Misery of Mark Salter: the voice of an ordinary Sri Lankan
Posted on April 26th, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

When I recently watched the You Tube video of the launch of the book To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka” at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London held on October 28, 2015, I felt sorry for British  ‘writer, researcher, and consultant’ Mark Salter the author, but angry with Erik Solheim and Vidar Helgesen, the Norwegian politicians who got him to turn out what could only be called a potboiler out of the misery that all of us Sri Lankans endured for nearly three decades. It is meant for the indiscriminate consumption of readers around the world, especially those in the West, who are sympathetic to the unjust cause of dividing Sri Lanka on ethnic lines. According to Michael Hutt, Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy/CISD, University of London, who chaired the event, the event was co-hosted by the SOAS and the Norwegian Embassy.

My anger with Solheim and Helgesen was provoked by their shameless exhibition of their irrational animosity towards the country’s indigenous Sinhalese majority (75% of the population) and of their murderous hatred of Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on account of their immense contribution to the historic elimination of separatist terrorism in Sri Lanka in defiance of Western interventionists’ wishes and dictates. The popular belief among the masses in Sri Lanka is that the locally little known Norwegians were/are no more than the West’s willing cat’s paw in the context of their relentless manipulation of the country’s national crisis for pursuing their narrow geopolitical goals. It is obvious that, as far as we the hapless Sri Lankans are concerned, these meddling foreigners are not peacemakers, but peace wreckers: we are today experiencing the ruinous legacy of their ‘piece’ efforts.

At the same time, I felt sorry for Mark Salter, for it appeared that a pathetic attempt was being made (as is probably still being made) to make some money by selling his ‘story’ (about Norway’s failed ‘peace process’ in Sri Lanka). Michael Hutt made an initial announcement to the few guests who were there (including BBC’s Francis Harrison) (not shown on the video) to purchase copies of the book for cash (as it had been specifically requested by Salter’s publisher Hurst) at a concessionary 15 pounds, which was 10 pounds less than the marked price; Mark Salter made the same reminder towards the end of the function. Similar book launches have been held, under the same motivation, no doubt, at many venues in Europe, North and South America, India and Sri Lanka. I still feel poignantly sorry for Salter because, as revealed in his speech, he is not an unfeeling man unlike the biased, dishonest brokers that it has become his miserable lot to serve.

It was Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe’s sensible comments concerning Salter’s book (The Island/13 April, 2016) that prompted me to watch the You Tube video of the launch of the book held at the University of London. There were four panelists who, in the order in which they were introduced by the chair and later addressed the audience, were: Mark Salter, Erik Solheim, Vidar Helgesen, and Suthaharan Nadaraja. There was no panelist to represent the views of the 75% of the Sri Lankan population most seriously affected by the conflict with the most far-reaching consequences (including nothing less than the threatened dismantling of the unitary state of the country which has persisted for well over two and a half millennia).

Watching the video saved me the trouble of reading that thick volume of 549 pages, which was good for me. I could have downloaded the book into my Kindle within a few seconds for a mere 20 Australian dollars. But I thought better of it, for after watching the book launch video I was convinced that ‘To End a Civil War’ is of the same category of ‘commissioned’ nonsense as Gordon Weiss’s ‘The Cage’ (2011) merely designed to mislead the world about Sri Lanka. I didn’t fancy spending another two hours watching the video of the launch of the same book at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), Colombo, held on March 3, 2016, which promised nothing better.

Mark Salter, the putative author of the book, was the first to speak at the book launch function held at the University of London previously mentioned. He outlined the circumstances in which he was tasked with writing the book, and also the history of the Norwegian engagement in Sri Lanka, which, according to him, began in the mid-6o’s (i.e., prior to their much touted peace engagement) with some development assistance programmes. He claimed that the initiative for Norway’s ‘peace diplomacy’ exercise in Sri Lanka was actually due to former president Chandrika’s suggestion in December 1999 that the Norwegians assume that role (which proposal, presumably, came to them as a surprise, though they decided to go along with it anyway). Salter explained that his purpose in writing the book was not ‘hagiographic’: he didn’t mean to idealize the Norwegians as perfectly successful peacemakers. In reality, he admitted, their peace effort in Sri Lanka was a failure contrary to their alleged expectations. He asserted that the collapse of the peace process was entirely blamed by both sides (the government  and the Tamil rebels) on Norway; the Norwegians became the (proverbial) ‘whipping boy’, he said. I felt that there was a deliberate exaggeration of their alleged plight of being blamed by both the government and the tigers. It is not plausible that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government blamed the Norwegians for the failure of their peacemaking, because, in my view, the government did not repose any faith in their sincerity. I won’t describe the Norwegian claim/complaint in this regard as a downright lie, though it very nearly approaches that. I would be content to just dismiss Salter’s grumbling as a result of his inadequate understanding of Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s perception of the so-called Norwegian peace process: the government knew that international intervention (effected through the Norwegians) was a hindrance, rather than a help, to the task of overcoming terror. Would the government blame the Norwegians for failing to achieve something it knew for sure they could not achieve? Besides, the overwhelming majority of ordinary Sri Lankans saw no reason to accept foreigners including Norwegians as honest peace brokers; their pro-rebel bias was evident in many instances; Solheim’s speech on the occasion of the book launch made no secret of his pro-Tamil bias. As far as the masses were concerned, they knew that the Norwegian peace process was a sham. Vidar Helgesen’s assertion during his speech that Salter’s book is unbiased is an utter falsehood.

Salter emphasized that he only tells a story in the book and that he wanted it to be read as a story. At the conclusion of his speech he thanked his publishers for ‘having faith in’ his book and effectively expressed the cautious hope that they won’t be disappointed. The mercenary motive in writing the book was obvious. Of course, I don’t see anything wrong in a writer expecting a return for his labour. That Salter wanted to write a story that sells is as natural as it is clear. But what is unacceptable is that the miserly economy with the truth that he is obliged to maintain regarding the serious historical aspect of his story (i.e., fiction) could harm the future of innocent millions in my country.

The reason for saying this is that the story the writer tells (the nature of whose contents can be guessed from the book launch video without having to read the book itself)  has important ramifications that have the potential to generate a serious impact on the lives of all Sri Lankans, who have been suffering for at least three decades, as a result of armed terrorism. It is a story alright, but it is not innocuous fiction by any means; for it is presented as history, the history of Norway’s peace diplomacy in Sri Lanka covering three decades of a devastatingly destructive civil conflict. The unacceptable thing is that the story is completely biased against the 75% Sinhalese majority on whom the terrorists visited much misery during that long period (Not that the terrorists spared the minorities the same suffering; the minorities suffered as much). My previous impression (based on personal conviction) that the Norwegians were determined, as agents of Western powers, to punish the patriotic Sri Lankan leaders who led the successful military campaign that put an end to terrorism was confirmed when I listened to the three foreign speakers (of non-Sri Lankan origin) at the book launch (Salter, Solheim, and Helgesen).

Briefly referring to the final chapter that seems to focus on the lessons that the self-appointed  peacemakers learnt, Salter touched on what he considered were two main factors that accounted for the failure of the Norwegian peace process: First, he thought that they misread the Sri Lankan political context; they worked with only one faction of the ‘Sinhalese side’ represented by Ranil and ignored the other side represented by Chandrika, the president; the two sides backstabbed each other whenever one of them proposed a solution to the Tamil problem, he said. This resulted in a failure to form a truly bi-partisan approach. (In my view, the implicit equation of the government with the Sinhalese and the rebel side with the Tamils was something unacceptable to Sri Lankans, for there has never been any sharp ethnic division among the common people, except some temporary feelings of estrangement fomented by certain shortsighted communalist minority politicians.)  In his opinion, the second contributory factor involved the Norwegians’ alleged failure to manage the local impact of the 9/11 global anti-terror environment, a failure that allowed the allegedly despotic Mahinda Rajapaksa to exploit the situation for crushing the tigers (allegedly through foul means). According to Salter, Rajapaksa dressed up his campaign against  Tamil separatists as a part of the global war on terror; and Salter ridiculed Sri Lanka’s upholding of its experience of overcoming terrorism as a model for other similarly affected nations to follow. An obvious ignoramus in military matters, Salter seemed to have thought that Sri Lanka’s successful campaign against the terrorists was a cakewalk. We know that Salter, in order to honour his tacit contract with Norway, is intent on rubbishing Sri Lanka’s legitimate success against terror. He completely ignores Mahinda’s political capabilities and his undeniable statesmanship, and the very high level of military acumen of his brother Gotabhaya and all the service commanders and the rank and file that served under them. Salter concluded his remarks offering his personal thanks to the duo Erik Solheim and Vidar Helgesen, who, he said, were his ‘constant interlocutors’. The book project was their idea in the first place, he stressed. So, one of  his main sources then had been these two vilely prejudiced individuals. The other source comprised, according to him, the UN documents (whose validity we know was extremely suspect) that formed the basis of anti-Sri Lanka UNHRC resolutions that threaten further harassment to the country in the future in the form of punishments for crimes not committed.

In the Q & A session that followed the speeches, Salter quite rightly admitted that the Norwegians’ lack of familiarity with the local culture was a serious shortcoming. He also pointed out that many Sri Lankan journalists lacked a knowledge of English, which hampered communication with them. Translation was a poor remedy. The Norwegian point of view had difficulty in being communicated to the local journalists. That could be true. Had that obstacle not been there, the Norwegians could have been better apprised of the futility of their partisan involvement in peacemaking in our country.

Erik Solheim in his turn began by outlining what he called three main issues: The first was that Prabhakaran degenerated into an isolated warlord, who believed in violence. When the tigers killed someone, Solheim said, he attributed it to the government. The Norwegians offered to arrange for the rebels to surrender to the army so they could live to fight another day, but Prabhakaran didn’t listen to their suggestion. A second point, according to him, was that the Sri Lankan government forces did commit war crimes, killing 80,000 civilians through indiscriminate shelling. He assured the audience that these crimes will invariably be punished. A third issue was the proscription of the Tamil terror organization by the international community, which in Solheim’s opinion was a mistake. He expressed his personal admiration for the Tamil people (which was OK, except for the fact that the majority Sinhalese were, by implication, negatively compared with them without any justification).

Solheim then talked about the cynicism of Mahinda Rajapaksa as a politician. While portraying himself as the great saviour of the Sinhalese he would agree to any ‘dirty deal’ ‘to help his political fortunes’; Rajapaksa pretended to be a principled politician, but the opposite was the case. The truth, as we Sri Lankans know, is that Rajapaksa championed the cause of all Sri Lankans; he was the savior of all of them. Only the Norwegians, the other anti-Sri Lankan elements, and those expatriate Tamils who are sympathetic to the separatist cause would believe such nonsense about the former president. But Solheim uttered a much bigger and blatant lie. It was that Rajapaksa told him that he would give up the North to Prabhakaran without elections on two conditions, which were 1) that the north should remain a part of the unitary state of Sri Lanka, and 2) that there should be no protracted peace process involved, because that would undermine support for him among the Sinhalese. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a fabrication, or at least an exaggeration or misinterpretation of something Rajapaksa said as a desperate peaceful alternative to a military confrontation. But he was not the kind of president to propose something akin to the madly irresponsible offer that Chandrika made to the terror leader to allow him to rule the north for ten years without any electoral mandate. It is not Rajapaksa’s fault that narrow-minded foreign meddlers fail to deal with Mahinda’s skilled and intelligent use of language when talking with those deemed to be diplomats. If he actually made such an offer, he surely should have added those two conditions in the conviction that they would be invariably rejected by Prabhakaran, for he had no intention of offering the north to Prabhakaran on a platter, something that Chandrika who hates Mahinda out of personal malice wanted to actually do before him. Prabhakaran was too sane to take Chandrika’s offer seriously. In the unlikely case of Mahinda making a similar offer, he should have done so only to demonstrate his preference of a mutually acceptable peaceful settlement to a military showdown.

Further, Solheim blamed the failure of the Norwegian peacemaking project in Sri Lanka equally on Prabhakaran, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother Gotabhaya. Solheim’s enthusiastic approval of the change of government in Sri Lanka, like that of fellow Norwegian Helgesen, and of the British writer Salter, was obvious. They trusted and respected Ranil. They reserved nothing but abject contempt for the nationally more popular and more respected Mahinda. Solheim mentioned the fact at the presidential election, 55% of the Sinhalese vote went to Rajapaksa. He didn’t seem to see any anomaly in their trying to impose on Sri Lanka a solution that a majority of the majority disapprove of. Norwegians should learn that demonizing the most popular national leader of a conflict ridden country through false propaganda is not the best way of peacemaking in that country. The reality of Rajapaksa and his reception among the common people are quite the opposite of what Western misinformation has made them out to be.

Vidar Helgesen was the next to speak. He maintained that Salter had viewed the Norwegian peace process in Sri Lanka with ‘unbiased eyes’. (Go and tell that to the marines!) The main point of his speech was that Ranil, who was willing, like Balasingham (of all people!), to make sacrifices for peace, is back as PM. Ordinary Sri Lankans know about that happy circumstance incredibly better than Vidar Helgesen would care to recognize or would be able to realize. Helgesen also referred to a point that Solheim had raised previously: that one reason for the failure of the peace process was the Norwegians’ lack of ‘a big stick’ to bring pressure on the Rajapaksa government. On his part, Helgesen didn’t believe that a big stick, even if they had one, would have worked: Sri Lanka would have kept them out in that case (damning their ill conceived peace venture to an early stillbirth, I would have added had I been there).

The last panelist to speak before the Q&A session was Suthaharan Nadaraja, presumably of Sri Lankan origin, who is a lecturer in international relations at SOAS, University of London. He had been advisor to LTTE ‘ideologue’ Balasingham while the latter was alive. Nadaraja’s doctoral thesis at the same university focused on the Norwegian peace engagement in Sri Lanka. He was the only speaker worth listening to, I felt, for he talked sense (i.e., he uttered something that would lend itself to rational debate).

If the joint organizers of the book launch were looking forward to any fulsome praise of Salter’s book from Nadaraja, it was not forthcoming. He agreed with the idea that it is a story; but it is a story told from an exclusively Norwegian perspective, he emphasized. Nadaraja made an observation about the book, which he said was not a criticism. However, to me it was nothing less than an important piece of criticism. He described the work as ‘a track one account’, because one does not derive (from it) a sense of what is Sri Lanka. His idea was that any peace process must start with an account of the conflict, but here you have to deduce the conflict from the peace process, not the other way around. In Nadaraja’s view, what is left out is ‘the force of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as a mainstream legitimizing context’. Though I do not agree with the implicit argument here, drawing out such perceptions to the public domain is salutary. The book suffers from that deficit, according to Nadaraja. Though it covers a long period beginning 1981 and extending to the end of the Norwegian role in the Lankan conflict with the defeat of the tigers, its failure to place the story in a broader context that includes what went on before 1981 is a clear weakness of the book, Nadaraja opined. In my own view, Nadaraja’s apparent belief that the Tamil demand for a separate state originated in the post-independence years is wrong. The beginnings of the problem (that gradually evolved into a call for separation) can be traced to the very early years of British colonial rule in Sri Lanka (to the 1830’s, that is). For communal unity to be restored permanently, conflicting ideas about that long history must be resolved among Sri Lankans themselves without foreign interference. That is my opinion for what it is worth. For this reason, Suthaharan Nadaraja’s critical observation on the book flashed a ray of hope for Sri Lanka in the increasingly darkening current context, I thought. I affectionately invite my patriotic Sri Lankan compatriots of all communities to judge whether my optimism on this point is justified.

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