By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
One does hope that in her next cablegram, Ambassador Patricia Butenis will not fail to inform her bosses that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the highest ranking Sri Lankan in a formation that stands at a rare interface of global civil society and the global inter-state system; a member of the top elective college of a planetary organisation of a billion adherents; the leader of the only social organisation on this island bridging the Sinhala-Tamil gap; and an advocate of devolution and ethnic equity, has at a landmark public occasion on December 6, expressed endorsement of Sri Lanka’s final military offensive for national unification and liberation, decisively demarcated himself and the Church from the ‘targeting of civilians in the final phase of the conflict’ discourse and decried the international propaganda drive against Sri Lanka.
U.S Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives Ms.Patricia Butenis is in conversation with Venerable Professor Bellanwila Wimalaratana-Chief Incumbent of Bellanwila Temple ~ at The Martin Luther King Jr Commemorative Exhibition ~ see & read more ~ pic by: Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai ~
One also hopes that the US Ambassador will add that the most popular personality in Sri Lanka’s moderate opposition, Sajith Premadasa, is categorically of the view that the only war crimes in Sri Lanka were committed by the Tigers.
It must be emphasised that Patricia Butenis, the US Ambassador is not a Tiger or a Tiger supporter or sympathiser. Nor does she support the establishment of a separate state of Tamil Eelam. Therefore she is not a foe of Sri Lanka.
I think her Sri Lankan critics have not understood exactly what Patricia Butenis has tried to do in her cable to her bosses. Far from being a dreadfully anti-Sri Lankan creature brewing a nasty concoction, the cable traffic seems to indicate that she was trying to soften and counter some of the worst of the anti-Sri Lankan thrust in US and Western circles.
It is important to note the chain of causation, and that certainly does not originate with Patricia Butenis or the US. The crucial cable is not from the US Embassy in Colombo, but the one from the US Embassy in London, to the State Department. In it, the entire diplomatic campaign – its leading personalities, the reasoning, the dates, the moves, the roadmap studded with two mentions of the looming United Nations Human Rights Council Special Session on Sri Lanka in Geneva in May 2009 — becomes transparently clear in the briefing the US diplomat receives from his British counterpart.
This in turn is reported by the US diplomat to his bosses in Washington DC, not with any noticeable degree of enthusiasm or approval but as deep background of the British preoccupation with Sri Lanka at a pretty high level. The Patricia Butenis cable must be seen as coming downstream from those developments which included visits by the UK Foreign Secretary to New York and Washington, where the ‘special relationship’ was obviously sought to be leveraged.
The policy process in Washington DC must be understood. On any given issue there are a plurality of voices, originating from a plurality of institutional sites, and a policy consensus evolves, which reflects the overall balances within the administration and the polity (including the Senate, Congress etc), and entails trade-offs among factions as between personalities. The Butenis cable must be embedded in that context.
What is the main thrust of what Ambassador Butenis is telling her bosses? The message is two pronged, neither of which is aimed especially against Sri Lanka. One point to Washington DC is: war crimes investigations? C’mon guys, whatever the Brits or our own human rights archangels are plugging, you’ve just got to be kidding. Note that Ambassador Butenis uses the adjective “alleged” war crimes, even in her cable traffic home.
Her second message is as important or even more so: though apprehension of intimidation cannot be ruled out as a factor, there is a basic asymmetry, even a schism, between the perspectives and priorities of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, including the (Oppositional, Tamil nationalist) TNA, and those of the Tamil diaspora, so let us not be pushed, pulled, prodded or guided mainly by the diaspora lobbyists. The Tamils on the ground in Sri Lanka and their democratically elected representatives are more important or at least as important.
Pat Butenis served in a very nasty place at a very nasty time: El Salvador in the early 1980s when the allies and interlocutors of the US (such as the US trained Atlacatl and Ramon Belloso brigades, and the notorious Roberto D’Aubisson) made the Sri Lankan state apparatuses look positively saintly. She would have been there during the massacres on the Cathedral steps and in the waters and bank of the Rio Sumpul; and the slaying of Archbishop Romero while he was celebrating the Eucharist. She knows that prosecutions on human rights violations (the murder of the Archbishop, the killing of the six Jesuits and their personal staff) take place way down the road, as part of a negotiated settlement in an ethno-linguistically homogenous society with common institutions (such as the Church). US Secretary of State James Baker III successfully negotiated the end of the conflict.
Pat Butenis knows that Sri Lanka’s conflict did not end in a negotiated solution, decommissioning and partial de-militarization, largely because of the nature of the Tigers. The Salvadoran revolutionaries were from a different planet than the Tigers, the JVP and sundry Sinhala chauvinists.
Where in Sri Lanka were there ever equivalents of communist leader-theoretician Schafik Jorge Handal, top revolutionary intellectual Salvador Samayoa, or guerilla commander Joaquin Villalobos, a favourite son of Fidel, who currently commutes between Harvard’s Kennedy School and Oxford University? The remotely possible equivalents were murdered by the Tigers.
Ambassador Butenis isn’t out there pitching for Sri Lanka. Why should she? That’s not in her job description. She’s a professional US diplomat who pitches for her country. She may not be a friend of Sri Lanka or even like the place, let alone its administration, but going by the textual and contextual evidence she seems to be commending a realist perspective to her government in relation to ‘alleged war crimes’ and their investigation, the Tamil diaspora and the aspirations of Sri Lanka’s Tamil citizenry.
She regards this as in the best interests of the USA. Though not quite as constructive and forward looking as the Kerry-Lugar (‘re-set’) Report a year ago, this realist or (less flatteringly) pragmatic in-house corrective is helpful to Sri Lanka. It is in our interests.
The inability to distinguish between private critic and public enemy is a hallmark of political fundamentalism. Far too much of it is going around, disguised as patriotism or nationalism, when it is quite harmful to the national interest. Sri Lanka has no enemies other than the External LTTE and the projects for Tamil Eelam. Sri Lanka certainly has no enemies among the existing states of the international system.
While our enemy has friends, these are not necessarily our enemies and certainly not our main enemy. Furthermore, our enemy has no friends which are existing states or countries. It may have friends, allies or sympathisers within those states, but that does not make those states or their representatives, our enemies. Nothing could be more damaging to our international standing and more helpful to our enemy, than to widen our target list and classify or regard a state and its representatives as foes of Sri Lanka.