Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake recently told the Indian Express that the meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Chief Minister for Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha, occurred "in the context of this recent film, the Channel 4 documentary that's gotten a lot of attention around the world, including here in the United States." Too bad for both the Secretary and the Assistant Secretary of State that the claims made in the Channel 4 documentary have been discredited by both the United Nations and a second documentary, Lies Agreed Upon, (now viral on YouTube), which provides background and evidence to refute every single claim made in it.
It is usually the case that America's foreign policy spokespeople are misinformed to say the least. Here's a little context as to why neither Clinton nor Blake (who is shown in Lies Agreed Upon meeting with a man who has lectured terrorist cadres on how to raise funds abroad for the procurement of weapons for the LTTE, an organization banned by the US government!), has a clear picture. It is called missing "the ground situation.'
At the Colombo International Airport in Sri Lanka, a Tamil woman about my late mother's age asks me to watch her bag outside the ladies' restroom. "We met before at the check-in counter," she assures me, though I have already nodded. We look at each other for a few silent moments, acknowledging what was not possible for thirty years and what now is: to ask a stranger, particularly a stranger from the "opposite" ethnicity, to watch a bag, parcel or any other "unaccompanied' item without fearing that it might contain a bomb.
In the streets of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, areas where the majority of the populace speaks, almost exclusively, only Tamil, I, who do not understand Tamil, am still able to recognize and communicate a sense of empathy with my fellow citizens. I ask for directions, food, medicine, they help me, both of us falling back on gestures rather than words, on smiles and, to signify further good-will, the stroking of a child's face, their sons or my daughters.
On the beaches of Nilaveli, a place I had been prohibited from visiting since I was a little girl, I meet a Tamil man on an early morning walk. He tells me in faltering Sinhalese: "Now that the war is over we can speak. Before this you would have been afraid of me, I would have been afraid of you. We could not travel, there were checkpoints everywhere. Now I am free."
On my travels I note the newly de-mined roads being re-paved. I notice massive reconstruction that includes the laying down -- for the first time in eighty years -- of a railway that will connect the South and the North along the pristine coast. I take note of the fact that everywhere I look, whether in predominantly Sinhalese areas that once withstood nightly raids and outright massacres from the Tiger terrorists or in predominantly Tamil areas that once were subject to forced recruitment of children and youth, the curtailment of movement and the assassination of moderate leaders, there are people building new homes for the first time in a quarter century, simple brick and mortar structures that, nonetheless, affirm hope.
While I am in Sri Lanka, a childhood friend of mine who had sworn that he would walk the length of the island if the war ever ended, stayed true to his word. Trail, an undertaking that involved more than 30,000 people of all ethnicities, social classes and political stripes, walked 670 kilometers over the course of 27 days from Dondra in the South to Point Pedro, the Northernmost part of an island shaped like a tear-drop. The walk raised money from a mostly Sinhalese population to build a pediatric cancer ward in the hospital in Jaffna which serves an overwhelmingly Tamil population, further acknowledging our similarities and the need for national reconciliation in the aftermath of tragedy and loss.
At the conclusion of the war in May 2009, there were approximately 293,600 IDPs in the Relief Villages set up in the Vanni. Today, only 3% of ordinary civilians are yet to return to their homes; though they are free to leave, they remain of their own volition until the de-mining/reconstruction work is completed, and the government of Sri Lanka continues to support them through its national welfare programs as well as through its relief organizations and by channeling funds from generous donors. Of some 11,000 former LTTE combatants, 595 child soldiers (100% of them), have been rehabilitated and united with their parents while 6,100 adult cadres were rehabilitated and released by June 2011. Most of the remaining cadres are undergoing further rehabilitation programs and will be reintegrated to society by the end of this year. Those culpable for atrocities at a higher level will be prosecuted through legal channels.
All these changes -- both the physical and the cultural -- have taken place in little more than two years after the end of a 30-year war also punctuated by a devastating tsunami. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, we hear of the "whitening" of the citizenry, and the continued disenfranchisement and displacement of its former population. This, six years after a natural disaster that was minimal by comparison, in a nation far larger and far richer than Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, in Guantanamo, the United States continues to both torture and hold people without charge and we can all be reassured that none of those people being held there are being offered opportunities for education, technical training or the chance to sit for national exams, telephone, hospital and prayer facilities according to their faith and certainly no free visitation rights for their kith and kin as is the case in Sri Lanka.
Why then would Hillary Clinton take it upon herself to utter during her recent visit to India and her meeting with Jayalalitha, the pro-terrorist (LTTE) leader of Tamil Nadu: "The United States is looking at some innovative and creative ideas to break the impasse over the Sri Lankan Tamils issue"? Could it be because the LTTE, the terrorist organization amply funded and supported by Jayalalitha also contributed to Clinton's own campaign? Could it be the prospect of imports/exports between the US and India? One thing is certain, it had nothing to do with any real interest in Sri Lanka's own strides toward reconciliation.
On Hillary Clinton's watch, in a voice vote, the US House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to ban all US government funding to Sri Lanka. This is heartening to those Americans who imagine that the United States enjoys a certain savoir faire regarding South Asia. To those outside the United States, and certainly to Sri Lankans, this is laughable. Sri Lanka ended its war at long last because its government finally refused to acquiesce to American threats to withdraw IMF loans and USAID grants. Instead, the government of Mahinda Rajapakse returned to its traditional friends and allies: Japan, China and Pakistan and, to some extent, India. Today, what the United States thinks it is "keeping" from Sri Lanka it gets freely from those same countries including, from China, the construction in Hambantota, of what will become the largest and most important port in the world as well as a the centerpiece of a booming capital city, a 2000 seat center for the arts. What the US plans to withhold is peanuts by comparison.
Word on the street in Sri Lanka goes something along the lines of these words from journalist Malinda Seneviratne:
If 'creativity' and 'innovation' is Hillary-speak for a re-enactment of 'Libya', 'Grenada', 'Haiti', 'Panama', 'Iraq', 'El Salvador', 'Nicaragua', 'Afghanisatan' etc etc (I pity these recipients of US largesse, by the way), not to mention poetic silence about Gaza, then she might as well spell it out. We are used to threat and are not unaware of global power imbalances. We know what we can do and what we need to resist. We know that nations get bulldozed by the powerful and that it is often done in the name of things like democracy and civilization. Hillary need not be cute about it, not least of all because we know how 'creative' and 'innovative' she was during her campaign for the US Presidency, when she talked of disembarking from a plane and having had to run for cover dodging a hail of bullets, her gaffes in Russia and about change one can Xerox (photocopy).
In other words, either Hillary Clinton is grossly misinformed, stupid or simply playing politics, uttering statements that have no ground in reality and designed merely to placate other people like herself who are equally disinterested in peace or real human progress. The sad thing is that Hillary Clinton will retire someday from office with a speaking gig that will pad her posterior and that of her progeny quite comfortably for the duration of her life. What happens to the ordinary American people who are left with a view of the world so warped and ignorant that their government becomes increasingly irrelevant to the course of human history? And who will be viewed in turn by the world as naive, ill-informed and powerless to resist the thuggery that is perpetrated in their name?
I don't expect any answers from Hillary Clinton, but I hope that Barack Obama decides sooner rather than later to reclaim the foreign policy mantle of his presidency. If he is expeditious, perhaps, he will still be able to advocate for a speaking part on the giant stage that is South Asia. That is if he, too, understands that the US won't be writing the script.