28 May, 2022


Colin Powell’s Dual Approach To Sri Lanka’s Ethnic-National Issues

By Daya Gamage

Daya Gamage

General Colin Powell, a decorated soldier who rose from poverty and discrimination because of his Black heritage to become America’s secretary of state in President George W. Bush’s first (2001-2005) administration – died recently at the age of 84 with COVID complications – was not so known person in the land of Sri Lanka for his dual involvement in Sri Lanka’s ethnic/national issues except for his well-announced visit to Sri Lanka in early 2005 following the Tsunami disaster. The’ Powell Approach’ is dual as it’s a potpourri of ethnicity and military.

Long before the 2002-2004 ‘Peace Talks’, Colin Powell had a history of involvement in Sri Lanka’s ‘National Issues’: goes back to the time when Sri Lanka – and the world – witnessed the anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983. Secretary Weinberger was accompanied by his Chief Military Assistant Powell and deputy assistant secretary of defense on a visit to Colombo immediately after the riots. It was following this visit that Powell was very much involved in ‘drawing Sri Lanka’s national agenda’ which became Washington’s permanent policy plank on Sri Lanka as we see even at present Washington’s approaches toward ‘national issues’. This writer had the opportunity to witness some of the conceived American agenda – due to his engagement in investigative political responsibilities when working in the U.S. Embassy, Colombo.

The significance of Colin Powell’s role can be attributed to the position he held under Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger’s as his Chief Military Assistant in the White House’ National Security Council (NSC) which determines, formulates and draws Washington’s global foreign policy for the State Department and other premier agencies to implement. Richard Armitage was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense who himself was an official in the NSC.

US Sec. of State Colin Powell with Sri Lanka Foreign Minister
Lakshman Kadirgamar in Washington, D.C.

The Weinberger-Armitage-Powell visit to Colombo in October 1983 was obviously followed in drawing Washington’s foreign policy strategy toward Sri Lanka within the NSC mainly by two officials who gathered, assessed and analyzed following their visit with Secretary Weinberger to Colombo well reflected in a July 1984 classified documents – declassified and release 31 January 2011.

Washington sentiments were aptly reflected in this 1984 classified document prepared jointly by the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, represented in the NSC, and the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern and South Asia Bureau. The document had most revealing sentiments that were seen playing a major role in subsequent years during Washington’s mediation in Sri Lanka’s national issues – years later when Colin Powell was Secretary of State during the 2002-2004 Norwegian-initiated Peace Talks. One of the proposals was setting up a federal system in Sri Lanka solely and exclusively focusing on minority Tamil issues Powell advocated to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Lakshaman Kadigarmar, when both met in Washington in 2001: the dialogue paved the way for the Peace Talks.

Washington’s initial – 1984 – understanding was that a federal structure would extensively satisfy the Tamil demands. The document states, “Tamil demands probably would be satisfied by a federal structure that would guarantee Tamils control over security and economic development where they comprise the majority of the population”.

Washington’s vital reservation can well be understood when one refers to the 1984 document that formed the mind-set dealing with issues connected to ethnic minorities in foreign nations. The document declared (Quote) The U.S. increased identification with Jayewardene (administration) at this time could damage US prestige in the region and in parts of the Third World. It could be perceived by other small ethnic groups as acceptance by the United States of the use of suppression against minorities (End Quote).

The reluctance to provide combative military equipment to facilitate the offensive against the LTTE can also be attribute to the following expression in the same 1984 document: (Quote) Failing to share political power with minority groups, implementing punitive antiterrorism measures and failing to discipline security forces responsible for violence against Tamil civilians…have played into the hands of Tamil extremists…have converted what had been a demand for limited autonomy into an insurgency. Tamil demands probably would be satisfied by a federal structure that would guarantee Tamil control over security and economic development where they comprise the majority of the population” (End Quote)

What the Washington- trio deeply learned during their October 1983 visit to Colombo was also well reflected when the documents declared (Quote) GSL taking a public stand of its commitment to Sinhalese Buddhist constituency at the height of the 1983 communal violence (End Quote)

These observations reflected in the ‘Document’ seemed to have been his deep understanding of Sri Lanka’s national-ethnic issues and had a settled mind-set when Colin Powell, as the U.S. Secretary of State, met with Foreign Minister Kadirgamar on May 5, 2001 in Washington when the former asserted that there could be “no military solution to the Tamil problem”, and expressed the hope that Colombo and the LTTE would cease hostilities and resume negotiations. At the same time Powell reaffirmed America’s commitment to a political settlement “within the framework of the unity and the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.”: that was the catalyst for the 2002-2004 Peace Talks.

The two top-ranking officials in the State Department during the first term (2001-2005) of George W. Bush’s presidency –Secretary Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage—invested a significant amount of time and energy in trying to shepherd the warring parties in Sri Lanka toward a peace accord. With Powell’s encouragement, Armitage decided to become personally involved in the peacemaking process. A political solution to Sri Lanka’s “national problem” was considered a priority project by the two senior officials, who hoped to showcase it as a foreign policy success by the administration.

Secretary Powell’s deep involvement – along with his deputy Armitage – was well reflected in remarks made by two U.S. ambassadors who were accredited to Colombo.

Ashley Wills, years after his tenure as U.S. ambassador in Colombo during 2000-2003, described their objectives thus: “Armitage and Secretary Powell were looking for a success story where they could show the world that it is possible to reach an accommodation without military conflict.”   Jeffrey Lunstead, the ambassador who succeeded Wills in Colombo in 2003-2006, described a similar vision in a paper he wrote in 2007: “The enhanced interest [of Powell and Armitage] was largely based on a belief that Sri Lanka was engaged in a process which, if successful, would resolve a conflict marked by terrorism through peaceful political means—assisted by the international community. This would be a model for the region and, indeed, for the world. It would show that a seemingly intractable problem could be solved peacefully when the internal actors were willing, and that the international community could play a major role in assisting them.”

Powell and Armitage were optimistic about a successful diplomatic solution based on a peacemaking strategy that was both logically coherent and well-intentioned. Judging from their public statements, that strategy was based on the following premises and judgments:

The Sri Lankan Tamils have well-founded grievances that were accurately articulated by the LTTE and its representatives in the international diaspora. As the best-organized and most effective militant organization, the LTTE was accepted as the legitimate representative of the entire Sri Lankan Tamil community and sole Tamil interlocutor in the negotiations.

Apart from mediating to bring a solution to Sri Lanka’s ‘national issues’, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Deputy Richard Armitage along with some members of the National Security Council had other motives:

Given the influence of pro-Tamil lobbying groups in Washington and repeated declarations by State Department officials that the U.S. had no strategic interest in Sri Lanka, it was doubtful that the USG would have provided even as much security assistance to Colombo as it did without George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror (GWOT) in which Secretary Powell was well associated with. The public rationale for increasing assistance to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe government—i.e., to send a warning to the LTTE—was probably in large part a pretext for rewarding Colombo for supporting the GWOT. It is even likely that the U.S. interest in Sri Lanka and its insurgency, as represented by the personal involvement of both the Secretary and his Deputy, was driven more by wider U.S. security objectives than by any inherent interest in helping to resolve a conflict that was perceived as having no direct relevance to U.S. security. (However, the 1984 initial Washington policy plank drew all the way beyond 2009 as is seen at present) There was a well-established pattern since the 1980s of visits to Sri Lanka by senior U.S. officials that were motivated more by the U.S.’ international interests than by its bilateral ones.

Sri Lanka has always generated interest within the United States mostly the use of the country as a fulcrum in its maritime transport from the west to the east, or as a part of an Indian Ocean military strategy. That interest has been apparent on a number of occasions, and was highlighted by the visit of Casper Weinberger in October, 1983. Weinberger had come to Sri Lanka for a number of reasons, the primary of which was in response to the Jayewardene government’s request for military assistance after the 1983 disturbances. Despite historic interest in Sri Lanka and, in 1983, interest in the successful management of the escalating ethnic conflict, the United States showed little eagerness to provide military assistance or personnel to advise, train and support the country’s infant military.

Having the military objectives in focus, Washington used peacemaking – which undoubtedly had long ranging effect well beyond 2009 – to achieve different objectives to facilitate its GWOT.

In 2002 various State Department officials pressed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe repeatedly in New York and Colombo to sign a bilateral agreement under Article 98 of the Rome Statute, the treaty that in 1998 established the International Criminal Court (ICC). Under the treaty, such a bilateral agreement would immunize the citizens of the two signatory states from being surrendered to the jurisdiction of the Court. A State Department official visiting Colombo in October 2002, for example, urged the prime minister to make the “political decision” to sign, arguing that an early signature “would win the GSL valuable positive attention among Washington decision-makers. The Wickremesinge government did sign such an agreement in November 2002 – to which India refused – with the expectation that it would receive additional support from Washington for economic reforms and the civil war.

It was not coincidental that in October 2002 the U.S. and coalition partners launched a “shock and awe” bombing campaign and invasion of Iraq as part of the GWOT. At the same time, more than 9000 U.S. troops were battling Taliban militants in Afghanistan. The Bush administration clearly wanted to shield U.S. soldiers from ICC prosecution for inevitable charges of war crimes.

In August 2003 Prime Minister Wickremesinge covertly authorized the USG’s use of Sri Lankan airspace and Katanunayake Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) for the so-called “extraordinary rendition and detention program.” This meant that the CIA could use the airport for the transfer of prisoners to the custody of other foreign governments or to secret CIA prisons outside the U.S. known as “black sites.” Since India, Nepal and Bangladesh did not participate in the program, Sri Lanka provided a well-located stepping stone between participating countries in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Colin Powell, despite held a civilian job – secretary of state – was lifelong military personnel. When discharging his responsibilities in the Bush first term, he extended it to Washington’s military objectives. It reflected well during his direct engagement to Sri Lanka’s national-ethnic issues.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Those quotes “the U.S increased identification”, “failing to share political power ” made after 83 ethnic riots still hold true today. Hence U.S is now in forefront proposing actions against Lanka in Geneva. (minority discrimination, including Tamils and Muslims). Those observations are absolute facts which successive Lankan governments, not only denied but continued to practice. The U.S policy towards Lanka will be the same based on those findings. Lanka can continue with their usual gimmicks but will not make any difference in U.S attitude/foreign policy.

  • 4

    Colin Powell disgraced himself by lying convincingly about mobile bioweapon labs in Saddam’s Iraq in the lead-up to the Iraq war, where pretexts were manufactured around objectives. As a result of that of choice, a million innocent Iraqis paid with their lives and that country was ruined for generations to come. That is part of Powell’s ignominious legacy.

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