5 yrs On: Remember to Remember

by Eelapalan, Finding Self blog, May 18, 2014

5 Yrs On.

Global Tamils are remembering the 5th anniversary of the May 2009.  While we mourn the lives lost, we should also remember to remember the truth. The Tamilnation website quoted the following prophetically and purposefully, when it shut itself down.

“…A key psychology for leading (is to)..  retain absolute faith that you can and will prevail in the end regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be… Create a culture.. for the truth to be heard.

Among our losses were also two ablest strategic platforms. One was Sivaram AKA Taraki, and the other was the Tamilnation website.

I was hoping all along that there will be others stepping up to fill the vacuum left by these outlets:  A new crop of people and platforms to stir the intellectual curiosity of the Tamil nation.  5 yrs on, we are still searching. Future will judge us harshly, if we ,the witnesses, victims, and survivors, don’t leave behind our thoughts in any shape or form.

5 yrs on, I hope we can travel to the past with hindsight as a guide. Not to set a revisionist narrative but to unearth the truth. The Tamil nation needs to understand its place in the “great game” that is underway in the Indian Ocean.  In this write up, at at first, a look at the American  strategic objective in Sri Lanka, and then what the LTTE calculus was leading up to the ceasefire and after, and then to see if the Tamil nation can benefit by a US presence in the region.

The Long American Pivot towards Asia

The diplomat recently published an article validating what I meant several weeks ago about Sivaram seeing around the corners.   At the time of his kidnapping and killing, Sivaram was working on an article that Tamilnet later published.  Sivaram, as often was the case, read the tea leaves correctly.  In that write up, he tried to explain the US’s strategic interest in Sri Lanka. He focused primarily on the USA looking at basing prospects for its Air Force and for signal intelligence.  Note his uncanny insight into the NSA operations in Colombo at that time: Long before the current scandal.  His video interview below also touches on the same topics.


The diplomat article, published 9 yrs after Sivaram’s analysis, outlines the U.S. strategic objective under the title “bases for Americas Asia Pacific Rebalance”.  It was written by two professors of strategic leadership at the naval War college.

In 2001, the US Secretary of Defense started a strategic review of the US global defense posture. The defense department termed it the “most profound re-ordering of U.S, Military forces overseas”.  The review was underway prior to 2001 but came into the limelight in 2001.  And portions of it were made public to the Congress in 2004.

The new forward posture for the Asia Pacific rebalance, outlined by the review, was characteristically different. It was refined for the 21st century challenges.  The basing network envisioned were not the “fight in place” and defensive in nature. That was the case in West Europe and in northeast Asia since WWII and Cold war. The new posture called for strategies to enable rapid deployments in short notice.  In essence,  “from static defenses to frequent expeditionary operations”.

Further more, the review outlined a wider range of challenges for the new century that it seeked to address.  Among them were:

“· The nexus among terrorism, state sponsors of terrorism, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction;

· Ungoverned states and under-governed areas within states, which can serve as both a breeding ground and a sanctuary for terrorists and other transnational threats; and

· Potential adversaries’ adoption of asymmetric approaches – including irregular

warfare, weapons of mass destruction, and advanced, disruptive, technological challenges – designed to counter U.S. conventional military superiority. “

To be specific, the last 2 challenges listed above ( key word emphasis is mine), made the American anti – LTTE policy framework much more overt. It provided an opportunity to support the Sri Lanka’s “ international safety-net” approach.  A post 9/11 media and policy narrative provided the needed cover. And momentum for the collaboration between Sri Lanka and the US reached new heights.

A USA & UNP Strategic alignment

The 2001 (July) attack on the Katunayake airport precipitated an acute crisis for Sri Lanka. The LTTE military success in the North and the economic pressure in the South ( due to the attack) left the Sri Lankan state with very limited options.  A RAND report written in 2004, titled “Urban Battle Fields of South Asia”, highlighted the severity. According to the report “..International airlines pulled out of Colombo and as tour group operators left Sri Lanka. Christmas booking were cancelled, which levied a heavy loss upon Colombo’s coffers. The insurance premiums applied to planes and ships operating in Sri Lanka were inflated to $100,000 per vessel per port call, as Sri Lanka was considered a “war zone.”. Consequently, imports became sparse and prices increased dramatically.” “ The sharp increase in oil prices was sufficiently steep that the government could not maintain its subsidy. Second, the rupee came under pressure and the government allowed it to float, after which the value of the currency exchange rate sank from Rs 78 to Rs 100 per dollar within three days.”   Consequently, this made the ceasefire and international involvement an urgent matter to Sri Lanka.  With changes in the political landscape ( SLMC leaving and other defections), Chandrika was forced to call for elections just after a year of the previous one.  And Ranil was brought to be the PM in Dec 2001.  He reciprocated the LTTE ceasefire and ceasefire came into existence in Feb 2002.  Sri Lankan Prime Minister made the visit to Washington DC in July and Deputy Secretary Armitage made his first visit to Sri Lanka in August 2002.

The core leadership team that was part of the American DOD review included Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage.  Under Secretary Douglas Feith represented the Defense Department. But It is noteworthy that Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, James Clad, who called Gotabaya his friend, played a role in the last stages of the war, along with his state department colleague Robert Blake. It is noteworthy that Clad’s eventual replacement, Vikram J Singh, was a longtime Sri Lanka strategist in the US defense circles. He lived and worked there. But after being appointed in 2012, he made several trips to Sri Lanka in his official capacity and regularly met with wide range of leaders.  It is important to note that he led the US defense department’s post 2014 strategy for South Asia before leaving the post.

A US de-mining team was already at work in the North when Deputy Secretary Armitage made his first visit. But Several US department of defense teams had visited Sri Lanka to do multiple evaluation studies starting from the late 90’s.

According to Sivaram, “The USAF, DIA team that visited Palaly, China Bay, Sigiriya, Koggala and Kuda Oya in 2001 did a brief update regarding Sri Lanka… A classified version of this update on Sri Lanka was given to the Sri Lanka Air Force and Army headquarters and DMI for comments. It was basically about improving Palaly, China Bay and advantage of building new international dual-purpose airfield in Kuda Oya. If the update is read together with the RAND report it gives a clear picture of US strategic aims in developing Palaly, Trinco, Kuda Oya.”

In 2012, Sri Lanka rejected an India’s offer to develop the Palaly airport.

The executional aspects of the US defense review was to seek legal agreements with identified host countries. Agreements lay the legal foundation and secure the logistical and support assets for forward forces.  Sri Lanka likely was identified as such a host country even before the review and long before the 2002 ceasefire. America  signed the Acquisition and the Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with Sri Lanka in Feb 2007. According to Wiki leaks, the signing was deliberately kept quite.  And America has since then accelerated such agreements with other South Asian countries as well.  Eelam Tamils need to be aware that ACSA is up for renewal in 2017 and the concessions the US will likely to extract out of Sri Lanka.  The UN report finding person’s responsible for war crimes and a possible sanctions on the individuals and the regime will likely converge on this timeline.

Sri Lanka offers ideal locations for the new kind of basing that the US seeks. The one the diplomat article now calls.  “.. “forward operating sites” that are normally maintained by a relatively small U.S. support presence and are used for temporary deployments or training purposes; an example is the Sembawang port facility in Singapore. Finally, “cooperative security locations” are austere facilities shared by the United States and host countries that may have little or no permanent U.S. presence and are designed essentially for contingency use.

Clearly, the preferred option for the future is the latter two categories. They are less expensive, less visible, less vulnerable, and offer greater strategic and operational flexibility; just as important, they are less likely to create political problems for the host government and in fact serve to promote bilateral security cooperation. “ . These operating sites can also emphasize “.. new capabilities such as remotely piloted drones and special operations forces, and one extending to parts of the world not previously active theaters of American military operations.”

Eelam Tamils mistakenly believe that an American military presence, if one were to be established, will be a large foot print base. Trinco harbor comes up right away in any conversations.  As we will see later, LTTE also feared an intervention.  But the American presence will be characteristically different. In the island, it will start out as a “cooperative security location” and then could progress to a “forward operating site” with an unnoticeable footprint.  With the ACSA in place, Sri Lanka is already a “cooperative security location”.  American military was already helping to rebuild schools even in the occupied areas of the island. And the training programs have not stopped.  Sri Lanka is obliged under the “Bilateral agreement for the exchange of logistics support, supplies, & services (LSSS) during exercises, training, or emergency situations”

In the Tamil analyst circles, The Tamilnation website and Sivaram were the only sources, that I am aware of, who understood and articulated the impact of the new uni polar direction of the US strategic initiatives in the region.  The American strategic objective in Sri Lanka is dualistic in nature. While seeking operating sites, it also seeks to deter any A2/AD ( Anti -Access/ Access Denial ) attempts by other powers.  And Sivaram was the first to pick upon and highlight the concept of A2/AD .  He highlighted that part of the American objective in (South) Asia is “To prevent the United States from being denied economic, political and military access to an important part of the globe. • “.

As I wrote before, the Chinese orbit of influence on Sri Lanka only matters in the context of A2/AD. In that, China can convince the Sri Lankan state to avoid ( or delay ) leaning towards the US.  Or alternatively make the US pay a higher price for the access in the form of opportunity cost.  Despite popular belief, China has no chance of a direct military presence in Sri Lanka the way India or US can muster.

The US has maintained its leverage on Sri Lanka before the 2002 ceasefire, during the ceasefire and since the end of the war. And America will continue to do so until its objectives are achieved. The UN resolutions are a clear demonstration of it. Assistant Secretary Biswal reminded everyone last month.  Speaking about the “U.S. Foreign Policy in South Asia: A Vision for Prosperity and Security” at the Harvard University, she said “We look forward to a resumption of a more comprehensive military relationship once the Government of Sri Lanka has made better progress toward reconciliation and accountability.”

The American strategic calculus at play before and during the peace talks was either the coercion of the LTTE into an agreement in favor of a unitary Sri Lankan state or the containment of LTTE as a small guerrilla force.  Either of these would have lead to the eventual withering away of the LTTE.  The expectation was, at the end, it would pay dividends for basing through a west friendly, and popular, Ranil government.  So LTTE’s contribution to the election defeat of Ranil government would have ruffled a lot of feathers in those planning circles.

Next : LTTE’s calculus. Sivaram’s meeting with the tiger leadership and the exchanges that left him immensely impressed.   What were the little known divisions under Mano and Sasi masters of LTTE planning for?

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