A long way to go on the international front

It is not only bombs and guns that matter in war. Propaganda, too, plays a vital role in modern warfare. An efficiently executed propaganda blitz has the potential to be more devastating than a hundred cannon fired simultaneously. That was why during the World War II, Britain used geniuses of the calibre of George Orwell to counter the Nazi propaganda and Hitler was dependent on spin doctors like Goebbels. Although it is generally believed that astrology is not taken seriously in the enlightened West, there is evidence that even astrology figured heavily in the propaganda duels fought between the Allied Forces and the Germans. Such was the importance they attributed to propaganda.

Innovative guerrilla outfits are also making the best use of propaganda, in which they have invested heavily through various fronts. Osama bin Laden would have been known only in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan but for his successful use of propaganda, which got a turbo boost from the 9/11 attacks, to promote his macabre cause. The same goes for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has manifestly outdone the Sri Lanka state in propaganda warfare through its own media network as well as its moles elsewhere.

Its propaganda is so effective that today it has managed to paint the government as black as a terrorist group! The media, both local and international, is no longer focused on the human rights violations in the Wanni. The government is providing ammunition to the LTTE propagandists. The recent eviction of lodgers in Colombo is a case in point.

Apart from its deeds, the government keeps the separatist propaganda mill going through its rhetoric. Although it sought to control the damage caused by its faux pas last week, with an apology, which would have put the matter to rest, Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle re-opened the healing wound by contradicting Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremenayake, who reassured the victims of the government’s harebrained eviction project that there wouldn’t be a repetition. The tough talking Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse also lashed out at the western diplomats a few days ago and in so doing played into the hands of those who are on a campaign to internationally isolate the government so as to provide the LTTE, which is badly cornered on the military front, with an escape route.

That some foreign governments are partial to the LTTE is only too well known. But, the government only cuts a pathetic figure, when its bigwigs tuck up their sarongs and take on the international community at the drop of a hat. Diplomats are those who can ask a person to go to hell in such a way that he will really look forward to the trip, it is said. In handling them, a government must be equally tactful and sophisticated. But, the government top guns don’t seem to realise this home truth. Under the Kumaratunga government, it may be recalled, a cantankerous minister famously told a high ranking representative of an international lending agency in Singlish, "You people are drinking our blood, no?" That is, no doubt, the considered opinion of many people averse to the constricting aid conditions. But, all such opinions are not necessarily to be articulated in public in relating to the rest of the world. Not even President Bush can afford that luxury! The government has to tread cautiously in this PR driven world, if it is to build its image as well as that of the country internationally.

Politicians and their lackeys are masters of subterfuge, aren’t they? They are said to be capable of feats like severing a neck with a bathing cloth, carrying fire under water and travelling through an opponent’s ears. Why can’t the government hand-pick some of them and form a team to interface with the world very diplomatically?

Sri Lanka may not be as dependent on foreign aid as it is made out to be. But, it is not only through aid that the western powers control small nations. They know more than one way to skin a cat. President Mahinda Rajapakse cannot do a Chavez or a Castro. He has to endure what cannot be cured and try to sell his cause to the world powers without ruffling their feathers unnecessarily.

If the government is wise, it has to get its act together and deny foreign diplomats an opportunity to poke their noses into the internal affairs of this country. Human rights being the bludgeon that they wield, the government has to take steps to improve its human rights record. The perpetrators of abductions and extra judicial killings must be brought to justice. That must not only be done but be seen to be done. That is the way to allay the doubts in the minds of the world community as to the bona fides of the government. Some foreign diplomats, whose minds are already made up against the government, may not want to be ‘confused with facts’. But, all envoys are not so incorrigible and they need to be won over and not antagonised.

The government is making a big mistake by trying to fight more than one enemy at a time. It has already made enough and more enemies and bitten off more than it can chew in the process. On the military front, it may not have so much to worry about but it has a long way to go where propaganda and foreign relations are concerned. It cannot wish away the problem of being cornered internationally. There is a pressing need for the government worthies to exercise control over their tongues that seem to be out of sync with their brains.

Abrasiveness never pays!

-The Island Editorial


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