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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Follow Andrew on Twitter: @AndrewBuncombe
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.