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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Dead Men Don't Drink Water."

He wouldn't give up. He kept putting the bottle to the man's lips. The water would pour down his chin, onto his chest, the bed, and the floor. My colleague couldn't stand it anymore, and yelled at the young intern, "Stop it! Dammit! Dead men don't drink water!" A bit of wisdom that we all would do well to remember.

The time, early third millennium. The place, Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon. It was a tough time in that beautiful island nation. The war between the predominately Buddhist Sinhalese government and the Hindu Tamil Tigers had gone on for decades and still went on and on, with unknown tens-of-thousands of dead. The Tigers controlled maybe 20% of the island and ran their piece of it with an iron fist. They had highly a sophisticated and well-armed military force--mostly equipped with North Korean weapons--that gave the Sri Lankan army, navy, and air force no end of trouble. The Tigers could fight both as a conventional force and as guerrillas/terrorists. Among other things, they had perfected the suicide vest. We had seen a steady parade of these, many worn by women. The vest was controlled by a Tiger-made battery-run timer that once powered up could not be turned off; attempting to remove the vest would detonate it.

While the Tigers were relatively careful not to target foreigners, especially Americans, Canadians, and Britons (much of their funding came from expats in those countries), when dealing with suicide vests that spew ball bearings in crowded places, how do you define careful? The Diplowife, for example, missed getting mangled thanks to her inability to arrive on time. Invited to a ladies' tea, something she detested, she was to be picked up by a couple of other invitees. Running late, of course, at the last moment she called to say she would take her own driver. Her friends skipped our residence only to drive right into a blast. A suicide bomber, being chased on foot by the police ran into the middle of the street and detonated, killing the policeman closest to him and spraying two passing cars with ball bearings and bits of his own body. Those vehicles contained the Diplowife's friends on their way to the tea. One woman absorbed several ball bearings as well as pieces of the car; her driver, also hit, nearly bled to death. The Diplowife, who was supposed to be in that car, arrived at the tea, which, of course, could not be cancelled, just as a gardner was hosing the blood and flesh off the other car.

After years and years of this, the war had become about nothing; better said, the war was about the war. Every atrocity by one side fueled the other's passion for more war. When the British departed Ceylon in early 1948, they left a country with the highest per capita GDP in Asia. It had one of the world's highest literacy rates, and was widely seen as a model of peaceful democratic rule. A young Lee Kuan Yew, who would go on to become one of the truly great statesmen of the latter half of the twentieth century, saw Ceylon as the model for Malaya and later Singapore. That did not last long, confirming my long held belief that people do not want to live in paradise. A country with no foreign enemies, a benign climate, ample resources, a great education system, and nicely plugged into the world economy soon degenerated into a bloody civil war. Sinhalese politicians resented that the Tamil minority, thanks to their higher proficiency in English, the country's official language, did better economically and in terms of university admissions and plum government jobs than did the Sinhalese majority. In the 1950s, Sinhalese politicians changed the official language from English to Sinhalese, made it mandatory for universities, and began to change the country's place names to Sinhalese; Buddhism gradually became the state religion in all but name. The country's old romantic and evocative name of Ceylon was discarded and changed to Sri Lanka. An active discrimination was launched against the Tamils in government jobs and contracts. The reaction was fierce. The war was on. What justice there had been in the origins of the Tamil revolt was soon washed away by a wave of extreme violence directed against innocent Sinhalese people. The Sinhalese retaliated, and the vicious cycle commenced. I won't go into the duplicitous role played by India in the whole crisis, a role which greatly exacerbated the suffering in Sri Lanka, and led to the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 near Chenai by a woman Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

When I was there, we worked with the Norwegians to find a political settlement to the crisis. We were operating under instructions that ruled out military victory. I remember sending in an analytical message saying that military victory over the Tigers was entirely possible; it was just a matter of how many casualties one wished to accept. My cable did not go down well in DC. The dominant wisdom was that the war's end had to be negotiated. After many hits-and-misses we hit on a formula that I called the "Milton Friedman Plan." It would leave aside the big political issues and try to end the isolation of the Tiger controlled region. It would focus on economics. We sold it to the government with the theory that the end of military checkpoints, and blockades, and allowing free travel throughout the country would in the end benefit both the Sinhalese majority and the by-now impoverished Tamil minority. It would undermine the iron-grip that the Tigers had on the zone they controlled. Let the market dictate without the politicians getting involved. The Tiger side reluctantly accepted the formula because of the extreme hardships being endured in the Tiger controlled regions, and because the tide of war had begun to swing against them. They needed a break. They, for example, had lost control of the ancient city of Jaffna to a determined and very bloody Sri Lankan army campaign. I remember visiting the city after it had been secured. I had never seen such urban devastation outside of a city run by US Democrat party politicians. Jaffna looked like a tropical Stalingrad; there was barely a building left unscathed by explosives or pockmarked by bullets. Unexploded ordnance seemed to be everywhere. The Tigers occasionally still would lob artillery rounds into the city.

The Norwegian brokered deal, with the strong backing of the US and the UK, did, for a time, lead to a halt in the fighting. The country breathed a sigh of relief. The lights came back on in Colombo, and the ubiquitous military patrols and roadblocks were halted and dismantled. I was asked to drive out to the old city of Trincomalee and see how "peace" was working along the east coast. The area around that old city and former British naval base had been a center of the fighting. We had orders to check on the status of the Muslim population in the region, given the many reports of both sides considering the small Muslim minority as an enemy. I won't go into too many details of the drive; suffice it to say that it was long and colorful and provided anecdotes with which I have bored people at cocktail parties for years. I went with a colleague from the political section and a young, bright and eager intern. We stopped along the way at the British cemetery and paid our respects to the British and American sailors buried there from WWII. Despite the fighting, both sides had respected the cemetery, and it was in surprisingly good shape. As we moved along the highways, our large white Chevy Suburban would draw the attention of Tigers; dressed in black and usually two to a bike, they would swarm around our vehicle on their motorbikes, trying to peer in through our heavily tinted windows at the strange occupants within. We would drive on like a big white steamship being escorted by playful porpoises--if one imagines playful porpoises carrying RPGs and AKs, that is.

We visited Trincomalee and then began a drive down the coast to Batticaloa stopping along the way to visit the local Muslim population. The leader of the community was a distinguished doctor who arranged a meeting with Muslim dignitaries for us in a local hospital. He had a long table, loaded with food and drink, set up in a narrow airless hallway in the hospital. There must have been some thirty or forty dignitaries invited, along with the press. My two colleagues from the embassy and I sat at the head of the table with the host. The TV camera lights added to the intense heat in that stuffy hall.

One speaker after another rose to give us his--they were all men--views on the current situation in the country and the world. The speeches were long, flowery, and very repetitive. Each speaker ignored what the previous one had said, and each had pretty much the same to say. One speaker about three chairs down on my left rose and gave a particularly long and flowery address; he grew increasingly animated as he spoke, his face getting redder and redder, with the veins on his neck bulging as his oratory grew in loudness and intensity. He stopped mid-sentence, sat down, and closed his eyes. I noticed that he immediately urinated. The other speakers looked at him, applauded, and the next one rose to speak. I leaned over to our host, a doctor, mind you, and asked, "Is he OK?" The doctor replied, "He gets very emotional. No problem." About five minutes later, the man sitting next to the now very silent previous speaker, began to shake him, and announced, "I think he's dead!"

That silenced the speakers and a commotion ensued as the dead man was taken to one of the hospital rooms. For some reason our intern followed the procession very closely carrying a bottle of water. The man was laid out on a bed, and our intern began the activity noted at the outset of this post. He seemed not to want to acknowledge that death had paid our little group a visit, and insisted on trying to get the dead man to drink a bit of water. It didn't work.

We returned to the table, and our host announced the sad news to the others. The next speaker rose and began to give his speech. My colleague from the political section had had enough, and said, "No! The meeting is over!" We gave our condolences to the group and headed to our waiting Suburban. The intern still clutched his water bottle and seemed genuinely puzzled by what had happened. "He wouldn't drink the water," he said several times as our vehicle began moving out.


26 comments:

  1. Your observation of "the war was about the war" seems an apt description of that mess. That reminded me of the Thirty Years War. A conflict which took on a life of its own and just kept going.

    I like the title, the intern sounds kind of like the very naive socialists of the world who just can't understand why their theories never pan out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're very right about him. He was a very nice person but disconnected from reality.

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    2. One doesn't wander that that erstwhile intern is not now a DAS in the Obama State Department.

      Bilgeman

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  2. DIPLOMAD,
    I met more than one old Israeli in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, apparently working with the Government to counter the Tamil rebels. It is my understanding that the Muslims demanded a halt to that assistance and with the Israelis gone the civil war, which had been close to finished, picked up steam again.

    Your thoughts?

    Rumor #2 is that the U.S. Navy wanted some basing rights at Trincomalee and the Indians, then aligned with the Sovs, abetted the Tamil rebellion to get the U.S. out of the picture>

    What sayest thou?

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  3. The Israelis were mildly involved in the war, mostly selling the GSL some equipment and helping train their military intelligence. The Tigers tried to kill the Israeli Ambassador. The war began to swing the GSL's way when the US, after much dithering, began to train the SL special forces, who proved to be very good. The Tigers were also being run into the ground by their inability to run a functioning economy on their section of the island. Their leader was a Kim Jung-Il wanna be and everything had to be approved by him.

    The Indians were obsessed that we wanted Trincomalee. I never saw any evidence that the US navy was interested in the place. The Indians played a duplicitous role in the war, backing the Tigers and then abandoning them when it all got too messy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Indians played a duplicitous role in the war,

      You must know there is a huge Tamil state in India. For India, they were damned if they do and damned if they didn't and could not pick sides. And Tamils are the most productive and hardworking group of people you see and you see them all around the world. I am not particularly fond of their traits because whereever they go they try to build a Tamil state and are close-minded. One big reason is that they are fanatical and staunchly protective of their "culture" and do not quite assimilate with the locals -- they think they and their culture are superior. They are highly confident, street smart, and hardworking and highly risk taking and mobile. I was not aware that at the root of Sri Lankan conflict was the minority Tamil success.

      Delete
  4. I look forward to the Diplomad stringing all the anecdotes together into a nice book. (Which I won't have to read since I have seen most of them.) I will recommend it to my friends however ... particularly if it devotes a full chapter to bashing Hillary.

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  5. Was the intern related to a prominent Democrat?

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  6. I thought the conflict had been brought to an end by victory of the government forces. At least that's how it was reported. Was the "Milton Friedman Plan" before or after this? You never said if the plan was a success. This part of the world and it's conflict always interested me, but for some reason I've never knew much about it.

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  7. Yes. The Milton Friedman Plan was before the final victory. The MFP produced a ceasefire that lasted a few years, and ended up eroding the Tigers. It led to an internal civil war within the Tigers between those who wanted to maintain the ceasefire and those who wanted to go back to war. Eventually the SL military launched a massive offensive and crushed the Tigers, killing its leadership.

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  8. What I noticed in the images of the conflict, was the abundance of Chinese weapons, clothing and equipment used by both sides.

    Either the Tigers were extremely proficient at capturing and using, in a seemingly organised way, a lot of "government" goodies, or something else was happening.

    Trincomalee was THE prize. Whose is the biggest navy using it these days?

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    Replies
    1. Lots of Chinese weapons as they were cheap. The Tigers had lots of weapons from North Korea, as well. Nobody in particular is using Trincomalee nowadays.

      Delete
  9. I knew a couple of Tamil tigers. They looked small and almost misshapened , but were surprisingly athletic. They could also drink their weight in bourbon. I was impressed.

    Great post; my new catch phrase is “dead men don’t drink water”

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  10. I congratulate you on your quite exceptional, not to say unique, longevity. I also remark that I had no idea that the war in Ceylon/SL started so long ago. But I am confused by one thing: what government did you represent "early second millennium"? The United States only came to be more than three-quarters through the second millenium.

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    Replies
    1. Horrors! You are right! The Diplomad hangs his head in shame for having committed such a blunder. I will not give you credit, but I will secretly change the error, and you will look foolish because there will be no evidence of my mistake . . . hahahaha....thanks

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    2. Ah hah, Dip! You have learned well from the Obama administration and it's journalist lackeys.

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  11. I guess the intern is chuck hagel or is it biden?

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  12. Oh, good God, Mr. D.; and I thought I'd led an interesting life. HD

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  13. Not only an interesting anecdote about the intern, but filled in some background for my as to why the people were shooting at each other in Sri Lanka. It was one of those places that I knew was a mess, but never investigated why.

    BTW, did your DC counterparts ever acknowledge your prescience on the 'military solution?' Never mind, stupid question.

    OK, one (more) nit:
    "He kept putting the bottle to the prone man's lips. The water would pour down his chin, onto his chest, the bed, and the floor."

    Um, "prone" means face down, and given your description of the water flow and fact that they laid him out on a hospital bed, I would guess he was actually "supine," or on his back. At least that's how the instructor defined those terms for me in EMT class. :)

    Oh, here's a story that made me think about you:
    http://castrapraetoria1.blogspot.com/2013/01/burundian-banzai-banana-bikers-and.html

    Keep up the good work.

    p.s. I am not the same Eric that asked about the relatives of your intern, but it was a logical question.

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    Replies
    1. Good point. The dead doctor--he was a doctor--was initially placed face down and then rolled over. The intern kept try to force water on him when he was face down and face up. It was a very a confusing tableau.

      Re the military solution. I wasn't the only one. Our Defense Attache and I kept telling DC that a military solution should not be ruled out. The Milton Friedman Plan, however, did in the long run contribute to the final victory over the Tigers as it led to a dissolution of the leadership's iron grin over the region. Lots of people began to leave Tiger-controlled areas once the roadblocks came down, and parents became increasingly reluctant to give up their children to the Tigers.

      In my last few months there, we saw a marked increase in US special forces training for the SL military. That had a tremendous impact when the war eventually resumed.

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  14. I love Sri Lanka.
    Last visited around 1996 - stayed at the Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya. It was more British than the British when we stayed there. Although they did commit a huge faux pax - they ran out of gin! Luckily, we befriended another couple who had brought a fifth on their own. A wonderful game of croquet on the front lawn.

    Also stayed at the old stalwart in Colombo - The Galle Face Hotel - we did the entire colonial "thing." Would love to go back.

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  15. " The intern kept try to force water on him when he was face down and face up". A Liberal method of problem solving!

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    1. Yes, he poured it over his head and tried to turn his head to force water down his throat. The poor guy could never explain what exactly he was trying to do; I guess there is something primeval in us that sees water as solving problems. You know how in movies they immediately shout out "Quick! Boil some water!"

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    2. Only for wounded pregnant gunfighters.

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  16. caught this article today and thought it would be great to get some comments from you. Rexamine US Foreign Policy

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  17. Wretchard of Belmont Club remarked that the govt had a secret weapon allowing them to commit atrocities sans intrntl reproach; they weren't white.
    Couldn't have done it without.

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