Ambassador Butenis in Farewell Visit to Jaffna & An Appraisal of her Stint in Lanka

Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe, courtesy of the Sunday Times

US Ambassador Patricia A. Butenis is wrapping up after three eventful years in Sri Lanka. During her term, the US Government played out its most controversial engagement so far in Sri Lankan affairs in the history of US-Sri Lanka relations. Yet, speaking to a group of businessmen in Jaffna, a few days before the end of her term, she says, “I think it is a mistake if people think that we can dictate to this Government. I worry when people come to us with these expectations.” “Why didn’t the UN intervene when there was so much killing?” asks one businessman. “Both sides were killing,” she reminds them. “Yes,” they nod. “You can’t just jump in. Look at Afghanistan. Iraq was a mess. I think it is dangerous for the Tamil community to think that the UN will come.”

We are travelling with Ambassador Butenis in Jaffna as she meets old acquaintances and bids farewell. She says a vehement “No” to a journalist who asks her if the US Government supports Eelam, and is aware that she could end up sounding like an apologist for the Sri Lankan Government.

When she arrived in the country in 2009, I was invited to report on her tour of Kandy, and in an interview during that tour she said: “One thing an ambassador never wants to be accused of is what they call “Clientitis”. That means you take the view of the country you are in. And you forget about the US view and all of a sudden you are their ambassador. You are the Sri Lankan Ambassador. Oh yes, it happens. It is hard not to happen.

I am new, I like to be liked. I come here at a time when there is tension in the relationship and I am required to deliver hard news. It’s hard. I’d much rather give good news. But I can’t. I try very hard to make sure that the people I talk to know exactly where I stand. I am very direct about that.”

At the end of her three years in Sri Lanka, it would be hard to accuse Butenis of “clientitis”, or of forgetting the US point of view, or of not delivering tough news, unambiguously, to both the Sri Lankan Government and to the Tamil community. She doesn’t do “diplo-talk”.

Her stand remains consistent throughout the weekend she spends in Jaffna, just as much as the expectations placed on the international community, primarily the US Government, remain consistent on the part of the people she meets.

“We have lost everything,” the residents of Jaffna say. “This Government hasn’t done anything for us in the last three years. Only the international community can help. We can’t trust India. Karunanindhi and Jayalalithaa are only looking after their interests. Only the US can dictate,” a group of people representing school principals, teachers, community workers and young graduates, echo the businessmen we had met earlier.

She repeats what she told the others, “No, no, we are not in a position to dictate. The Rajapaksa Government is a democratically elected government. That Government feels that it has to be respectful of the needs of its electors. We can only request that they are responsive to the needs of the Tamil population. I meet Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa very regularly and I convey what I hear. People are afraid to speak to ministers, and, when they visit you the meetings are very controlled, so because I tour the country I talk to him about what people tell me. Beyond that, frankly, we don’t have the will or the capacity.”

“What about the 2013 elections? Do you think the Government will win if they have the elections later, instead of now?” Butenis asks them. “The TNA are not our leaders,” says one person.”But even if they have elections now, or two years from now, the TNA will win,” they chuckle, “this Government hasn’t given us an alternative.”

Earlier in the day, she met the TNA’s Jaffna parliamentarian, Sivagnanam Sritharan, over breakfast at his home. The luxury, the armed security personnel or the vehicles normally associated with MPs were nowhere in sight. “Your security is ok?” she asked him.

“So far so good.” “How do you feel about the TNA here?” she asked. To which he mentioned that the TNA has been losing support because of its internal conflicts. “It’s a shame,” said Butenis, “all these internal party disputes. And because there is no opposition, the Government can do anything.”

“But we have to follow the leader and sometimes we can’t take any decisions,” Sritharan replied.

Meeting the bishop of Jaffna

Talking about the Universal Period Review (UPR) that Sri Lanka will be subject to in October or November, by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), following the resolution that was passed in March this year, she tells me that the Tamil diaspora lobby groups and the issue of missing persons will play a significant role. Yet, she says, that the issue of missing persons is not as clear-cut as it seems, because there are many Tamil people seeking refugee status in other countries who haven’t been accounted against those reported as missing here. Then she adds, “And, what about the Sinhala people who are missing? The UNHCR tells me that even now the largest number of missing persons is from the South, from the conflicts arising from JVP insurrections. People seem to have a way of moving on, here.”

In her meeting with the Bishop of Jaffna, Rev. Thomas Soundranayagam, she gets straight to the questions. “How is the demilitarisation taking place?” she asks him.

“It is taking place,” he says, “but very slowly.”

Throughout the tour, everyone else she speaks to, confirms this, saying that there is no visible military

presence in Jaffna, but adds that there appears to be army personnel in civilian clothes and that army personnel are present at all public events.

“What about the white vans?” she continues with the bishop. “They are gone,” he says. Again, those she meets later confirm this, but add, “it has taken a different form now. Now, we have oil being thrown into the house.” “Ah!” she says, “The grease without the devil!” “What about sexual harassment?” she asks the bishop again. “That has gone down, or it is not being reported.”

In her meeting with the civilians, later during her tour, she brings up the issue of gender violence and when they say that there is still a lot of gender violence, she says; “the thing is, gender violence takes place mainly in homes and workplaces and by people known to the victim. But the immediate connection the Government makes when you bring this up is that the army is being accused of raping women. Gender violence is really a reflection that society has broken down. There is a need for a lot psychosocial work. But the Government is reluctant to accept this.”

She chats with the bishop about the resettlement of people in the North, and tells him that the ICRC is working closely with the Defence Secretary on this issue.

“One of the biggest mistakes the Government made was asking the ICRC to leave during the last phase of the war,” the bishop tells her. She agrees that a lot of the accusations made against the Government after the war could have been prevented if the ICRC had been allowed to remain at that time.

She asks the bishop if he sees any forced settlement of Sinhala people in Jaffna.”I don’t see any large numbers,” he says, and adds, “One thing you must admit is that the Sinhalese people have always lived here.” Others disagree. “There’s is a cultural difference,” says Butenis, “but there is nothing to stop a Government giving land, and they are still working from a security point of view.”

The civilian representatives of Jaffna criticise the sudden transfer of Government personnel such as the former GA for Jaffna, the grease attacks, and the veiled intimidation. Her response is, “Some of these problems can be found in other parts of the country too. Such as the sudden transfer of police personnel. These are not problems unique to Jaffna. That is why we promote good governance everywhere.”

Butenis continues, “I am not trying to defend the Government’s choice. But the Government’s choice is clearly economic development.” During the tour, Butenis mentions that she appreciates the efforts of Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. However, she comments that the problem with attracting US investment is that Sri Lanka is a long-haul destination. And, adds, “Sri Lanka needs to improve its image. It is still perceived as bureaucratic and corrupt. Everyone wants a commission.”

Faith in LLRC

“But what has changed over the last three years?” she persists with the group of civilian representatives. “The infrastructure, the roads — the A9, the KKS,” they say, but add that the benefits of the projects don’t come to the residents of Jaffna. They say that while they don’t have the experts in Jaffna, and while they admit that residents of Jaffa don’t want to take on labour work, that the contracts should not go solely to the South. There should be collaboration, they insist. They say they are still scared to go out in the evening, and that people living in villages do not feel safe and are under heavy military scrutiny.

“I’ll speak bluntly,” she tells them. “Here is a government that ended terrorism. And we still consider the LTTE as terrorists. Understandably the government still has a particular mind-set, and it is going to take time. From the government point of view they are demilitarising, they had 11,000 ex-combatants and they are gone now. Even the Tamil political parties tell me that they have done a good job of it. I believe in changing behaviour. Attitude will come later. Otherwise you will always be seen as people who are never happy.”

“But how do we share our grievances and concerns?” they ask her.She questions them whether the LLRC will make a difference to them and they say, yes, but comment that nothing has happened since the war ended. “But,” she tells them, “I was at a dinner a few days ago and we had G.L. (Peiris) and Mohan Peiris there. And Lalith Weeratunga was there. Lalith is working on a plan to implement the LLRC and I have a lot of faith in Lalith. I think the Government will make a public announcement soon.”

Visit to Uduvil Girls College

Over dinner, Butenis chats to us about the changes in the visa procedures after 9-11, where the visa officers have to follow a questionnaire and the decision is based primarily on how a set of boxes get ticked off. She says the officers have little room to make a personal evaluation of the candidate. She shrugs, “When they reject an old lady this high, in her 80s, I ask them if they really think she will get to New York and start driving a cab? But they can’t issue a visa on that type of judgment anymore”.

The tour is not entirely meetings. She visits Uduvil Girls College Jaffna, which had been established by American missionaries at the turn of the 19th century. In the 2009 interview she described how her father had supported his widowed mother and his family, remaining a blue-collar worker all his life. He had worked in a newspaper press, handling rolls of printing paper and working triple shifts to give his daughters a good education.

Butenis tells the girls at Uduvil Girls College Jaffna: “If you ever doubt the value of education, let me share something of my personal history. My parents didn’t have a lot of money; they made many sacrifices to send us to good schools. The nuns we studied under were tough and they disciplined us, but I am here because of them. If you ever get tired of studying, take a deep breath. It will be worth it, and everyone is counting on you to make your country proud.”

Butenis will take up a post as a dean at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Washington D.C., the primary US Government institute that prepares its diplomats and other personnel to advance U.S. foreign affairs interests in Washington and overseas.

(Ms. Jirasinghe works at the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, a bi-national commission established by the Government of Sri Lanka and the Government of the United States of America in 1952 to promote mutual cultural understanding through educational exchanges. She wrote this article exclusive to the Sunday Times)

ALSO SEE Rajiva Wijesinha: “Farewell to arms? The US ambassador in Jaffna,”

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