By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“…And mine is the sling of David” – Jose Marti (The ‘Apostle’ of Cuban Independence)
The international press called it ‘victory’ and even ‘triumph’. Exactly five years ago, on 28th May 2009, The Times (London) headlined a report as follows: “Sri Lanka forces West to retreat over ‘war crimes’ with victory at UN”. Concluding our Thirty Years War in May 2009 we had victories on two fronts, or our victory had two dimensions: military and diplomatic. We won the hot war and the first battle of the Cold War. Then, we won more votes (29) than the world’s sole superpower the USA has been able to obtain for its adversarial resolutions on Sri Lanka three years running. That was then, this is now. Navi Pillay is about to unleash the International Inquiry Mechanism targeting Sri Lanka. How far we have fallen!
Most important at the moment of victory, especially for someone in a prominent frontline role, is lucidity; understanding the limits of that victory and the long range evolution of the struggle. Barely a few days after we won the Geneva vote, my account of that battle in the Sri Lankan press opened with the following sentence: “Was Geneva the last battle of the Thirty Years (hot) war, the first battle of the next war –a global Cold War against Sri Lanka– or was it a combination? Only future history will tell.” (‘With a Little Help From Our Friends’, The Island June 1st, 2009). History has proved the projection right. Tragically, the postwar political elite of Sri Lanka was inebriated by hubris and shot the messenger on the morning after.
In an incontrovertible indication of the high stakes in Geneva at the Special Session in May 2009 and what would have followed had we not prevailed in that battle, Sri Lanka figured prominently in a discussion that the US Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Issues had with the Official Representative for International Penal Tribunals of a Western ally, fellow P-5 member of the UN Security Council and NATO member. In that conversation, France’s Official Representative for International Penal Tribunals, Christian Bernier is quoted as saying that Sri Lanka was “very effective in its diplomatic approach in Geneva”. [Cable dated 16 July 2009- Wikileaks]
Writing in 2012, on ‘Lessons to Learn from Geneva’ 3 years after Sri Lanka’s diplomatic victory in Geneva, the international award-winning journalist and author Nirupama Subramanian opined in “The Hindu”: “As Sri Lanka mulls over last month’s United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, it may look back with nostalgia at its 2009 triumph at Geneva. Then, barely a week after its victory over the LTTE, … Sri Lanka managed to snatch victory from the jaws of diplomatic defeat, with a resolution that praised the government for its humane handling of civilians…” (April 28, 2012, ‘The Hindu’)
As David Lewis of the University of Bradford, and one-time head of the International Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka programme observed in 2010:
“It was Sri Lanka which generally had the best of these diplomatic battles…Sri Lankan diplomats have been active norm entrepreneurs in their own right…They have played a leading role in UN forums such as the UN HRC…As a member of the UN HRC Sri Lanka has played an important role in asserting new, adapted norms opposing both secession and autonomy as possible elements in peace-building—trends that are convergent with views expressed by China, Russia and India…” (Lewis: 2010, ‘The failure of a liberal peace: Sri Lanka’s counterinsurgency in global perspective’, pp. 658-661)
The Americans have a phrase for it: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Post-war, the Sri Lankan power-wielders did exactly the opposite. They tried to fix it and broke it. Someday, when Mahinda Rajapaksa as President or former President looks back on where things started to go wrong, he may realize that it was the dismantling of the successful defensive perimeter and the support base that Sri Lanka had built up in Geneva, and the complete change of tack. That commenced with ‘regime change’ in the Sri Lankan camp in Geneva (the Permanent Mission) within two months of the diplomatic victory, and preceded the next and far more overt mistake by half a year—the jailing of Gen. Sarath Fonseka in February 2010.
Having extended at his own discretion the continuity of Sri Lanka’s representation and thus its strategy in Geneva, President Rajapaksa was finally persuaded by his team at the NAM summit at Sharm el Shaikh in mid-July 2009 to order or endorse the drastic change of profile. I was given a month’s notice. The triggering issue was my support of (a) the 13th amendment and its full and speedy implementation and (b) a solid axis with India as the basis of our post-war foreign policy. I was the most prominent proponent of this view within the State.
The downstream result (or boomerang effect) of the July 2009 ouster has been the sustained hostile breakthrough in Geneva. The President, the security establishment —including the personality responsible for the July 2009 ‘coup’ in Sri Lanka’s Geneva Mission—and the armed forces, now have the sword of Damocles of a war crimes inquiry dangling over their heads.
It is not only the Government that has failed to understand the lessons of Geneva. It is the cosmopolitan civil society intelligentsia, which is largely anti-government. Contributing earlier this month to a valuable online anthology on Five Years after the War, a former senior official of the UN, member of the Friday Forum, declared her stance in the very title of her essay: ‘Head in my hands’. Reading the remarks on Sri Lankan diplomacy I thought that the head in question needed examination because of at least two factors. In the first place this civil society heavyweight had approvingly identified an “era” of Sri Lankan diplomacy and listed a number of personalities which conspicuously failed to include in the pantheon, Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe, Neville Kanakaratne and most shockingly of all, Lakshman Kadirmagar (unarguably the finest foreign minister Sri Lanka ever had). These absences are hardly accidental because all three were pronouncedly Third Worldist defenders of independence, sovereignty and non-intervention, and articulate, Westernized critics of Western hypocrisy. They (and in the development realm, Dr Gamani Corea) were the authentic exemplars of the real Great Tradition of Sri Lankan diplomacy and foreign relations.
These civil society personages supported the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and/or the Post-Tsunami mechanism (PTOMS), both of which were criticized by Lakshman Kadirgamar. They stood for a “diplomatic endgame to the war” rather than a military victory. They advocate a (slightly Sinophobic) West-centric diplomacy of dependence. In sharp contradistinction to their vapid, anodyne, clichétic view of diplomacy, Raymond Aron, the iconic thinker on international relations, strategy and diplomacy; contemporary student of philosophy and friend turned ideological foe of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; mentor of the famous IR/foreign policy scholar Stanley Hoffman, had this to say about the very nature of the ‘game’ of diplomacy: “Diplomacy is a game in which the players sometimes risk losing their lives, sometimes prefer victory to the advantages that would result.” (‘Peace and War’, New York, Praeger 1968, p.5)
Our stand in Geneva five years ago was not merely about winning for the sake of the prestige and status of the country. Professor David Keen of the LSE, writing critically of Sri Lanka, in Conflict, Security and Development confirms that “The Sri Lankan government very astutely created the political space—both nationally and internationally—in which a ‘ruthless’ solution to the civil war became possible.” He proceeds to quote my speeches and writings in the last months and weeks of the war, as illustration.
Geneva 2009 was a classic case of pre-emptive self-defense in support of the vital interests of the state and its sovereign decision to wage war to a finish. It obtained the very space and time for the military victory and the defense of that victory against the attempt to punish Sri Lanka by means of a war crimes inquiry. It was also a successful battle of ideas against neoliberal humanitarian interventionism. This is not changed by the fact that the Sri Lankan government squandered the time won in that battle.
Today, five years later, the Sri Lankan State is losing the Cold War because the Sinhala political elite is unable to — or, more accurately, is no longer able to—compete with the Tamil political elite, still less with the Western diplomatic apparatuses. It is no longer able to do so because its ability to compete and prevail depended precisely on the incorporation and deployment of the well-educated cosmopolitan (multiethnic, multi-religious) element within the political elite; the element that was the most competitive globally. The profile that any state (from Cuba to Iran, Pakistan to Zimbabwe) presents in its nodes of intersection with the outside world is one of a sophisticated elite. However as the Sri Lankan political elite and its diplomatic representation became culturally more in-bred and less meritocratic, multiethnic and modernist, its ability to compete in the world arena declined.
The Sri Lankan missions overseas are increasingly enmeshed in a matrix of the clergy of Buddhist temples in the country of accreditation, militant blue-collar Sinhala émigré organizations, military intelligence officers embedded in the embassies who interface with the first two categories and operate a separate chain of command— a shadow Embassy— with a patronage pipeline hooked up to the power centers in Colombo. The main function of the Sri Lankan embassies is neither to build bridges with and bases among the political elites and civil society in the country of accreditation, nor reach out to the educated Sinhala and Tamil elites, especially of the ‘next gen’ (the young) in those societies, but to service the Sinhala Buddhist expatriate constituencies of the regime.
For the first time in Sri Lanka’s history as an independent state, the selection of human resources, of higher cadre, proceeds through as many as four filters while matters of policy are viewed through four lenses and are therefore obscured or distorted. Today, one has to be (i) loyal to the ruling clan (not just the elected President) (ii) Sinhala Buddhist (or if one is Christian, one has to be religio-culturally conformist to the Sinhala Buddhist ideology and symbolism to the point of subservience) (iii) endorsed by the Super Securocrat and (iv) enthusiastically acquiesce in the adoption of the Pakistani model of civil-military relations, including the extensive role of the military and military intelligence; applaud the value of expanding military cooperation with Pakistan in new sectors; support the Israeli model of (non) negotiation and convert to the absurd doctrine that Tel Aviv is more important an ally and factor than neighboring New Delhi!
This postwar regime matrix chokes off high performance, sheer merit, talent or proven ability. It prevents the selection of Sri Lanka’s best and brightest, capable of competing with an educated and sophisticated Tamil political elite here and in the Diaspora. Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu correctly observed that “in today’s world, the military potential of a country is measured not only by the number of tanks and planes it has, but by its intellectual resources.” (PiR Centre Press, April 28th 2014, Moscow). Almost uniquely in the world system, the contemporary Sri Lankan state has no intellectual elite; no ‘intellectual resources’.
This is why it is a safe bet that no one has pointed out to President Rajapaksa that he and Prime Minister Modi may have a congruency of values but not a convergence of core strategic interests— and that latter rather than the former determine foreign policy. Almost certainly, no one has placed on President Rajapaksa’s desk for close reading, three indispensable texts: (A) the Indo-Lanka Accord (B) the Accord’s geo-strategically parametric Annexures and (C) the authoritative exegesis regarding the fundamentals of India’s Sri Lanka policy contained in JN Dixit’s address to the United Services Institute.