‘White Flag’ and All…

Chennai, 3 June 2011

The recently-concluded Defence conference on ‘Fighting Terrorism, the Sri Lankan Experience’ in Colombo will be remembered not for what the Sri Lankans, ministers, officials and serving army commanders had to say. Nor will it be remembered for the Chinese interest in funding it, and using the venue to exhibit its weaponry, as indicated in advance media reports.

Instead, the conference, in which representatives from 40-odd countries, ‘friends and foes’ of Sri Lanka participated, will be recalled, particularly by Sri Lankans, supporters and critics of the Government, for what a lone American had to say. Better still for the Lt Col Lawrence Smith, Defence Advisor in the US Embassy in Colombo, stood up, and sort of stood in for Maj Gen Shavendra Silva, the celebrated commander of the famed 58th Division in ‘Eelam War IV’ – after the latter had declined to speak on matters that were sub judice.

Col Smith made two points, both on contentious issues where his own Government until recently was believed to have been giving a contradictory view. On the LTTE offer of surrender on the last leg of the war, he said neither Kumaran Pathmanathan, KP for short, nor P Nadesan, the LTTE police chief, was the right person in the LTTE hierarchy to be taken seriously for negotiating surrender. Such an offer should have come from field commanders, according to him.

Two years after the war, it does not seem to have occurred to the US official that at the time they were doing the talking, KP was the international face of the LTTE, authorised as such by the outfit’s supremo, Velluppillai Prabhakaran. So was Nadesan, not just the LTTE police chief. He had officially been named to succeed S P Tamilselvan, who died in an aerial bombing by the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) as the political wing leader, months ago.

More importantly, Col Smith is also reported to have begun suspecting criticism of the armed forces on the ‘white flag episode’. As he has reportedly pointed out, battle-field reports were often based on second, third and fourth hand information, and could thus be erroneous. One only needs to recall a basic lesson in logic where it is often said that if the first one said that someone threw up black vomit, by the time it reached the fifth or sixth ear, it would have twisted to the level that the man threw up a crow.

 Even otherwise, there is certain truth in the proposition purportedly made by Col Smith on the surrender issue. Leave alone his reference to Soosai or Pottu Amman as possible candidates from the ground to negotiate surrender, the entire exercise wreaked f the hole into which the monolithic LTTE leadership had hidden itself through the previous years. It may be another matter that Prabhakaran, intoxicated by the successes of the past, had become incapable of accessing the relative strengths of the LTTE and the Sri Lankan State in military, political and diplomatic terms.

Prabhakarran, we were told, had authorised negotiations for seeking Indias intervention. His officious choice of KP, the only accused in the ‘Rajiv Gandhi assassination’ still at large, as the international negotiator of the LTTE only months earlier, exposed his ignorance or arrogance, or both. In the week before the conclusion of the war, everyone in Chennai who had something positive to say about the Tamil cause and also the LTTE’s methods, claimed to be the self-appointed ambassadors of the LTTE, to talk to the Government of India.

None of the entities had any working knowledge of the Indian system, nor did they carry any credibility with the Government of India – at such a crucial stage in ‘Eelam War IV’. Their forte was public oratory, and/or media statements. That was exactly the opposite way in which sensitive diplomacy had to be undertaken. Desperation, nor discretion, showed up as LTTE’s last weapon. It failed even to launch, leave alone deliver – and naturally so.

It remains to be seen if what is attributed to him is what Col Smith had said at the conference. It is more so to conclude that the US has changed its nuanced position of balancing pro-State anti-terrorism policy with its purported concern for human rights in third nations battling terrorism. Yet, Col Smith has spoken, next only to US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, who was in Sri Lanka recently, again giving the impression that Washington was tilting towards Colombo on the Darusman report.

Yet, the drift between the US and the rest of the West seems to be showing, too – and so does the differentiated American approach to fighting against terrorism and fighting for human rights. Both, in the eyes of the Sri Lankan State and its rulers, are two sides of the same coin – at least in the difficult, battlefield circumstances that Col Smith had reportedly touched upon.

This is where Sri Lanka wants to be allowed to breathe easy. But the West seems determined to expand the scope of such ‘humanitarian intervention’, to include domestic law and order situation. German Ambassador Jens Plotner is not the first one to comment on purely domestic issues in host nations, starting with Sri Lanka. But his reference to police high-handedness in handling the labour protest at Katunayake FTZ, and writing to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, over the head of the External Affairs Ministry, is not just about German investments.

The German intervention may have more to do with sovereignty issues – and much more than the Nordic Greens’ Brussels conclave, coinciding with the Sri Lanka defence conference, sought to ‘flag’. If one were to extend Col Smith’s American logic, then, Vaiko, the south Indian politician from Tamil Nadu, should not be knowing anything about the war front, as his was not just the second, third or fourth hand – but vas/is 15 or 50th hand

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