Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi, AFP/Getty Images via FT Photo Diary
I imagine that beneath the cordial smiles and exchange of pleasantries there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth taking place at Temple Trees these days. The façade that was CHOGM 2013 seems to have crumbled, at least in the eyes of the world, although certainly not in most parts of Sri Lanka’s mainstream media. Images of women and relatives of the disappeared throwing themselves on David Cameron’s convoy in Jaffna dominate world headlines, overwhelming the photographs of Commonwealth leaders at CHOGM.
I don’t think a single previous Commonwealth meeting has witnessed the drama and the spectacle that hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka brought. The Rajapakse regime even in their wildest dreams would not have imagined that a PR debacle of this magnitude would unfold. Heavy-handed tactics and general boorishness (hallmarks of the current regime) only added fuel to the fire instead of frightening foreign journalists and diplomats.
Fortunately for the Government, they still control a large chunk of the local media (both state and non-state) as evidenced very clearly in the print and electronic news coverage over the past few days. So while the world erupted over Sri Lanka’s behavior during CHOGM week, local media ignored almost completely critical issues around the debarring of Tamils, the callous disregard for the right of free movement by citizens and foreign media alike, and other related issues. The Government also chose to fall back on their time-tested strategy of labeling and name calling anyone who opposes them as ‘terrorists’, ‘LTTE or LTTE sympathizers’ and ‘Tamil Diaspora funded’. So although defeating the LTTE in 2009 has been touted as the single greatest victory in the history of Sri Lanka they are not unwilling to resurrect them from the dead in order to ensure that they have a scapegoat to blame for their misfortunes.
So what can one observe from the events that unfolded during CHOGM week in Sri Lanka in 2013?
The GOSL cannot handle a critical media
From being door stopped by Channel 4 outside a hotel to cancelling a news conference scheduled for the first day of CHOGM, it is clear that the President was feeling the heat of having a media that asks brutal questions without shying away for fear of repercussions. Also unlike in Parliament there were no stalwarts to provide the necessary noise with which to drown out these impertinent questions. His somewhat angry responses at the news briefing on Thursday highlighted his frustration although really it was funny that he spoke about Sri Lanka’s legal system being the solution to the country’s ills. One wonders what the impeached Chief Justice would have had to say to that.
The media circus started off like a badly written detective novel as Channel 4 was openly tailed by intelligence from the airport to the hotel and thereafter to every location they travelled. The idea was to intimidate them but the news station probably enjoyed it all the more as they filmed their “secret’ escorts and interviewed plain clothes policeman on the street. The President robustly declared that “We have nothing to hide” but ‘somebody’ went to the extent of stopping a train in order to prevent them from going to Kilinochchi. What they probably didn’t expect was for Callum Macrae to conduct a Q&A with the so-called protestors at Anuradhapura only to find out that none of them seemed to have (and I repeat none of them – watch the news report if you want to see it for yourself) even watched the No Fire Zone Videos[i]. In effect what the government has done is given Channel 4 enough of footage for probably two more documentaries on Sri Lanka, all on their own steam.
A BBC cameraman was physically restrained from filming the President’s arrival at the Opening Ceremony and only three British journalists were among the 200 journalists scheduled to meet the President at his Friday press conference that was mysteriously cancelled and then hijacked by the government MP A.H.M Azwer. The national list MP masqueraded as a journalist in order to attack the foreign media who were present at the conference until he was called to order by Richard Uku, a Commonwealth Spokesman. The author suspects Mr. Azwer may have mistaken the press conference for a sitting of the Sri Lankan Parliament.
However, all was not lost. The Government used Chris Nonis, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the UK, to tackle questioning from a not so well informed CNN journalist. He spoke eloquently and immediately won a massive adulation on social media. Fortunately for Mr. Nonis the CNN anchor did not question him on how exactly the Government had implemented the LLRC. There was great rejoicing because finally someone had stood up to the tools of Western imperialism. The reaction was typical and to be expected as even those in Sri Lanka with access to alternate media and journalism feel affronted when our human rights record is questioned. No matter that fellow citizens continue to languish in refugee camps, we love the Rs. 24 million spent on the CHOGM fireworks display. We seem to not be able to differentiate between propaganda and the fact that we live in a state, which is increasingly authoritarian. People who were shot dead for protesting the lack of clean water are already forgotten.
The presence of foreign media in Sri Lanka has highlighted the abysmal failure of local media to report key issues
In Sri Lanka local media live under a constant threat and it would not be fair to judge them on what they are forced to or prevented from reporting due to the culture of impunity prevalent in the nation today. However on Thursday the 14th of November viewers of MTV’s News 1st were in for a treat as they watched what once used to be considered one of the usually more newsworthy channels in Sri Lanka degrade themselves shamelessly over their report on the attack on Sirikotha by the extremist Buddhist group the Bodu Bala Sena[ii].
The BBS General Secretary, Ven. Gnanasara Thera, led the monks and the mob, who were there to protest the human rights festival being held at the UNP headquarters to highlight issues and people that weren’t going to be discussed at CHOGM’s official proceedings or venues. While it is clear that both sides engaged in fisticuffs and foul language, MTV’s take on the whole issue was fascinating. They chose to pin point pro-UNP members in the crowd involved in the assault and completely ignore the part played by the BBS and their goons. The BBS reputation for violent and unruly behavior precedes them, making it virtually unimaginable that they behaved with decorum and fortitude while protesting outside Sirikotha. In fact video footage proves that it was quite the contrary. MTV’s take on the BBS attack on Sirikotha was tantamount to justifying their actions, illustrating the depths to which Sri Lankan media will sink in order to score points.
David Cameron and the British press corps highjacked CHOGM
In my mind the Rajapakse showcase that CHOGM was to be, was out manoeuvred by British Prime Minister David Cameron and the British press corps. No amount of counter-photo shoots with Prince Charles cutting his cake in Colombo could salvage that. With the UK’s diplomatic invasion of Sri Lanka, the GOSL was left fuming and irate in Colombo as David Cameron and his entourage flew into Jaffna on Friday hours after the opening of CHOGM.
From the outset it seemed as if CHOGM was going to be President Rajapakse’s hour of redemption. No longer a social outcast in the international community. Unfortunately for him and the government, headlines around the world skipped the beautification and development of Colombo and zoomed in on weeping women, scarred journalists and refugees looking to return home after decades. Hailed as the first foreign Prime Minister or President to visit Jaffna since Independence, Cameron was met by refugees at Sabapathy Pillai refugee camp, who – in a marked sign of their desperation in a country that is official post-war – believed he was sent by God to help them get their land back.
However the British Prime Minister’s visit to the North was not without criticism. Accused of having his own agenda and acting in self-interest, while in Sri Lanka he also took the opportunity to lash out at his political opponents, the Labour Party, for criticizing his decision to attend the controversial summit. Similarly, as mentioned in an article published in Groundviews, many of the families of the disappeared who stood outside the Jaffna Public Library were disappointed that the Prime Minister did not take the time to come and talk to them and listen to their stories. The Chief Minister of the Northern Province and the leader of the TNA were accused of doing the same thing, and the article states that all the families got for their efforts were insults and beatings from the Police[iii].
As David Cameron made waves around the world the British media reported the news and were also part of the news. Channel 4 dominated headlines in Sri Lanka to the extent that Callum Macrae alleged he was the ‘most hated man in Sri Lanka’[iv]. Luckily for him most Sri Lankans have a very short memory span (flashback the Helping Hambantota fiasco) so in years to come, he may again be able to come to Sri Lanka with only the occasional stray dog following him.
Distinguishing between real protests and orchestrated protests
CHOGM 2013 offered some lessons in how to distinguish between different protests. Orderly protestors who were reluctant to have their faces shown first met the David Cameron entourage in Jaffna. The protestors preferred to hide behind well-printed cardboard signs in English asking for an “investigation into British Colonial atrocities”. A few yards down the road raw emotion combined with a hysterical desperation for answers saw women fling themselves and pictures of their missing loved ones against the convoy. Probably not the images the Rajapakse clan ever planned on showing off during CHOGM.
In Jaffna we saw a glimpse of the real Sri Lanka instead of perfect highways, well-manicured gardens and numerous venues named in honour of the President. The riot police or the threat of intimidation could not hold the real Sri Lanka back. The people who participated in the protests and allowed their faces to be shown are bound to be harassed and threatened once the media spotlight ceases to shine on the events of November 15th. According to the Uthayan newspaper’s online editor, Anuraj Sivarajah there were two possible outcomes to the British Prime Minister’s visit to the North. The government would either leave them alone or increase their attacks on the newspaper[v]. To participate in a highly documented protest of this nature one needed to be brave and determined and we can only admire them for withstanding police pressure and police barriers to get their message across.
The Tamil Diaspora, the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and the Tamils in Jaffna
I hesitate to talk about the Tamil Diaspora and the Tamils of Tamil Nadu in relation to the Tamils of Sri Lanka particularly in the Northern and Eastern province. However as I watched Cameron’s trip unfold and the overwhelming response he received from the people he visited in the North I could not help thinking that maybe the rest of the world’s Tamil community did not comprehend how his visit would highlight the gross irregularities between what the Government of Sri Lanka claims to do and what they actually do.
The Diaspora Tamils in the UK and in Canada called for a boycott of CHOGM as did the Tamils of Southern India. However it seems that Cameron’s visit to Sri Lanka – made amidst strong criticism from the UK – really did shine a light (however brief) on the plight of the people of the North in a way which Manmohan Singh and Stephen Harper’s boycott did not. Although it must be noted that the Indian premier soft-peddled his boycott leaving it unsaid and indistinct.
Alan Johnson, the UK Labour MP is reported to have said that ‘if people such as Cameron were not in the country, journalists would not be there [either]. So in a strange way, the attendance of high profile politicians at the summit is highlighting human rights issues in Sri Lanka”[vi] David Cameron, aside from Prince Charles, was the most high profile delegate attending the Commonwealth Summit and therefore wherever he went with him went the international media. In the North it seemed as if the people were grateful for the Prime Minister’s visit instead of resentful that he had not boycotted the summit.
While Manmohan Singh and Stephen Harper chose to make a statement by boycotting CHOGM in hindsight it seems that David Cameron made the stronger statement regarding human rights abuses. Thus while some parts of the Tamil Diaspora felt that a boycott of CHOGM would be better it appears that those who were really affected and on the ground had a different view.
But the question begs to be asked, what will happen to us left behind in Sri Lanka once the CHOGM circus leaves town? Interestingly and probably in complete contradiction of “Commonwealth values” President Rajapakse will be the chairperson of the Commonwealth for the next two years. By holding this summit in Sri Lanka the credibility of the Commonwealth has been called into question and with it the need to rethink the role of the organization in the 21st century.
Is David Cameron really interested in Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses or is he just trying to gain some votes back home? When I think of David Cameron’s promise cum threat to ensure Sri Lanka investigates allegations of war crimes I am reminded of David Miliband’s visit to Sri Lanka during the last stages of the war. Miliband’s visit to Sri Lanka resulted in his effigy being burned in the streets of Colombo and outside the British High Commission. Will the Government unleash a new ‘proxy propaganda war’ (my willful misquote of Mr. Nonis on CNN recently) to win the hearts and minds of the world? Will the people of the north who turned out to meet David Cameron be broadcast on national television recanting whatever they said, as Tamil doctors who worked in the No Fire Zone were forced to do so when the war ended?
Ultimately one does not need a Commonwealth astrologer to predict that the regime will use the next few days to present the summit as a great triumph and all its critics and detractors as stooges of the LTTE. The Government would never admit that from the point of view of international relations the summit proved to be a PR debacle of unprecedented magnitude. In the words of Michael Ondaatje “in Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts“.
The only problem is that in Sri Lanka today, the lies are rarely well told.