Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Harvard University rubbishes Sri Lanka newspaper’s allegations

Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government (KSG) asked a Sri Lankan newspaper for a retraction, as the newspaper carried a “severely distorted,” news article regards a panel discussion that had taken place at the School.

A Sri Lankan newspaper, The Nation last Sunday in a front page story titled ‘LTTE threat to disrupt Harvard discussion on Lanka turns into damp squib’ carried an article detailing a panel discussion attended by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN Palitha Kohona, and said a journalist who had been convicted for 20 years in Sri Lanka and is now a Nieman Fellow had attempted to block the event. The Kennedy School in a letter to the editor that it also carried on its website said that The Nation’s article “presented a severely distorted account” of the seminar and carried “a number of inaccurate claims about individuals associated with the event.”

Ambassador Nicholas Burns, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and now professor of Diplomacy and International Politics at Harvard, who moderated the discussion said in a signed statement, “It (the article) fails to mention the criticism of the Sri Lankan government’s wartime conduct voiced by panelists, the audience, and by me.”

The Nation’s article had also criticised Ambassador Burns’ management of the event by saying that while he gave an opportunity for different Tamil interest groups to put forward their views, “…he effectively curtailed available response time.” Ambassador Burns in rebutted this by saying that article was “inaccurately claiming response time was curtailed.”

The Nation said last Sunday in a front page story said that an attempt was made “by a Sri Lankan Tamil journalist who was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail for terrorist related activities …” to “arrange a boycott” but “failing that, had threatened to stage a ‘hartal’ to disrupt the panel discussion. Despite The Nation not naming the journalist, the only journalist in Sri Lanka who was sentenced to 20 years in jail and is now a Nieman Fellow at Harvard is Mr. J.S Tissainayagam.

Ambassador Burns in his statement said, “Your claim that J.S. Tissainayagam, a Sri Lankan journalist and Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, organized a mass protest of the event is simply untrue. Mr. Tissainayagam attended and participated in the event, contributing greatly to the audiences understanding of the end of the war and challenges ahead for Sri Lanka.”

The Nations article also said LTTE had “packed the audience occupying most of the seats in advance” and “the rump LTTE bombarded the Kennedy School with more than 500 emails and phone calls threatening public disturbances.” However, Ambassador Burns refuted this in his statement saying the LTTE had no role in this event and that the audience was composed of students and fellows from the Kennedy School of Government and community members interested in the topic. “The claim of over five hundred protest e-mails and phone calls greatly exaggerates community response,” said Mr. Burns.

The Kennedy School statement took pains to describe attendance at the panel discussion was by the Tamil community and not the “LTTE rump” as alleged by The Nation. The statement points out that the tone of the discussion was critical of the Sri Lanka government.  Harvard University demanded that The Nation publish Mr. Burn’s statement and give it equal prominence as the distorted article it carried.

Mr. Burns’ statement can be accessed on the Kennedy School website here. The Nation’s article can be accessed here.

The India and South Asia program of the Kennedy School of Government organized a seminar on March 1st called “War, Peace, and Reconciliation: The Way Forward for Sri Lanka”. Sri Lanka Permanent Representative Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka Democracy Forum’s Ahilan Kadirgamar, and Vasuki Nesiah, Associate Professor of Practice, New York University were on the Panel. The Panel was moderated by Nicholas Burns, Director, India and South Asia Program, and Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics. David L. Phillips Director, Peace-building and Rights Program, Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University and Nieman Fellow J.S. Tissainayagam were invited by Mr. Burns to make special interventions.