Colombo Telegraph

Speak John (Kerry), Like Cochise

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

First of all, welcome to Sri Lanka. Don’t worry, it’s all heart and not courtesy. This country has embraced one and all. Invader, interferer, brigand, smuggler, embezzler, immigrant, condescending missionary determined to ‘save’ the heathen, marauder, city-sacker, control-freak, you name it, we got them all.

This you must know: when we say ‘friend’ we mean it. It is not diplo-speak. We don’t refer to ‘long standing friendly relations’ even as we plot control and extraction. We don’t advocate, insist and enforce with or without the stated or unsaid ‘this is for your own good’. We recognize all this, though. We know that power lies in the ability to make others inhibit our version of their reality as Philip Gourevitch observed in his collection of essays on Rwanda, ‘We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families’.

So, dear John, let us be honest with one another.

Your country hasn’t exactly been friendly to Sri Lanka in recent times. You’ve used friendship-rhetoric of course in Geneva and elsewhere but it is pretty clear that when you say you are prompted by friendly concerns to take up positions that are opposed by the said ‘friend’ it amounts to being presumptuous if not downright arrogant. Your country has been friend to other countries. The good intentions are not limited to Sri Lanka. These are documented. They are known. They are not pretty.

Now John, you cannot blame us for finding it difficult to blank out such things. Histories matter. They are remembered. Past actions help understand present words and possible futures, pretty or otherwise. Nevertheless it would be foolish to think that people cannot change. People do acquire new knowledge, they can learn, they can change. We can hope. We will.

Since we are friends, John, we will not insist that you retract your perhaps ill-informed statement on Sri Lanka which, if it was deliberate distortion amounts to pernicious uttering typical (sadly) of much that issues from the State Department.

Since we are friends, John, we would ask if you characterize your involvement in Afghanistan as a ‘war with Afghans’. We would ask if you are at war with Iraqis, with those of the Islamic faith (in all countries where the ISIS, Al Qaeda and other such groups operate). We could ask if you are at war with African Americans in your own country. You get the drift, right?

So we won’t ask you to apologize for describing Sri Lanka’s long struggle against terrorism as a ’30 year war with Tamils’. We have already asked our Foreign Minister why on earth he didn’t educate you on this when you described it in those terms. We would just remind you on how your President, Barack Obama, spoke of the engagement with the ISIS, ‘a war on a terrorist group, not on the people it claimed to represent’. Again, we note that given histories the jury is out on the question of which side the USA is really on. We say this in friendship and because friends should be open with one another.

So if you want to be friends, John, you should not hold your cards close to your chest. If you don’t know, it is no shame to admit the fact. You can ask about terrorism and you can ask about Tamils. You can compare and contrast. You can study demographic realities and you can peruse history. You can conclude about the legitimacies of contradictory claims. All this only if there’s humility. Take that our and the word ‘friendship’ has to be followed by a question mark, you will no doubt agree.

You may have heard, dear John, of a Native American leader by the name of Cochise. He was an Apache. He once said ‘you must speak straight so that your words may go as sunlight into our hearts’. He added, ‘Speak Americans…I will not lie to you; do not lie to me.’

Speak, John. Like Cochise.

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