Tough time on Hard Talk
[TamilNet, Thursday, 01 November 2001, 15:06 GMT]
(News Feature) Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's public relations blitz in the Western media unexpectedly ran into difficulties Tuesday on the BBC's Hard Talk program hosted by Tim Sebastian. Faced with several embarrassing questions about the human rights situation in the island and the lack of progress in the peace process, President Kumaratunga, struggling to respond, became increasingly defensive and irritated. During the course of the half-hour interview, Kumaratunga said the US State Department's 2001 report on human rights contained "lies," claimed there had been "only one rape in Jaffna" since she came to power, flatly denied there was an economic embargo on Tamil areas ("that is nonsense!"), and blamed rights violations on "mad" policemen. Amid Sebastian's, trademark rapid-fire questions, some exchanges with the President bordered on the farcical.
Through the course of the interview it became clear the President's strategy for handling accusations of human rights violation by Sri Lankan security forces consisted of contrasting her administration with that of "the previous government" which she said "has been in power fraudulently for seventeen years" and asserting that any atrocities post 1994 were "very rare."
As a result, to an audience unfamiliar with Sri Lanka's recent history, the President's responses might have been somewhat perplexing, such as when she accused the "previous" government of organising "mafia" to attack the Tamils "every year" during its rule and of launching a "huge pogrom against the Tamil people in July 1983."
She claimed "we have fifty five thousand people in the police who were taken on by the last government and trained to kill, to rob, to pillage; we have been able to take action against 950 of them." She said, "six years is not a long time to finish with seventeen years of state terror."
The interview began pleasantly enough, with Sebastian prompting Kumaratunga by quoting her earlier protests of the world powers' "double standards on terrorism." But when asked if "the West had sold [Sri Lanka] short," the President, smiling broadly, inexplicably said "No, not quite."
When prompted again, with another of her previous quotes ("you saidwestern countries are more concerned with human rights of terrorist organisations"), Kumaratunga seemed to warm to the subject, but warily fought shy of acknowledging her "double standards" jibe.
She then began a description of the support for "insurrectionary or terrorist" organisations during the Cold War. Sebastian interrupted, asking "what about people legitimately fighting for their rights and who are labelled terrorists" and cited the Tamil Tigers.
Kumaratunga broke in. "The largest number of suicide bombing in the world have been done by the Tamil Tigers!" she said. Met with perplexed silence, she repeated the statement, waving her hand in circles for explanatory emphasis. As the silence continued, the President apologised for the interruption and gestured for Sebastian to continue.
When Kumaratunga did not respond in the negative to being asked whether she was satisfied with Western support for Sri Lanka's fight against the LTTE, Sebastian switched to human rights and asked: "the world is concerned with the human rights policy of your government. Rightly so, wouldn't you say?"
Kumaratunga: "Quite rightly so!"
Sebastian: "particularly when you say 'not once have we allowed any physical excesses against the Tamil people'..."
Kumaratunga, silent, nodded vigorously.
Sebasitan: "not once have we allowed...?"
Kumaratunga, interrupted,correcting: "not once have we promoted...."
The President said she had said this in a specific context with regards the previous government, which she said had "organised its own mafia, and policemen and military men..in civil..to attack innocent Tamil civilians... five times over... and the fifth time it was a huge pogrom carried out against the Tamil people in July 1983."
Sebastian, interrupting: "But Tamil civilians have been attacked under your rule as well."
Kumaratunga: "No! Never!"
Kumaratunga (shaking her head firmly): "Never!"
Sebastian: "[but this] simply does not accord with the facts. Let me quote you the State Department report on your human rights practices." He goes on to read extracts stating several hundred persons have been killed or disappeared in security forces custody and notes this clashes with Kumaratunga's assertions.
Kumaratunga: "This is as opposed to what the last government did where hordes of their... of government...mafia ran on the streets burning down houses, burning down business places belonging to Tamil people..."
Sebastian, interrupting: "so you are saying that was intentional under the last government and you are saying it is carelessness under yours?"
Kumaratunga: "No that is not what I am saying!... and they burnt people alive. I was witness to some of this and tried to stop it... whereas as what type of thing they [State Dept] are talking about something that happened in 1995. There has been absolutely no... violence against Tamil people encouraged or promoted by my government."
When Sebastian asked "So is Washington lying?" Kumaratunga said they were "talking about only one incident." When Sebastian said there were more than one, Kumaratunga challenged him to provide details of rights violations. Sebastian promptly did, reading more damaging extracts from the US State Department report.
When Sebastian quoted the US State department as saying that "despite legal prohibitions the security forces continued to torture," Kumaratunga interrupted snapping: "I don't accept that."
Kumaratunga: "I don't accept that!"
Sebastian: "Why would they say it if it is wrong?"
Kumaratunga: "Well, they have to give exact details of those with incidents and then we will reply. Because I am personally aware of what goes on and maybe in some rare instances..1 in a 1000 cases and you do get mad policemen and we take strict action against them, there was one woman as opposed to thousands of them per year who was raped a few years ago by the security forces in Jaffna and that is the only case."
In response to this Sebastian read off details of a variety of torture methods and incidents from the report and said it is clearly more than one case. Kumaratunga, frowning intensely merely shook her head vigorously.
Sebastian read further details of massacres, torture and exhumations from mass graves from the State Dept. Report. In response Kumaratunga said some policemen have been arrested and trials are ongoing in manner "more expeditious than the usual one... because we want to punish these people."
Sebastian countered that the report cites many cases where "little progress has been made in resolving" cases of extra judicial killings or disappearances.
"No! I don't accept it!" snapped Kumaratunga folding her arms.
"Why not? asked Sebastian. "Why would they [State Dept] lie?"
Kumaratunga: "Well, there are all kinds of people who want to lie!"
"[But] This is an official State Department report," protested Sebastian.
"What is the date of that?" inquired Kumaratunga.
Sebastian: "... This is the 2001 report."
Kumaratunga: "Can I quote you a State Dept report of nineteen... ninety... five ... or ninety six, which I don't have with me now, but I can send you... which has talked in very eulogistic terms of the huge change in human rights practices brought in by my government as opposed to previous one."
Sebastian: "So you only quote the reports that suit you?"
Kumaratunga: "But you're quoting the ones that suit you !"
Sebastian: "I am quoting the latest . Surely this is the most relevant"
Kumaratunga: "No, not necessarily!"
Sebastian: "So they were right then, they are not right now?"
At one stage, when Kumaratunga said her government takes firm action against rights violators (whereas the previous government "organised groups of mafia"), Sebastian quoted the State Dept noting there was "no investigation or prosecution giving an appearance of impunity..." whereupon she retorted again: "That is not true!"
Sebastian: "Are you going to take this up with the US government?"
Kumaratunga: "I haven't seen this report that you are talking about!"
Sebastian, grinning: "Haven't you? We can give you a copy."
Kumaratunga: "I would like to have that..."
One particularly surreal moment came later when the issue of Tamil detainees being attacked by Sinhalese mobs whilst in custody was being discussed. When Sebastian asked why the young survivors of one attack had been handcuffed to their beds, the President responded: "No, no, no, they were just hacked to death. There wasn't a single survivor. There wasn't single survivor!"
When pressed, Kumaratunga told Sebastian he "must be talking about some other incident."
With tension now flowing, Sebastian turned to the peace process. Pointing out that Kumaratunga had come to power with peace as a major issue, he noted that seven years later, it had been "a complete and utter failure." Kumaratunga became livid. Folding her arms firmly, she sneered: "Well. Mr. Blair came to power talking about peace. And it now five years..."
When Kumaratunga began speaking at length about how her government, on assuming power, had impressed on the Sinhala people the need "to apologise to the Tamil people for what we had not done," and how the discrimination against Tamils had ended, Sebastian interrupted, asking whether she accepted the need to apologise for the economic blockade on the Tamil areas.
"There is no economic blockade! That is nonsense!" cried Kumaratunga.
Sebastian: "No blockade?"
Kumaratunga: "Absolutely not! We lifted..."
Sebastian, interrupting: "Humanitarian blockade?"
Kumaratunga: "Absolutely not!"
When Sebastian asked British charity Oxfam was talking about a humanitarian blockade, Kumaratunga replied she did not know. And then added darkly, "I'd like to meet this Oxfam person."
Kumaratunga was also forced to back pedal on the failure of progress into the investigation of the murder of Nimalrajan, a BBC journalist in Jaffna, as well as other rights cases ("How much control do you have?" - the President blamed the courts for being too slow) the Supreme Court's own protests that the police were ignoring its directives (the President denied this was true).
The interview concluded as she was in mid sentence, denying another extract from the State Department's report.