|An open letter to the US Ambassador in Sri Lanka
From A Tamil Australian
Honourable Ambassador Mr. Ashley Wills
Honourable Mr. Wills
Dear Ambassador, I would like to let you know at the outset that I had the privilege of living in your great nation for over 6 years and earning two postgraduate degrees there. During that time I have enjoyed all the freedom available for a person in your country, which is not available for many others living in countries like Sri Lanka. I also had the opportunity to experience the concerns and feelings of the common American people for the rights of people in other nations, who are yearning for their own freedom to decide their own destiny, but denied that freedom by their rulers. Although I was delighted to hear the news that you are going to visit Jaffna - the open prison of Sri Lanka (where Tamils are kept under constant surveillance by an army of occupation and cannot leave anywhere without the permission of that army) - but was totally disappointed when I read the content of your speech. Many Ambassadors and High Commissioners have visited this place in the recent past, including those from Great Britain and India. Their missions had been purely of a fact-finding nature only. But in your case the purpose seems to be to tell the people what they could and could not do in determining their future destiny, which appear very un-American. Moreover, it is surprising that you have used a “carrot and Stick” approach to deliver this message. The carrot was in the form of a $500,000 gift to the Jaffna hospital and the visit to the Chemmani mass-grave site, and the stick was shown in the form of your speech.
In summary, your message to the Jaffna people was that - the United States rejects the idea of an independent Tamil state carved out of Sri Lankan territory; regards the LTTE as a terrorist organization; does not believe it is the sole representative of Sri Lanka’s Tamil people; does not believe Sri Lanka or any part of it, is the special preserve of any one ethnic group and regards Sri lanka as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multicultural state. You have been quoted to have said that, “in devising policy toward this region of ancient cultures, we know that a rounded historical perspective and due regard for South Asian attitudes are needed”. But in delivering such a message, you have shown that you neither know the ancient cultures of the two nations of people in Sri Lanka nor to have a historical perspective and due regard for these people’s attitudes. After all, you have been in Sri Lanka for only 6 months and it is too short a period for you to comprehend all these complexities.
Before I go into the details of your message one by one, I would like to make one thing clear. Like the LTTE, I also believe that, unless the Tamils are forced to fight for a separate state in the absence of a reasonable compromise alternative system, acceptable by Tamils, offered by a Sri Lankan government, both these nations of people can live in prosperity in a united Sri Lanka. Therefore please do not misunderstand me as advocating a separate state as the only solution, whenever I argue against your stated policies.
The United States have all the rights to reject the idea of an independent Tamil state, but your statement that the Tamils are trying to carve out this independent Tamil state out of Sri Lankan territory is wrong, if it is made after knowing the history of this country. Contrary to what you have said later in your speech, Sri Lanka’s two main ethnic groups have never lived together on this island, peacefully, for many centuries. It is well documented by the British colonialists that, before they colonized this island, the Tamils and Sinhalese lived separately in two different kingdoms always fighting for territory. The British who brought these two kingdoms (Tamil and the Sinhalese) together under a single administration for the first time, failed to devise a suitable political system for both the nations of people to live peacefully, without one dominating the other, when they gave independence to this country. Therefore if the Tamils ask for an independent Tamil state, they are not trying to carve out anything new, but they are only reclaiming what was taken away from them by the British. If the United States reject this idea, it is only because of its ignorance or unwillingness to accept the historical facts.
People of East-Timor first struggled for their independence from their colonial masters under the leadership of the Fretilin movement and declared their independence on 27 Nov. 1975. However, the Indonesian forces invaded East-Timor on 7 Dec. 1975 and the territory was incorporated as Indonesia’s 27th province in July 1976. Fretilin continued its struggle against the Indonesian army and the Indonesian government justified its occupation of the territory as its response to requests for help from four East Timorese political parties that were subjected to a “ Fretilin reign of terror”. International community including the USA supported this “Fretilin reign of terror” (by Indonesian standards) and ultimately let the people of East-Timor decide their future by a United Nation sponsored referendum. When the pro-Jakarta militia backed by the Indonesian military tried to destroy the capital Dilly a multinational force was sent in, led by the Australians, supported by other nations including the USA. Now the person who led the “Fretilin reign of terror” (by Indonesian standards) is making preparations to become the president, of the latest new nation to be added to the United Nations, with the whole hearted support of other nations of the world.
People of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) got their independence from their colonial masters in 1948 without any struggle. The first constitution drafted by the British (1947) for the independent Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) had only an Article 29 (2), which barred the Ceylon (Sri Lankan) parliament from enacting discriminatory legislation against a particular ethnic or religious group to which other groups were not subjected to. In 1956, father of the present President when he became the Prime Minister on a promise of making Sinhala as the official language (English was the official language until then) of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), made Sinhala as the ONLY official language. When the Tamil Parliamentarians (not the LTTE) conducted a “sit in protest” (Satyagraha) in Galle face Green in full view of Parliament, the highest court in the land, “State Terrorism” was let loose on them by the police. Police attacked them and when some of them were bleeding, the Prime Minister was reported to have remarked, “that a little blood-letting would do nobody any harm”. One of the MP, Dr. Naganathan was even stripped by the police and made to run into the Galle Face Hotel in his birthday suit and had to help himself with a table cloth to cover his nudity. In 1962, when the same, unarmed, Satyagrahis were demonstrating in Jaffna town, protesting against the Sinhala government’s discriminatory policies against the Tamil community, for the first time the Sri Lankan army was sent in there to let loose the “State Sponsored Terrorism”.
Sinhala Buddhist pressure groups campaigned persistently for the removal of the article 29 (2) and it was eventually repealed in 1972 and was replaced by an article entrenching the foremost place and state patronage for Buddhism. State sponsored anti-Tamil terror was lashed out on Tamil Civilians in the form of large-scale riots in 1958, 1977 and 1983. After the 1983 “State Sponsored Terror” (which resulted in the death of more than 3000 innocent Tamil civilians, some were burnt alive on the roads) the then Prime Minister of the largest democracy, Mrs. Indra Gandhi decided to intervene in a Bangladesh style adventure, and started to arm Tamil militant groups of Sri Lanka including LTTE. The result was, more opportunity for the Sinhala government to let loose more “State Terrorism” on the people of North and East. From 1990, the Sri Lankan Air Force started aerial bombing of civilian targets, starting from the Jaffna City Shopping Centre (Jaffna Market). Large number of houses, temples and churches with full of people, schools with children and hospitals with patients were bombed like this. Even the Jaffna public library (you might have seen the burnt out skeleton on your trip) was gutted by the security forces.
My dear Ambassador, what do you want to call these acts as? Do you want to call these as “collateral damages” as you all called when US bombed Iraq and missed the targets? There were no other targets in Sri Lanka other than few armed LTTE cadres running around, among the civilians. What were you and your country administration doing when all these happened? Could not your administration have sent a multinational force to the North-East of Sri Lanka like the way you all did to protect the Kosovo Albanians and the East Timorese, at that time? Don’t you think that such an action would have prevented the LTTE from resorting to suicide bombing and most of the carnage Sri Lanka has gone through, for which you are now trying to shed crocodile tears? Instead, what did the US administration do in Sri Lanka? It gave military assistance to the Sri Lankan security forces under the guise of training them to combat “terrorism”.
The so called “LTTE terrorism” of using suicide bombers started only as a counter violence in their war against the government security forces. If the LTTE also had access to aircrafts, they would not have resorted to suicide bombing, and I do not know what you would have called their actions then.
I also read that you went and inspected the Chemmani mass-grave site during your visit to Jaffna. How many, State sponsored prison massacres (including the Bindunuwewa one after your arrival in Sri Lanka) and mass-graves alleged to have been created by the security forces? Have your country administration ever asked the Sri Lankan government directly, to stop these things? Don’t you think that your country administration could have imposed sanctions against the Sri Lankan administration like the way it did in the case of Libyan and Iraqi regimes. If this is the case, do you - who have not given a similar message, or even a harsher one for that matter to the Sri Lankan government against their “State Terrorism” - have any moral right to go all the way to Jaffna, and tell the Tamil people to ask the LTTE to give up violence?
Dear Ambassador, before your administration decided to send in multinational forces in to Kosovo and East-Timor, to protect those people from the oppressors, did it send someone like you to tell those people also as you did in Jaffna, that either Kosovo or East-Timor is not the special preserve of any one ethnic group and your administration regards Yugoslavia and Indonesia as multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural states? Then why are you and your administration is telling the Tamil people only this? Why all this double standards? Is this because Sri Lanka is not part of Europe or because there are no oil reserves in the Palk-Straight, like in the Timor seas?
Dear Ambassador, I do not think your statement that, you and your country administration regard the LTTE as a terrorist organization would have caused much concern to the people in Jaffna. They already know that ANC of South Africa, PLO of the Palestinians and the Fretilin of the East-Timor, were also called that way, at different stages of their struggles. They are also aware, that one man’s terrorist is another man’s liberator. They also know from the past, that yesterday’s terrorists can become allies of the USA tomorrow.
Dear Ambassador, your statement that the US administration does not believe that the LTTE is the sole representative of Sri Lanka’s Tamil people would have made the Jaffna people to seriously doubt your neutrality and become suspicious about the purpose of your trip to Jaffna. I am able to tell you this because, you have made this statement after you have been told by a diverse section of the Tamil community that LTTE is their sole representative. All the democratically elected Tamil political parties have told you this recently except the undemocratically (at the point of a gun by stuffing ballot boxes) elected Tamil Minister Douglas Devananda (who might have told you privately otherwise). Tamil University community has told you this and various civic organizations have told you this. It looks like, because the Sri Lankan government does not want to accept this, your administration also does not want to accept this.
Did the US administration express the same sentiments when the South African blacks, Palestinians, and the East Timorese, made similar pronouncement about their respective liberation movements? Then why this double standard in the case of Tamils, dear Ambassador?
Whether you and the US administration believe it or not, it is the Tamil people who, and only they, can decide who their representatives are. Dear Ambassador, Tamil people gave the mandate in the 1977 elections (last democratically held elections in the North and East) to the TULF to establish a separate State. TULF became the main opposition party in parliament at that time. If you do not believe what you hear from the Tamils now, why don’t you hold a referendum like the one you all had in East-Timor and let the Tamil people tell the world what they want and who are their representatives? Instead of this why are you resorting to your “carrot and stick” approach?
Dear Ambassador, you have asked anyone in the audience who has contact with the LTTE leadership to convey two messages. A. If LTTE is still fighting for Tamil Eelam, they need to accept, that goal cannot be achieved and B. Giving up violence and negotiating is the way to get their rights. The timing of this action of yours, makes people to think that you are desperately sneaking in very late, to get some credit for the changes in their tactics LTTE have already adopted lately.
Dear Ambassador, Sri Lanka is at a “cross road” at the moment. With the Norwegian facilitated peace initiatives in the background, LTTE is maintaining a unilaterally declared cease-fire for the last 3 months.
Sri Lankan government although talking about peace has not shown anything by its deeds towards this end. Instead, every sign is that it is preparing for an all out war with several offensive operations, heavy armament procurements, intensive campaign for more youths to join the security forces, renewed amnesties for the 25,000 security forces deserters, and now passing a budget with heavy military expenditure. Therefore it is left to the two sides to the conflict and the international community to decide the future course of direction of this bleeding nation.
The newly appointed (by the President) Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court Justice C.V. Vigneswaran has aptly put what the Tamils are expecting (dear Ambassador you should talk to him to learn more about the Tamil side of the story). “The vast majority of the denizens of the north and east seek the restoration of their rights and not devolution of power. These are the rights which were snatched away from them by virtue of a mathematical innovation where the majority in the two provinces were added to the majority in the seven provinces and thus made a minority in the nine provinces”. He said this on 7 March.2001in his ceremonial acceptance speech when the President appointed him as judge to Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court.
Dear Ambassador, in this context it is worth looking at an article dated 1 June 2000 released by your own Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in the aftermath of the Elephant Pass debacle. This article was written by none, other than one of your predecessors, Ms Teresita C. Schaffer, a former US ambassador to Sri Lanka and at that time the director of the CSIS South Asia Region. I quote her recommendation bellow for your easy reference.
“The 1995 proposals called for greater devolution of power within a structure closely resembling the present Sri Lankan provincial arrangement. These proposals should have been a good starting point when they were first launched. Under present circumstances, however, there is no chance of engaging the LTTE on that basis. The only chance would lie in a much more radical approach to power sharing. A loose confederal structure, with some kind of explicit recognition of the Tamils as a collective group within it and with stronger guarantees of their inclusion in power at the national level, might be more successful. Two draft Canadian constitutions proposed that certain legislative changes would require a ‘double majority’ of both English and French-speaking parliamentarians; an analogous provisions might be useful…”
Therefore dear Ambassador, I earnestly appeal to you to refrain from using a useless approach in dealing with the Tamils and for you and the US administration to play a constructive role in a similar way to that of Ms. Schaffer. I am confident that you, and the US administration, in unison with other major players like India, Norway and UK,
can change the course of direction of events in Sri Lanka in the months to come, provided you all can understand the problem like Ms. Schaffer had, and follow an evenhanded approach when dealing with both the sides.