Government Did Not Seize the Opportunity Given By the US To Pressure the LTTE- An interview with Barbara Crossette
Bandula Jayasekara in Colombo,
Barbara Crossette was the New York Times UN Bureau Chief from 1994 to 2001. Before that she was the diplomatic correspondent for the State Department in Washington. She also served as the South Asia Bureau chief based in New Delhi. She retired from the New York Times in 2001 and works for the UN Wire and is closely associated with the UN Association in the US. Barbara has covered Sri Lanka extensively from the time the LTTE massacred innocent civilians in A’Pura She is in Sri Lanka as a speaker of a seminar organized by the Bandaraniake Center for International Studies and the US/Sri Lanka Fullbright Commission. Barbara will present a paper on ‘ South Asia in the American Imagination’ The senior and outspoken American journalist met up with ‘The Island and spoke of Sri Lanka's chances in the UN the LTTE and she questioned why the government did not seize the momentum of 9/11 and gave in too much to the LTTE.
Q: What do you think of Sri Lankas chances in the UN for the post of Secretary-General?
It is a question if the Asians can unite behind a candidate. I think the field is very clear for Asia now. The only outsider who might have challenged this was Sergio de Melo who died tragically in the summer. He is a Brazilian and he could have made an attempt. But, the second factor is whether a single country would promote this candidate. That’s a hard job. It is like electioneering with 191 countries as constituencies and trying to drum up support. Sri Lanka has not always pushed its own people as hard as it could. There are so many qualified people here for many UN jobs.
Q: What are the chances of the former UN Under-Secretary-General of Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala?
He must be so obvious as the candidate from Sri Lanka. But, again it is a question of getting wide Asian support and secondary getting the government behind him.
Q: Former Thai Foreign Minister Dr Surin Pitsuwan says that Asia should put forward the most credible candidate. Who do your see as the most credible in Asia?
Obviously there are many Indians who see them as the most credible and probably Bangladeshis and people from the other part of South Asia that they could do the job. UN system is such a bad system and they talk of reforms and one of the things that need to be reformed is the regional system in the UN. It goes from the eastern end of the Mediterranean all the way up to the pacific. It is all one group and it is very hard to get them united behind a single candidate. There is going to be number of candidates and then you have to go to the security council and they have their own politicking and there are trade offs and then we have to wait and see who would win the American election. In the end backing of the five permanent members in the Security Council is absolutely crucial. We know what happened to Boutros Boutros Ghali. Most people thought he was a brilliant man, he was in many ways qualified, over qualified and credible to be Secretary –General but, he was still pushed out by the Americans for domestic reasons. So, that person first has to win his governments support then the support of the region and then the support of the five permanent members. That is a big job.
Q: Don’t you think the Sri Lankan foreign minister announced his candidature too early?
Yes. Lot of people thought that was too early because so much can happen. The government will change here perhaps. Perhaps the government will change in the US or perhaps not. Governments will change in a lot of places. So to start a campaign that long ahead when so much in the geo-political situation would change. So it will be a question of coming forward at a time when you have the support of the people who are not there anymore.
Q: How do you see the present situation in Sri Lanka specially as an American who has covered the conflict?
I read The Lanka Academic, which keeps me informed. But, I think there was such high hope and the people here were ready for peace. People have had enough. A country that was by far the most developed in South Asia was crumbling. So, there was huge hope. But, the momentum seems to have got lost. That is doubly tragic because the for the first time after 9/11 the United States in particular decided that it just wasn’t smart to let a small civil war fester like this. Because they saw what happened in Afghanistan you leave a radical group in power and potential position of dominance and you create a situation where others can move in. Once the LTTE has been put on the terrorism list in the US the fear is real what if they then decide to give a base to some enemy of the US? The Sri Lankan conflict has never gone beyond its boundaries except to India, which was tragic. So there was all this. I used to watch how things happened one after the other. Armitage came, Rocca came. Rocca even went to Jaffna and I have never seen this before. So the government had the backing not that the Americans were going to get involved. Just the psychological perception. But, it was sort of squandered. In terms of politics there was no courage to press this advantage. I think this contributed to the feeling here among some people in the South that the LTTE is getting away with too much and the Norwegians were not tough enough, the SLMM was merely reporting things but had no power to do anything about it. I know for sure that at the United Nations there was a lot of frustrations about what the LTTE would say that no more child soldiers and this went on for several times until the UNICEF tried to get tough but even they were criticized here. The tragedy from outside looks like a great opportunity missed. The question is now if the government changes now, can that momentum come back. Because things had moved so fast and they were looking hopeful including the economy.
Q: Don’t you think the government of Wickremasinghe went out of their way to appease the Tigers?
An outsider cannot use the word appease. I would say he was cautious or unwilling to push what was obviously an advantage that is to say all these backing and all the attention Sri Lanka was getting. Most of all to push with India. There was a study in Geneva on small arms which Ambassador Dhanapala knows lot about. It is close enough to Indian borders if Sri Lanka really wanted to try to do something one would have thought with more help with India and with a government that does not want to make trouble for its neighbors that they would have something to do. But, Again this is another thing where they did not take advantage of the attitude of the government in Delhi. I am not privy to all the conversations but I did read in an Indian publication that when Prime Minister Wickremasinghe came to Delhi, during one of his visits he didn’t even press the issue of the Sea Tigers whether or not he would get more help from the Indian coastguard or the Indian navy. If that it true he didn’t press it that seems almost unbelievable.
Q: In your opinion will the US continue to help Sri Lanka even if there is a change of government in the US?
I suspect so for the same reason if it is a Kerry government or a Bush government. What is known is that the LTTE really ran a horrific totalitarian state and there is no reason to believe that this wouldn’t be spread as far as they could extend their power and this not something a democracy like Sri Lanka needs as part of its territory. As a keen follower of Sri Lanka I was always astonished to the degree to the LTTE had sympathy in the west and I think that the Sri Lanka government lost the footing earlier on by not professionally not creatively, and aggressively playing its message out. The propaganda abroad by the LTTE was so successful that I think there are people who still have to learn that this was not Sri Lanka’s government’s fault what happened here entirely. Even now you see people writing in the West that the war started in 1983. But, we know that back in 78/79 there was elimination like the mayor of Jaffna and others. 1983 gave them a big push and gave them a kind of human rights dimension. But, after 9/11 people have looked and looked again and they see who the terrorists are. This has been a huge change, another one of those things that would have given the government the confidence to press the issue.
Q: The LTTE has accused the US for causing the split within its east ranks. How do you see that?
Now it is instiutionalised and the people know who the terrorists are. I think everyone is going to sit back and see how the split plays out. In Washington they would see if this offers an opportunity or not. I think no body outside is involved which seems unlikely. Unless a regional country. Indians have denied it and you have to take at face value. But they denied everything over the years. When I first came here and when I wanted to talk to Balasingham or anyone like that I had to go to Madras. Same with Prabhakaran, But I never met him. I was taken to the coast of Coramandel. I saw many young men and though I was told they were resting it was obvious what was happening. I have photographs of those camps and those men in India. Those were Indira Gandhi years. She was determined to destabilize Sri Lanka and it was a policy. But, this government is different and it is not their policy.
Q: Is it likely that the US would get more involved in Sri Lanka?
No. The US always has seen a steady progress towards a lasting peace. But, they would not take charge of it. I think the Indians themselves are trying very hard to give themselves the role of looking after the neighborhood and I think the Americans refer to them that way. The US will always help when asked.
Q: Why did it take 19 long years for a Sri Lankan leader to meet a President of the US?
That is a very interesting question. It has to also do with the Sri Lankan diplomatic representations in the US good people who could press the issue of the country. Jayawardane I know was recognized as a senior statesman kind of a figure like Nehru and all that. But, post 9/11 when Ranil went to Washington it was a new spirit in counter terrorism and he came when the issue was very hot he could make the case that SL suffered a lot and we understand the issue etc. I interviewed him in Washington at the time and he agreed that the fall out in Washington had some benefit to Sri Lanka. But, as I said before did he cease the moment with determination to make that work before he had the people of this country disappointed by the feeling that the Tigers were going to get away with too much. By the concern of continuing abuses. They simply boiled over because nothing big was happening and they played in to the hands of the LTTE. I am always astonished of the things the LTTE can still do. I read yesterday the LTTE telling the Jaffna university students what to do, telling the people in Jaffna how to vote. It makes you wonder to what extent the sovereign government is exerting itself.
Published: Thu Mar 18 23:55:13 EST 2004