Farewell to Patricia Butenis: Shaping a post-LTTE U.S. narrative on Sri Lanka
Despite established mind-set of two groups of American foreign service officers, in Colombo and the other in Washington's state department, on Sri Lanka's perceived national issues such as governance, ethnic relations, national security since the eighties during counter-terrorism operations, a somewhat different (official) narrative was shaped within the portals of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Sri Lanka coinciding the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009 and the arrival of Patricia Butenis soon thereafter as Washington's new diplomatic envoy.
The stage was set to build this official narrative by Robert Blake, the envoy immediately before Ms. Butenis, who left the post soon after the defeat of the LTTE completing his diplomatic assignment to assume the position of assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs at the department, it was shaped and consolidated by Patricia Butenis to help Washington, UN New York and UN Geneva to establish/consolidate specific policy agenda on Sri Lanka in the areas of human rights, governance, race relations, transparency, accountability and even domestic governing structure, not forgetting the international mechanism to subject Sri Lanka to global judicial scrutiny.
At all times, the accredited American diplomats in Colombo fed Washington, and Washington's use alone, to help the state department, and sometimes the White House, to formulate policy planks on Sri Lanka.
But this time it was different. The 'official' narrative developed in the Colombo chancery was not only intended for the state department but went beyond the portals of that building in Washington to Dr. Susan Rice's office at the US permanent mission in UN at New York to be shared by the UN Secretary General's office and well beyond that office to US Mission at Geneva's Human Rights Commission. And most importantly the perspectives were constantly fed to a particular White House office headed by Dr. Samantha Power who has been entrusted by President Obama to monitor global atrocities and human rights violations.
The pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora in the United States has begun to play a major role in this effort and how the Clinton State Department’ made 'Diaspora elements' as one of its central mechanism will be dealt later. The official narrative developed in post-LTTE era was to deploy "external forces" to alter the course Sri Lanka was taking.
Ambassador Patricia Butenis' used a different approach to national issues that engulfed Sri Lanka for many decades in contrast to her direct, open and repulsive initiative taken in one of her former diplomatic posts - Bangladesh.
At the time she was nominated to Colombo Asian Tribune carried fairly well researched reports giving its readers, both in Washington and Colombo, more than a glimpse of her interference in the internal affairs of that country alerting Sri Lanka of what was in stock for them.
Ambassador Butenis, an experience and savvy diplomat, with the help of her predecessor Mr. Blake, developed and established a different but extremely smart diplomatic narrative within the Colombo chancery to extend a helping hand to Washington, UN New York and UN Geneva to 'take on' Sri Lanka.
The post May 18 atmosphere emerged sans the LTTE. Mr. Blake and his Washington colleagues along with their Norwegian collaborators wanted the Tigers disarmed and break their impulsive power. There is no argument that the United States opposed the terrorist tactics of the Tamil Tigers in declaring it in 1998 a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) and opposed the bifurcation of Sri Lanka using the FBI to crack Tiger money laundering and arms transfer attempts. But the State Department was fully convinced that the emergence and its sustenance of the LTTE were due to the unsolved issues of the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. Throughout, the State Department strongly believed that the Sinhalese nationalist/chauvinist elements had a controlling authority of Sri Lanka’s governance. And therefore, the United States did not want to see the Tamil Tigers totally annihilated but only disarmed and controlled to become a ‘pressure group’ to lessen the influence of the Sinhalese chauvinistic elements in Sri Lankan’s polity to address issues surrounding Tamil grievances. The U.S. wanted the LTTE as a ‘pressure group’ to alter the course of events in Sri Lanka.
Accountability and Transparency
The narrative which was developing under Ambassador Butenis' guidance was in the areas of transparency, accountability, violation of IHL and IHRL moving toward ethnic reconciliation, devolution of administrative/development powers to the peripheral districts, domestic arrangement of the power structure.
This has now led to the calling for an international mechanism to subject Sri Lanka to global judicial scrutiny by the pro-Tiger Tamil Diaspora, and reflected by state department's public affairs division to investigate Sri Lanka's actions during the final months of the battle.
It is a well established fact that when Sri Lanka's overseas diplomacy failed the professionals and technocrats of the Tamil Diaspora succeeded in maintaining a mutually beneficial dialogue with state department officials in Washington.
Since assuming duties in the South/Central Asian Affairs Bureau in Washington in August 2009 Robert Blake has had numerous dialogues with the representatives of the pro-Tiger Tamil Diaspora, and latest being on June 05 this year.
The dialogues Ambassador Butenis had had with Tamil politicians in Colombo and Mr. Blake's engagement in Washington with the representatives of the Tamil Diaspora positively contributed to the development of the official narrative which became basis for policy planks of the American administration on issues related to Sri Lanka. (This writer's use of the term 'Tamil Diaspora' is not a reference to the entire Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora but pro-separatist/LTTE Tamils who are a minority among the larger Diaspora but fiercely active).
The shaping of American foreign service officers' (FSO) mind-set using extensive research, investigations, person-to-person discourses, maintenance of close ties with civic society activists, ground-level probes from early eighties through late nineties have greatly helped the development of the post-LTTE official narrative. These deliberations were confined to ethnic relations, issues related to Tamil rights and demands, devolution of administrative and development powers to peripheral districts to satisfy minority demands, excessive domination of the Sinhalese majority and the influence of the so called chauvinistic Sinhalese elements on the national polity, discriminatory practices formed a rich repository in Colombo's U.S. diplomatic mission.
The post-LTTE narrative developed thereafter which centered around accountability, transparency, violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) became pivotal to achieving the American goals noted in the previous paragraph.
It is in this context one needs to comprehend the 'new official narrative' developed in the post-LTTE under Butenis' initiative that helped Washington to 'guide' Sri Lanka effectively using the UN-New York and UN-Geneva.
As mentioned earlier, and dealt later, the State Department's continuous discourse with the pro-LTTE Diaspora in Washington facilitated in the development of this narrative and its subsequent incorporation in policy planks at state department level. The influence of these policy planks were clearly manifested in the 'behavior' at the UN Secretary General office in New York and at Geneva's Human Rights Commission.
One of the WikiLeaks-disclosed diplomatic cables that was dispatched under Ms. Butenis' signature to Washington gives a startling disclosure of 'compatible thought wave' between the American diplomats and onetime LTTE proxy the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
The 15 January 2010 confidential diplomatic cable read in one paragraph on the issue of accountability: “There are no examples we (Americans) know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power.”
Exactly a month before that diplomatic cable, the American Embassy dealt with the same ‘accountability’ issue in its 14 December 2009 cable quoting TNA leader R. Sampanthan in this manner:
(Quote) Tamil leader Sampanthan believed accountability was important, but he also was realistic about the dim prospects for the Rajapaksa government to take it up. Granting that there were really no historical examples of a sitting government anywhere in the world undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or leaders for war atrocities, Sampanthan nevertheless said it was important to the health of the nation to get the truth out. (Unquote)
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland's remarked at the daily media briefing in August 2011 that the US would like the Sri Lankan government "to establish the kind of accountable system that its people can have confidence in."
"If that does not happen and does not happen expeditiously, then we reserve the right to discuss international mechanisms," Nuland had said.
Mr. Blake told the AFP in February 2011 that “if Sri Lanka is not willing to meet international standards regarding these matters that there will be pressure to appoint some sort of international commission to look into these things.”
Robert O. Blake has gone on record saying “The United States has continually expressed to the Government of Sri Lanka the importance of implementing a credible and independent process to ensure accountability. Domestic authorities have responsibility to ensure that those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law are held accountable. International mechanisms can become appropriate in cases where states are either unable or unwilling to meet their obligations.”
How did Washington come up with this policy plank? Transparency, accountability and related issues were pivotal to the development of the 'official narrative' in the post-LTTE era within the American diplomatic chancery in Colombo. A close observation will reveal that the sentiments expressed by state department officials and the pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora activists are very similar; the close repport the Tamil activists maintain with American officials have led to a 'global cry' to 'take on' Sri Lanka.
Rajapaksa brothers' war crimes scenario was the vital issue that Ambassador Patricia Butenis used to push transparency, accountability and international mechanism to form that narrative for Washington to adopt as policy planks on Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksa War Crime issue promoted by Ms. Butenis and his political officers in the Colombo Chancery was undoubtedly one of the talking points when state department officials met the Tamil Diaspora. This was a disturbing trend for Sri Lanka which was struggling to emerge after a protracted thirty-year mayhem and carnage. Washington's adopted policy plank on issues such as violation of IHL and IHRL (meaning committing war crimes), accountability and international mechanism is well echoed today by the Tamil Diaspora in the united States, Britain, France and elsewhere.
The root was here:
In a cable dated 15 January 2010 on the subject of war crimes accountability, Patricia A. Butenis implicated President Mahinda Rajapaksa in alleged war crimes committed in the final months of the Sri Lankan battle. Ms. Butenis pointed out "that responsibility for many of the alleged [war] crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers (Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa) and opposition candidate and former army commander General Fonseka. She stated that only "few tentative steps" had been taken on accountability and that there was little likelihood of anyone being held accountable for the war crimes, stating "There are no examples...of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power".
The Boston Globe, later commented that "No foreign leader has fared worse in the cables released by WikiLeaks than Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa", regarding Butenis' implication of President Rajapaksa in the alleged war crimes.
With this, initiated by the FSOs in Colombo, state department turned to "external forces" to manipulate a path for Sri Lanka. The absence of a domestic force - a somewhat disabled but a potent LTTE - was the main reason Ms. Butenis initiated a narrative that influenced Washington to summon "External Forces".
The December 2009 meeting between assistant secretary Robert Blake and Ambassador Patricia Butenis in Colombo arrived at the conclusion that the Sri Lanka government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa needs 'external push and manipulation' to make it move forward to adopt a policy what the state department, activists of the Tamil Diaspora and some Sri Lankan Tamil politicians envisage.
On issues of reconciliation, devolution of power to Tamil majority provinces of north and east, and accountability for the events during the final stage of the GSL-LTTE battle, the Blake-Butenis policy decision was that it is necessary to 'push the government from its current state of inertia to have it focused on those vital issues.'
It was Mr. Blake who determined that the Rajapaksa regime was in a state of inertia. Ms. Butenis concurred.
The developed policy planks since the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 was that the GSL was resisting change, has a tendency to stay in a single position and that Sri Lanka was not at all focused on vital issues unless acted upon by external forces.
The developed U.S. narrative at the initiative of the 'Butenis Chancery' led to formalize policies at the state department level to galvanize the U.S.Tamil Diaspora, UN-New York and UN-Geneva which formed that 'external forces'.
The pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora was drawn into the dialogue with the inauguration of the Global Diaspora Forum in May 2011 under the auspices of the state department. Under this forum The International Diaspora Engagement Alliance (idEA) was initiated to promote and support Diaspora-centered initiative such as diplomacy among other issues.
Through the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance the state department is seeking the ideas of the Diaspora elements domiciled in the U.S. and get the benefit of their experience and insight. Secretary Clinton has reiterated that "We see so many places around the world being torn apart by ethnic, religious, racial, sectarian divides of all kinds."
Secretary Clinton addressing the July 25 session of the Second Annual Global Diaspora in Washington remarked "We have focused in on the importance of our own diaspora to our efforts here at the State Department. But we can’t do this without your constructive criticism, your ideas, your support. And I hope that out of this forum we will get many, many more ideas. And all the ones that I’ve mentioned today you will learn about and come up with your own, because we have to send a clear, unmistakable call to action to people everywhere. They really can have a better life; they really can see their children do better than they have done; they really can live in peace, one with the other."
Ambassador Patricia Butenis who is scheduled to complete her assignment in Colombo soon was using her diplomatic skills differently in Sri Lanka in contrast to her pugnacious performance in Bangladesh.
Her initiative brought a global network into action, external forces created by American diplomacy, an essential conglomerate in the opinion of US foreign service officers and state department officials to push the Rajapaksa administration from its state of inertia.
- Asian Tribune –