UN Seal and Lanka flag
The Sri Lankan government is saying that this is a peoples protest. The UN is using words like recall and saying its closing a UNDP office. Both are playing games. The protest has government support. The UN is not actually pulling out. The media has simply run press release headlines without analysis while the reality is far different.
This is the most recent UN press release from the Secretary General:
In light of the evolving situation, he is recalling the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Neil Buhne, to New York for consultations. He has also decided that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Centre in Colombo will be closed.
This has been reported by outlets like the Daily Mirror to read that Buhne recalled, UNDP shut. But this is not entirely correct. Neil Buhne has been called back to New York for a meeting, he is not leaving his job. The UNDP office they refer to is actually a regional office on Independence Square, entirely removed from the main compound. According to a UNDP source
“The UNDP Regional Centre is not in the compound, it serviced South East Asia on a few particular issues like gender and human development, it did no actual work here [in Sri Lanka]. The office is on Independence Avenue near 80 Club. They’ve been closing that one for a year because it’s not economically viable. Most staff have been moved to bangkok, only six are left. They’re housed in part of the building, rest is rented out. Those five or six are being moved to the compound.”
Reading the press release, however, it sounds like the UNDP office is being closed as a direct response to the protests when in fact it’s just being thrown in for effect. Closing the main UNDP office would have huge repercussions on Sri Lankan development, but that is not happening, nor is it on the cards, nor is it possible without input from the host country.
According to the same internal source, “Before they pull out there are all these phases, has to be together with the host government. If they’re closing a UN office it takes at least a year.”
“It has to go through the process with the member state. Sri Lanka has to push it through. The UN is here at their invitation, the UN can’t just pull out.”
The UN statement is worded to be reported without scrutiny by the media making things out to be worse than they are. On a second reading outlets like Ada Derana have caught
that the UNDP office mentioned in the press release is a bit of a ruse, but it’s already too late. The news has already broke.
Yes, but the government does not extend the same support to student protesters who were recently blocked from get anywhere near the University Grants Commission by barricades on Ward Place, a hundred cops in buses and water bowsers at the ready. In contrast, the UN protesters have hung propaganda on barricades, spray painted cameras at the compound and set flags up along the Thumulla junction. In a most obvious display, Wimal Weerawansa reportedly called the powerful Defense Secretary and put him on speaker phone. The call was recorded
and it shows Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordering the cops to stand down.
Even more obviously, the protest is led by a government minister. Despite the assurance of another minister (G.L. Peiris), those in their position do not hold entirely personal views. This is a government supported protest and they are playing their own games to get their point across.
Both sides are playing games. The media is playing along and people are getting played. These protests are not spontaneous and grass-roots, but neither is the UN actually so intimidated that they close major offices. Their motivations are more opaque and for that the reader may have to decide (or wait till Sunday’s paper for more analysis). One hopes people understand, however, that the UN office is now a stage and both the government and the UN are merely actors.