By Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha
Thus the American ambassador in an article by an employee of the US government gives insights into her legacy. It places her in a charming light although the article notes ‘the US Government played out its most controversial engagement so far in Sri Lankan affairs in the history of US-Sri Lanka relations.’
But this is disclaimed, the ambassador saying ‘I think it is a mistake if people think that we can dictate to this Government’. The impression is of a country resisting calls by Tamils for intervention even though ‘We can’t trust India. Karunanindhi and Jayalalithaa are only looking after their interests. Only the US can dictate’
This is claimed by ‘school principals, teachers, community workers and young graduates’. But Ms Butenis resists the temptation to play saviour, saying they can ‘only request’ government to be ‘responsive to the needs of the Tamil population’. That her role is unique she grants, since she meets ‘Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa very regularly and I convey what I hear. People are afraid to speak to ministers, and, when they visit you the meetings are very controlled, so because I tour the country I talk to him about what people tell me. Beyond that, frankly, we don’t have the will or the capacity.’
So with regard to the LLRC she is modest. Having asked whether it would make a difference, she reassures her interlocutors who say nothing has happened, by noting that Lalith Weeratunga was ‘working on a plan to implement the LLRC and I have a lot of faith in Lalith. I think the Government will make a public announcement soon.’
So it proved. Other articles now say ‘it is undoubtedly the efforts of the USA and later India through the resolution introduced in the Human Rights Council that the LLRC took centre stage’. But, while the Embassy might be pleased that ‘after the defeat of Sri Lanka …… good sense prevailed and a strategic shift was taken by the President, to renew relations with the USA, and the western powers and India’, the point should not be rubbed in. Good relations require reciprocity, so there is no trace now of proconsular authority in her pronouncements.
But the point is made that dissatisfaction is rife. It suggests reasons for this are less than before, since ‘demilitarization is taking place …. very slowly’, ‘the white vans….are gone’, ‘sexual harassment….has gone down, or it is not being reported.’ But while saying ‘gender violence takes place mainly …by people known to the victim’ she criticizes government - ‘the immediate connection the Government makes when you bring this up is that the army is being accused of raping women.’
She must know that, in the early days, until we asked for actual cases, the allegations were generalizations about the forces, almost totally baseless. So the Government was not just reacting defensively when the issue was raised, it was being falsified, a process begun in Manik Farm. But perhaps understandably the ambassador could not refer to the deliberate confusion some critics had engaged in.
On missing persons she is better - ‘the issue … is not as clear-cut as it seems, because there are many Tamil people seeking refugee status in other countries who haven’t been accounted against those reported as missing here.’ She notes ‘The UNHCR tells me that even now the largest number of missing persons is from the South, from the conflicts arising from JVP insurrections. ’
This contradicts the position relentlessly pushed earlier, that reconciliation was not possible without accountability, and accountability meant retribution on the Sri Lankan forces. This would not have promoted reconciliation, so one welcomes this current enlightened position. However it seems to have been told only to her staffer, not the people of Jaffna.
Though she cites the UNHCR, records of the missing are not their responsibility. But there seems some confusion, with her telling the Bishop of Jaffna, with regard to ‘resettlement of people in the North…..the ICRC is working closely with the Defence Secretary’. Resettlement is not their responsibility, so I wondered whether something else was meant.
The article perpetuates another myth, of the ICRC being asked ‘to leave during the last phase of the war.’ The Bishop told her this was one of the government’s biggest mistakes, and she agrees ‘a lot of the accusations made against the Government after the war could have been prevented if the ICRC had been allowed to remain at that time.’ But they did stay till the end of the war, and told the US ambassador in Geneva about that phase, though none of what they recorded in our favour appears in the Darusman report. But one realizes the article is full of poetic licence, to provide reassurance about the position of the United States, while noting resentments in Jaffna which they alone are capable of overcoming. The dismissal even of the Indians in comparison with expectations of the United States is masterly.
Sri Lanka should feel relieved the hostilities of the past, attempts to get generals to incriminate the government, are now over. But we must also remember we there will soon be a new ambassador, and new officials in Washington. After what we went through in the last three years, we must be careful, despite the consolations now being offered.