The US & the Sri Lankan National Conflict
The increasing level of US involvement in the Sri Lankan peace process is highly worrisome to many Sri Lankans. This unease is explicable, especially in view of the experience of others. In the Balkans and in Ireland it has resulted in a remarkable de-escalation of war and human suffering, whereas in the Middle East to increased war.
We present to you five new articles, all written by Tamils about this anxiety shared by all the people in Sri Lanka. The first two are analyses of the recent events of this month. The third is from an Australian Tamil who presents a very ‘optimistic’ point of view, and fourth is from a Colombo based Tamil group stating the exact opposite. The fifth is an Iranian parable, all worth reading.
Print it out – read it leisurely and thoroughly – and when you finish, join us in a little prayer for all those who live in that island, now called Sri Lanka.
By D. B. S. Jeyaraj
‘Speak softly and carry a big stick... Don’t hit at all if it is honourably possible to avoid hitting: but never hit soft!’ - Theodore Roosevelt
The statement released officially by the office of public affairs, Embassy of the United States of America in Sri Lanka on March 11, has evoked different and contrary types of reaction. The rebuke proffered to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the United States of America is hailed in some quarters as a positive development that would strengthen the current peace process and help further consolidate the on going ceasefire. Other circles have raised doubts about the timing, tone, content and procedure of the press release and questioned whether the act was appropriate at this juncture.
The crux of the matter seems to be that the Americans have wittingly or unwittingly reinforced Sinhala racist elements striving to sabotage the ceasefire on the one hand and eroded confidence among Tamil sections supporting the peace process. In short, the US statement instead of promoting peace may very well be counterproductive in the long run and have the unintended consequence of jeopardising the very same ceasefire it seeks to protect.
It appears that the issuance of the statement lacks a coherent basis and is indicative of that abundant ‘ad-hocism’ that characterises much of American foreign policy approach in recent times. The imperfect clarity prevailing in Washington over this was illustrated vividly at the routine state department press briefing last Monday. A question was put to the official spokesperson Richard Boucher on the Colombo embassy press release by a senior journalist. The response and subsequent exchange of words betray clearly the discomfiture and confusion of the US on the matter.
Further indication that the US had apparently goofed up on the matter came through two responses to the Colombo Embassy statement. The first was from LTTE Political Adviser and Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham based in Britain. Balasingham in a statement to the Tamilnet website categorically denied the charges of jeopardising the ceasefire and expressed reservations over the reports the US Embassy claimed were ‘credible.’
The Tiger leader was also ‘surprised and dismayed that the US embassy had thought it a proper protocol to issue a critical statement on ceasefire violations at this critical time when an international team of monitors are assuming responsibilities to supervise the agreement.’ Balasingham assured the US on behalf of the Tigers that ‘the LTTE is sincerely and seriously committed to peace and to a peace process aimed at a negotiated political settlement.’
The second response was from Sri Lankan Defence Minister Tilak Marapone. Speaking to the BBC Sinhala Service ‘Sandesaya,’ Marapone said that he had not heard of any adverse reports against the LTTE after the mutually agreed indefinite truce began last month. Terming the allegations of child conscription, abductions and extortion by the LTTE as ‘unconfirmed gossip’ Marapone told ‘Sandesaya’ that the ‘government had no evidence. Before the MoU, there were allegations that the LTTE was extorting money but afterwards there have been no complaints’ the defence minister said.
Thus, the US found its assertions contradicted instantaneously by the two protagonists involved in the conflict. Furthermore, the accredited mediator Norway busily engaged in setting up the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission also did not corroborate US allegations in any manner.
Without any direct reference to the US statement, Norwegian officials accosted by the media stated that the ceasefire was progressing without any difficulty and that the LTTE was cooperating fully. Although the US statement had spoken of credible reports it seemed unable to back its assertions with solid evidence in the face of this tripartite response.
In the meantime, the Tamil community erupted in full fury against the US accusations. Political figures, Analysts, Social activists, religious leaders etc., took umbrage against the ill-timed statement.
The Tamil media was unanimous in its condemnation. Protest demonstrations were also held in the east. The Americans were condemned as issuing unwarranted statements to satisfy the Sinhala hardliners. Others charged the US with having a hidden agenda to subvert the peace process. In a jiffy the goodwill accumulated among Tamils in recent times by the USA due to its firm support for the peace process seemed to be evaporating.
An increasingly embarrassed US found solace in the LTTE statement made by the LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in response to the US communiqué. US ambassador in Colombo Ashley Wills told Reuters ‘I am encouraged by the assurances attributed to Balasingham that the LTTE is indeed committed to a peace process aimed at a negotiated political settlement.’
Blowing hot and cold
Wills went on to say ‘We look forward to a productive negotiation facilitated by the Norwegians that will lead us to an end to this long conflict.’ Another website reported the envoy as having stated that the US will continue to have an eye on the LTTE.
It is indeed amusing that the US after having blown hot about alleged LTTE violations could simply blow cool on the strength of an assurance made by Anton Balasingham to a website. While Balasingham’s importance in the LTTE scheme of things is not to be discounted, it must be noted that the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakharan had provided a firm assurance, valid in law and fact, earlier. The signing of the ceasefire and letter to the Norwegian Prime Minister provide the best guarantee of Tiger bona fides. Moreover, the preamble of the agreement explicitly spells out the commitment to peace.
The Tigers have also given the lead in most matters concerning the peace process like declaring a unilateral ceasefire, signing the accord, nominating ceasefire monitors, opening the Jaffna-Kandy Road etc. In such a context the American ambassador doubting LTTE intentions earlier and changing its stance after Balasingham’s assurance doesn’t seem a plausible explanation. It is more like a face saving retreat by the Americans after getting ‘muttai’ on face because of its intemperate comments.
This then brings us to the question of why the USA in the first place issued a statement that was knocked down by both the government and the Tigers immediately and why it made assertions of credible reports it could not substantiate? Many reasons both objective and subjective could be the cause.
‘Behave or else’
Objectively the USA that throws its weight around in most countries may have felt the need to assert its dominance in Sri Lanka too. It may be labouring under the illusion that the LTTE came to a ceasefire because of post September 11 developments.
This is a popular theory being floated around by interested parties in a futile attempt to devalue the Tiger search for peace. What is conveniently forgotten is that the LTTE had entered the peace process three years ago and that a ceasefire may have been possible months before the New York towers were attacked if not for the obstructionist tactics of the Kumaratunga-Kadirgamar duo.
Nevertheless, the USA may have wanted to demonstrate that it was its armed muscle that brought the Tigers to the negotiating table and that it is only through bullying tactics that the LTTE could be persuaded to cooperate. This however, is a sad miscalculation. One only hopes that events never take a turn in the future to disprove this illusion. Also, the US may have felt that uttering threats and warnings would show the LTTE that America and the west were behind Norway’s peace making efforts and so would compel the Tigers to ‘Behave or else.’
Given the fact that the Sinhala chauvinists and neo-fascists are trying to whip up mass opposition to the peace process the Americans may have also felt that Ranil Wickremesinghe needs extra support. It is realised that he has staked his political future on this bold gamble.
If the Tigers upset the orange cart and undermine the ceasefire it could weaken Wickremesinghe. Therefore, there is a need to come down hard on the Tigers. It would also convey a positive signal to the Sinhala chauvinists who may then revise their stance on peace. This viewpoint is somewhat similar to that of India in 1987 towards J. R. Jayewardene.
So the strategy may have been ‘optics’; to project an image that the USA was firmly behind Colombo on the ceasefire and that it would not hesitate to ‘punish’ the Tigers if necessary for real and more importantly imaginary violations. The timing may have been necessitated by the visit of two top Americans to the island this week. One is the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca and the other Brigadier General Timothy Ghormley, Commanding General, US third marine Expeditionary Brigade and Force.
Both persons were scheduled to visit Jaffna in a ‘rare’ unprecedented occurrence. Rocca in particular was expected to meet Wickremesinghe in Jaffna. It is possible therefore to conclude that the timing of the statement and the high profile visits were aimed at contributing to the perception that the USA was getting ready to ‘take out the LTTE’ if required.
If these were objective causes there were lesser subjective reasons which if true are not flattering to Ambassador Ashley Wills. Some weeks ago, Wills went up to the north and gained a lot of praise among Tamils for generous contribution of equipment to the ‘impoverished’ Jaffna Teaching Hospital. He also visited Vavuniya where he was entertained for tea by People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam leader and Wanni district Parliamentarian Dharmalingam Siddharthan.
In conversation Wills opined that both a separate state and as well as a unitary state were out of the question. His suggestion was that a confederation should be established. This was welcomed rapturously by Tamil people. After the ceasefire was signed the envoy toasted peace and drank to the health of both Wickremesinghe and Prabakharan at a public gathering. What Wills did not take into account was the extent of animosity towards Prabakharan among Sinhala hawks.
Sections of the Sinhala and English media perceived Wills as a friend of the Tamils and by extension the LTTE. Toasting Prabakharan even for a good cause was sacrilege. In any case elements backed by the arms bazaar are firmly opposed to peace any way. Even editorials lambasting Wills were written. This resulted in the envoy sending ‘salutary’ responses in submissive mode to his detractors. He even went to the extent of trumpeting about the ‘military’ help given to Colombo by the USA and also about his ‘tirade’ against the Tigers in Jaffna last year.
Against this backdrop, the recent press release may have been part of an appeasement to the Sinhala hardliners. The idea may have been to cool their feelings and possibly prevent a campaign among the chauvinist lobby to expel Ashley Wills gaining ground. Of course there may have been a backlash from Tamil sections but then that by American assessment was of no consequence.
Otherwise, Washington would not have been fuelling this war causing untold misery to the Tamils for such a long time. Thus, the subjective cause for the statement may have been simply a device to extricate Ashley Wills from a complicated situation. This explains the pathetic performance of Richard Boucher in Washington and the backing down of Ashley Wills in Colombo.
The hurried and ill-conceived manner in which the statement had been drafted is visible from the terminology. The admission that the alleged violations by the LTTE have decreased significantly negate the need for reprimanding. A more positive way would have been to commend the Tigers for such decline and encourage them further in that direction.
More importantly, the statement should have been even handed instead of blaming one party alone. The US embassy is only too well aware of the violations by non-Tiger forces in the east. It knows who is delaying the A-9 highway opening; it knows of the intense harassment of civilians in Batticaloa by the army. Why then the silence about those?
Also, when it comes to undermining the spirit of the agreement by arms acquisition there have been numerous reports in the media about proposals to buy fresh arms and recruit more personnel by the government forces. Another factor is that the daily defence ministry reports continue to engage in anti-LTTE propaganda as in the past instead of reflecting new realities. In any case, why should the USA claiming to back Norway ask the Tigers to ‘read my lips’ before Oslo has set up the monitoring mechanism.
Whatever the real motives behind the US statement the unfortunate aspect to it is that far from its professed intention of promoting the peace process the total opposite may happen. The true irrational nature of anti-Tamil sentiments in this island have never been appreciated or understood by the west. As a former Tamil parliamentarian S. Kathiravetpillai was fond of repeating ‘Racism in South Africa is skin deep while racism in Sri Lanka is soul deep.’
Transform and re-structure
The root cause of all the island’s ills is the dominant ideology of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy and the hegemonism it seeks to impose on the minority nationalities. Unless and until the state is radically transformed and restructured, the Tamil national question cannot be resolved satisfactorily. The LTTE is hated not merely due to its negative attributes but because it is the only entity that has stood up to oppression and brought the state to a military stalemate.
So there is no way that the Sinhala hardline lobby is ever going to make peace with the Tamils on terms of equality. The moderate, rational sections of Sinhala society must be supported to overwhelm those advocating military hegemonism or else the forces of ‘evil’ to use President Bush’s favourite description would succeed. There is no way out by throwing sops to Cerberus.
In that context, the premature and unsubstantiated sabre rattling by the USA against the LTTE can only help reinforce the racist elements opposing a ceasefire. These sections have misread the post September 11 developments and entertain fond hopes that the USA will extend its so-called global war against terror to Sri Lanka and ‘nuke’ the Wanni.
The main plank of their criticism against Wickremesinghe is that he had surrendered to the LTTE instead of exploring and exploiting this non-existent option. The US statement and its hectoring tone therefore can only be a shot in the arm to the forces opposing peace. They would redouble their efforts and somehow sabotage the ceasefire. Ultimately Wickremesinghe may find himself unable to control the monster unleashed upon him unintentionally by the Yankees.
On the other hand, Tamil suspicions have been aroused. The unwarranted intervention of the USA into an area strictly reserved for Norway may fuel fears that the Americans are planning to usurp Oslo’s role. The USA is clearly perceived by the Tamils as hostile because of its continuous support for Colombo’s war and its banning of the premier Tamil politico-military force the LTTE. The bellicose jargon of the statement and the abject servility displayed by Ashley Wills towards the Sinhala chauvinists help reinforce the suspicion that there is a hidden agenda in this peace process.
The American demand in the statement that the LTTE disavow its ‘unattainable and unnecessary’ goal of Tamil Eelam and the veiled threat of ‘harm’ befalling the Tamil people if the Tigers default are by no means conducive to the peace process. What the Americans seem to be implying is total capitulation before a negotiated settlement or else dreadful consequences. This is utterly unacceptable and totally counterproductive.
Ambassador Wills and his diplomatic staff may not realise it now but they have sown the seeds of destruction for the peace process. If the situation is to be remedied the USA should issue a fresh statement saying that while separatism was out, the unitary state also should be changed to a pluralist confederation. Also, Ashley Wills representing the most powerful nation on earth should dare the Sinhala chauvinists by ‘telling as it is’ to audiences in Galle or Kandy just as he boasts of having done in Jaffna.
Courtesy: Sunday Leader [17 March 2002]
By J. S. Tissainayagam
A report released on March 11 by the US embassy in Colombo highlights the ‘concerns’ that the government of the United States of America is entertaining on ceasefire violations committed by the LTTE.
The report states, “We have heard that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are engaged in activities that could jeopardise the... ceasefire”. The statement alludes to increased LTTE recruitment in Sri Lanka’s north and east including children, as well as kidnapping and extortion, especially of Muslims. The statement qualifies this assertion by saying that such acts have “apparently decreased in recent days...”
The statement proceeds to the LTTE’s re-supply operations after the ceasefire and continued smuggling of weapons ‘that could undermine the trust needed to move from a cessation of hostilities to a lasting peace.’
The US government statement is basically a threat of an international policeman on the dire consequences of recruitment, extortion, kidnapping and arms purchases. “In the current international context... in which terrorism is... condemned in more and more countries, the LTTE should be especially vigilant of observing the terms of ceasefire accord. If it does not, it will increase its international isolation and do harm to the group it claims to represent, Sri Lankan Tamils...”
The stance of the US is a clear indication of what its line is going to be in the coming months if substantial negotiations get going. The US has waged a relentless war against what it calls ‘terrorism’ over the last decade, which intensified after September 11 last year. But if we were to demystify the word ‘terrorism’ as defined by the US, what we find is a global policeman who demands that existing global power relations – economic, political and most of all military – remain intact. And these power relations are manifested mainly through the international state system. In other words, the status quo should be unchallenged.
Challenges to the existing power hierarchy have been mounted by entities within the state system itself such as China. But in the US’s eyes, the challenge to the system posed by armed interest groups coalescing around ethnic, linguistic and religious identities and demanding a share of the pie are a greater and perhaps more immediate threats, than those from within the state system.
Among such interest groups is the LTTE, which argues that Sri Lankan Tamils are a nation with the right to self-determination. In what form the Tamils seek to exercise that right is a different question, but they enjoy that inalienable right.
It was easy for the US as long as the LTTE remained a military organisation demanding Eelam in Sri Lanka’s north and east. But when such an organisation took the initiative to declare a ceasefire, had a popular wave at a general election endorsing its position as the sole representatives of the Tamils at peace talks and secured the confidence of the Sri Lanka government to commence negotiations, what could the US do?
In the past, despite all the military backing the US had given the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE had proved its military superiority. Despite all the diplomatic pressure initiated by the US in proscribing the LTTE, the Tigers’ international operations continued. The only way the US could influence peace talks against an entity that was challenging the international state system was to undermine it morally as a violator of human rights norms, hoping it would lead to dwindling support which (as its statement says) would result in the Tigers’ isolation.
Human rights politicised
What is more, the bias of the US is clear because it did not issue a statement condemning military recruitment of the government. The army’s recruitment drive was covert and apparently not too successful and the only publicity is the posters that keep appearing. But this too ‘undermine(s) the trust needed to move from a cessation of hostilities to a lasting peace.’ But no mention was made of this in any of the embassy’s statements.
At the wake of the US government’s statement came the statement of Amnesty International (AI), which highlighted the LTTE’s recruitment of child soldiers. It gave names of 18 children who had been recruited in the Batticaloa and Vavuniya districts. Though stating the LTTE had launched an investigation into the complaints against recruitment before February 22, the report said that none of these children had been returned and the Tigers had denied recruiting them. Regarding post-February 22 recruitment, the AI said fewer children had been enrolled and some allowed to return home.
The AI statement is another attack on the LTTE that alludes to human rights and thereby the moral dimension. AI however is not a state but an international NGO, a part of civil society. There is no attempt here to brand AI as an organisation as crass and partisan as the US government, because the instances it has highlighted the suffering of the Tamils in the hands of the Sri Lankan state forces defy enumeration.
Suffice it to say however that the timing of the statement suggests a degree of orchestration. In the final analysis we should not forget that human rights too is politicised and that AI falls within the world system that is funded and run by the west. And as it was mentioned before, it is primarily the US (and thereby the west) that would wish to see the existing power hierarchy remaining intact.
That being what it is, various local NGOs in Sri Lanka too have of late begun to ‘tilt’ in a way that attempts to undermine the LTTE and apply moral pressure to weaken it before it sits at the negotiating table. One has to emphasise however that this does not include all NGOs, but a few of them, which are influential.
These NGOs have basically emphasised the weakness in the MoU regarding human rights and pluralism. These weaknesses include the absence of a body to monitor human rights and pluralism both in the northeast and the south. They point out that leave aside monitoring extortion, kidnapping and recruitment of children, there is nothing in the MoU on issues of promoting freedom of expression and alternative political organisations to the LTTE.
What is interesting is that certain human rights NGOs are secretly sympathetic of groups such as the PLOTE, EPRLF (Varadar group) and the EPDP who have to be disarmed under the MoU. These human rights activists state that ordering the three organisations to disarm violates the growth of pluralism since this will eliminate competing centres of power to the LTTE and TNA. It is perhaps because these claims are so preposterous and potentially dangerous that such human rights watchdogs express these opinions behind closed doors.
Meanwhile, it is understood that certain religious leaders too from all the major religious groups in Sri Lanka are supporting an agenda where monitoring of human rights violations of both parties is incorporated into the peace process.
They base their hope on the grounds the LTTE wrote to the UN in 1987 stating its readiness to adhere to the principles of Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Convention relating to internal conflict and other articles. These religious leaders and other members of civil society believe that therefore persuading the Tigers to agree to formally respect tenets governing the laws of war will not be an insurmountable hurdle. What is more, the carrot to be dangled before the Tigers to fall in line will be the lifting of the proscription if they do so.
While this is certainly an argument that should be taken seriously, the flip side too should be considered. For Tamils, the most violent acts of brutality against them were committed under the PTA. While the NGOs and religious leaders interested in persuading the LTTE to agree to basic human rights norms have expressed keenness on pressurising the government too to repeal the PTA, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said categorically at the press conference soon after signing the MoU that the PTA would remain.
Similarly nothing tangible has been done on Tamil political detainees or IDPs as yet. Therefore persuading the LTTE to accept conditions that will compel it to adhere to the laws of war, while the government has said categorically legislation such as the PTA will not be repealed will make these arguments one sided.
Finally, these civil society groups are also keen in continuing the cohabitation between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the UNF. If there is anything that augurs ill for peace it is this. Kumaratunga and former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadiragamar have constantly stated the LTTE is treacherous as a negotiating partner, violates human rights and is against a political solution. Repetition of these sentiments ad nauseam even today, undermines the LTTE before it sits at the negotiating table.
Why is it that sections of civil society still insist on cohabitation when even the most idealistic (or the most naive) in the UNF have abandoned such moves? What is more, the LTTE has categorically said it looks upon Kumaratunga as a stumbling block inimical to resolution of the conflict. Certain senior Norwegian diplomats too believe that the president will not extend any co-operation unless there is some tangible political benefit for her in it – and right now there is nothing.
With international actors such as the US government and local and foreign NGOs attempting to undermine the LTTE, there are also agent provocateurs, which are interested in stirring trouble in the northeast. While there have been instances of LTTE extorting money from Muslims there are also designing elements who have tried their best to portray Tamil-Muslim relations in the worst possible light.
There have been clashes between Muslims and Tamils in the Batticaloa and Mannar districts that were engineered, while in Batticaloa, Muslim home guards have engaged in provocative acts that have strained the peace process. These have compelled insiders to feel there is a deliberate attempt to provoke tension between the two communities in ethnically sensitive areas.
The army and police too have acted provocatively. A grenade was lobbed on March 3 in Kaluwankerny, a brawl ended in the use of firearms at a Batticaloa tavern on March 10, while a motorcyclist was assaulted at Padiruppu Bridge last Tuesday.
It is therefore a very disturbing picture one sees. All these efforts might very well amount to naught if the two protagonists are steadfast in their objective to begin negotiations. But the consistent and multi-pronged efforts to undermine the LTTE through the international community, local NGOs and communal elements makes it obvious that these groups want a weakened LTTE to sit at the negotiating table.
On the other hand, the objective could be to provoke the Tigers to the point where they refuse to negotiate and recommence fighting. To some that too is an attractive option.
Courtesy: Sunday Leader [17 March 2002]
Dr. Victor Rajakulendran
The views expressed are those of the authors, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the sangam.
Sangam Research [20 March 2002]