pooja ` to Peter Harrold. They were much more circumspect. On Wednesday, JVP`s propaganda secretary and head of the Parliamentary group Wimal Weerawansa made a special statement in Parliament.
He said: `Peter Harrold only said he did not say the part about `the kind of unofficial state.` Just by withdrawing that particular phrase, can we stop it from being a slur on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka? Our view is that this cannot be done. In his statement to the paper (The Sunday Times) Mr. Harrold also states, `And if we are going to work in the North and East, then it is only right and proper to talk to the LTTE and engaging with it can only be good for the peace process in Sri Lanka`. Can we take this statement lightly? When the World Bank representative states that in the north and east the only party they can deal with is the LTTE, he is giving credence to the fascist claim of the LTTE that the `sole representative of the Tamil people is the LTTE.`
On Thursday, the Lankadeepa, our sister paper reported that The Sunday Times would on Sunday bare details of the interview. This was followed on Friday of the same fact in a front-page annoucement in the Daily Mirror.
This was to cause a flurry of activity in Harrold`s office. By Friday evening, Harrold`s office, and Harrold himself had contacted The Sunday Times and offered to come to terms. It was turned down. He referred to the demos outside his office where a crowd of some 4,000 angry protestors were burning his effigy. He did not wish to see a repetition.
The newspaper offered him, to consider a statement of his own, under his signature, if he wanted to clarify anything he wanted. That was the extent to which a courtesy could be offered. By Friday evening, the World Bank office issued a second statement for the week, this time singing a different tune from the first one released the previous Sunday.
The local World Bank office was desperately trying to do some damage-control, and evidently preempt what The Sunday Times had already announced it was going to do, i.e. publish the full text of Harrold`s interview with The Sunday Times. In this statement (see full text on Pages 4 and 5) Harrold declared, `I stand by my previous statement that I have never used the phrase `unofficial state` He adds `Rather, what I said was `.....an official statement` while discussing the Government`s LTTE policy.
But Harrold declared, `I deeply regret any offence or misunderstanding caused by the published version of the interview I gave to The Sunday Times which appeared on March 6.`
Harrold had something more to say: `Upon further review of our recording of the interview, it is clear that a reasonable person could have misunderstood me. I am sorry I did not speak more clearly, but I am sure about what I said, and I think when it is heard in this context, it becomes clear that I have not said anything that is out of line with current Government policy.`
Interesting enough, Harrold in his first press release on Monday made no reference at all to `any reasonable person` misunderstanding him. He also says `...I think when it is heard in this context, it becomes clear that I have not said anything that is out of line with current Government policy.? Now, he was dragging the Government as his shield. The state media support he received must have encouraged him to say that.
The Sunday Times had already published an excerpt of Harrold having said that he was only following current Government policy (in dealing with the LTTE).
For this purpose, Harrold said, he had asked that an unedited excerpt has been placed on the World Bank website (http:www.worldbanjk.org/lk). The audio excerpt lasting seven minutes is as clear as the tape recording made by Devotta.
Anyone listening to it will hear Harrold say `....We have regarded ....given that there is such a thing as the LTTE controlled area, an unofficial state and an officially recognised part of this country as the LTTE controlled area....
In other words, the tape recording by the World Bank`s Sri Lanka boss and journalist Devotta are one and the same. The only difference - Harrold wants listeners now to hear it in the context he wants. This is why he says `... I am sorry, I did not speak more clearly, but I am sure about what I said, and I think when it is heard in its context, it becomes clear that I have not said anything that is out of line with current Government policy.`
Harrold says `I think` because he is not sure himself. As is clear, it would be ludicrous if one expects his thoughts to register in the tape recording. As for his invitation to listeners to hear things in context, all what Harrold expects is for a listener to `think` along with him. Peter Harrold is not Richard Nixon, and the World Bank tapes are not the White House tapes in the Watergate scandal that saw the downfall of the US President in the 1970s.
Any ` reasonable reader ` will see, the entire theme of his interview is one where he contends that the World Bank considers the LTTE a `legitimate stakeholder` in whatever they do in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
At the end of the hour-long interview, The Sunday Times journalist Devotta knocked off his tape recorder. Harrold escorted him to the entrance of his office room. His parting words to Devotta were: `They (referring to his critics) are trying to make us feel ashamed of dealing with the LTTE. We are not.` Now, is that an official statement of the World Bank?