Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

An Open Letter to Pres. Barack Obama

Re: His Speech on Libya: “A Responsibility to Act”

By Dr. Victor Rajakulendran, Sydney, Australia, April 21, 2011

Dear Mr. President, I would like to conclude by quoting what you have said in your speech on Libya; “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”  Yes Mr. President, you waited when satelite images of slaughter and mass graves of Tamils were pouring into CIA and pentagon, without taking action and the lesson learnt through that mistake only hopefully made you to take preventative action in Libya now.  But Tamils in the diaspora like me still expect you to compensate for your inaction in Sri Lanka by bringing justice and freedom to our suffering brotherens still languishing in open prisons, guarded by an army of occupation in Sri Lanka.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President

Re: Your Speech on Libya: “A Responsibility to Act”

I had an opportunity to read the full text of the speech you delivered at the National defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.  While I am elated to note your conviction not to make the same mistake as Presidents Clinton and Bush made in Rwanda and Darfur respectively, I am not convinced that you have not already made the same type of mistake elsewhere as your predecessors have made.

When you became the first African American President of the U.S, most of the people’s expectation in this world was that you will stand by the downtrodden and deliver liberty and justice to the oppressed.  If one looks at what has been happening in Libya during the last few weeks, he or she will not be disappointed in regards to that expectation.  However, for people like me who knows very well what has been happening in another corner of the globe during your Presidency earlier, and the way you decided not to intervene amidst repeated pleas from Amnesty International (AI), Human Right Watch (HRW) and International Crisis Group (ICG) and prevent a much larger scale massacre than what was anticipated in Libya when you decided to intervene in that country, you have not explained the reasons for your inaction then.

Yes, Mr. President, I am talking about the, now very familiar to the whole world, man-made human disaster that happened in May 2009, which is too familiar to your administration as your running mate Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton had spoken about the conflict that lead to this disaster, during your Presidential election campaign itself.  When she was asked “Do you think that the terrorists hate us for our freedoms, or do you think they have specific geopolitical objectives?” she replied thus: “Well, I believe that terrorism is a tool that has been utilized throughout history to achieve certain objectives. Some have been ideological, others territorial. There are personality-driven terroristic objectives. The bottom line is, you can't lump all terrorists together. And I think we've got to do a much better job of clarifying what are the motivations, the raisons d'être of terrorists. I mean, what the Tamil Tigers are fighting for in Sri Lanka, or the Basque separatists in Spain, or the insurgents in al-Anbar province may only be connected by tactics. They may not share all that much in terms of what is the philosophical or ideological underpinning. And I think one of our mistakes has been painting with such a broad brush, which has not been particularly helpful in understanding what it is we were up against when it comes to those who pursue terrorism for whichever ends they're seeking. In other words, she said that painting with a broad brush of “Terrorists”, all those who use terror tactics to meet their ends, whichever they are seeking, has not been helpful in understanding what it is we were up against.

Mr. President, you may be well aware that the Tamils of Sri Lanka have been struggling to re-establish their lost sovereignty, which they lost to the Europeans when the Europeans colonised the island of Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, from the time they were supposed to have gained their independence in 1947 from the British colonisers. This political struggle that began as a democratic non-violent struggle, due to the heavy handed tactics of the successive Singhalese dominated governments in Colombo with brutal force on peaceful unarmed demonstrators, changed into the armed struggle that followed.  Out of the several Tamil militant organisations that took up arms to continue this political struggle, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as a formidable force and fought a civil war from late1970s -2009.  The LTTE was basically a national liberation movement. It adopted a combination of three approaches in the military sphere. It was a militia when it adopted positional warfare to capture or defend territory. It was a guerrilla force when it conducted ambushes and raids on acceptable military targets like a police or army patrol or position. It appeared terroristic in nature when it masterminded operations like explosive attacks against economic and political targets.  As a result LTTE, in Hillary Clinton’s terms, was painted with the broad brush as “Terrorists”.  In the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi assassination, due to domestic political compulsions, India banned the LTTE in May 1992, resulting in that country losing its leverage on Sri Lanka.   U.S State Department designated the LTTE as foreign terrorist organisation in October 1997.  After President Bush declared his “Global War on Terror” mantra to get at al-Qaeda after September 11, 2001 terrorist incidents, when President Rajapaksa managed to take over power in Sri Lanka, riding on the Sinhala chauvinistic supremacist voter base, he portrayed the war he declared on LTTE after unilaterally abrogating the ceasefire agreement the previous government made with the LTTE, as part of this ‘Global War on Terror”.  By doing this, President Rajapaksa succeeded in drafting few nations to fight his internal war against the Tamils (LTTE), including your own nation under your administration. 

Recently, ‘The Hindu’ newspaper made a disclosure based on the Wikileaks cables which story none other had been able to reveal; that is, America with India’s support was engaged in an operation to dismantle and destroy the International chain which supplied arms to the Tamil Tigers. ‘The Hindu’ reported that via the Wikileaks cables it became known that this operation was commenced by America when the SL war broke out in 2006 and India had approved this operation.   Mr. President, The Hindu’ carried the following report in this regard:  “Two International contact groups to check LTTE fund raising and arms purchases were initiated by the US and concerted International action to curb fund raising and weapons procurement by the LTTE started in the first half of 2006, around the time Sri Lanka‘s fragile ceasefire broke down and all out war started. It was the United States that unveiled and initiated the plan to create two international contact groups, one each to move against fund raising and weapons procurement by the LTTE…..”

Mr. President, I appreciate the way you swiftly decided to intervene in Libya to prevent unnecessary loss of life.  You have justified your action in Libya by saying, “For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom……..But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act…….Muammar Qaddafi has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world –- including Americans who were killed by Libyan agents.” Can you deny that you were well aware that there was a threat to global security and human freedom when President Rajapaksa declared war on Tamils in 2006?    Can you deny that US’s interests and values were at stake in 2006 due to President Rajapaksa’s unilateral actions?  Don’t you and your State Department officials were well aware that successive Sri Lankan governments and Presidents have denied the Tamils in that country freedom, have exploited their wealth, murdered opponents (especially under President Rajapaksa) and terrorized the Tamil citizens of that country?  Then why did you go out of the way to help this Autocratic President Rajapaksa, in his hidden agenda in subjugating a section of his own citizens, instead of a similar preventative mission as you are carrying out in Libya?

Mr. President, you have stated in your speech that; “Last month, Qaddafi’s grip of fear appeared to give way to the promise of freedom. In cities and towns across the country, Libyans took to the streets to claim their basic human rights. As one Libyan said, “For the first time we finally have hope that our nightmare of 40 years will soon be over.”  Can you and your State Department officials deny that you all were well aware that the Tamils protested peacefully for 40 long years against the oppression by the successive Sinhalese regimes and all these peaceful protests were crushed with the brutal force of the Sri Lankan armed forces?  Can you deny that when the International Community, including the U.S failed to protect the Tamils only, the Tamils took up arms to protect themselves and LTTE came into existence and started to fight the armed services that were sent to occupy the Tamils’ traditional homeland, the North and East of the country?  When Sri Lankan forces bombed the Tamil Homeland using Supersonic Jet Fighters, the LTTE resorted to counter this with suicide bombers by sending them to bomb economic and political targets in the Sinhalese homeland and due to this act Colombo regimes were able to brand them as “Terrorists”.  Don’t you think that if you had sent your marines to stop the Sri Lankan Jet Fighters from bombing the Tamil Homeland LTTE could have been prevented from using suicide bombers and the issue of “War on Terror” would not have emerged in the Sri Lankan conflict and not hundreds as in Libya, but thousands of innocent lives could have been saved in Sri Lanka?  Probably you did not have to send your marines or Jet Fighters into the Sri Lankan air-space, you had to only pick up the phone and tell President Rajapaksa to stop the aerial bombing and he would have stopped.

Mr. President, you have said in your speech that you made it clear that Qaddafi had lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead and he needed to step down from power.  Don’t you think that President Rajapaksa had also lost the confidence of the Tamil people and the legitimacy to lead them?  Then why you did not ask him to let the Tamil go like your predecessors had asked the Indonesian President to let the East Timorese go and the Bosnian President to let the Kosovars to go their own way to prevent the genocide of innocent Tamils that happened in the first quarter of 2009?

Mr. President, you have also mentioned in your speech that: “In the face of the world’s condemnation, Qaddafi chose to escalate his attacks, launching a military campaign against the Libyan people. Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted, and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off. Water for hundreds of thousands of people in Misurata was shut off. Cities and towns were shelled, mosques were destroyed, and apartment buildings reduced to rubble. Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assaults from the air.”  Were not you aware that President Rajapaksa in the face of appeals from the world leaders – including a personal joint visit by the Foreign Ministers of France and Britain - for a ceasefire, chose to escalate his military attack on Tamil people?  Did not Rajapaksa order the attacks on hospitals, schools, temples and churches and erased these to the ground?  Did not Rajapaksa order the attack on media organizations, harassed and arrested journalists, ordered the killing of several journalists?  Did not Rajapaksa evicted the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN volunteers from the Wanni region where the last battles were being fought for months and starved the civilians caught up in this area for months and prevented the evacuation of the wounded and let them die?  Did not President Rajapaksa and his brother the Defense Secretary unleashed the Military jets and helicopter gunships upon the Tamil people of Wanni who had no means to defend themselves against assaults from the air ?  Why did not you take similar action then as you have taken in Libya now to protect the innocent Tamil civilians?  Do you consider Tamils’ lives as less worthy than Libyans’ lives?

Mr.President, you have justified your action in Libya by saying that: “The Libyan opposition and the Arab League appealed to the world to save lives in Libya. And so at my direction, America led an effort with our allies at the United Nations Security Council to pass a historic resolution that authorized a no-fly zone to stop the regime’s attacks from the air, and further authorized all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people.” Are you not aware of the mass demonstrations, held in the world capitols by Tamil Diaspora and held in the Indian Southern State of Tamil Nadu the home for 40 million Tamils and the repeated appeals made by the parliamentary representatives elected by the Tamils in Sri Lanka asking for the International Community to intervene?  Why you did not even attempt to protect the Tamils then but have rushed to protect a section of the Libyans now?

Mr. President, you have complained that Qaddafi’s forces rather than stand down, continued their advance, bearing down on the city of Benghazi, home to nearly 700,000 men, women and children who sought their freedom from fear.  You continued and said that: “Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we wanted -- if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

Mr. President, same thing was happening in Wanni in Northern Sri Lanka in April-May 2009.  According to Bishop of Mannar Diocese, Rt. Rev. Rayappu Joseph, an estimated 429,059 innocent civilians were caught up in a government declared no-fire zone with the LTTE forces, not even one tenth of Benghazi in size.  People did not have apartments like Benghazi to hide but only the scrub vegetation on this beachfront and the UN provided tent shelters to hide from the bombs dropped on them.  This area was surrounded by the Sri Lankan security forces and was being bombarded from air, sea and land for weeks.  The whole world knew that a massacre is happening.  Didn’t you know then that this massacre was happening?  According to the same Bishop, when the battle ended, only 282,380 of the civilians came out into the government controlled area, leaving 146,679 people unaccounted for, presumed massacred.  Mr. President, don’t you think that you could have saved these innocent lives if you have acted like the way you have acted in Libya now?  Why were you reluctant to act and save the lives of these Tamils then?  Are the Tamils’ lives not worthier than the Libyans’?

Mr. President, you have proclaimed and I am very happy to hear that; “It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.We struck regime forces approaching Benghazi to save that city and the people within it. We hit Qaddafi’s troops in neighboring Ajdabiya, allowing the opposition to drive them out. We hit Qaddafi’s air defenses, which paved the way for a no-fly zone. We targeted tanks and military assets that had been choking off towns and cities, and we cut off much of their source of supply. And tonight, I can report that we have stopped Qaddafi’s deadly advance.”  This is what exactly I was hoping and praying for you to do in Wanni in April-May 2009.  But you disappointed me and let the 146,679 people to disappear without a trace now and let the remaining 282,380 suffer in concentration camps for an year and now settled in temporary shelters under constant military survailance.  Can you explain why you could not do the same in Wanni as you have proclaimed above?

Mr. President, you have also said in your speech that; “It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country -– Libya -- at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.”  Do you think that, you could not have got an international mandate for action in Wanni?  Could you not have gathered a broad coalition to join the US in that action?  Could you not have got the support of neighbouring countries like India and Pakistan?  Can you say that the Tamils from Wanni did not plead with you for help?  Do you think that you did not have the ability to stop the Sri Lankan forces in their tracks without putting American forces on the Ground?  Then why you did not  follow the same path then?  What prevented you from doing this then?  Dear Mr. President the Tamils are longing for answers to all these questions now.

On the Libyan situation, Mr President you have said that; “what we can do -- and will do -- is support the aspirations of the Libyan people. We have intervened to stop a massacre, and we will work with our allies and partners to maintain the safety of civilians………..With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny, and that is how it should be.”  Mr President, this is what exactly the Tamils of Sri Lanka has been crying out two years ago asking the International Community to intervene and stop the massacre of arround 100,000 civilians.  If you had wanted you could have let the Tamil people determine theior own destiny, but for some unknown reason to us, you did not want that to happen.  We need to know this reason sir!

Mr President, in your speech you have said it rightly; “we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed at one’s own people; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people.”  If that is so, why you did not stand alongside the Tamils of Sri Lanka?  These Tamils are yearning for an answer from you sir!

Mr President you have also stated that; “Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States. Ultimately, it is that faith -- those ideals -- that are the true measure of American leadership.” Yes Mr. President, the Tamils of Sri Lanka has been longing to be free for more than 60 years now from their Singhalese rulers, and they have expressed this desire more forcefully during the last 26 years through their armed struggle against these rulers.  But the Tamils did not find a friend in the United States as you have professed, instead they were betrayed by your country by declaring their struggle as “terrorism”.

You have rightly said Mr. President that; “for generations, we have done the hard work of protecting our own people, as well as millions around the globe. We have done so because we know that our own future is safer, our own future is brighter, if more of mankind can live with the bright light of freedom and dignity.……..And let us look to the future with confidence and hope not only for our own country, but for all those yearning for freedom around the world.” But you failed to protect the Tamils in Sri Lanka and they are still yearning for their freedom and you could still help them if you wish to.

Mr. President, what is needed in Sri Lanka today is reconciliation between the communities.  For true reconciliation to happen all the atrocities and human right violations committed against the Tamils, even 2 years after the end of the armed struggle has to be stopped immediately and independent internatioanl investigations have to be carried out about the allegations that war crimes have been committed and international laws governing war have been violated, during the last phase of the war and perpetraters have to be brought to books and victims have to be compensated properly.

Mr. president, as evidenced by what Mr. Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia has told the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S House of Representatives; - " But the government's worrying record on human rights, its weakening of democratic institutions and practices, and the way in which it conducted the final months of its conflict against the Tamil Tigers hamper our ability to fully engage……..We continue to stress the importance of reconciliation and accountability for the future civility and prosperity of that country”- your administration seems to have realized the mistake it has committed in preventing the massacre of  at least more than 20,000 and if not for more than 100,000 innocent Tamil civilians and trying to find justice to the Tamil people who has suffered during the war.  As the world is waiting this week to see what the panel of 3 eminent persons the UN Secretary General appointed to advice him how to proceed, with the accountability process in Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war, Tamils will feel a sigh of relief if these words of Mr. Blake could be matched with deeds.

Dear Mr. President, I would like to conclude by quoting what you have said in your speech on Libya; “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”  Yes Mr. President, you waited when satelite images of slaughter and mass graves of Tamils were pouring into CIA and pentagon, without taking action and the lesson learnt through that mistake only hopefully made you to take preventative action in Libya now.  But Tamils in the diaspora like me still expect you to compensate for your inaction in Sri Lanka by bringing justice and freedom to our suffering brotherens still languishing in open prisons, guarded by an army of occupation in Sri Lanka.

Yours truly,

Dr. Victor Rajakulendran

Former resident of Jaffna

Presently of

Sydney

AUSTRALIA

.