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Liam Fox should not let unthinking fashionistas decide British foreign policy. Sri Lanka needs rebuilding

[Telegraph, Tuesday, 28 December 2010 11:35 One Comment]

Sri Lankan Tamil refugees flee LTTE-controlled territory in 2009 (Photo: Reuters) Sri Lankan Tamil refugees flee LTTE-controlled territory in 2009 (Photo: Reuters)

In February 1945, British and American aircraft dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on Dresden. “People were caught in fires as hot as 1000° C”, Britain’s National Archives record. “The city was devastated.” Investigations conducted by Dresden authorities concluded that between 22,700 and 25,000 people were killed.

Five thousand miles and six decades separate the conflict in Sri Lanka from Second World War Germany – but the same ethical issues have surfaced in an increasingly charged debate over the small, South Asian island nation’s human rights records.

Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, has called off a visit to Sri Lanka, amid reports that his decision to lecture there violates British human rights concerns. The Oxford Union earlier cancelled a scheduled talk by Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s President, “due to the sheer scale of the expected protests” – an odd rationale, given that it claims to believe “first and foremost in freedom of speech.”

Sri Lanka has come in for a good deal of stick in recent months on its human rights record, particularly in the last phases of its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – an almost two-decade long conflict that is estimated, conservatively, to have cost more than 100,000 lives. Human rights groups, and some governments, want an international war crimes investigation.

The debate centres around the extrajudicial execution of LTTE members and civilians last summer, in the final stages of the Sri Lankan army’s decisive offensive against the feared terrorist group. The victims included Shobha, a television anchor linked to the LTTE whose cultural contributions included the glorification its military campaign.

“I’ve never seen such a horrible death,” a former LTTE member told Channel 4 of Shobha’s death – a rather odd claim, coming as it did from a self-confessed member of a group responsible for savageries unparalleled since time of the Khmer Rouge. The LTTE assassinated dozens of political leaders, many of them its ethnic Tamil opponents; executed suicide bombings on a scale that makes the depredations of jihadist groups in Afghanistan appear trivial; recruited child soldiers – all these being but parts of the large-scale use of terror which led to the organisation’s proscription across the world.

In a report released as the fighting began to reach a climax in 2008, the United States State Department noted the LTTE “reverted to targeting civilians in bus bombings and claymore mine attacks.” Tamil human rights activists, too, lashed out at the LTTE’s criminal record, arguing the LTTE had “pathetically weakened the Tamils under the pretext of liberating them.”

There’s plenty of compelling evidence, of course, that Sri Lankan soldiers also engaged in horrific acts of violence. Nor do I dispute that Mr Rajapaksa has on occasion acted in an authoritarian, even despotic, manner – though I cannot think of many nations at war which have behaved differently. I’m not questioning, either, that the chauvinism of the Sri Lankan state played a considerable role in engendering the crisis: more than 3,000 people were estimated to have been killed in an anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983.

But it is my belief that, as the crisis unfolded, Sri Lanka was left with few choices. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE’s supremo, was a military genius who succeeded in transmuting Tamil resentments into guns and bombs. He was also, as the eminent Indian journalist N Ram has pointed out, a Tamil Pol Pot. Mr Prabhakaran systematically eliminated leaders who believed a negotiated, democratic settlement was possible – among them, Laxman Kadirgamar, in whose memory Dr Fox was to deliver his lecture in Colombo, and Neelan Thiruchelvam.

Like so many, Mr Ram wrote, he initially believed Prabhakaran wanted to “shape a future for his people based on equality, democratic and human rights.” But, Mr Ram went on, the LTTE  instead “did everything conceivable to make the peace process falter and fail.”

Put simply, Sri Lanka used all force at its disposal, legitimate and illegitimate, to crush a nightmarish movement – which brings us back to the Dresden question.

Historians still debate whether the bombing of Dresden was an unconscionable act of terror – or a wartime necessity, which by breaking German morale and infrastructure shortened the course of the War. The truth is there is no way to answer such a question with certitude.

But since Sri Lanka is small and has an aggrieved diaspora, and because Britain does not fear being denied exports of tea and elephant dung, we can be as sanctimonious as we like. There’s a rather long list of countries Dr Fox won’t be able to speak in if the high moral standard Sri Lanka is being subjected to is uniformly applied – several of them major British partners.

Long before Wikileaks cast light on the issue, the investigative journalist Anand Gopal revealed the existence of secret, US-backed detention centres in Afghanistan. The Red Cross confirmed the existence of so-called black jails this summer.

Saudi Arabia, Amnesty International tells us, has a criminal justice system which “facilitates torture.” China has black jails where hundreds of prisoners are subjected to torture simply for protesting against abuses of power by local government. India has been accused of the use of torture in Kashmir. Pakistani journalists, too, have reported that torture is widespread in their country – and that’s not counting laws on women and religious minorities that count among the most retrograde in the world.

No one is cancelling talks there. Leaving aside the special relationship with the US, Britain is among the biggest investors in China, India and Saudi Arabia – and it wants the European Union to give special trade privileges to Pakistan.

Mr Fox should even stop making speeches even at home: Human Rights Watch, after all, claims that British intelligence services were complicit in the torture of suspects held in Pakistan.

There is a certain idealist trend in Europe which thrives on discovering hard-done-by peoples who can be rescued from Oriental Despotisms. Kashmir used to be fashionable, though enthusiasm has wanted since 9/11. Tibet had its time in the sun; Brendan O’Neill’s savaging of fashionistas who appropriated it as a homeland for their fantasies is a must-read.

I’m guessing it’s Sri Lanka’s turn now – which is sad. In a leaked diplomatic cable, the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis, underlined the fact that Tamils living in Sri Lanka, as opposed to the diaspora in East Ham, didn’t see the international campaign as being the way forward. Instead, they wanted to focus on building a domestic debate centred around rights and democracy.

Dr Fox, we’re told, will still go to Sri Lanka; an official statement says “he intends to carry out an official visit to Sri Lanka next year, during which he proposes to fulfil the speaking engagement that he had planned”. I hope he does: that war-scarred nation needs help rebuilding democracy, not insults.

Liam Fox should not let unthinking fashionistas decide British foreign policy. Sri Lanka needs rebuilding – Telegraph Blogs

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One Comment »

  • Jay Pathbey said:

    Britain is a failed state. Among those has-beens who built empires during the past 10,000 years – Armenia, Philistine, China, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Egypt, Mogolia, Persia, Spain, France, Netherlands, Britain, etc., why is it that the British still keep interfering with its past colonies. The British today have big mouths and empty pockets but assume they are a country of some substance and seem to live in a trance. On the other hand LTTE and its supporters in Europe, the Tamil Diaspora and a sprinkling of disgruntled text book revolutionaries, a few lose women like MIA who flash the body and scream like a piece of white trash whose every second word is profanity, Prabhakaran who was a mad butcher was the only one with some guts, even though he lived like a blood-thirsty animal that lived like an ever disappearing shadow behind the likes of Balasingham and Solheim. All these losers can do, now that Prabhakaran is no more (Bala drank himself to death and Solheim is keeping mum), is to bash Sri Lanka as bloggers, which is like farting against thunder. Sri Lanka will eventually become a state where people will live free, with a majority rule and of course minorities will remain as minorities, just the way other minorities live in other countries. Of course the Tamils feel they are a selected master race and they should try and form a country in South India. If the Tamils are so keen all 60 million of them can go on a “Fast to Death” hunger strike – the Ghandian way. Once the world sees a few million tamils have starved to death – which one doubts very much they may look at tamils with a different eye – not that the west cares if a few million asians or africans die for any cause. JP/Indonesia