As our incisive and perceptive columnist, Tisaranee Gunasekara, points out today, the war with the LTTE is far from over and it cannot be fought to a successful conclusion without the support of the international community. In the circumstances, she asks whether it makes sense to adopt the aggressive and abrasive postures evident in recent weeks against various foreign functionaries who have said some things that are not music to our ears. Undoubtedly there have been some ill-advised comments, such as that by Sir. John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary General who made a remark in an interview with Reuter that Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers. That was obviously an over-kill. It is the nature of the news industry to pick on the best quote to hang a story and the Reuter report was no exception. While the result was unfortunate, the reaction was worse with Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle calling Holmes a `terrorist` and even going so far as to allege that he had been bribed by the LTTE.
No wonder then that the UN has taken strong exception to these remarks with Secretary General Ban Ki Moon saying they were `unacceptable and unwarranted.` In a damage control attempt, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama tried to brush off his colleagues remarks by saying this was Fernandopulle`s opinion and not that of the government. That argument won`t wash altogether given that the offensive remarks were used at a government-convened cabinet news briefing held at the government`s own department of information. A few days earlier Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, in a public speech in Horana, asked Holmes in pithy Sinhala, `ayi yako (why, devil) don`t you see what the LTTE is doing?` The PM`s question was both pointed and appropriate, but when words like this in translation are reported to New York and European capitals, there is every likelihood that not just eyebrows but backs would go up.
Those who over-react, be they politicians who shoot their mouths off with minimum thought, or statement writers acting for the government, should learn the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable. While few in Sri Lanka will agree with Holmes` assessment of Sri Lanka`s safety threshold for aid workers being among the world`s worst, the fact remains that in 2006 there were 23 deaths of aid workers here, admittedly 17 or them in a single incident, and this is second only to Afghanistan. We do not think that aid workers presently in the country really think they are unsafe - that is not if they keep away from danger zones and expose themselves to shell and mortar fire not aimed at them. Action Contre La Faim (ACF), the French charity Action Against Hunger who lost 17 people in Mutur a year ago, would ex post facto probably admit that it was guilty of bad judgment when it kept those workers in Mutur at that point of time or sent them there in the first instance. But issuing `it`s all your own fault` kind of statements and making gratuitous comments on the quantum of compensation paid to the victims falling short of European standards will not yield the best results. Such comments, after all, come from functionaries of a government whose compensation to adult, non-dependant children of assassinated politicians are hugely superior to what is paid to families of dead servicemen laying their lives on line in the frontlines.
The government must blame itself for some of the over-reactions we have seen. They have placed people with little diplomatic experience in sensitive positions whose judgment on some matters may not be the best. There are wordsmiths who like to score debating points who may sometimes ignore the bigger picture in writing what they do. When some matters that may best remain internal communications are made public, the ill-effect can be compounded. The Peace Secretariat which a few days ago released a letter written by its head, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha to Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe accusing ACF of `utter irresponsibility` in placing their workers at risk in Mutur, got on the back foot yesterday regretting what it called the `emotional reactions to its request for truth and justice.`
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument, the media play such exchanges trigger, as it appears to have done in this instance, will not do our cause any good. However good a defence we may have, the chances are that it will receive less publicity. The bottom line that will remain is that it is the original perception, even if it is a misperception, that will prevail. The fact is we need foreign assistance to fight this war. We need countries where LTTE fund raising and lobbying as well as arms procurement and similar activity continues to stamp down hard on the Tigers. We badly need foreign aid and cannot shut our eyes to developments like our biggest donor, Japan, being under pressure from some European nations to go slow on aid given the lack of progress on the peace front. The Tokyo donors, we must remember, tied assistance to progress in the peace process which now lies in tatters. Fortunately, as Japan`s peace envoy Yasushi Akashi said during his last visit here, Japan`s view is that ordinary people cannot be made to pay for faults of their leaders.
As columnist Tisaranee Gunasekara has said, the world abounds with hypocrisy. Those who bomb civilians killing women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to preach morality to the rest of us. But given our dependence on some of the countries we are taking on increasingly stridently, it does not make sense to shoot ourselves in the foot. To say so does not mean advocating taking everything that is said lying down. We must defend ourselves in areas that matter but do so avoiding battering ram techniques favoured by the likes of Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.