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Sri Lanka Propaganda finds a home in Washington

Sri Lanka’s powerful defense secretary and brother of the president, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, has recently published a lengthy article in a policy-oriented journal called PRISM. The publication of this article, particularly at a time when the Sri Lankan government has been under the microscope for alleged war crimes and ongoing human rights abuses, raises a number of questions. But let’s first take a closer look at the publication itself. PRISM is a relatively new journal.

The publication’s website notes the following: “PRISM is published by the Center for Complex Operations. PRISM is a security studies journal chartered to inform members of U.S. Federal Agencies, Allies, and other partners on complex and integrated national security operations; reconstruction and nation building; relevant policy and strategy; lessons learned; and developments in training and education to transform America’s security and development apparatus to meet tomorrow’s challenges better while promoting freedom today.”

And on the same webpage, prospective contributors are informed that: “PRISM welcomes submission of scholarly, independent research from security policymakers and shapers, security analysts, academic specialists, and civilians from the United States and abroad. PRISM evaluates submitted manuscripts against the following criteria: topical relevance, continuing education for national security professionals, scholarly standards of argumentation, and readability.”

In short, PRISM falls under the penumbra of the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and its target audience includes American foreign and defense policy professionals and their allies. This is a policy-oriented journal – perhaps in the mould of a newer, security-focused version of Foreign Affairs, the preeminent publication of America’s foreign policy elite. Rajapaksa’s piece, “Sri Lanka’s National Security” begins on a sanguine, triumphalist note: “Sri Lanka is one of the most peaceful and stable countries in the world today. Its citizens enjoy the benefits of peace and have complete freedom and countless opportunities to build better futures for themselves.”

Through the eyes of the man who might be Sri Lanka’s most powerful person, the essay briefly traces the history of national security on the island. Rajapaksa goes on to cite a range of outstanding security threats – including terrorism, extremist elements, ethnic tension, organized crime, foreign meddling and even the dangers of social media. It concludes with the government’s strategic vision for responding to the aforementioned security challenges – where it’s made clear that demilitarization won’t be happening any time soon. Further, Rajapaksa notes that “the people of the North and East have a very cordial relationship with the military.” Not surprisingly, economic development is championed as a sine qua non of reconciliation and peace.

The penultimate paragraph references Sri Lanka’s relationship with other countries. India, China and Russia are all mentioned – readers are reminded that Moscow and Beijing both have permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. With so much talk over war crimes in Sri Lanka these past few years, the geopolitical implications of transitional justice are difficult to ignore.

I reached out to a former member of the U.S. military who also happens to be a prolific writer and highly regarded national security analyst. Though admittedly not that familiar with the publication, the individual described PRISM as “legitimate.”

Rajapaksa’s essay is clearly designed to defend the actions – past, present and future – of the ruling regime. The writing is smooth and clear. Astute Sri Lanka watchers are unlikely to be persuaded by some of the false, misleading or dubious claims in this article. Nonetheless, an intelligent general audience would be more susceptible to this sort of sophistry.

In short, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s views on Sri Lanka’s national security must be met with deep skepticism. What’s more worrisome is the help he likely received to make this possible – whether it is people within the U.S. defense community, or hired guns (in the form of U.S. lobbying firms), advocating on behalf of the Sri Lankan government or both.

To be fair, it’s clearly stated that the views expressed in PRISM don’t necessarily reflect those of the DoD or any U.S. federal agency. Nonetheless, the desire to share diverse viewpoints should be balanced with ethics and standards. There is a degree of irony here; as far as media freedom goes, Sri Lanka is quite literally one of the least free places on the planet. According to Reporters Without Borders, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, all score more favorably than Sri Lanka. And when it comes to punishing those who do kill journalists, it should come as no surprise that impunity reigns on the island nation.

Given the fact that Washington has been so vocal about Sri Lanka’s clear lack of progress on accountability, human rights and the rule of law, why would Rajapaksa’s piece even be considered for publication? Does Washington view this piece as constructive engagement with an authoritarian regime? Was Rajapaksa’s status as a dual U.S.-Sri Lankan citizen a factor in determining whether or not to accept his submission? Even so, is it appropriate for a part of the U.S. government to publish a puff piece written by an alleged war criminal?

Irrespective of how this article came to be published, it’s important to understand that this is a dangerous piece of state-sponsored propaganda. It’s also important to note that this is not the first time that PRISM has been used as a propaganda platform for the Sri Lankan government. The regime in Colombo may now be using more sophisticated tactics to try to influence Western policymakers and the broader international community.

Let’s hope that Colombo’s target audience knows how to read between the lines.

This article was originally posted in Asian Correspondent.