By Michael Roberts –
Since I had been introduced to the British peer Lord Michael Naseby in the surrounds of the House of Lords in March 2018, I assumed that he had been born into the aristocratic upper layer of British society. Wrong. It required this book for me to learn that he was from the upper middle class and had contested parliamentary seats on behalf of the Conservative Party in what were Labour strongholds – with his peerage being of 1990s vintage. As vitally, his early career as a marketing executive had seen him working in Pakistan and Bengal in the early 1960s before he was stationed in Sri Lanka as a marketing manager for Reckitt and Colman in the period 1963-64.
Critically, he had gone through National Service in the RAF in the 1950s. This specific background experience heightens the value of his analysis of the Eelam Wars in Sri Lanka. Fatal misjudgements of the war scenario have beset the analysis of Sri Lankan events essayed by members of the intelligentsia, both foreign and Lankan, who are oblivious to their desk-bound blindness when addressing the intricacies of war. Not so with Naseby.
I did not pursue conventional paths in reading this book, though, quite conventionally, I noted the absence of a bibliography as a significant lapse on the part of Michael Morris the Lord Naseby. Having checked the Table of Contents, I went directly to some of the Appendices (mostly useful embellishments). Appendix IV, with his address to the House of Lords on 11th June 2014 entitled “Review of Sri Lankan post war,” provides data of the greatest importance. After castigating those British personnel who listen to the exaggerations of the Tamil diaspora (complicit in Tiger “terrorism”), he forcefully asserts that the Sri Lankan government “tried hard to minimise casualties” and raises a rhetorical question: “Why do we think that the Sri Lankan army, which we helped to train, is so different from our own army?”
He then provides his punchline: “Yes” there should be a military inquiry because all the argument is basically about gunfire et cetera. A retired general should conduct it, perhaps from Australia.”
This line of argument is wholly in keeping with the insights he had gained in Colombo on 21st January 2009 when listening to the appraisal provided by Lt. Col Gash, the Defence Attache at the British Embassy; and his subsequent struggle to secure the release of Gash’s series of reports during the final five months of the war. Some of the redacted Gash reports are now made available as Appendix VII (pp. 273-77) — a resource of immense value for those who are willing to keep an open mind.
One of the most significant themes in Lord Naseby’s autobiography is the detailed account of his struggles to extract the Gash despatches from the Foreign Office and the Information Office (together constituting “Whitehall” for our review). It took him around 30 months of persistent letter-writing, phone calls and speeches in the House of Lords to extract these Gash reports from the Whitehall set of defensive bunkers. It was, and is, work worthy of a Bureaucratic Victoria Cross.
This “award” is not in jest. The bureaucratic resistance from Whitehall underlines the partialities displayed by the British ruling class in the Conservative Party (Naseby’s very own party) and not just the arrogant positions taken by such twits as David Cameron and David Miliband. In brief, it pinpoints a major issue for political analysis: how is it that British ruling elements chose to side with the partisan international politics pressed by the Tamil Tiger diaspora in alliance with human rights activists in such organisations as HRW, Amnesty International and ICG during the period 2008 to the present? …. while continuing to adhere to this stance in the UNHRC in Geneva, where the American ambassador Eileen Donahue even phoned the Sri Lankan ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam in September 2011 and said “we will get you” (an instance of primeval vengeance politics in the Swiss mountains).
Naseby’s account of this struggle to extract the Gash despatches for public illumination is in Chapter 16, the most boring chapters in his book. But it is central background for the vital issue I have presented above: how is it that the Sri Lankan Tamils had such clout in UK? Naseby’s answer is to pinpoint constituency politics and the vote-pressures mounted by the 300,000 or so Sri Lankan Tamil migrants in UK and especially those congregated in certain marginal seats (see his pp. 238-39, 242).
That factor was (and is) certainly a major force in sustaining these partialities. But we need to expand our speculations. I would stress the constellation of two other factors: (B) the strong currents of liberalism and radicalism within the British middle and upper classes and (C) the depth of horror aroused and implanted in the British public by the pogrom directed against the Tamils in July 1983 as major influences on this position – a body of thought sustained by the tales (some true, some concocted) purveyed by Tamil people who had experienced that set of atrocities as well as the stories conveyed by their children to their English mates.
The thinking of the Whitehall personnel would also have been bolstered by the one-sided reportage of the war in 2007-09 purveyed by a phalanx of media personnel within UK partial to the LTTE: for instance, Marie Colvin, Frances Harrison, Gethin Chamberlain, Charles Haviland, Jeremy Page, Nick Paton-Walsh, Jon Snow and Callum McRae.
These ‘quibbles’ with Lord Naseby on my part should not detract from my admiration for the forthrightness with which he castigates the British authorities for their failure to “face up to the reality of the LTTE” and its “atrocities” – atrocities that are presented within a segment of the book where he elaborates on their vicious campaigns of terror in Colombo and the border areas as well as their recruitment of child soldiers. Against this background, he expresses disgust at the fact that Anton and Adele Balasingham were permitted space to act within Britain; and laments the fact that an active Tiger army officer like Adele remains free of any war crimes charges (pp. 238-39).
These specifics are presented within a chapter which lambasts the LTTE for (A) the cold-blooded killing of several Sri Lankan parliamentarians and Ministers; (B) the killing of Rajiv Gandhi; (C) the recruitment of child soldiers; (D) the “ethnic cleansing of 75,000 Muslims” from the north; (E) the massacres of Muslims at mosques in the east in 1990 and 1992; (F) the “forced herding of around 300,00 Tamils as a human shield” in 2008/09; and (G) the rejection of calls for a No Fire Zone in 2009.
So much, then, for the ‘hot topics’ from recent times. But there is a great deal more of an useful autobiographical kind where Michael Lord Naseby relates in readable prose a tale of repeated visits to the island beginning with his professional duties as Marketing Manager for Reckitt and Colman in 1963-64 and continuing with regular visits on holiday or official duty or tsunami relief work right through to the 2010s.
Mark this: Naseby kept notes and wrote memoranda about his encounters. He seems to have been an assiduous account keeper. The punch and power in his autobiographical reviews of life and times comes from this solid habit, one that has enhanced his lifetime work as a mover-and-shaker. As it happens, he got to move in high circles in Sri Lanka.. Beginning with Anandatissa de Alwis, one finds him hobnobbing on occasions with Chandrika Kumaratunga, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali, and Mahinda Rajapakse (two subsequently assassinated by the LTTE and one severely wounded).
Perhaps the most significant impact on the island from the relationships noted above was his friendship with Gamini Dissanayake at a time when the latter was in charge of the Mahaweli Development Authority and had begun negotiating with Balfour Beatty, a major engineering firm, to build a dam across the Mahaweli Ganga near Kandy so as to generate power and service irrigation further downstream.
Naseby’s descriptions of this process have been an eye-opener for ignoramus Roberts. I was not aware of the financial scale of the project – eventually turning out to be one of the largest grants ever to any county from the British Exchequer up to that time (the 1980s: namely involving the figure of 110 million British pounds: page 69). It is no surprise that Margaret Thatcher was invited to open the dam when it was completed, a request she readily met on the 12th April 1985 (pp. 66-70).
Huge this, the Victoria Dam. Gargantuan. Having wide-ranging consequences for the life of so many people – whether contractors, workers, lawyers, politicians and their hangers-on. But, given my partialities, the most meaningful sideline here was the flow-on impact on Sri Lanka’s cricketing status in the world. While the cricketers themselves had done more than enough to underline their capacities during the 1975 and 1979 World Cup matches in England, the conservative prejudices of the Colonel Blimps in the MCC stood in their way.
So, mark this: well before Gamini Dissanayake became head of the BCCSL, that being June 1981, he seems to have begun working on plans to break the resistance within the MCC and ICC. This was when he stayed at Michael Morris’s house in Bedfordshire at some point in 1980 …. yes, 1980 (see Paradise, p. 103). Alas, no further details are provided. But I conjecture that Balfour Beatty featured strongly in these schemes. Their profit-making hopes in Sri Lanka had to be prefaced by the organisation of social functions and dinners for the English and other powerbrokers in the ICC where Gamini and his aides gently pressed their case. Firmed up by solid cricketing reasons for Sri Lanka cricket’s entry to full-fledged ICC Test status, we know that Gamini was able to participate in the ICC gathering in June 1981 and secure Sri Lanka’s spot at this highest level.
That is not the only moment when cricketing interests penetrate this work. During the tsunami relief work in the Maldives and Sri Lanka pursued so vigorously by Naseby and his doctor wife Ann, they had seen the devastation wrought on the picturesque cricket ground at Galle. When Naseby returned to the island in early 2006, he brought a cheque for 50,000 British pounds from the MCC assigned for the restoration of the facilities at this spot. In effect, he scuttled the plans germinating in the mind of one Thilanga Sumathipala to build an entirely new stadium at some spot such as Habaraduwa – with all the benefits associated with the political and financial deals linked to such ventures. Proof? ( Click here )
Ah! We cannot erase the tsunami story, Michael and Ann travelled immediately to the Maldives and Sri Lanka armed for relief work. Alarming details on the destruction wrought on life and property are intertwined with accounts of specific relief work they devoted time and money to: 35,262 estimated dead; 519,063 homeless; 29,694 fishing boats lost or damaged; large numbers of the buoys vital to the ‘life’ of fishing boats gone missing. It is from such mundane detail that disaster is illuminated (as we know only too well now via Mr coronavirus).
There are, of course, important details regarding the British tsunami relief work: a chartered plane with bottled water from Oxfam; the Fish and Chips project to rebuild the fishing fleet; the “Adopt a School” project; and the initiative displayed by Steve Ainsworth representing the British government and Geoffrey Dobbs in Galle and Weligama. He is not blind to the confusions caused by too many well-meaning INGOs stepping on each other’s toes and has the nous to tell us that the tents supplied by Italy and Saudi Arabia were the most suitable among the plethora of tent donations. Good temporary hosing is vital when major catastrophes occur.
It is in this chapter that he brings in his interaction with Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Rajapaksa brothers. The former was abroad at the moment the tsunami hit and he was impressed by the way in which Prime minister Rajapaksa “took command” (p. 129). It is in this chapter – perhaps surprisingly — that he addresses the impending clouds of renewed war; touches on the powerful LTTE lobbies in UK and its parliament; and the preparations for a renewal of fighting taken (wisely) by the three Rajapaksa brothers – from the development of rapport with Man Mohan Singh and his Indian advisors (p. 131); to the huge expansion of the armed forces assisted by the Tri Ads television advertisement (p. 131); the setting up of defence.lk web site (p. 131); and the presentation of TV announcements in all there languages (p. 140).
It is in chapters 17 and 18 that Naseby confronts the most contentious topics of recent times, viz., the last stages of Eelam War IV and its death toll. Beginning with the resounding truth that the LTTE represented “no less than a unadulterated terrorism on a scale never seen before” (p. 223), he claims that the war has to be appraised under “International Humanitarian Law, [not] Human Rights legislation.” This is a significant twist that I am not qualified to assess.
He then lays stress on the contextual background fact that the LTTE used their Tamil people “as a human shield [and] bargaining counter” (p. 224); before proceeding to challenge the various allegations targeting the Sri Lankan government as pursuing a war-campaign of genocide and denying the claim that the detention centres organised to temporarily house the Tamil civilian survivors (some 290,000) were concentration camps (or “death camps” — vide Dixon 2009). He and his wife Ann had visited the maps in April 2012 when only a small number of IDPs remained and their reports “praised the staff and the facilities” (p. 227).
I can personally endorse the latter contention on the basis of a visit in mid-2010 and extensive studies over time via interaction with Drs Herath and Safras and senior staff at Sewalanka and LEEDs, two NGOs based in Vavuniya whose personnel rendered yeomen service to the distraught Tamil IDPs in 2009 with the help of military and police personnel, and some INGOs and (mostly Tamil) government servants. My one regret is that Lord Naseby did not access this body of material – a huge stock that is as illuminating as substantial.
When this corpus of studies is surveyed, one can only gnash one’s teeth in disgust at the horrendous accounts of the Manik Farm enterprise purveyed by some Tamil propagandists and the blatant chicanery of Jeremy Page (BBC) when he circulated a headline reading “1400 die every week in the IDP camps” – a story that spread like wildfire because the Western media had the Rajapaksa government in its gunsights.
Such minor quibbles aside, Naseby’s Sri Lanka. Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained is a tour de force – even though I do not consider the land and its people, my people, idyllic in every which way.