United States & the struggle for Tamil Eelam
The US Stand on Sri Lanka's Conflict
E. Ashley Wills,
United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka
on 7 March 2001 at the Jaffna Public Library, Tamil Eelam
We live in a dangerous world in which there is a profusion of different systems and a diffusion of power. It is a world of conflicts among nations and within nations; a world where values collide; and a world in which the United States and a few other nations possess frightening destructive power, yet often find it impossible to order events. Corporations and NGO's vie with sovereign governments for influence as never before.
In this globalizing world, we are all subject to
radical shifts in technology and
communication, to bewildering movements of refugees,
currencies and markets.
Movements of Refugees:
"Globalisation permits money and goods to move around the world
unimpeded, yet criminalises the other indispensable element of production,
it seeks to move to where it can command a decent livelihood." Jeremy
the New Internationalist,
Currencies & Markets:
"More than $1.5 trillion changes hands daily
on global currency markets. The annual global trade in
merchandise and services was $6.5 billion in 1998, the equivalent of
just 4.3 days on foreign exchange (forex) markets. Actual foreign
exchange reserves in the hands of all governments in the same year totaled
$1.6 trillion or just over a day's trading on forex markets. An
estimated 95% of all forex deals are short term speculation; more than
80% are completed in less than a week and 40% in less than two
days..." (New Internationalist, January-February 2000)
We are also subject to fervent nationalisms, ethnic supremacists and
old fashioned haters; any nation or group can now make its anger
known, if not at conference tables, then by means of assassination, bombing or
'Any nation can make its anger known': "...rather than accept
the offer of Iraq to surrender and leave the field of battle, Bush and the
U.S. military strategists decided simply to kill as many Iraqis as they
possibly could while the chance lasted. A Newsweek article on Norman
Schwarzkopt, titled "A Soldier of Conscience" (March 11,1991), remarked that
before the ground war the general was only worried about "How long the world
would stand by and watch the United States pound the living hell out of Iraq
without saying, 'Wait a minute - enough is enough.' He [Schwarzkopf] itched to
send ground troops to finish the job." (Joyce Chediac
in her report to the Commission on US War Crimes, 11 May
And it is a world so dizzying that far too many seek the comforting symmetry of neat slogans and
one dimensional ideologies, fitting facts to theory as in the story of the Procrustean bed.
In such a world, American ideals and interests are plainly at risk.
'American Ideals and Interests'
- "..Since World War I, the United Kingdom,
France, and the United States have dominated the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf
region and its oil resources. This has been accomplished by military conquest
and coercion, economic control and exploitation, and through surrogate
governments and their military forces. Thus, from 1953 to 1979 in the post
World War II era, control over the region was exercised primarily through U.S.
influence and control over the Gulf sheikdoms of Saudi Arabia and through the
Shah of Iran. From 1953 to 1979 the Shah of Iran acted as a Pentagon/CIA
surrogate to police the region. After the fall of the Shah and the seizure of
U.S. Embassy hostages in Teheran, the U.S. provided military aid and
assistance to Iraq, as did the USSR, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and most of the
Emirates, in its war with Iran. U.S. policy during that tragic eight year war,
1980 - 1988, is probably best summed up by the phrase, "we hope they kill each
Throughout the seventy-five year period from Britain's invasion of Iraq
early in World War I to the destruction of Iraq in 1991 by U.S. air power, the
United States and the United Kingdom demonstrated no concern for democratic
values, human rights, social justice, or political and cultural integrity in
the region, nor for stopping military aggression there. The U.S. supported the
Shah of Iran for 25 years, selling him more than $20 billion of advanced
military equipment between 1972 and 1978 alone. Throughout this period the
Shah and his brutal secret police called SAVAK had one of the worst human
rights records in the world. Then in the 1980s, the U.S. supported Iraq in its
wrongful aggression against Iran, ignoring Iraq's own poor human rights
When the Iraqi government nationalized the Iraqi Petroleum Company in 1972,
the Nixon Administration embarked on a campaign to destabilize the Iraqi
government. It was in the 1970s that the U.S. first armed and then abandoned
the Kurdish people, costing tens of thousands of Kurdish lives...
The U.S. with close oil and other economic ties to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait
has fully supported both governments despite the total absence of democratic
institutions, their pervasive human rights violations and the infliction of
cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments such as stoning to death for adultery
and amputation of a hand for property offenses.
The U.S., sometimes alone among nations, supported Israel when it defied
scores of UN resolutions concerning Palestinian rights...." (background
paper presented at Commission of Inquiry into US War Crimes, 1991)
And yet one encounters a desire by some Americans to turn away from complex problems and retire to the
vastnesses of our coasts, to a fortress America. They have begun to look warily at the morning newspaper headlines, almost as if they were expecting a sudden blow. They sense a terrible looming just over the horizon of the news; they are pleading for surcease and disengagement.
And yet where is it safe to hide?
And yet where is it safe to hide? "....The population of the world by
the end of this century will have grown to some 6 billion people....
moreover most of the increase will be concentrated in the poorer parts
of the world, with 85% of the world's population by the end of this
century living in Africa, Latin America and the poorer parts of Asia....
confronting Washington in assuring US national security will become
increasingly complex..." (Zbigniew Brzezinski - Power and
Principle, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983)
Odysseus could return from his wanderings to Ithaca, but the modern world does not permit such refuge. Americans, like all other peoples, yes, including the people of Jaffna, are hostage to the interconnectedness of things.
The United States and South Asia are closely connected, despite the geographic distance that separates us. Family ties are strong; almost two million Americans are of South Asian descent.
Trade between us is growing; we are already South Asia's, and Sri Lanka's, biggest export market.
us is growing: "Between 1995 and 1999, the total
value of the world's known - legal - international trade in
armaments was $111 billion. The top 7 exporters of major conventional
weapons, 1995-99, were US, Russia, France, Germany, UK, Netherlands and
China. The top four arms exporting countries accounted for three
quarters of the total - the US alone for almost half.. Selling armaments to insecure and ugly regimes
.. is particularly lucrative...Between 1984 and 1995 alone the 'developing world' bought 15,000 tanks,
34,000 artillery pieces, 27,000 armoured vehicles, 1000 warships, 4,200
combat aircraft and 48,000 missiles... " (New
Internationalist, December 2000)
And ideas link us, including the idea of human rights. This latter idea arises often when US policy makers regard South Asia. This region has several
flourishing democracies and yet these democracies are being tested and torn by conflict, in particular ethnic conflict.
democracy: "...The progressive destruction of the political process in Sri Lanka has
led to both domestic and international tolerance of an enormous amount
of violence by the government (regardless of party affiliation) against
its citizens. Increasingly, it seems that the government of Sri Lanka
is accountable to no one - not its citizens, and not its foreign
counterparts who rubber-stamped the recent parliamentary elections. In
Sri Lanka's current political climate, power seems to be determined by
the number of thugs a given politician has at his/her disposal..." (Sri
Lanka's Elections 2000: Fear and Intimidation Rule the Day - An Observer's
Report - Laura Gross)
The United States
a nation committed to equality, the rule of law and human rights wants to be helpful in resolving these conflicts.
US - a nation committed to the
law: "The United States does not accept the
concept of jurisdiction in the (Rome International Criminal Court) Statute and its application over non-States parties.
It voted against the Statute. Any attempt to elaborate a definition of the crime of
aggression must take into account the fact that most of the time it was not an individual
act, instead wars of aggression existed. The Statute must also recognize the role of
the Security Council in determining that aggression has been committed. No State
party can derogate from the power of the Security Council under the United Nations
Charter, which has the responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and
security. The United States will not support resolution "e" in the final
act. Including crimes of terrorism and drug crimes under the Court will not help the
fight against those crimes. The problem is not one of prosecution but of
investigation, and the Court will not be well equipped to do that." (Explanation
given by US for voting against the
Rome Statute of the
International Criminal Court which was signed by 120 states on 17 July 1998.
But we must be careful about how we do so. We know the limits of our power and wisdom. We do not believe that the planet comprises the United States and countries
aspiring to be the United States.
to be the United States:
"..There are 250,000 licensed firearms dealers in the US - 20
times the number of McDonald's restaurants in the country..."
Internationalist, December 2000)
"Worldwide, there were about 23 million
uniformed soldiers in 1995. The more insecure a state feels, the
larger its 'security' forces tend to be. On this score Israel is
in a league of its own. But the US, France, Britain and
Australia are next in line. In some countries private security
forces are similar in size to, if not larger than, their police
or armed forces. Aotearo/NZ suggests what a more self confident
state might really require."
People in Uniform (in
thousands, selected countries) Stockholm International Peace
Research Institute (SIPRI) website, quoted in (New
Internationalist, December 2000)
||Police - Public*
||Police - Private**
||Police & Military per 1000
|*late 1980s and 1990
**late 1980s ***high end of range estimates
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.
And so is humility! As an American diplomat who has lived five years in India and about six months here in Sri Lanka, I appreciate the need for humility in approaching South Asia. Sometimes, frankly, it seems to me that this region produces more history than it can consume. So complex are the various religious, ethnic and political relationships in South Asia that I often think one needs a degree in higher math to make sense of it all!
Forgive me for whining for a moment. One of the afflictions of being a superpower is that in most cases the actual leverage the United States can bring to bear is perpetually overestimated. Nowhere is this truer than in Sri Lanka.
"Actual leverage the United States can
bring to bear is perpetually overestimated"....(Sri Lanka President J.R.Jayewardene) sought and received
help from Pakistan and Israel to suppress Tamil agitation between
1977 and 1983. He also signed agreements with the USA offering the
"Voice of America" broadcasting facilities on the west central coast
of Sri Lanka around Chilaw. Though apparently declared a
broadcasting facility, the Government of India had definite
information that it would also be a base for electronic intelligence
operations. Jayewardene also gave the contract for the repair and
restoration of what is known as the "Trincomalee Oil Tank
Farms"to a consortium of companies led by Americans...
Nath Dixit (currently India's National Security Adviser) in
Many of the letters I have received from concerned
Americans regarding Sri Lanka are permeated with the notion that, if only we wanted to, we could right all the wrongs in Sri Lanka, a country half a world away from us. Some write to me in tones that suggest I am the
Governor of the 51st state. Their underlying assumption seems to be that American power must match the level of their personal concern. The problem, of course, is that it
doesn't and never will. The only puzzling aspect of this is that this kind of thinking prevails among those who are often the first to bemoan American interventionism elsewhere.
Another aspect of these letters is their frequent use of simple syllogisms. One kind of letter argues thusly: the US has declared war against terrorism worldwide; Sri Lanka is being attacked by terrorists, the LTTE; therefore the United States should declare war against the LTTE. Another kind takes this tack: the United States opposes discrimination; Tamils are discriminated against in Sri Lanka; therefore the United States should support the creation of Tamil Eelam.
If arguments acquired cogency from vehemence, then these cases would be made. But the cases are not compelling because the logic breaks down even if the emotion is understandable. Of course we acknowledge that terrorism is an ugly feature of Sri Lankan life, and of course
we are aware of the deprivations visited on Sri Lanka's people, notably the people of Jaffna, and the northeast, by this
It used to be said that ambassadors were honest men sent abroad to
lie for their country. Today, we live in somewhat more sophisticated
times and ambassadors are perhaps, required only to be economical with truth.
Many Tamils will find it comforting that Ambassador Willis is aware of
the 'deprivations visited on Sri Lanka's people, notably the people of Jaffna, and the northeast,
by this conflict.' But it may have been helpful if
Ambassador Willis had also pointed out that
record shows that it was the deprivations visited on the Tamil people
and the trail of broken pacts and
evasive proposals, that in fact and in truth led to the conflict.
To be fair, I must also point out that
this ugly war has affected tens of thousands of Sinhala families
"Whose war is it anyway...In the last
few months there has been mass desertions from the Sri Lankan army.
Estimates vary from 10,000 to 20,000, all from the ranks. The majority
are from poor peasant families of the south, the Sinhala-Buddhist
heartland... Economic considerations... compel young (Sinhala) men to join up as
jobs are scarce in the villages. A soldier serving in a forward area for
less than a year can bring back as much as Sri Lankan Rs 50,000 when he
comes home for a break. Young men often look upon it as a one-time risk
to earn enough for a small business back in the village, the most
popular being buying a two-wheeled tractor with a trailer to be used as
a taxi to transport villagers. Often a soldier never returns to his unit
after his business is established..."Times
of India Report, May 2000
The point is we do not see solutions in
simplifications of Sri Lanka's complexity.
Simple question: " It is perhaps, an appropriate occasion to ask a simple
Q. Why is it that in Sri Lanka, for five long decades since
'independence', we have always had a Sinhala Buddhist as the executive head of government?
A. Because, a Sinhala Buddhist nation masquerading as the Sri Lankan
nation, will always have a Sinhala Buddhist as executive head of government...
Behind the masquerade lies the political reality - and it is this
political reality that will need to be addressed, if the conflict in the island is to end...
...Sinhala Sri Lanka President D.B.Wijetunga put the matter in his own
forthright fashion when speaking at Anuradhapura, the old Sinhala capital on 2 February
1994: "Our children should be able to claim that this country is the
Sinhalese land (Sinhala Deshaya). There are no races according to Buddhism, but every
country has a majority race. However much I try I can't become the Prime Minister of
England. Neither can I be the leader of Japan, India or even Tamil Nadu. They have their
majority races." (Sinhala owned Sri Lanka Island, 3 February 1994)
There are those who may want to dismiss
Wijetunga's remarks as simply the pre election chauvinism of a Sinhala political
leader, bent on garnering votes. But that is to miss the point. During the past 50 years and more, ethnic identity has
determined the way in which both the Sinhala people and the Tamil people have exercised
their political right of universal franchise. In this period, no Tamil has ever been
elected to a predominantly Sinhala electorate and no Sinhalese has ever been elected to a
predominantly Tamil electorate - apart, that is, from multi member constituencies.
The political reality is that the practice of 'democracy' within the
confines of an unitary state has led to rule by a permanent Sinhala majority. A Tamil
'however much he may try' cannot become the executive head of government in Sri Lanka...
(Nadesan Satyendra in A Simple
Question, May 1998)
Another kind of letter I have received asks the provocative question: what right does the United States have to preach when, within its own borders, ethnic tensions abound.
Isn't this hypocrisy?
It is a fair question and one worthy of elaboration. Hypocrisy has long been a preoccupation of puritannical America, as novels from The Scarlet Letter to Catcher in the Rye make clear. Does the United States, facing unresolved racial tensions of its own, lack the moral standing to address ethnic conflicts around the world?
Although this is a tempting argument, it is flawed. In most areas of moral endeavour, the United States doesn't usually demand perfection as a precondition for doing good. American history is full of public figures and plain
citizens whose personal weaknesses did not prevent them from contributing to our nation's progress. Americans, and I think most reasonable people around the world, recognize that although physicians may be careless of their own health, or builders may themselves live in poorly maintained homes, or preachers may occasionally indulge in a fit of temper, these people can still help others.
To demand perfection is to hold the charitable impulse hostage to personal traits. Nations, like people, can confront others
even when their own houses are not fully in order.
Charitable impulse hostage
to personal traits - We agree with
Ambassador Willis that
'to demand perfection is to hold the charitable impulse hostage to personal
traits'. And we also agree with him that 'nations, like people, can confront others
even when their own houses are not fully in order'. But, nations, like people,
will be listened to only when they are seen
to walk their
talk. There may be a need for Ambassador Willis to attend to the words of
Lee on The
Power Principle : Influence With Honor "...When you get on the
platform, the first thing anyone wants to know is why they should listen to you...
.How much congruence is there between your behaviour
and your words? That's what credibility is all about... Have you actually done what you are
inviting others to do? Have you been there, in the trenches, where they live and breathe
struggle? Are you doing so now, under the same circumstances and in the same situations in
which they must act? Have you earned the right to be listened to? Why should they believe
you?... Trust comes when others perceive the match between your
words and your actions... It is always the life of the leader that gives
credibility to the vision.... 'Walking your talk' is so obvious, it is common sense. But
what is commonsense is seldom common practice... In critical situations, when you should
speak up to stand for something, the words you don't speak may out weigh all the words you
have ever deliberately spoken...
....The central weakness in
Ambassador Wills' address to the Tamil people in Jaffna
springs from the stance that he adopted - the stance
of a neutral and disinterested observer concerned to speak
simply as a friend of the Tamil people (and the Sinhala
people). His credibility may have been less in issue, if he
had taken the Tamil people into his confidence and admitted
to the strategic interests that the US has in the region and
also openly related those interests to the view that he
expressed that an independent Tamil Eelam was an
unattainable vision. That which he did not say, was perhaps
as significant as that which he did say..."
The United States has many blemishes. But the trend lines are still positive. The United States is a melting pot where cultures mingle. It is a country where most people are literate and potable water flows from nearly every tap. And it is still a country
to cite the saddest test that Cubans, Haitians and refugees of every sort are literally dying to
want to address a question which may have been in the minds of his audience in
Jaffna on 7 March 2001. Why it is that though 'Cubans, Haitians and refugees of every sort are
literally dying to enter', the United States, a country committed to
human rights, and living in the age of globalisation refuses them permission to
"..Today, I am 70 years old, having spent 17 years in the evening of my life searching for some country in "this
globalising world" to take me in. You say you have lived in Romania, South Africa, the West Indies, Yugoslavia, Belgium, India; in good comfort I believe. I have been to as many countries as you have - even more - but as a refugee, a wanderer, cut off from my family, looking for safety..."
(S.Sivanayagam's Open Letter
to Ambassador Willis, 11 March 2001)
What is our moral obligation? To preserve America and extend its example in particular its example of tolerance, equality and individual freedom
as far as possible. Can we do so without tending our own ethnic garden? No. If America loses its
melting pot mentality, it loses one of its core strengths. But can it do so without helping resolve global conflicts? No again.
Melting Pot Mentality: The
'American Indians' did not 'melt'. By and large, they were liquidated, so
that the new settlers may have a large enough economic pot to 'melt' in
- with ofcourse, English as the sole official language. Those
who survived were confined in 'settlements' to prevent 'melting'.
Black Americans, continue to struggle in the 'melting pot'. It will be
futile to believe that in the island of Sri Lanka and in
the Indian sub continent, peoples speaking different
languages, tracing their roots to different origins, and living in relatively well defined
and separate geographical areas, will somehow 'melt'. And in any case, a 'third world'
economy will not provide a large enough 'pot' for the 'melting' to take place.
Many will be forgiven if they see the
'melting pot mentality' as a soothing metaphor to describe an assimilative
Cemeteries at home and abroad are filled with Americans who died
fighting against militarism, imperialism, totalitarian ideologies of the left and right, and ethnic
militarism, imperialism' - ".. General Westmoreland defined (the objective of the
Vietnam war) in these terms in October 1966: We are making war in Vietnam to
show that guerrilla warfare does not pay. To show whom? The
Vietnamese? That would be very surprising. Is it necessary to spend so many
human lives and so much money to convince a nation of poor peasants struggling
thousands of miles from San Francisco? And, above all, what need was there to attack, to provoke to
battle and then crush it so as to show the uselessness of the fight, when the
interests of the large companies are so negligible? Westmorelands phrase
.. needs to be completed. It is to the others that they want to prove that guerrilla
warfare does not pay: all the exploited and oppressed nations who may be tempted to
free themselves..., first of all against
their own pseudo-governments and the compradores supported by a national
army, then against the Special Forces of the United States and
finally against the GIs... In other words, this war is primarily a warning for three,
and perhaps four, continents. After all, Greece is also a peasant nation and a
dictatorship has just been established there. It is best to warn: submission or
complete liquidation. So, this exemplary genocide is a warning to all humanity. It
is with this warning that six per cent of mankind hope, without too much expense, to
control the remaining ninety-four per cent..." (Jean Paul Sartre's Statement 'On Genocide' at the Second
Session of the Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal on Vietnam,
held in Denmark in November 1967)
If the United States loses its willingness to engage internationally, its generous impulse, it loses its soul.
Balance, that great principle of moral reasoning, is what it's all
Balance, that great principle of moral reasoning, is what it's all about.
"... Maybe some people in the State Department are so used to
lying that they still manage to believe that they only want the best
for Vietnam. But, after the most recent declarations of their spokesmen, one can
presume that there are fewer of these innocents...The proof lies in the United States governments refusal to
ratify the Geneva Convention on genocide.
... the present leaders consider themselves unshackled
in Vietnam today thanks to their predecessors who had wanted to respect the
anti-Negro racialism of the South. In any case, ever since 1965, the racialism
of the Yankee soldiers from Saigon to the 17th parallel has increased. The young Americans torture without repugnance, shooting at
unarmed women for the pleasure of completing a hat-trick: they kick the wounded
Vietnamese in the testicles; they cut off the ears of the dead for trophies.
The officers are worst: a general was boasting in front of a
Frenchman who testified at the Tribunal of hunting the VC from his helicopter
and shooting them down in the rice fields. They were, of course, not NLF fighters,
who know how to protect themselves, but peasants working in their rice
fields. In these confused American minds the Viet Cong and the Vietnamese
tend to become more and more indistinguishable. A common saying is
The only good Vietnamese is a dead one, or, what comes to the same
thing, Every dead Vietnamese is a Viet Cong. These soldiers are so muddled that they consider as
subversive violence the feeble protests that their own violence has
provoked. Here, in the shadowy
and robot-like souls of the soldiers, we find the truth about the war
in Vietnam: it matches all of Hitlers declarations. He killed the
Jews because they were Jews. The armed forces of the United States torture and kill men, women
and children in Vietnam because they are Vietnamese...."(Jean Paul Sartre's Statement 'On Genocide' at the Second
Session of the Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal on Vietnam,
held in Denmark in November 1967)
What does our moral reasoning tell us about Sri Lanka, and how does this translate into policy? Our approach to Sri Lanka proceeds from the following official US opinions:
o this war must end, the sooner the better;
o we reject the idea that there is a military solution to this conflict and favour a negotiated outcome (all that is needed is the political will to negotiate;
o we are also convinced that in these negotiations neither side need be the loser, both can win);
o the opportunity cost of the war in economic terms, and the human cost in deaths, injuries, displaced persons and dysfunctional families, are staggering and no longer tolerable;
o that is why we, India, the EU, Japan and many other nations support the noble effort of the Norwegians to facilitate direct talks between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE;
we reject the idea of an independent Tamil state carved out of Sri Lankan
" Is secession wrong, and if not,
legitimately secede?... Ethical systems often assume a static society: ethical principles are
supposed to be valid for thousands of years. In the ethics of secession, I fear
the reverse is also true: if you apply the standard principles, then the world
will stay the same for thousands of years. That is plainly wrong..."
Paul Treanor on the Ethics of Secession
Fourth World is emerging as a new force in
international politics because in the common defense of their nations, many indigenous
peoples do not accept being mere subjects of international law and state sovereignty and
trusteeship bureaucracies. Instead, they are organizing and exerting their own
participation and policies as sovereign peoples and nations."
Bernard Q. Nietschmann,
Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley, 1985
A social group, which shares objective elements such as a common language and which
has acquired a subjective consciousness of togetherness, by its life within a relatively
well defined territory, and its struggle against alien domination, clearly constitutes a
'people' with the right to self determination Today, there is an urgent need for the international community to recognise that the
Tamil population in the North and East of the island of Sri Lanka are such a 'people' with
the right to freely choose their political status..."
Joint Statement by Fifteen Non Governmental Organisations at UN
Commission on Human Rights, February 1993
we regard the LTTE as a terrorist organisation and do not believe it is the sole representative of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka;
o we also are for Tamil rights; the Tamil people must be treated equally, respectfully and with dignity
within a democratic Sri Lankan state whose exact political form should be determined by the people of this country;
"...The practice of
democracy within the confines of a single state has
resulted in rule by a permanent Sinhala majority...In the ultimate analysis, the struggle of the people of Tamil Eelam
is about democracy. If democracy means the rule of the people, by the people,
for the people then it must follow, as night follows day, that no one people may rule
another. The right of self determination provides the framework within which democracy may
flower.. Democracy and the
right to self determination go hand in hand - one
cannot exist without the other. The struggle of the people of Tamil Eelam is about
their democratic right to rule themselves..." (The
Charge is Genocide - the Struggle is for Freedom, July 1998)
o we do not believe Sri Lanka, or any part of it, is the special preserve of any one ethnic
nations, from a
very ancient period, have divided between them the possession of the Island: the Sinhalese
inhabiting the interior in its Southern and western parts from the river Wallouwe to
Chilaw, and the Malabars (Tamils) who possess the Northern and Eastern Districts. These
two nations differ entirely in their religion, language and manners." -
Cleghorn, British Colonial Secretary, June 1879
indeed, we regard Sri Lanka as a
multi ethnic, multi religious, multilingual, multi cultural state;
o and although we are convinced that the solution to this conflict can and must be negotiated by Sri Lankans, we stand ready to assist in ways the principal parties find appropriate.
These then are the essential views of the US Government regarding Sri Lanka's conflict. Please take them for what they are worth. This is your country, your future and you, Sri Lankans, must decide in which direction to go. But as a friend of longstanding, the United States offers these views for your consideration.
Within these broad official US parameters, there are of course many nuances. One of these regards our view of the LTTE. The French have a wonderful word, lucidity whose metaphorical meaning is the ability to face facts. One of the facts we must face is that although we regard the LTTE as a terrorist organisation and do not believe it is the sole representative of the Tamil people, we accept that the leaders of the Tigers will be involved in the negotiations. This is because of the LTTE's military standing.
Let me also say a word about the wish for separation. Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict in a sense is a planetary drama. As Salman Rushdie has written, cultures collide constantly in the modem world, crisscrossing at high velocity; one moment we are in a village with a charming sense of remoteness; in the next, we turn on TV and are connected instantly to a global village. In this confusion, it is entirely understandable that some people want to retreat into a community where everyone believes the same thing.
But as I said at the outset, such a retreat was possible for Odysseus. It is not possible, or even desirable now.
My father used to say that we find comfort from those who agree with us
growth from those who don't. Diversity, having to cope with differences, tolerating the points of view of others, and accepting that all of us have multiple identities
ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic, sexual, professional and, yes, geographical
this is the normal state globally, including here in Sri Lanka.
In the years before the American Civil War, "abolitionists" wanted slavery abolished. But that could not be done immediately, so some of them favoured abolishing the American nation lest they be sullied by further association with the slave states. That would not have helped the slaves, but helping slaves was not their primary concern. A sense of purity
right mindedness was.
Those in Sri Lanka who advocate separation of the state long for ethnic purity, a genetic and geographical impossibility. Worse than that, it is an atavism, a denial of the harmonizing, connecting forces at work in the modern world.
These ethnic hygienists, or separatists, are about the past, not the future
or at least not a future that we should wish for our children.
Separatists are about the past: "The world's trends
point overwhelmingly towards political independence and self rule on the one
hand, and the formation of economic alliances on the other... Indeed it could
be argued that separate states are necessary if democracy is to flourish...
Minority languages all over Western Europe are achieving a new status as
people hold more tightly to their heritage as ballast to the creation of a
larger, more economically homogeneous Europe... As the importance of
nation-state recedes, more of them are being created... The more
democracy, the greater the number of countries in the world... The United
Nations was founded with 51 countries in 1945. By 1960 there were 100 UN
countries and by the year 1984... 159. (by 1993 the total number was
184)..." John Naisbit, author of Mega Trends, in the Global Paradox, 1994
Ethnic Hygienists - "...
we are not
chauvinists. Neither are we racists.
togetherness of the Tamil people is not the expression of an exaggerated nationalism.
..We know that in the end, national freedom
can only be secured by a voluntary pooling of sovereignties, in a regional, and ultimately
in a world context. ... we recognize that our future lies with the peoples of
the Indian region and the path of a greater and a larger Indian union is the direction of
that future. It is a union that will reflect the compelling and inevitable need for a common market
and a common defense and will be rooted in the common heritage that we share with our
brothers and sisters of not only Tamil Nadu but also of India...." (Tamil
Eelam, Kurds & Bhutan, July 1985)
As I reflect upon the prospects for peace in Sri Lanka, I must say that I regard the coming months hopefully. I have lived in several ethnically diverse nations and regions
Romania, South Africa, the West Indies, Yugoslavia, Belgium, India, and, of course, the United States and I am struck not by the hopelessness of Sri Lanka's dilemma but by how tractable and soluble it is. The differences
believe it or not, are not all that great. Sri Lanka's various ethnic groups have lived together on this lovely island, mainly peacefully, for many centuries. All that is needed is to find a mutually satisfactory,
contemporary political system to accommodate the island's diversity.
Contemporary political system..:
"The clash between the ever-increasing clamour of
claims to nationhood and aspirations to sovereignty, on the one hand. and the persistence,
indeed consolidation, of visions of a monolithic, unitarian, and indivisible statehood, on
the other, certainly represents one of the most striking contradictions, and one of the
most fundamental moral and ideological conflicts, of our times...
Demands for 'national selfdetermination' are in one sense, therefore, also a struggle
for a higher form of democracy....The poetical and philosophical vision that is required
today has been eloquently articulated, ironically enough,
by radical Tamil
nationalists ('chauvinists' and 'separatist terrorists', according to the official
wisdom)..." (Sumantra Bose in
Reconceptualising State, Nation and
"....The United States has an opportunity to make Sri Lanka a
model and help it to evolve, by negotiating,
two autonomous democratic
political structures within a system acceptable to both parties, where ethnic
communities can coexist peacefully on the Island ... in the absence of a negotiated settlement, the Tamil people could
determine whether they want a confederation or
a separate state as endorsed by the Tamil
people in the last democratic elections held in 1977 in the north and east of Sri
Lanka...." US Congressman Brad
Sherman in his letter to the US Secretary of State on 1 September
"..The nation state, backed by the power that flows from the
barrel of a gun (and the nuclear bomb) remains
the central pillar of the world order. Those who preach 'internationalism' to the Tamil people are rarely prepared to give up
their own national identity. It is true that a time will come when the separate national
identities of the peoples of the world will be transcended by a greater unity. To work for the flowering of the Tamil nation is to bring forward the
emergence of a true transnationalism. A true transnationalism will come only from
nationalisms that have flowered and matured - it will not come by the suppression of one
nation by another..." (What is the point of all this, June 1999)
In making this perhaps surprising assertion, I do not minimize the difficulties. Among the Sinhala and the Tamils, there are ethnic supremacists to be sure. Certain people in Colombo and Kandy have told me Sri Lanka is for the Sinhala; in Trincomalee and Batticaloa and here in
Jaffna, I have heard that northeastern Sri Lanka is Tamil terrain. Such views are extreme. They remind me of the man who regards the American flag and only sees the colour red; he is not describing the American flag in all its
multi coloured glory. I am by no means an expert on your country, but it seems to me obvious that Sri Lanka
north, south, east and west is a diverse nation.
Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe most Sri Lankans accept that this is a complex nation and that they also believe its people can live together peacefully. Serious thinking about how to get from here to there is in order. Among other challenges, the Sri Lankan Government must find a way to make the Tamils and other minorities feel welcome and secure in Sri Lanka while assuring those who are worried about secession that the territorial integrity of the state is inviolable.
In this part of Sri Lanka, meanwhile, I have heard some people, who tell me they support democracy, express support for the LTTE, an essentially military entity with an ugly past of killing those who disagree with its leadership.
Can the LTTE be transformed into a democratic, political, non
violent organization? If it can, those who have seen it at its ugliest and those who are opposed to its tactics, including the United States, will be obligated to reconsider how they regard the LTTE. Certainly, we can even today acknowledge that there are encouraging indications in the LTTE's recent conduct. We hope that the LTTE will continue to refrain from attacking civilian targets and respect the other basic rules of conflict.
If anyone in this audience has contact with the LTTE leadership, please convey
two messages from the U.S. Govemment:
A: if the LTTE is still fighting for Tamil Eelam, please accept that that goal cannot be achieved; and,
B: if the LTTE really cares about the Tamil people and about assuring their rights, giving up violence and negotiating are the way to go.
A new world is developing in Sri Lanka, like a Polaroid photograph, a vivid surreal awakening. The effect is contradictory: a sense of sunlight and elegy at the same time, of glasnost and claustrophobia. The reality of the last nearly 18 years
conflict and hardship could be giving way to something new, something more tranquil.
"All changed, changed utterly" in W.B. Yeats' smitten lines about the Irish rebellion of Easter, 1916.
Eighty five years later, the Irish troubles proceed but there is hope. The eczema of violence in Ireland fades and peace is at hand.
Perhaps the same is true in Sri Lanka. The heroes of the coming months will be those who advocate tolerance, not violence, those who see the need for compromise and moderation rather than those who wish to push ahead toward unattainable visions of separation and exclusivity.
As I said at the beginning, we are all subject to the interconnectedness of things in this modem world. This includes Sinhala, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and all other Sri Lankans, who have more in common with each other than the extremists suggest.
things in this modem world' Separation is not exclusivity. Sovereignty is
not virginity. And it is mischievous to suggest otherwise. Ofcourse, we are all 'subject to the interconnectedness of things
in this modem world'. But 'interconnectedness' does not mean the subservience of one people to permanent rule by
another alien people. 'Interconnectedness'' means agreeing the terms on which two independent peoples may
associate with one another in equality and in freedom. The
German defeat in the first World War coupled with the harsh
terms of the Treaty of Versailles led to the rise of Hitler. But
the German defeat in the Second World War, did not have the same
consequences, but led to the creation of the European Economic
Community and later the European Union, where a political
framework was created for the free association of independent
nations. The lessons of the First World War and the Treaty of
Versailles had been learnt by both the defeated and by the
victors. The question which faces the peoples of the Indian
region, including those in the island of Sri Lanka, is whether
they too have to go through the pain and suffering of
cataclysmic conflict before learning the lessons that Europe
learnt albeit after two world wars. The European Union was not
an 'unattainable vision'.
On the Great Seal of the United States you will find the Latin phrase, "E Pluribus Unum," which means, of course, "Out of Many, One."
Even more than two centuries ago, the founders of the United States saw that our country would be diverse and we should reject efforts to stress differences among its people. The idea was and is that diverse people can come together and build one country, one nation. I think Sri Lanka can do it, too.
The United States fervently hopes that you all can come together again and live in peace. Pluralism and prosperity, as with other diverse societies, will then keep you united. Thank you.