The American Policy of Ostensible Disengagement from Sri Lanka

by Wakeley Paul, Esq.

American leaders and the American media have a tendency to distance themselves from 'third world' concerns. America's daily worries probably sound like trivial squabbles to third world occupants. The heated debates over abortion and the right to life; the obsession over too much government vs freedom from government regulation; the heated divisions over prayer in schools and the sharp debate over forged but truthful revelations about their President, all pale into insignificance when compared with the overwhelming problems that confront citizens of the third world. The rest of the world is more agitated about where their next meal comes from.

Despite this vast apparent disparity between the problems that confront the first and third worlds, there are remarkable similarities for instance, between the liberation struggle of the Tamils of EELAM and the American War of Independence. Yet, the U.S. State Department does all in its power to draw distinctions between the two struggles. "Tamils are fighting a lawfully recognized regime" they assert with dogged determination, forgetting that they did exactly the same when they fought the British. "Ours was a war against colonialism" they opine, blinding themselves to the fact that the Tamils' is, too. "You are too small to be an independent economic entity" is a theme they love to echo, forgetting that the 13 states were but a rustic wilderness compared to the colonial powers that dominated the European continent. They join the complement of hand wringers who insist that it cannot be done, even though America and the LTTE have both proved otherwise.

There is even a strange similarity between the war of 1812 and the LTTE war against the Indian intruders into the Tamil homeland. British ships initially invaded American territorial waters in order to capture American sailors for enforced impressment into their navy. This was done to bolster British naval power in their war against Napoleon. The Indians, in turn, breached Tamil territorial integrity with a view to expanding their role as a mini superpower. America for the first time declared war against a far more powerful foreign power; the LTTE did the same.  America succeeded against all odds in winning that war against Britain; so did the LTTE against the world's fourth largest army.  The Americans should applaud and embrace the LTTE as fighters with a spirit and history similar to theirs.  Instead, they opt, for reasons of diplomatic convenience, to regard the LTTE as an undesirable third world political entity fit to be condemned and shunned.

Moreover, Tamils, like the Americans, have adopted the policy so eloquently expressed by President Kennedy when he said " We shall not fear to negotiate, but we shall not negotiate through fear."  The LTTE has justly resisted all previous Sinhalese-sponsored U.S. efforts to disarm before engaging in peace talks.  Such resistance is identical to the consistent American policy that they would never negotiate from a position of weakness.  Tamils, like Americans, have a reverential respect for 'equal rights and equal protections'; concepts which the Sinhalese-Buddhist governments have disregarded as being singularly inapplicable to them.  The Sinhalese Buddhist belief that a legacy of preference is their fundamental right, violates the rudiments of democratic thought.  The Sinhalese Buddhists have asserted with confidence that they have an inherent right to dominate and discriminate, notions that are offensive to both  Americans and to Tamils.  Tamils, like Americans, object to religion infecting politics, while Sinhalese Buddhist governments have adopted religion as the underlying cornerstone of their political philosophy.

White House burnt by British in 1812

We both value the right to rule ourselves.  We both value democracy as the right of the local people to select leaders of our choice.  We both abhor the imposition of foreign rule upon our people; we both honor the concept of regional power granted to us under Federal Constitutions over the unfettered rule of uncontrollable rulers from afar.  The Sinhalese Buddhist leaders, on the other hand, resent Tamils' quest for regional power and insist on controlling Tamils' through a remote Parliament in which they are all powerful, while Tamils have no ability to exercise any control over our destiny.

Elections are designed to make governments accountable to the people; under the present Unitary structure in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese Buddhist governments have never had to be accountable to the Tamils and Muslims in the Northeast. 

The American State Department shuts its eyes to the fact that within Sinhalese controlled territory the freedom to make money is not synonymous with the freedom to speak the truth.  The Americans seem to deliberately underplay the emerging likelihood of the JVP making Sri Lanka a Marxist outpost.  Should they not, instead, make a more robust commitment to ensure that a combination of these factors does not lead toward the creation of an undesirable witches brew which the U.S. will to have to contend with in the future?  Right now, they don't seem to care.  They prefer to play the role of distant observers of a developing crisis.

It should not shock us that in order to gain some political and material advantage, America has unashamedly backed undemocratic jockeys everywhere.  Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Libya and certain South American regimes are shining examples of this unabashed support of undemocratic regimes.  America's pompous pretense that they are more concerned with the fate of the Iraqis in Baghdad than with their fragile posture in the middle east, is an example of their effort to cover up their true foreign policy motives with high flown ideals.  Foreign policy is premised on self interest, not on a desire to love ones neighbor as one loves oneself.  America's uneven support of the S.L President with a clandestine supply of arms in order to advance their renewed interest in the Trincomallee harbor is yet another example of this effort to advance their self interest wherever, whenever and however possible.  The pretense of having a God-given mission to spread instant democracy around the world is far outweighed by the practical need to adapt to the immediate needs of the day.  Foreign policy is not founded on God-given principles.  It is, rather, dominated by self interest.

America's role as the world's leader is no different to that of past world leaders.  America is no more idealistic in her foreign policy goals than the man in the moon is.  The bottom line, as enunciated earlier, is that foreign policy is always governed by self serving goals.  That is what foreign policy is all about.  Ideals are inevitably subordinated to self interest, but ideals are used to make the object of their policies sound more honorable than they really are.  That is the very essence of diplomacy everywhere.  It is not an exclusive American weakness.  It is a universal fact of life.

The current American approach toward Sri Lanka emphasizes progress while ignoring the calamitous blunders stemming from government's inaction on the domestic front on the one hand, and the President's strenuous but heavily disguised efforts to do all she can to stall the peace talks on the other.

The Americans try to portray Sri Lanka, which is a vision of hell, as a healthy and vibrant democracy on the road to success.  They prefer to stay clear of the unraveling chaos that beleaguers the island and pretend to accept instead the rosy scenarios projected by the President about her bogus commitment to the peace process.  The result of their distanced disregard of the island's problems can only result in the increasingly dangerous phenomenon of shifting spending by both camps, from reconstruction to building up their security forces.  The policy of a surface non concern by the U.S. also contributes to making Sri Lankan stability and security tenuous at best.  At worst, it enhances the prospects of the renewal of the civil war.

Despite these looming upheavals that could result from America's ostensible policy of disengagement from Sri Lanka's crisis, the questions we have to ask ourselves are:

i] Can we realistically expect American leaders to ponder these serious indicators of disparity in their policies and change their obsession with self interest to a desire to serve Tamil interests instead?

ii] Do Tamils have any right to expect them to open their eyes in the water and steer themselves in a different direction founded on policies of love thy neighbor as one loves oneself ?

iii] Why should Tamils think that the time has come for America to change her shameless stance of supporting a racially biased Sri Lankan government that upholds its right to discriminate against those who resist such discrimination?

iv] Do we really believe that now is the appropriate moment for America to make a changed assessment of her policy toward Sri Lanka.?

v] Can we possibly hope that the moment has arrived for this to be followed by a sweeping repudiation of her past policies in favor of more enlightened approaches to the problems that buffet this island nation?

vi] Why should we expect that the present gloomy picture calls for a much darker assessment of the island's future prospects by American leaders?

In posing these questions, we are compelled to ask ourselves two obvious overall questions, "Should America really care"?  If they should, is it worth their while to interfere or intervene on Tamils' behalf? The answers to both appear to be, not really. Not now anyway.

This pessimistic, but starkly realistic conclusion does not, however, mean that we must lower our guard and not continue to pursue our efforts to convince the world's only superpower that we are in fact soulmates in the fight against discriminatory rule.  Our contributions must be made part of the daily breakfast reading by occupants of the Sri Lankan desk of the U.S. State Department.  We, as American residents and citizens, must do all in our power to convert the State Department and their world of contacts to recognize our need to free ourselves from Sinhala Buddhist domination and discrimination.  We must garner the support of the American press to recognize the justness of our grievance.  Our efforts as supportive expatriates must continue unabated, regardless.  Our fellow expatriates in other nations should also be undeterred in convincing their nation's leaders of their need to support the Tamil struggle to be equal citizens of the world, rather than pawns of Sinhalese Buddhist suppression. 

Self interest in diplomacy does extend to getting entangled in international commitments.
It is happening in the Sudan; it has happened in South Africa; it blossomed on the right of East Timor to secede from Indonesia.  Self interest does at times embrace morality, especially when self interest and international outreach get intertwined.  Sri Lanka is at this moment at the outer reaches of U.S. concern, causing them to be minimally, though dangerously, involved in favor of the government, while otherwise engaging in overall disengagement.

Such policies can change with time. It can result in a reversal of roles as to who America should side with in the future.  Such reversals of roles by the world's leaders have occurred before, it is probably happening now, and can most certainly happen again in the near future.  Our effort as expatriates to make it so can never cease.

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Posted September 24, 2004