Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

The Tamil Liberation Struggle and the New Cold War

by Nadesan Satyendra, Esq., Centre for Just Peace and Democracy, May 7, 2008

US Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan said more than a century ago, "Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century, the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters."...

To the extent to which we can bring these strategic interests out of the closet, we may be able to take forward the resolution of the conflict in the island in a constructive way.  

This will also help the Tamil people as well as the Sinhala people to understand the harsh reality of the real politick which confronts them both.

[courtesy Tamil Guardian]

The strategic significance of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean region

Geography plays an important role (though often a silent one) in the affairs of states and nations without states. Where a state has a large internal market, the size of that internal market is itself a strategic asset. Where a state does not have a large internal market, it seems that it is often a question of location, location, location. The smaller the country, relatively more important becomes the location - and sometimes, the location itself becomes a strategic asset.  

The Indian Ocean is not the largest ocean in the world. It is the 3rd largest. But it has something like 47 countries around it as well as several islands.  

You can see them on the map. Coco island is not far from Myanmar where of course now the Chinese have a base. Then we have Andaman Islands, Maldives, Madagascar and of course in Gawdor in Pakistan and Kawar in India. And if you go down south you may even get to Diego Garcia with its US naval and air base. India itself projects something like 1200 miles into the Indian Ocean. And many Indians take the view that after all, the Indian Ocean is the Indian Ocean.  

The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean region has been recognized for many years. US Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan said more than a century ago, "Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century, the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters." Again, the British Empire owed much to British dominance of the Indian Ocean – a dominance which Hitler sought to undermine with his U-boats during Second World War.  

The Indian Ocean contains an estimated 40% of the world’s oil production. And today fresh exploration continues in the Mannar seas off Sri Lanka, the Cauvery Basin off Tamil Nadu and in the seas off Myanmar. But the significance of the Indian Ocean arises not simply from the resources it has. The Indian Ocean is a critical waterway. It includes half of the world’s containerized cargo, one thirds of its bulk cargo and two thirds of its oil shipments. Its waters carry heavy traffic of petroleum products. And unlike the Atlantic Ocean, much of this traffic is to countries outside the Indian Ocean.  

International Dimensions of the Conflict in Sri LankaThe sea lanes of the Indian Ocean give a graphic picture of its strategic significance.  

China, which has been a net oil importer since 1993 is the world’s no 2 oil consumer after the United States. It achieved that status in 2004. Before that the 2nd largest oil consumer was Japan. China has accounted for as much as 40% of the world’s crude oil demand growth during the period 2000 to 2004.  

Access to energy resources is a very critical factor for continued Chinese economic growth. And, not surprisingly China has stepped up efforts to secure sea lanes and transport routes that are vital for its oil supplies. The geo political strategy adopted by China has been dubbed 'the string of pearls' strategy.  

Barry Desker, Director IDSS, wrote in 2005: "The emergence of new powers like China and India is expected to transform the regional strategic landscape in a fashion that could be as dramatic as the rise of Germany in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th century"  

Donald L. Berlin, Head of Security Studies, Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies, Honolulu, writes: “the Indian ocean region has become the strategic heartland of the 21st century, dislodging Europe and North East Asia which adorned this position in the 20th century.. the developments in the Indian Ocean region are contributing to the advent of a less Western centric and a more multi-polar world."  

Hopefully, sufficient has been said to show that the strategic significance of the Indian Ocean region existed before the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka, that it continues to exist and that it will continue to exist even after the Tamil – Sinhala conflict in the island is resolved.  

Here, one matter of significance is that the dynamics of the region calls for a balance of power approach rather than a straight alliance.   Adam Wolfe, Yevgeny Bendersky and Dr. Federico Bordonaro write in ‘India's Project Seabird and Indian Ocean's Balance of Power’, in July 2005: “…the dynamics of the region calls for a balance of power approach rather than a straight alliance…. The rise of India as a major power, coupled with the better-known - and frequently analyzed - Chinese rise, is changing the structure of the world system. Not only is U.S. ‘unipolar’ hegemony in the Indian Ocean facing a challenge, but the strategic triad U.S.-Western Europe-Japan, which has ruled the international political economy for the past few decades, is now also under question…We can expect the South Asian region to be one of the system's key areas to be watched in the next decade.”  

The balance of power in the Indian Ocean region is not a simple black and white matter. The frame is multilateral and the interactions are nuanced – and calibrated. There is a word that was coined some years ago in a different context - in the study of multinational corporations and so on. The word was co-petition. You compete in some areas but you also co-operate in other areas. When you cooperate in some areas and compete in other areas - that's co-petition. For instance India and US do have a strategic partnership in some areas. But, New Delhi is not simply a partner of China or the United States. It seeks to march to the beat of its own drummer.  

The question is: in what areas are the US, New Delhi and China competing with each other, and in what areas are they cooperating with each other? The US may welcome a ‘balance of power’ in Asia as a way of securing its own pre-eminence in a unipolar world (or in the terms of Condoleezza Rice, a unipolar world with a multipolar perspective). But will New Delhi and China be content with such an approach or will they be challenged by it? Is Sri Lanka an area of competition or cooperation? And, importantly, if it is an area of cooperation what is the extent of the cooperation?  

This may be the appropriate stage to turn to an examination of the strategic significance of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean Region.  

In 1947/48 Ceylon entered into a defense agreement with the United Kingdom for the use by the United Kingdom of the naval base in Trincomalee. The Defence Agreement was a condition precedent to the United Kingdom granting independence in February 1948.  

However, the strategic significance of Sri Lanka arises not only from Trincomalee. Its not as simple as that – we need to include Hambantota, the Voice of America installations and so on. Ramesh Somasundaram of Deakin University in his 2005 publication ‘Strategic Significance of Sri Lanka’ gives three reasons for the ‘interest of the international community’ in Sri Lanka :  

“(1) Sri Lanka is strategically situated, (2) It is ideally situated to be a major communication center, and (3) It has Trincomalee, described by the British Admiral Horatio Nelson as “the finest harbour in the world. Sri Lanka occupies a strategic point in the Indian Ocean, whose vast expanse covering 2,850,000 sq miles, touches the shores of the Indian subcontinent in the North; Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia in the East; Antartica in the South; and East Africa in the West.”  

In 1985 I was in Bhutan as a member of the Tamil delegation to the Thimpu Talks. The Research Analysis Wing of India spent some considerable time informing us of the threats that US submarines posed in the Indian Ocean and the difficulties they had and why it was important that some agreement must be achieved with Sri Lanka.  

The Thimpu Talks themselves failed but two years later in 1987, the Indo Sri Lanka Accord did secure for India its strategic interests. The exchange of letters between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lanka President J.R.Jayawardene on 29 July 1987 preceding the Signing of Agreement provided inter alia that ‘Sri Lanka's agreement with foreign broadcasting organisations will be reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up by them in Sri Lanka are used solely as public broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes’ and that ‘Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India's interests.’  

The intervention by the United States and by India in the conflict in the island has a long history.  

India armed and trained Tamil militants in their struggle for Tamil Eelam. In 1998, Jyotindra Nath Dixit who served as Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka 1985 /89, Foreign Secretary in 1991/94 and National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister of India 2004/05 declared disarmingly  

"...Tamil militancy received (India's) support a response to (Sri Lanka's).. concrete and expanded military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, Israel and Pakistan. ...The assessment was that these presences would pose a strategic threat to India and they would encourage fissiparous movements in the southern states of India. .. a process which could have found encouragement from Pakistan and the US, given India's experience regarding their policies in relation to Kashmir and the Punjab.... Inter-state relations are not governed by the logic of morality. They were and they remain an amoral phenomenon....."  

When these matters are mentioned, it is sometimes said that all this may have been relevant during the time of the cold war but that the world has moved on sine then. It is true that the world has moved on – but today we are in the midst of a new cold war. The United States may be the sole super power, but it lives in an ‘asymmetric’ multi lateral world where strong regional powers (including the EU, Russia, China and India) have increasing global impact. We are living in a world where the ‘asymmetry’ is progressively diminishing. This is the new cold war. It is a cold war because open warfare is to nobody’s benefit.  

Today, for Sri Lanka, China is a ‘benign friend’. Sudha Ramachandran warned in the Asia Times on 13 March 2007 that "China is all set to drop anchor at India's southern doorstep. An agreement has been finalized between Sri Lanka and China under which the latter will participate in the development of a port project at Hambantota on the island's south coast. ...the significance of Hambantota to China lies in its proximity to India's south coast and on the fact that it provides Beijing with presence midway in the Indian Ocean.”  

In March 2007, B. Muralidhar Reddy commented on the ten year Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) signed by the United States and Sri Lanka on 5 March 2007:  

“The ten year Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) signed by the United States and Sri Lanka on March 5, which provides for among other things logistics supplies and re-fuelling facilities, has major ramifications for the region, particularly India. For all the sophistry and spin by the Americans, the ACSA is a military deal and, on the face of it, is loaded in Washington's favour.”  

These then are some aspects of the international dimension of the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka. It will be fair to say that there are two conflicts in the island. One is the conflict arising from the people of Tamil Eelam struggling to free themselves from oppressive rule by an ethno-Sinhala nation masquerading as a ‘civic’ Sri Lankan nation. The other is the conflict between international actors jostling for power and influence in the Indian Ocean Region.  

And the record shows that these international actors are concerned to influence the resolution of the conflict in such a way that each of their own (conflicting) interests in the Indian Ocean region are advanced – or at least not undermined. But at the same time each of these international actors often engage in public diplomacy which denies the existence of their own strategic interests.  

The reluctance on the part of the international community to openly state their interests may be understandable. And we may also need to recognize that human rights and humanitarian law are often simply the instruments through which states intervene in the affairs of other states. We had for instance Helsinki Watch which played an important role in the old cold war. Now of course Helsinki Watch has matured into Human Rights Watch.  

Said that, denial by international actors, of their own (conflicting) strategic interests in Sri Lanka draws a veil over the real issues that any meaningful conflict resolution process in the island will need to address.  

To the extent to which we can bring these strategic interests out of the closet, we may be able to take forward the resolution of the conflict in the island in a constructive way.  

This will also help the Tamil people as well as the Sinhala people to understand the harsh reality of the real politick which confronts them both. And that takes me back to why I started my address with a couple of words in Sinhalese and Tamil. It was because at the end of the day, however difficult it may appear to some, it is the Tamil people and the Sinhalese people who will need to have the conversation with each other about how two independent and free peoples may associate with one another.  

I will end here - with something which the Leader of Tamil Eelam, Velupillai Pirapaharan, said in 1993:  

“Every country in this world advances its own interests. It is economic and trade interests that determine the order of the present world, not the moral law of justice nor the rights of people. International relations and diplomacy between countries are determined by such interests. Therefore we cannot expect an immediate recognition of the moral legitimacy of our cause by the international community. ... In reality, the success of our struggle depends on us, not on the world. Our success depends on our own efforts, on our own strength, on our own determination..." 


Mr. Nadesan Satyendra was a negotiator for the Tamil delegation at the Thimpu talks in 1985. A Barrister by profession, he has written and spoken extensively on Sri Lanka’s conflict for 25 years. He serves as Advisor to the Centre for Just Peace and Democracy. The full text of this article is available in a CJPD publication ‘International Dimensions of the Conflict in Sri Lanka’ (2008).


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