Tuesday, April 26, 2011

'India shouldn't have endorsed Lanka's brutal war' - Former UN Spokesman

Interviewed by Ullekh NP | The Economic Times

The ruling classes in Sri Lanka are unhappy that a UN panel report has sought a probe into alleged war crimes committed against Tamils in 2009. An angry President Mahinda Rajapakse has called for mass "May Day protests" against such calls for investigations.

Gordon Weiss was the UN spokesman in Sri Lanka in those turbulent times leading to the capture and assassination of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief V Prabhakaran. He left the UN soon, declining the offer of a new assignment in favour of writing about innocent civilians caught in the crossfire between the ruthless Lankan forces and the Tigers. He returned home, to Australia, early last year and started writing the book, The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tigers, months before the United Nations set up a team to review the "military conquest" of the Tigers. He says the panel's report vindicates his earlier statements about the war crimes of 2009. His book, as revelatory as it is incisive, comes at a time when Rajapakse plans to showcase to the world his country's counter-insurgency prowess.

In an interview with Ullekh NP, Weiss terms as "naA¯ve" a proposed convention in Colombo in May to share such military experiences with other countries. He also talks about his book, Sri Lankan politics , media manipulation , Prabhakaran, India, China, majoritarianism and the roots of future conflicts in the island nation. Edited Excerpts:

How do you describe the current situation in Sri Lanka?

In most ways, the situation is much better if you are a part of the majority who supports the government. I haven't been there for a year and a half, but there is no more war, the island is relatively stable, tourists are flooding back, the economy's doing well, just as it ought to be. But democratic pillars-the law courts, the media, the Parliament-have been weakened. The dynastic ambitions of the Rajapakse clan are now plain. And then there is the issue of possibly tens of thousands of dead and unaccounted for civilians from the end of the war. Is that a healthy way to build a society? This is a contentious debate. I don't think it is, which is why in my book I look back at the mass killings of Sinhalese youths during the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) insurgencies [Marxist uprisings against the government in Sri Lanka first in 1971 and later in 1987-1989] and argue that the alleged war crimes of 2009 were predictable.

How bad is manipulation of the media in that country?

A curious mixture of great level-headed analysis and reporting, and utter foul-mouthed tripe unhindered by any apparent functional legal or ethical constraints. Too often, in what is a highly literate society, the press in Sri Lanka are part of the problem. Then there is some very good stuff coming out of organisations like Groundviews (a website for citizen journalists). But a lot of the press are controlled by the government, or allowed to print and broadcast only because they are controllable.

In times of war, the wage of journalism is sometimes death. What was the message of the brutal killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader, two years ago?

The bottom line is that in Sri Lanka if you become too great an irritation, you might be killed. That implicit threat undermines the core function of the press in any democracy, which is to professionally irritate, pick, scour and scrutinise. Lasantha's murder sent a definitive message-nobody who dissents can consider themselves safe.

How strange was the experience of Buddhism of the non-violent kind?

To encounter extremism in Buddhism strikes an Australian, at least, as a deep contradiction. I received the blessing of the Dalai Lama in India as a 20-year-old, read his writings, and have always been drawn to Buddhism. The lesson of Sri Lanka's strife is that any teaching can be perverted into a hateful ideology. It is true that a small minority of Buddhist monks sits in Parliament and promotes great intolerance and war. But I choose to believe that that level of extremism is believed by only a minority of Buddhists on the island. Many Buddhists I knew were at a loss to marry their deepest beliefs with the actions that were being carried out on their behalf.

© The Economic Times

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