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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2702

Sri Lanka’s battle for global hearts and minds and scrutinizing The 'mindset' of the West

Daya Gamage – US Bureau Asian Tribune Analysis

Washington, D.C. 20 March (Asiantribune.com): The United States and Western Democracies, international community interested in Sri Lanka’s national crisis, the United Nations agencies dealing with humanitarian and human rights issues, global rights organizations mostly funded by Western Democracies have long been kept ‘informed’ by the international wing of activists, professionals and front organizations of Sri Lanka’s secessionist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) that the minority Tamils (12%) have been denied equal rights for many decades, facing shrinking educational and employment opportunities, denied economic opportunities the majority Sinhalese (74%) enjoy, deprived of the adequate participation in the nation’s governance and discrimination in the hands of the ‘Sinhalese-dominated government’ dismissing their basic human rights and a decent living.

Those who have closely and professionally associated with the western diplomatic corps, especially the Foreign Service Officers of the U.S. State Department, who served in Colombo, Sri Lanka since the early eighties right through the nineties could vouch that the diplomats were developing and overtime developed a mind-set well provided by radical yet democratic Tamil politicians, far-left political activists who were obtaining their places in Western-funded International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and fast emerging ‘ethnic centers’ of the utter plight of the minority Tamils who have lost their reason to have a decent life in a Sinhalese-dominated society.

In the aftermath of the July 1983 attacks on innocent Tamils mostly in urban areas later revealed as executed by unscrupulous elements associated with the then ruling United National Party yet passage of time intentionally suppressing the fact that vast decent Sinhalese families gave protection risking their own lives to vast number of innocent Tamils greatly helped the fast emerging LTTE international propaganda movements to tie the ’83 anti-Tamil violence to all the above issues mentioned in the opening paragraph.

It is this scenario that the major players in the international community which includes western democracies, UN human rights and humanitarian agencies, human rights organizations, officials of the US State Department and international civil servants maintain as ready reference when dealing with Sri Lanka’s national crisis which has helped the international propaganda machinery on the LTTE to almost win their hearts and minds making Sri Lanka’s separatist/terrorist organization a macro-effect organization despite its territorial losses.

For Sri Lanka Peace Secretariat head Rajiva Wijesinghe to recently lament that he and the GOSL are tired of repeating the misinformation of the LTTE and explaining the position of Sri Lanka to the international community over and over again to their deaf ears clearly shows the impact the Tamil Tiger outfit is having to bring diplomatic pressure on Sri Lanka.

Tamil Tigers have now moved from exercising military offensive toward diplomatic offensive, a frontier Sri Lanka has to deal mixed with foreign economic assistance and international goodwill.

With the international community focusing more on issues connected to GSL military offensive, human rights, humanitarian affairs rather than issues arising out of Tamil Tiger terrorism is a clear manifestation that the LTTE is well aware of the ‘reference notes’ the international community has been maintaining since mid eighties, the ‘reference notes’ that we mentioned in the opening paragraphs that were well fed by the LTTE propaganda machinery in Sri Lanka and in western nations that have become hard to take off their mind-set.

While defeating LTTE terrorism for once and for all the GOSL needs to focus on ‘burning’ that ‘reference notes’ and ‘changing’ the ‘mind-set’ of the international community.

It has been conveniently ignored by the LTTE propaganda machinery in western nations that since the ’83 riots there was not a single incident, isolated or designed to harm the minority Tamils in the nation of Sri Lanka. The fact is in the past three years or so minority Tamils felt secured outside the clutches of the LTTE when moving to other predominantly Sinhalese districts. In the City of Colombo itself the Tamil minority is 27%, and out of the 12% Tamils in the nation 54% live outside the Northern and Eastern Regions.

The successive governments have not reiterated this significant point or the message went unnoticed because the LTTE acolytes and others highlighted other issues that are mentioned earlier.

On the whole, Sri Lanka either has fallen short of sending a clear message to the international community that what have been said by Tamil Tiger propagandists about race relations and ethnic issues are half truths, misinterpretations, distortions and some are diabolical falsehood and most importantly the mindset developed by western diplomats in Colombo and their superiors in their respective foreign ministries, rights organizations and UN agencies prevented them to view a broader scenario in this South Asian nation which was battling an insurgency threatening the nation’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and democracy.

The long ‘policy’ letter signed by almost forty United States Congressmen, some of whom were influential and close to the White House staff and Clinton’s State Department, addressed to the Secretary of State Clinton and US Representative to UN Dr. Susan Rice two weeks ago requesting them to investigate the human rights abuses, deteriorating humanitarian situation and possible genocide in Sri Lanka at a time the LTTE is on the verge of losing all its territory to the advancing military forces is a clear manifestation of the effectiveness of the LTTE’s public diplomacy and strategic communication overseas.

And the letter signed by six leading U.S. Senators which include the Chairman of the Sub Committee on Human Rights and South Asia of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee addressed to Secretary of State Clinton during the same time calling for a ceasefire can see the finger prints of the LTTE.

But then, the officials of the Sri Lanka government stationed in Geneva, in the Human Rights Ministry, Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been sending the message of the GSL to all the parties concerned.

Last week Dr. Rajiva Wijesinghe of Sri Lanka’s Peace Secretariat was disgusted when he said that they were sick of telling their story over and over again to those deaf ears of the international community.

Then how does the LTTE message prevail over the message of the GOSL? Why does the LTTE message looks like a credible one in the eyes of the U.S. Congressmen, and others, and the GOSL message is put in the back burner? These LTTE messages are well rooted in the mindset of the western diplomats. The ‘reference notes’ these diplomats and their foreign offices maintain are strategically highlighted by the LTTE propagandists. There is hardly any difference between Tamil Tiger misinformation, misrepresentation of facts, half truths and diabolical lies and the ‘reference notes’ they are maintaining.

"Successful strategic communication requires an interactive relationship between senders and receivers" says the U.S. Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication – February 2008 Report prepared for the streamlining of strategic communication in the United States.

The GOSL failure so far to prevail over the LTTE message needs a comprehensive investigation, research and analysis of the ‘interactive relationship between senders and receivers’, senders in this case being the LTTE and the GOSL and receivers being the Western democracies and the international community. These messages have been disseminated since the mid-eighties.

The most important factor needs to be remembered is that people understand and relate to ideas and information when they can identify with what is conveyed.

Has the professional propagandists of the LTTE all these years fulfilled this vital principle of basic strategic communication? Or, failure of successive regimes in Sri Lanka since mid-80s to change that ‘mindset’ and amend the ‘reference notes’, which were outlined at the outset of this report, helped the LTTE to prevail over what is the true nature of the national issue in Sri Lanka? Why do U.S. Congressmen, as stated in their letter to Clinton and Dr. Rice, in a state of mind unfavorable to the GOSL? The officials of the GOSL Dr. Rajiva Wijesinghe of the Peace Secretariat, Dr. Dayan Jayatilake of the Sri Lanka Mission in Geneva, Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe and host of others did present facts disputing some or most of the observations and findings of Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, Amnesty International and some international civil servants but the LTTE interpretations and information prevailed over those to creep into US Congressional documents, communications, specially addressed communications and congressional testimonies.

One advice that can be taken from the US Defense Science Board Task Force report is: "Successful communicators enlist interest and evoke common ground. They enlist interest through credible symbols (actions, images, and words) that resonate with others. They evoke common ground by focusing on culturally independent concepts that are globally valued— human dignity, health, personal safety, education, the environment, and economic well-being—and do so in ways that build support and mobilize allies."

The March 9 letter send by about forty U.S. Congressmen addressed to Secretary of State Clinton with a copy to Dr. Susan Rice in the opening paragraph reads as follows:

"We write with great concern regarding the grave humanitarian crisis in Northern Sri Lanka. Human rights groups report that up to 200,000 civilians are trapped in the Vanni region amid fighting between the Government of Sri Lanka forces and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Most have been cut off from outside food and medicine supply for weeks and their lives are threatened by the war and their resulting humanitarian needs. Human Rights Watch reports that 2000 civilians have been killed since January, and 7000 civilians have been wounded."

The US Senators charge in their letter to Clinton that "there is no doubt that ethnic based violence is widespread in Sri Lanka, and Tamil noncombatants are deliberately victimized by Sri Lankan Government policies."

The Tamil Tigers since mid-eighties have been successful in influencing the international community that there is widespread ethnic based violence taking place in Sri Lanka to justify their military action. The letter addressed to Clinton reflects that sentiment. Has the GSL failed to convince the international community that the issue in Sri Lanka is not the ‘widespread ethnic based violence’ or a riots between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils but a group of separatists who have waged a terrorist battle on the pretext of championing the cause of the Tamil ethnic minority and that the LTTE had to brutally eliminate the Tamil democratic leadership to declare itself the ‘sole representative of the Tamil People?’

The US Senators in their letter urge Secretary of State Clinton to influence the GOSL to “progress toward a political settlement that grant ethnic Tamils meaningful participation in the national governance and end to discrimination against them.”

The LTTE propagandists since the eighties helped the international community to prepare the ‘reference file’ and the above sentiments are undoubtedly taken from that ‘file’.

Following statement by Sri Lanka Foreign Minister in January 2008 was either ignored by the U.S. legislators when framing their opinion toward developments in Sri Lanka or the GSL failed to bring to the attention of leading US legislators to help them understand a broader scenario.

(Begin Text) Despite the LTTE launching a wave of attacks against the security forces only 14 days after the assumption of office by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in November 2005, every effort was made by the new government to engage in political negotiations with the LTTE, which had unilaterally pulled out of the Peace Process since April 2003. This includes two rounds of talks held in Geneva and technical talks scheduled in Oslo. In fact in Oslo the LTTE delegation having arrived in the city refused to show up for negotiations. Once again underlying its lack of commitment to the Peace Process. The LTTE spurned all opportunities at discussing the core issues aimed at arriving at a political settlement and continued its duplicitous action of escalating the violence of the CFA. Notwithstanding LTTE attacks on the Army Commander, Secretary defense and the assassination of Major General Parami Kulathunge the third highest ranking officer in the Sri Lanka Army, the deputy Secretary General of the Government Peace Secretariat Ketheshwaran Loganathan in August 2006 and numerous attacks targeting innocent civilians including bus bombings in Kebitigollewa, Nittambuwa, Seenigama and Cheddikulam, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa remained steadfast in its efforts to seek an honorable peace with the LTTE, even as it pursued negotiations on a political settlement with all political parties represented in the Parliament through the APRC process. It should be noted that it was only following the LTTE blocking of water supply to the East at the Mavilaru anicut, that the Government was compelled to undertake military operations against the LTTE in order to protect the civilian population and vital strategic assets including the Trincomalee Port. (End Text)

The letter was signed by 38 Members of Congress led by Congressman Jim Moran and included chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Congressman McGovern, leading Republican in the House on all human rights issues, Congressman Wolf, and ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia Congressman, Dan Burton.

Now, Government of Sri Lanka during the past several weeks have been refuting charges of the HRW and the International Crisis Group (ICG) using some of the UN statements, facts and figures in Colombo, Geneva, New York and elsewhere but it seems that the LTTE propaganda machinery that feeds some of those observations of the HRW and ICG have prevailed in creeping into US Congressional documents, statements and correspondence to the Obama administration.

Prof. Rajiv Wijesinghe of Sri Lanka’s Peace Secretariat has been presenting facts to the international community in recent weeks. The following are some of the facts Wijesinghe has been presenting:

"ICG claims that 'UN agencies have documented more than 2,300 civilian deaths and at least 6,500 injuries since late January,' which again is tosh. The UN made an estimate, which was then withdrawn (although it turned out to have been leaked, obviously to ICG too), and in any case granted that in the only cases where there was certainty about the source of firing, it was the LTTE."

The distorted version very cleverly crept into the correspondence of the US Congressmen addressed to Clinton.

Wijesinghe further stated in Geneva: "But ICG makes clear its main aim early on when it demands pressure to stop what it terms the Sri Lankan government's 'policy of annihilation'. It wants the government to 'hold off on the final assault to allow relief to reach the civilian populations and to make it possible for those civilians who wish to leave to do so'. We have been here before, with HRW also wanting somehow to let the LTTE off the hook. Though they clothe it in the guise of concern for civilians, it is crystal clear to everyone that it is the LTTE that is holding onto these civilians, as it did for nine long months when the international community stood back and allowed them to be tormented."

It can be seen to what extent some of the US Congressmen have been influenced by the LTTE international lobby.

A week or two before the US Congressmen addressed the letter to Clinton Prof. Wijesinghe made this observation:

"Any death should however be regretted, as should any injury, but this should be accompanied by clear condemnation of those responsible. ICG said nothing when the civilians were driven from pillar to post over the last nine months. It has ignored the clear evidence of the Tamil Bishop of Jaffna and the UN that the LTTE has been firing into the safe zone, and instead it repeats the LTTE canard that 'the government has continued shelling of civilian areas - including its own unilaterally declared "no fire zone" -- without any significant pause over the past two months,' which is another bit of bombast since it is less than two months since the government declared a safe zone."

Most of the statements released by officials of the Government of Sri Lanka for the consumption of the international community seem to have fallen in the deaf ears. HRW and ICG observations and reports are influenced by the LTTE lobby totally disregarding the factual statements presented by officials of Sri Lanka.

Is there a deficiency in the communication style of the Government of Sri Lanka?

March 01, 2009 Prof. Rajiv Wijesinghe presented the following facts disputing the testimony given by Dr. Anna Neistat of the UN to US Foreign Relations Committee February 24/2009. US Congressmen have not listened to what Sri Lanka had to say before they addressed the letter to Secretary of State Clinton.

Here’s what Wijesinghe said:

(Begin Text) Dr Neistat claims that the government and the LTTE are engaged in 'a perverse competition to demonstrate the greatest disregard for the civilian population'. She conveniently thus ignores that the government expended much energy and money in providing high quality health and education to those under LTTE control for several years, and continued to supply them when the LTTE drove them from pillar to post as the forces regained more and more territory in the North. She ignores forced conscription by the LTTE of one and then two children per family, the forced labor to build bunkers with all the cement the Sri Lankan government sent in for dwellings for civilians. And she will not admit that, if civilians are trying to get into government controlled territory, 35,000 of them succeeding despite being shot at in LTTE attempts to stop them, they obviously do not share her view that both sides are as bad as each other.

Dr Neistat talks about insufficient food, medical care, and shelter in government-run internment camps, which are obviously a figment of her imagination, since no one from the UN or non-governmental agencies who has visited the welfare centers has made any such claim. However, Dr Neistat then pulls rank about her wide experience of 'many conflict areas across the world' to say that she has 'rarely seen a humanitarian disaster of such scale', which is a statement that cries out for that old examination rubric, 'Name names'.

Dr Neistat then claims that Sri Lankan forces 'have committed numerous indiscriminate and perhaps disproportionate attacks consisting of artillery bombardment and aerial bombing. These include attacks on the government-proclaimed 'safe zones' and on clearly marked hospitals. Statements by senior officials indicating that civilians who do not leave LTTE-controlled areas are subject to attack are indicative of an intent to commit war crimes,' which is rich even for her. If she can name me, why can she not name these 'senior officials', and perhaps cite what they said to prove her point? Does she not see that talking of 'perhaps disproportionate attacks' reveals her prejudices? She does try to substantiate her claim regarding 'clearly marked hospitals' with a long list, dating only from December, which was after we had pointed out how careful the government had been in the preceding six months, since TamilNet had alleged hardly any collateral damage. And whilst it cannot be asserted that there has been no collateral damage since, there was only one allegation of a civilian death until January 22nd, when it was claimed that 30 people had died in an attack on Vallipuram hospital. When the doctor cited initially denied this, the claim was brought down to 5, while it is ignored by Dr Neistat that this was not a hospital marked by coordinates but a medical centre set up suddenly. Indeed, even the TamilNet claims about this, and the Udaiyaarkadu hospital, refer to them as 'makeshift' hospitals. It is therefore disingenuous of Dr Neistat to assert that 'Deliberately attacking a hospital is a war crime,' and uses these instances to bolster her case.

Dr Neistat then goes on to talk of what she calls lack of humanitarian access after September 2008, and repeats her charge of 'shortages of water, food, medical supplies and other necessities', none of which have been reported by others, with the UN indeed informing the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance after a monitoring visit in December that it was pleasantly surprised at the satisfactory levels of health (and also of education, with the government conducting the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level Public Examination). Though things have got more difficult since then, this has finally prompted people who seemed to be hedging their bets before to categorically call upon the LTTE to let go of the civilians whom it was holding against their will. With the support of the Church, 35,000 did make their way out in February, and if there is no ambiguity about criticism of the LTTE for keeping the rest, it is likely that they too will soon be set free.

Then Dr Neistat, ignoring the fact that, despite the propaganda of both the LTTE and HRW, 35,000 people chose to make their way to what those two organizations described as internment camps, continues with the usual HRW diatribe about these. She sets up a Manichean dichotomy in claiming that 'Instead of providing the internally displaced with the assistance and protection they are entitled to under international law, the Sri Lankan government continues to violate their fundamental rights', forgetting that not only have physical needs been provided, but that education and vocational training have also commenced.

Dr Neistat talks of arbitrary detention during screening procedures as though she is the sole arbiter of the reasons the Sri Lankan government might have for particular security precautions. However, given that the government has only placed in judicial custody 32 of the 250 or so youngsters who confessed to being fighting cadres, and has allowed the others to remain with their families, its conduct can scarcely be described as arbitrary.

Dr Neistat claims that 'Several sources reported to Human Rights Watch the presence of plainclothes military intelligence and paramilitaries in the camps. A UN official in Vavuniya told Human Rights Watch that she and colleagues have seen members of paramilitary groups in different camps. 'It is astonishing that this has not been conveyed to government, since the forces, who are present in uniform too to help as necessary, have made it a point to prevent any such incursion. Indeed, when I checked a claim that the USAID sponsored agency Internews had reported something of the sort, they denied it - but clearly HRW has its own special sources, none of which will actually make any clear allegation. (End Text)

Strategic Communication

For the LTTE ‘interpretations and propaganda’ to prevail over ‘explanations and factual presentations’ of the Government of Sri Lanka there seem to be a lacuna in GSL’s overseas public diplomacy and strategic communication.

Sri Lanka needs to address this lacuna at the presidential level as it is seen that too many government agencies and an excessive number of personnel are in the business of overseas public diplomacy competing with each other failing to understand how to formulate an effective communication strategy, what to communicate, what should be included in such communication, when to communicate, whom to communicate, identifying principal international targets, assess and analyze the LTTE style of communication, do research to ascertain who the LTTE are close to and who they reach to influence and how and why most of the LTTE propagated sentiments get into international documents, what are the agenda items that have formed the ‘reference file’ of the West, what circumstances became catalysts to form the ‘mindset’ of the West that are reflected in recent communications and observations of the lawmakers of the United States and other international civil servants, and the strategy to destroy that ‘reference file’ and change or amend the ‘mindset’ that will help Sri Lanka in its progress toward political and economic development that will address grievances and aspirations of all ethnic communities in the nation.

Along with a refurbished overseas public diplomacy Sri Lanka needs a cogent strategic communication.

Strategic communication is an integrated process that includes the development, implementation, assessment, and evolution of public actions and messages in support of policies, interests, and long-term goals. This challenging, presidential-level management responsibility spans complex organizational capabilities, broad geographies, diverse audiences, collaborative partnerships, and timeframes. In successful strategic communication, "actions" are often the most authentic "messages."

Strategic communication is essential to the successful use of all persuasive, cooperative, and coercive instruments of national power. It can amplify or diminish their effects. Sri Lanka needs to understand that it is necessary during and after the current armed conflict.

Strategic communication is a sustained and coherent set of activities that include: understanding identities, attitudes, behaviors of adversaries; information flows; social and influence networks; political, social and economic motivations.

A single unit at the presidential level to coordinate the above activities to formulate a strategy to destroy that ‘reference file’ that the LTTE internationally is using to tarnish the image of Sri Lanka and most importantly to change or amend the ‘mindset’ is the immediate necessity. The LTTE message synchronizes with the ‘items’ of the ‘reference file’ which is in possession of western diplomats and international rights organizations and the separatist-supported professionals, acolytes and visible and invisible activists domiciled in western capitals work overtime to consolidate the ‘mindset’ that has become an obstacle to Sri Lanka to send her message across.

It means seeing Sri Lanka as others see, rather than through the "looking glass" of Sri Lanka’s own perceptions. It means full use of the rich variety of interpretive tools available for penetrating analysis of cultures and influence networks. Planning, advising the policymakers, building relationships, advocacy campaigns, assessment of impact, and adaptation to changing circumstances are the major responsibilities of a presidential-level unit.

Sri Lanka not necessarily takes the opinions of others to determine her national strategies, but taking them into account is critically important to any successful strategy.

In her battle to win the hearts and minds of the international community Sri Lanka has so far failed to scrutinize what’s in that ‘reference file’ of the west and understand their ‘mindset’. Understanding the "pictures in the heads" of others is a crucial first step in strategic communication.

In a complex globalizing world they choose between trustworthy and
messengers. For presidents, policymakers, diplomats, and military commanders, credibility and "message authority" matter more than the message.

This is what Sri Lanka needs to establish along with other measures noted above.

Sri Lanka needs to redouble her efforts to identify LTTE’s weaknesses in its overseas propaganda machinery and exploit them vigorously. It should emphasize actions and statements of the LTTE that are inconsistent with prior statements or with the core values and cultures of the communities, in this case western, it seeks to influence. Attention to failures, inconsistencies, and falsehoods of the adversary the LTTE—time after time—can create a compelling story in western democracies, UN agencies, rights groups and influential policymakers in the west that isolates the LTTE designs, undermines their efforts, and possibly changes opinions and actions.

- Asian Tribune -

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