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The US Stand on Sri Lanka's Conflict
That the representative of the sole remaining super power in the world, should have taken the trouble to visit Jaffna on 7 March 2001, to convey the message that he did was not without significance. It may be that he was persuaded by the views expressed by his Under Secretary of State, Thomas R. Pickering at a Press Conference in Colombo 29 May 2000 - "...I think that while it is easy to dismiss diplomatic statements by governments as not having an effect, we are beginning to see, in fact, that it does have an effect..."
Ambassador Willis' explication of US policy on Sri Lanka's conflict is helpful - helpful because the people of Tamil Eelam have been afforded an opportunity to further their understanding of the international frame of the struggle in which they are engaged. Helpful also because Ambassador Willis seeks to derive US policy on Sri Lanka's conflict from 'moral reasoning'. Ambassador Willis declared to his Tamil audience in Jaffna -"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:
He reinforced the US stand by adding:
A detailed response to some of Ambassador Willis' assertions appears at US Stand on Sri Lanka's Conflict - E. Ashley Willis, United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka, 7 March 2001
But, here we would like to address the central weakness in Ambassador Willis' address to the Tamil people in Jaffna. It 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.
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 speak honestly - and when they are seen to walk their talk. There may be a need for Ambassador Willis to attend to the words of Blaine Lee on The Power Principle : Influence With Honor
Ambassador Willis' Tamil audience may have found his silence on the role of US strategic interests deafening.
Geography plays a basic role in the affairs of a people. It was many years ago - sometime in 1956 or so that the late Krishna Menon was addressing an English undergraduate audience in Cambridge. The United States Navy was patrolling the waters around Taiwan and it was a period of some international tension. A youthful questioner stood up and asked: "Mr.Menon, Sir, what are your views on the position of Taiwan?" Krishna Menon's response came in a flash: "The position of Taiwan is that it is a few hundred miles from China and several thousand miles away from the United States of America." The audience dissolved in laughter. The continued existence of Taiwan, almost fifty years later reflects, perhaps, the long reach of US interests - and power.
The position of Sri Lanka is that it is a few miles from Tamil Nadu and the Indian sub continent and several thousand miles away from the United States of America. Sri Lanka's influence on the outside world and in turn the influence of the outside world on the affairs of the people in the island of Sri Lanka is a function, not of its size, but of its location near the large land mass of the Indian subcontinent and in the centre of the vast expanse of the waters of the Indian ocean. Unsurprisingly, therefore, both the US (as a world super power) and India have had an abiding interest in the affairs of Sri Lanka.
Tamils recognise that with the ending of the cold war, US foreign policy is directed to build on its position as the sole surviving super power and secure a unipolar world for the foreseeable future. Noam Chomsky in Dominance and its Dilemmas, 14 October 2003 spelt out some of the elements of this strategy:
On the other hand, the central plank of New Delhi's foreign policy is to deny (or minimise) any intermediary role to extra regional powers in the affairs of South Asia and to encourage the emergence of a multi polar world. In this latter objective, New Delhi may count on the guarded support of the European Union, Russia and China amongst others.
Jyontindra Nath Dixit, currently India's National Security Adviser, expanded on the rationale for India's involvement in the Tamil Eelam struggle in 'A Retrospective Evaluation in Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka, International Alert Publication, February 1998' -
It was the threat of 'politico-strategic pressure' by the US (and Pakistan) which led India to see an independent Tamil Eelam as a threat to its territorial integrity and for Dixit to conclude-
And here let us be clear. The threat was not so much the potential rise of Tamil separatism in Tamil Nadu per se (by itself) but the threat that such potential may be used by the United States as a 'politico-strategic pressure' point to secure US foreign policy objectives. This bears emphasis.
New Delhi was not unaware that despite the support that the Tamil Eelam struggle received from some Tamil leaders from Tamil Nadu from time to time, caste divisions and parochial loyalties within Tamil Nadu had prevented the rise of any serious separatist threat. Periyar had failed to deliver on the promise of Dravida Nadu and Annadurai and the DMK gave up the demand in 1961. Again, New Delhi had every reason to have confidence in the influence it wielded within Tamil Nadu through a centralised administrative service and expanded economic links across state boundaries whilst at the same time nurturing Tamil language and culture through the symbolism of a Tamil linguistic state. The recent promise to make Tamil a classical language is a case in point. New Delhi knows that without US and foreign involvement, separatism within its boundaries can be managed. The real concern that India has is that an independent Tamil Eelam may become a staging post for the US "given India's experience regarding their (US & Pakistan) policies in relation to Kashmir and Punjab".
New Delhi was not persuaded by LTTE protestations to the contrary.
New Delhi was not persuaded not because it did not trust the LTTE - after all if it was a question of trust, New Delhi may have explored entering into appropriate treaties with an independent Tamil Eelam to secure and enforce India's strategic interests. Again the action taken by India in 1987 and the attack launched by the IPKF pre dated the Rajiv Gandhi assassination of 1991 and it be will be simplistic to relate India's foreign policy stand to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.
New Delhi was not persuaded because even a trusted friend may not continue in office. New Delhi was not unmindful of that which happened to the friendly Mujib Abdul Rahman in Bangladesh. There was also a further and more important concern. Support for an independent Tamil Eelam would lead Sri Lanka to align itself even more closely to the United States and thereby enhance US presence in the Indian region rather than reduce it. New Delhi's foreign policy was therefore directed, (at every stage during the past 27 years, since the advent of the President Jayawardene to power in 1977) to secure a friendly Colombo government. In Chandrika Kumaratunga (with her left of centre politics) , New Delhi believes that it has found the right partner - and this belief may be held more firmly by a Congress (I) led government than by a BJP one.
The US may have found the United National Party of Ranil Wickremasinghe and its open economic policies more to its liking but as a super power, it may be prepared to do business with whoever was in power. Sufficient, perhaps, has been said to demonstrate that the policies of the United States and New Delhi on Sri Lanka are not congruent. But that is not to say that the United States will not cooperate with India. It will. It will cooperate 'as a super power' - and it believes that it has sufficient instruments in its armoury to do just that.
One such instrument is the Norwegian sponsored Peace Process. It is a peace process which helps the United States to attain its foreign policy objectives. Indeed some may regard that as its purpose and intent. This explains the enthusiastic support that the Peace process has received from the United States and its allies. It also explains why the US may find it difficult to walk away from the Peace Process and leave an unfettered role to India. It also helps us understand the 'wait and see' approach from India - wait to see whether the end result secures India's own strategic interests and ensures that the private assurances that the US may have given are kept. US Under Secretary of State, Thomas R. Pickering, chose his words carefully at the on-the-record Press Conference in May 2000 -
In the larger frame of the pressures from the Islamic world, China and even the European Union, the inexorable logic of US foreign policy in relation to the conflict in Sri Lanka, suggests that it is founded on the belief that the maintenance of its super power role in the world, will be furthered at the present time, by broadly supporting the New Delhi line on Tamil Eelam. The approach will be a 'calibrated' one and the remarks of Jyotindra Dixit in 1992 about India's own calibrated approach to relations with the US, continue to retain their significance. Again, Ramtanu Maitra's comments about the US and its 'Covetous eyes on Sri Lanka's Strategic Jewel' in the Asia Times on 30 January 2004, may reflect some of India's continuing concerns. Additionally, ofcourse, in the short term, the 'good cop, bad cop' Jeff and Mutt approach may be seen by both the US and India, to be not without its advantages in dealing with that which may be regarded as a recalcitrant militancy.
Be that all as it may, Tamils will be forgiven if they see the US stand on Tamil Eelam as having little to do with the democratic right of the people of Tamil Eelam to govern themselves (or for that matter concern for human rights) - and much more to do with that which the US administration perceives to be its current strategic interests. That which Dixit said in relation to India in February 1998, that 'inter state relations are not governed by the logic of morality' and that 'they were and they remain an amoral phenomenon' appears to have a general validity. Many Tamils may conclude that appeals for justice to a non existent morality are an exercise in futility - and that they too may need to adopt a calibrated approach to both the US and to India. Perhaps it was this which led Velupillai Pirabaharan, the leader of Tamil Eelam to declare on Maha Veerar Naal in November 1993 -
At the same time, the US as well as other states concerned with securing a stable world order, may want to recognise that, whatever the short term results, in the longer term, their interests, whether moral or amoral, will not be served by furthering the rule of one people by another alien people. Sinhala rule is alien rule and why that is is simply stated.
Thousands of Tamils have died in resisting that alien rule. Others have been tortured and raped. Thousands have simply disappeared. Many thousands more have been displaced from their homes. Families have been split and live as wandering nomads in many lands and across distant seas. It should not be matter for surprise that the idea of an independent Tamil state has taken firm root in Tamil consciousness and will not go away.
".. to have suffered, worked, hoped together; that is worth more than common taxes and frontiers conforming to ideas of strategy... I have said 'having suffered together'; indeed, common suffering is greater than happiness. In fact, national sorrows are more significant than triumphs because they impose obligations and demand a common effort. .. A nation is a grand solidarity constituted by the sentiment of sacrifices which one has made and those that one is disposed to make again. " (Ernest Renan: Que'est-ce qu'une Nation? Paris 1882)
In 1987, a Jewish academic met a fellow Tamil academic at Cambridge University. It was soon after the signing of the Indo Sri Lanka Accord. The Jewish academic asked his colleague whether the Accord will resolve the conflict. When the reply was in the negative, the Jewish academic laughed and said: "Well, if the Indo Sri Lanka Accord works, it means that the Tamil people did not in fact have a problem before!". His response tempted his Tamil colleague to ask: "Tell me. How did you all succeed? How were you able to create the Jewish state?" He replied: "Do you want a short answer or a long answer?". It was the Tamil's turn to laugh. He said, give me a short answer. The Jewish academic responded: "The short answer is that we never gave up the idea."
At the time that Mahatma Gandhi was engaged in the Indian struggle for freedom in the 1920s, there may have been some like Ambassador Willis and US Under Secretary of State, Thomas R. Pickering (persuaded by the view that diplomatic statements do have effect) who may have trekked to Gandhi's abode and told him that "we reject the idea of an independent India". Privately, they may have even impressed upon Gandhi the futility of engaging in a struggle against the British Empire, the most powerful that the world had known at that time, a British Empire which spanned the globe and on which, reportedly, the sun never set. We can only conjecture as to what Gandhi's reply may have been. It is possible that Gandhi may have reminded them of the 1776 US Declaration of Independence -
Today, 228 years later, the United States may want to recognise that a stable world order will not come by labelling organisations that are fighting for the freedom of their people as 'terrorists'.
The United States may also want to recognise that a stable world order will not come by the so called 'developed world' building alliances with ruling Third World governments to suppress non state nations. It will not come, because stability within Third World States will not come from a new version of the 'melting pot' theory. It will be futile to believe that in the island of Sri Lanka, 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.
Political structures need to accord with the political reality on the ground - and not the other way round. Nations and states cannot be made to order. It is the right of every people to freely choose their political status and self determination is not a destabilising concept - it is the refusal to recognise the right of self determination that destabilises.
The Fourth World is emerging as a new force in international politics and stability lies in securing structures where different peoples may voluntarily associate with each other in equality and in freedom.
And if this be perceived by some as an unattainable vision, the European Union (established albeit, after two World Wars) may help to focus our minds and our hearts - and serve as a pointer to the future. Strange as it may seem to some, the struggle for an independent Tamil state, is not in opposition to many of the underlying interests of the parties concerned with the conflict in the island - and that includes Sri Lanka, India and the United States.