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Interviews of Minister of External Affairs

LTTE diaspora strains every sinew to wage 'economic war'


Foreign Minister Prof.G.L. Peiris in an interview with the Sunday Observer says the LTTE, which suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan forces, have shifted their strategy to wage an 'economic onslaught' on Sri Lanka. The Minister said he was happy that the British Office of Communications (Ofcom) has initiated a probe on the Channel 4 documentary since this was a calculated effort by the LTTE diaspora who are straining every sinew to wage this economic war. "Their objective is to prevent tourists from coming here, to prevent Foreign Direct Investment from coming here and ensure Sri Lanka's trade relations with the West are impaired."

"It is an attempt to stultify economic development." The Minister said despite attempts to discredit and dismiss the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, their work will be continued until a final report is produced. He refuted Sri Lanka's Commonwealth Games bid will be overshadowed by the Channel 4 video emphasizing that Sri Lanka established its credentials when the review team visited the country last week.

Q: The Ofcom is to investigate the veracity of Channel 4's documentary 'Sri Lanka's Killing Fields', following complaints that it was misleading. Can we term this as a diplomatic victory for the Government?

A: Yes. We have consistently said that many features of the Channel 4 footage support the position that it is not genuine. Among the many features which we have pointed out is the sophistication of the footage. There are real doubts whether it could have been filmed with a mobile phone. Then it seems that the original sound track was in Tamil. We have actually heard the voices speak in Tamil giving instructions to remove the boots from the dead bodies. Then they ask that the people concerned be blindfolded before they are shot. The same voice in Tamil asks why there are cameras and why photographs are taken. In the background there is a strong gust of wind. You can hear that.

The words are spoken in Tamil but in the footage that was shown in London and Geneva the language that is spoken is Sinhala. There is reason to believe that there has been a transposition of the sound track.

There are technical considerations which had been pointed out by experts which point to the strong conclusion that this was a fake. It has also been noticed that the bodies are fair and muscular. There is a likelihood that these are Army personnel who were killed. The film had been made of the killing of Army people which undoubtedly happened. Since there is a great deal of doubt, what was suggested when the Channel 4 documentary was shown in Geneva and UK it cannot be assumed to be factual.

The Government of Sri Lanka has vigorously challenged the position and called this footage a fake. We are happy that there is this investigation which is being made in the UK. We pointed out when the channel 4 footage appeared, that it was a political agenda. This is very clear from the chronology. This first surfaced on the eve of the GSP Plus decision being made in Brussels on whether the concession should be continued for another three years. The second occasion was the eve of my meeting with Secretary of State of for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the UK William Hague.

The third occasion was when President Rajapaksa was in the UK to address the Oxford Union. We have pointed out that this is very much a political agenda. When INGOs like Amnesty International, International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch came forward with this, we invited them to come to Sri Lanka and to give evidence before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. We said it because we are more eager than they are to get at the truth. After all this is our country and we are interested in its future. They never came, but continued to make these reckless allegations without taking advantage of the opportunity to get to the truth. They continued making allegations which we consider to be an irresponsible course of action.

Q: Have you got 'concrete evidence' to prove who is actually behind the footage, if the LTTE diaspora had any part in it?

A: The truth is that the groups that are close to the LTTE have now transferred their initiatives from military action to international action. The war in this country is over and the Government will ensure that the LTTE will not be able to unleash violence within Sri Lanka. But they are very active internationally. And they are straining every sinew to wage an economic war against Sri Lanka. This is an economic onslaught. The objective is to prevent tourists from coming here, to prevent Foreign Direct Investment, to ensure Sri Lanka's trade relations with the West are impaired. It is an attempt to stultify the economic development of the country at a time when we are concentrated on accelerated economic development after the eradication of terrorism. That is very clear.

In fact the 'Darusman Report' is strongly influenced by the views of the groups that were close to the LTTE. Much of what they are saying has been said earlier. It is merely a rehash of the propaganda material that has been extensively used.

Q: This is not the first time such damaging material has surfaced and it is certainly not going to be the last. What can Sri Lanka do to prevent any future damage?

A: The possibility of litigation is being looked at. In the meantime we have sent our missions abroad material relating to the Channel 4 footage and the reasons why we are convinced that it is a fake. There has been very convincing presentations made in foreign capitals for example, in New York by our Permanent Representative Dr. Palitha Kohona and his deputy Major General Shavendra Silva. We are bringing this material to the attention of all our missions abroad so that they will be able to disseminate these in their interactions with those Governments. The investigation which is taking place in the UK is also an indication that there is now increasing awareness of the vulnerable features of this footage.

Q: Sri Lanka maintains that the footage is fabricated. Officials have submitted evidence to prove it. But the UN organs, especially the Human Rights Council which demanded an independent probe dismissing the LLRC, is yet to respond?

A: That is a completely wrong point of view because the LLRC has been appointed by the President. So it is absolutely wrong to dismiss the LLRC as being of no value. On the contrary the Western governments have repeatedly said that they have faith in the LLRC and we must wait for the final result, there cannot be prejudgments. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her meeting with me in May 2010, said this Commission holds promise. Then more recently, just a few weeks ago Alistair Burt the Minister for South Asian Affairs in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated categorically that it would be wrong to come to any conclusions before the report is available. That the report must be studied objectively and dispassionately and any attempt to prejudge its findings or the quality of the commission would be wrong. As far as the UN Human Rights Commission is concerned, in May 2009 the HRC considered this matter exhaustively and decided that there was no basis for proceeding against Sri Lanka. We think the efforts that are now being made to revisit that are ill-founded. Sri Lanka has the understanding of many countries which have voiced their opinions in a forthright manner. This happened recently when President Rajapaksa visited St. Petersburg.

The President of China Hu Jintao stated that China is very much against any external interventions in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. He said China has every confidence that the Government and people of Sri Lanka can handle their own issues and that any intervention from outside is unhelpful and they oppose it.

Russian President Dimitry Medvadev stated just as the Russian Federation stood by Sri Lanka during the conflict, their support is by no means over and that we can rely on Russia to give us every assistance with regard to economic development. He also made the point that terrorism is by no means a problem confined to Sri Lanka. The Russian Federation is very happy to work with Sri Lanka to carry forward a common strategy to deal with the scourge of terrorism. Q: The people of Sri Lanka and the Government were jubilant in May 2009 after the defeat of the LTTE. However, by the signals emanating from international quarters, we could see the LTTE's separatist war is far from over. The threat seems to be getting worse. Experts say the war now is on the diplomatic front. In this light can we perceive a change in Sri Lanka's diplomatic strategy to counter these threats more efficiently?

A: The change is obviously from the military sphere, to the sphere of diplomacy and international relations. This is another kind of war that has to be fought. It is not being fought with guns and helicopters - weapons of military action - but the idea is to put as much pressure as possible on the Government of Sri Lanka to distract it from the urgent tasks with regard to economic development.

Look at the enormous progress that has been made with regard to infrastructure in the Northern province and in the East. There is progress with regard to roads, railroad systems, facilities in schools and hospitals, irrigation projects, vocational training programs and skills development. Then the vast improvement in livelihoods and income, with the economy being revived there with development in agriculture and fisheries sectors.

This is an attempt to prevent that development from going forward, to scuttle it. Therefore we have to redouble our efforts at the international level to inform foreign governments. Q: There are allegations that the Sri Lankan missions suffer from a staff shortage and this is detrimental to the work against the propaganda mill of the LTTE?

A: That is not the case. It is not a question of lack of staff. Obviously no situation is ideal. If there is more staff more can be done. But certainly the staff is adequate for the purpose of carrying out efficiently the functions assigned to the missions. We are not complacent, we are always looking at ways and means of improving performance.

The recent batch of recruits who were sent abroad, we saw to it that they had a very thorough exposure here. They were sent to all parts of the country as well as to all key institutions like the BOI, Customs, Treasury, Export Development Board to acquire some understanding of the work done there. They have to be much more linked to the vital institutions which are responsible for the country's economic development and they have to be linked to the grass roots.

There is the periodic review of the performance of each mission. And we are constantly seeking to improve our performance. We are not saying that everything is perfect and nothing needs to be done, but by and large the missions are active in combating terrorist propaganda. Q: There was a test conducted here in February to recruit the next batch for the Foreign Service. When will the recruitments take place?

A: There are several vacancies which we need to fill and the test has already been conducted. We will be recruiting regularly. There has to be new blood infused into the Foreign Service. But we are also anxious that the people who are taken in must have an understanding of country's identity and culture. The way to conduct Sri Lanka's relations abroad cannot be exactly the way that it is done by other countries in the West. For example there has to be a difference reflecting the country's values and approaches. We need to focus much more on the economic aspects of things.

Our missions have to give priority to trade matters, and get more investment and tourists into the country. Apart from political dimensions, there is a need to prioritize economic issues. We find that even the larger missions in Colombo devote a good deal of time to matters of economic nature.

Q: A court case filed by LTTE sympathizers, seeking to revoke the decision to re-designate the LTTE is currently being heard before the EU Court of Justice. If this attempt bears fruit, that will be a blow to our diplomatic war against the ruthless terror outfit. How concerned are you about this development?

A: We are dealing with that matter professionally. The ban has been renewed very recently and there is very little likelihood of a change occurring in that area. We are very confident that the ban will continue. But we are preparing for the litigation. I think the evidence that is now emerging with regard to LTTE connected activity abroad will certainly make EU countries very vigilant, it is scarcely conceivable that they would lift the ban. On the contrary in many Western European countries, there have been arrests recently. There have been substantial numbers of arrests. That means those countries are very much on the alert with regard to activities by these people. Some of those countries have sent officials here to share information with us. We are helping them with regard to the collection of evidence, to conduct prosecutions.

Some countries have explicitly taken the view that there is no reason for refugees to go from Sri Lanka to those countries and they are being sent back here. There is an acceptance that the conditions here are such that there is no danger for these people. Since those are the attitudes reflected in recent decisions by Governments of Western Europe, the lifting of the ban would be totally illogical.

Q: Should not we have foreseen the highly damaging Channel 4 documentary, the LTTE Court case in the EU and the Court Case in the US that issued summons to the President. Can we call them 'diplomatic blunders' that could have been prevented, had our missions intervened at the 'right time'?

A: No. You cannot prevent actions being filed in a European Court, etc. These kinds of irresponsible actions are a hallmark of the groups connected to the LTTE. They will go on doing this. There is no diplomatic blunder. We have to face those situations and counter them.

As far as the action against the president is concerned, it is a totally frivolous action and the Hague convention clearly gives Sri Lanka the power to refuse to accept this summons which we have done. We are not accepting it and our refusal to accept it is clearly sanctioned by the Hague Convention. This is an action before a District Court in the United States. The Court clearly has no jurisdiction. We have expressed that point of view because the President is entitled to sovereign immunity.

Q: What is the latest on Lankan maid Rizana Nafeek who is on death row in a Saudi Arabian prison?

A: I addressed a letter to my counterpart, the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister indicating the circumstances and recalling the letter addressed by President Rajapaksa to the King of Saudi Arabia. We appreciate the fact that her sentence has not been carried out. The gist of our representations to the Saudi Government is that an opportunity should be provided for us to send a senior delegation, consisting mainly of senior Muslim leaders to talk to the bereaved family.

To appeal to them to exercise clemency in the case considering these circumstances, in particular the background of the child and the fact that she was only 17 years old when she left the country. We have appealed very strongly to the Government. Q: The letter was sent through the Ambassador?

A: Yes. I have addressed the Saudi Government and I have also been in touch with the Saudi mission here. We have also spoken to the Saudi delegation that came here to attend the 50th anniversary of the Asian-African legal consultative organization. Minister Hakeem had also been very active in the matter and Minister Dilan Perera had spoken to the Saudi Authorities to ask the sentence not be carried out. Q: There was a disturbing number of reports that Sri Lankan maids face inhuman treatment by Saudi sponsors. In the light of such reports, are we contemplating any action to minimize or altogether stop sending our maids to SA?

A: I think there are several steps that are necessary. One is to take deterrent actions against employment Agencies that are responsible for fraudulent practices. For example falsification of birth certificates, which happened in the case of Rizana. So it is absolutely necessary to impose the strongest possible penalty on culprits because the consequences are very grave. There are several other things the Government is doing at present. In this area I am working very closely with Minister Dilan Perera. We want to get Sri Lanka's missions abroad much more closely involved in the implementation of the 'employment agreements'. We have found that there is a great difference between the terms of the agreement as they are concluded and the manner in which those agreements are implemented.

In particular the people who go abroad are not paid the salaries which they are promised, in many cases there are arbitrary deductions for food and lodging. Eventually they get only a small fraction of what they have been promised. Sometimes the work conditions are also very harsh. And it often happens that many of these maids eventually come to our missions seeking refuge until they come back to Sri Lanka. We want to get our officials in the ministry directly involved in the implementation and we are also looking at the insurance aspect which is not very satisfactory at present. We want to revamp the arrangements for insurance to make sure that these people get the full benefits.

Minister Dilan Perera is putting a lot of emphasis on better training so that the chances of abuse are much less. All over the country there are residential facilities available for prospective domestic aides to fulfil the required training. They will be better equipped to demand higher salaries.

What we see in the media are the negative experiences but then there are a large number who have made their lives better, built new houses. The success stories are also there but they are not stories that hit headlines. That does not mean that we must not sweep the tragedies under the carpet.

Q: There are accusations that Sri Lankan authorities are not strong enough in seeking better treatment for their unskilled labourers. Hence the reason for them to be treated so lowly? A: That is not the case. There had been similar problems arising with regard to house maids from other countries. It is wrong to suggest that Sri Lanka is the only country. The Government is doing a great deal in this area and we are revamping our procedures to make them more effective. Always there is room for improvement and we are trying to identify the deficiencies in order to rectify them. But in the long term what is important is to take the emphasis away from domestic employment. We have to concentrate on professionals. In several countries in the Gulf, there are plenty of opportunities for people in other areas like nurses and paramedics. In Qatar there is a large Sri Lankan community who manage their banking sector and some of them hold very high positions. This is one of the things we have to do in the future.

© Sunday Observer (10 July 2011)


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