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Andrew Buncombe's Asia Diary

The Independent's Asia Correspondent Andrew Buncombe is based in Delhi. His dominion ranges over India, Pakistan, Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, occasionally parts of South East Asia and - or at least he is hoping - The Maldives.

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Speaking for those without a voice in Sri Lanka

Posted by Andrew Buncombe
  • Tuesday, 8 September 2009 at 10:37 am

I don't think anyone who is concerned about free speech and transparency can be pleased about the news that Sri Lanka is planning to
expel James Elder, the spokesman for the UN humanitarian group Unicef, having very publicly accused him of being a propagandist for the LTTE. When I was in Sri Lanka earlier this year, I met and spoke with Mr Elder (pictured here during a previous assignment in Darfur) on a number of occasions and he seemed utterly committed to one thing - the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the war to crush the rebels and end the decades-long civil war. To several of us journalists, it was clear that raising the plight of these people was for him far more than just a job. As with another UN spokesman, Gordon Weiss, he appeared to genuinely care deeply about what was happening to them through no fault of their own. He thought it was an outrage that civilians - men, women and children alike - should be forced to cower in sand-bunkers on a beach, without access to proper medicine or sufficient food and water while a bitter war was fought over their heads. He also raised very valid concerns about the plight of 280,000 civilians now being held in overcrowded, refugee camps, surrounded by armed guards and razor wire.
 Yet Mr Elder did not shy away from criticising the rebels for their considerable part in endangering the lives of the Tamil civilians. When the war was still going on, he regularly spoke out against the well-documented practice of the LTTE using the civilians as shields and urged the rebels to allow them to leave from that final stronghold on the beach.
What has struck me as a little odd is that the charge against Mr Elder has been led by Palitha Kohona, the Sri Lankan foreign secretary. Mr Kohona is a smart, charming man who has been kind enough to grant me several interviews, both at his office and home, and on the telephone. He has always been very convincing in explaining why the government had decided it needed to finally rout the LTTE, who had used suicide-bombs against both military and civilian targets in their long and brutal battle for a Tamil state in the north of the country. He spoke of the suffering the LTTE had caused for both the Sinhala and Tamil communities. In many way, his concern about the misery endured by too many Sri Lankan civilians was no different to that of Mr Elder.
 I understand that it will now be all but impossible for Mr Elder to remain in Sri Lanka. The government there wants him out and although the Unicef director, Ann Veneman, has protested in the strongest terms about his expulsion, having had his professional credibility questioned in such a waty, Mr Elder may be very disinclined to remain even if he could. 
 The UN has decided that the most important thing for its operation in Sri Lanka is to remain on the ground. Regardless of the conditions imposed on it by the government, it believes that being there under virtually any circumstances is better than not being there and therefore unable to help those in need. That is why earlier this year, when criticism of the UN grew inside Sri Lanka, a decision was taken at the highest levels to more carefully calibrate its public comments. In effect, a degree of self-censorship was imposed.
 All of this means we have a situation in Sri Lanka where the UN and its various bodies are committed to remaining in the country but are unable to say what it really thinks about what is happening to civilians there. How in heaven's name will Mr Elder's successor be able to do his or her job in the way they wish, forever worrying about every word they utter? One things for sure - none of this benefits those Sri Lankan civilians still in desperate circumstances, the very people the UN is there to help.


Comments

A gallant genetleman, same cannot be said of those @ the helm
pdesouza wrote:
Tuesday, 8 September 2009 at 02:41 pm (UTC)
JAMES ELDER was one of the few that dared to do his duty for those suffering without voice nor witness.

The United Nations is shamefully bereft of any moral authority, and brings to disrepute the duty of a supposed security council.

Victims have long known the true face of the UN..it exists only to cower and serve the self-interests of powerful member states that dictate its policy.

When Sri Lanka and its racist warmongers massacred thousands of Tamils this year, Ban-Ki Moon & Chief of Staff, Vijay Nambiar chose to play deaf and dumb.

Why, that makes every sense, as Nambiar’s brother Satish is a mercenary of the same Sri Lankan army. It shouldn’t take an academic to decipher the strong hands-off policy that is thus in place and Sri Lanka’s impunity, belligerence and continued mockery of human rights violation.

Woe to the weak when they are preyed upon by vultures from both inside and out.

Truth will out!!
How the media played it
schweigen2009 wrote:
Tuesday, 8 September 2009 at 05:23 pm (UTC)
I do remember seeing Mr. Elder during the closing stages of the war on TV. He may have spoken against the rebels too, but when the video clips of him were shown, or he was quoted, I think the media played it in such a way as to imply that the subject under discussion was overwhelmingly the government's fault. This may also explain some of the hostility towards NGOs and INGOs and the perception of them being terrorist sympathisers.

The other point is, if there existed a perception that the government had a tight control of the information flow during the war, then the LTTE had an ever bigger control of information coming out of their domain. This is because it was an enclosed space, and all communications were either from the LTTE, or those dubious doctors who were under the LTTE power. So in effect information from the LTTE areas should have been highly suspect.

I also think the Western mindset lends itself to BLAME others quite easily, and quite loudly at that. There is also very little acknowledgment of the progress in Sri Lanka, in terms of the refugee camps or the economy. So if this incident brings in more circumspection to Mr. Elder's successor, perhaps it is well deserved.

No doubt children and vulnerable people would have suffered during the fighting. Anybody in a war zone would suffer, at least mentally. But the future suffering of children and vulnerable people in Sri Lanka, because of a war, is none.
abuncombe wrote:
Wednesday, 9 September 2009 at 05:25 am (UTC)
Dear schweigen2009, Thanks for posting. I am surprised, however, that you would seek to make some sort of comparison between the democratically-elected government of Sri Lanka and a rebel force, widely cited as terrorists. I am sure the Sri Lankan government would think it correct that it be judged by a higher standard?
Best
Andrew
schweigen2009 wrote:
Wednesday, 9 September 2009 at 10:07 pm (UTC)
Hi Andrew. My point was, if the reason to doubt the government's words was an access issue, how could foreign officials trust the words coming out of an area which was totally inaccessible to them? The reference (or comparison as you put it) was not on the parties to the conflict, but the levels of access to the specific zones of control, and the judgement to place more trust on one version of events.

BTW, one of my favourite descriptions of SL came from your article about the infamous video. The phrase in question? "gently paced culture"
Sri Lanka may hold elections but it is not a democracy.
se3867 wrote:
Thursday, 10 September 2009 at 07:35 pm (UTC)
Dear Andrew. You and many others quite refer to the Sri Lankan government as democratically elected. However it is not a democracy in the Western sense, but rather a totalitarian state, a Russian or Iranian style democracy perhaps. In addition it has no democratic mandate over the Tamil Eelam region where it chooses to impose the will against the democratic wishes of the people living there, and it never has had. If you look back at previous elections, all parties that have been elected in the Tamil Eelam region (right up to the last internationally supervised elections held during the ceasefire) have been elected on a platform of independence. Form its actions over the last 60 years, but increasing more so as time progressed, it is quite clear that the Sri Lankan government is effectively a government by the Sinhalese for the Sinhalese, and nothing more. The Sri Lankan government does do not care for Tamils in the country, and it does not represent them. It is a rather twisted logic that calls the imposition on one group's will on another completely against the democratic wishes of another living in a separate area, democratic. Particularly when it comes to actions that affect the only second group and not the first. Calling Sri Lanka a democracy in the Western sense is also stretching the truth. Look at what is happening now and what has increasingly happened over the last 60 years. Sri Lanka is a totalitarian state - there is simply no other way to describe it. Democracy literally means "people rule". In order for this to happen, it is necessary for the people (including individuals) to hold government accountable, and take action to prevent misbehaviour by government. In order to do that, an independent judiciary, an independent and free media, freedom of speech, and just laws and an independent and non-politically motivated police force and public prosecution service are required. Sri Lanka has none of these. The Supreme court is a rubber stamping body accountable only to the President. Journalists or indeed anyone who speaks out against government policy or government ministers is intimidated or murdered. The police force and the security forces are responsible for the majority of abductions and murders in the country - carried out as execution style killings or organised pograms (this is even before 2009), and has made Sri Lanka number one in the world in disappearances in government custody, far exceeding the world number two - Saddam Hussain. The public prosecution service never prosecutes any cases where Tamils are murdered by state actors - this goes back to the country's independence. Nobody in any of the many organised prison riots where Tamil inmates (mostly political prisoners) were murdered by Sinhalese inmates who were let out of their cells and given weapons by prison guards and incited to kill Tamil prisoners. Nobody involved in any the many anti-Tamil pogroms was ever prosecuted even when there were witnesses and evidence. None of the many abductions by the police or security has ever been investigated even when eye-witnesses were willing to make statements. Instead investigations and prosecutions of crimes committed against Tamils are not undertaken or are obstructed by the police force and the public prosecutor, and witnesses or their relatives are intimidated or murdered by the state apparatus responsible for law and order in order to protect the impunity of those who murder Tamils. Sri Lanka is not a democracy in the Western sense. A totalitarian state, a rotating elected dictatorship, attempting to impose its will on a population (those in the Tamil Eelam region) that doesn't want it, that it does not represent and that it has no democratic mandate to rule over, would be an accurate description.
re: voiceless people in sri lanka
mano58 wrote:
Friday, 11 September 2009 at 10:17 am (UTC)
Dear,Mr A.Buncombe,
First congratulations and thanks for your work in bringing the real situation to the light.People whose voice has been suppressed for many decades by Sri lankan Govt.have now become voiceless and Int.community has been so ignorant masking with the so called "war on terrorism".In this world,Rajapakse and clan has demonstrated how so many thousands of people can be massacred in the ever most cruel way in such a short period while rest of the world has been watching.Thanks to Nixon,Jonathan Miller of ch-4 and people like you,at last some of the atrocities are now public to the surprise of those who committed these crime.I am sure this world be a much better place for humanbeings to live if each country has the presence of some of people like you with unhindered access to reach each and every corner,specially countries like Sri lanka.But,finally the world is raising eyebrows looking at Sri lanka but more than 20,000 innocent lives had to be lost in most cruel way world could ever have witnessed or even imagined of.
Thank you very much.
What do you expect from Sri Lanka?
ampalavan wrote:
Saturday, 12 September 2009 at 09:17 am (UTC)
Dear Andrew,
Thanks for this unbiased report which helps every reader to understand the true mentality of the Sri Lankan state. It is a habit that of the Sri lankan state which only believe that Sinhala race and Buddhism are superior to other races and relegions. If any one analyse the politics in Sri Lanka since Independence, it is clear that democracy was used as weapon against minorities and their rights. On their view democracy is having elections and Sinhala majority rule. If you look at the history the democratic system helped to creat a judicial system and security establishments that is to oppress the rights of others.
It has become a habit to blame any one who raises the voice against this government about human rights violations in the camps, corruption, war crimes, unlawful killings or white van disappearances. The only weapon they use "LTTE". It is not only against international community but also within the country. They want to silence not only the voice of tamils but also the voice of neutral internal and external. Recent good examples are Murder of Lasantha, Raviraj, Sivaram, detention of Dr Sarawanamuttu,and Tissanayagam.
mawatha_silva wrote:
Monday, 14 September 2009 at 04:04 pm (UTC)
Tragedy is a norm in Sri Lankan Concentration camps….

A malnourished IDP child slowly dying..

http://transcurrents.com/tc/2009/09/govt_violates_constitution_by.html

Sri Lanka Sinhalese committed unimaginable crimes against humanity, including mass murder of the innocent.

Over 20,000 people have died as a result of aerial bombardment by the government of Sri Lanka (Mother Day Massacre).

Over 300,000 internally displaced people (IDP) are being held in internment camps in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

Even though the war is over, inside the camps people live in overcrowded conditions with an acute shortage of necessities like food, drinking water, and sanitation.

Mawatha Silva
http://mawathasilva.blogspot.com/


Starvation Sri Lanka Concentration Camps
mawatha_silva wrote:
Monday, 14 September 2009 at 04:09 pm (UTC)
A skeletal frame….. a mere shadow of a man, who is lying helplessly in the dirt, so weak he is unable to brush away the annoying flies from his face.

http://blogs.channel4.com/snowblog/2009/09/07/big-questions-posed-by-new-pictures-from-tamil-camps/#comment-17924..
A new video footage from Channel 4
Speaking for those without a voice
candidlee wrote:
Tuesday, 15 September 2009 at 03:41 am (UTC)
A person may speak with the best of intentions, but their words can be used by others for dishonourable purposes. I think this may have happened in the case of Mr Elder. This issue probably would not have occured but for the idiotic attempt by certain Western politicians and diplomats, especially in the UK and USA, to suggest an escape for the LTTE leaders in exchange for a cease fire in the final stages of the war. Once they began to push that idea anyone who voiced concern for the plight of the non-combatants was immediately seen as providing arguments to support a deal to save the LTTE leaders. This choice - allow the LTTE leaders to escape or see thousands of civilians perish - is exactly what was intended by the Tigers when they began forcing Tamil civilians to retreat with them months earlier.
Mr Elder is caught up in a complex situation much bigger and dirtier than his well-intentioned ideals. Perhaps he & UNICEF should put it down to experience and move on, after all he's not irreplaceable in that job.
mawatha_silva wrote:
Tuesday, 15 September 2009 at 07:48 pm (UTC)
The Monsoon is expected soon…

The flimsy tents in concentration camps don’t stand a chance…
http://www.tamileelamnews.com/news/publish/tns_11803.shtml


We should do something to help those who cannot help themselves. Being proactive about this problem is the only way we will ever overcome it.

Together, we can gather contact information of important people within the UN, UNICEF, and Save the Children, the EU as well as the big organizations who are donating money to the Sri Lankans, and send petitions via email outlining our cause.
Collecting links, articles and pictures may strengthen our point, highlighting them the damage that is being done to 300,000 innocent civilians, and send them via email outlining Tamil’s plight.

In order to cease the effects of the Sri Lankan Government on the freedom of the Tamil people, we need to band together to bring down those focused on oppressing these innocents. With all of our voices united (and a lot of emails to organizations, governments, people) , we can help overcome the appalling conditions faced by these people and free them from the dreadful life they suffer.

Firstly, we must choose to boycott Sri Lankan products, tourism, tea, cricket and more..We must also campaign against favorable GPS+. With the GPS plus these trade benefits, the Sri Lankan Army and GOSL are continuing to mistreat the Tamil, keeping them malnourished in concentration camps. Rather than using the UN (188 millions) and worldwide communities (zillions and zillions) in donations for IDPs- in a positive and productive way, Sri Lankan Government are choosing to line their own pockets with the internationally acquired money, splurging on multi million pound houses, cars and other luxuries, rather than food, sanitation and education for the incarcerated.

The EU, the worldwide communities and UN as well as other independent organizations have contributed over zillions and zillions of pounds to this problem. They all are paying for the Racists Sri Lankan regime to imprison 300,000 innocent civilians!!!! This should stop immediately!!!

While the Sri Lankan Government is being supported by these international community and organizations, they are able to greedily cease land form their prisoners, colonizing their historical Tamil homelands while essentially enslaving the long-suffering Tamil Minority. We must work towards freeing the 300,000 imprisoned innocent people and returning their land to them in order to return the balance to Sri Lanka. Reuniting families after their long and painful separation in concentration camps is a must, to enable them to start living their lives again.


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