By Dayan Jayatilleka –
There are two main positions with regard to the international campaign against the Sri Lankan state of which the current spearhead is the upcoming session of the UNHRC in Geneva. I hasten to add that I regard it as a campaign against the state because the main charges are not on issues of human rights and domestic governance but on precisely the ‘last stages’ of the (popular) war which liberated Sri Lanka from terrorism and reunified its territory as a state; a country.
One position is that of the blind defence of the status quo; the state and the government, on the basis of national sovereignty. The other is that of support for the international campaign on the grounds either of its intrinsic merit or as the only catalyst of positive change (be it in the North or South).
I occupy and propose a third position. It recognises that aspects of the status quo are responsible for Sri Lanka’s vulnerability to external intervention and advocates that change —reform— is both intrinsically desirable as well as imperative to defend national sovereignty, while however, remaining unflinching in its defence of national and state sovereignty against external interventionism of any sort.
I would go on to state that the only external factor that is likely to succeed is one that is regarded as legitimate by the majority of Sri Lankan citizens; one that emanates from the friends of Sri Lanka not known to be susceptible to the hostile Tamil Diaspora. Simply put, it is a diplomatic initiative from the Eurasian region, chiefly by Russia and China that will work.
Such an initiative would, in the main, respect remain within the one the parameters of state sovereignty as understood in Eurasia and the global South. Such a diplomatic initiative will limit itself to facilitating the political resolution of the Tamil question and the fast-track implementation of the LLRC proposals on accountability rather than open up for external inquiry the conduct of the closing stage of a war of reunification and liberation from fascist terror.
I believe my perspective has at least two major virtues. Firstly it takes into account the vast evidence that external pressure especially from former colonial overlords and /or large neighbours with long histories of incursions generates an internal hardening and closure of space rather than its intended opposite. Thus it is counterproductive. (Izeth Hussein’s superb recent piece ‘The Military, the Minorities and Neo-fascism’, indicates one possible trend that could grow into an outcome).
Secondly, this perspective is in complete consonance with the political, ethical and moral stance of the most progressive elements of the global south and indeed the international community. This is most easily illustrated by the words of Graca Machel, a militant of FRELIMO and widow of two of the most ethical leaders of liberation struggles the world has known, namely Samora Machel and Nelson Mandela.
Any but the most lunatic critics of Sri Lanka and/or the Rajapaksa administration would concur that Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was a far worse affront to international norms of democracy, human rights and good governance than Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka. Therefore, Graca Machel’s principled stance on Zimbabwe is all the striking and much more valid in the case of Sri Lanka.
A piece filed from Johannesburg by David Smith in The Guardian (UK) of April 16, 2010 was captioned ‘Stay out of Africa this time, Nelson Mandela’s wife tells Britain’. The ‘strap’ reads “Graça Machel condemns UK on its Zimbabwe policy, telling Westminster politicians to ‘keep quiet’ about former colonies”. The story goes on to say:
“…One of Africa’s most eminent political figures has condemned Britain for taking a patronising “big brother” attitude to its former colonies. Graca Machel, a founder member of the Elders Group of world leaders and the wife of Nelson Mandela, warned British politicians to “keep quiet” about countries such as Zimbabwe and let African diplomacy take its course.
Machel, 64, is a former first lady of Mozambique, where she served as education minister, and has won numerous international awards for her advocacy of women’s and children’s rights.
In an interview with the Guardian in Johannesburg, she indicated that the crisis in Zimbabwe has revealed the shortcomings of a persistent imperialist mindset.
“Can I be a little bit provocative?” Machel said. “I think this should be an opportunity for Britain to re-examine its relationship with its colonies. To acknowledge that with independence those nations will want to have a relationship with Britain which is of shoulder to shoulder, and they will not expect Britain to continue to be the big brother.
Graça Machel: ‘Britain needs to stop being a big brother in Africa’
“When a nation is independent, there is no big brother. They are partners. Part of the reason why Britain finds it difficult to accept Zimbabwe is precisely because that relationship of a big brother is influencing [efforts] to try to understand.”
…Machel added: “I’m not saying things are OK, they’re all fine in Zimbabwe. I’m saying a different kind of dialogue, a different kind of bridge to try to understand the other side could have produced a different result from what it is.
“The more the British shout, the worse the situation will be in terms of relationship with Zimbabwe. That’s why sometimes I really question, when something happens in Zimbabwe and Britain shouts immediately. Can’t they just keep quiet? Sometimes you need just to keep quiet. Let them do their own things, let SADC (Southern African Development Community) deal with them, but keep quiet, because the more you shout, the worse [it is].”
Asked if Britain’s attitude is patronising to its former colonies, Machel replied: “I’m afraid so. And what I’m saying is they have expectations which do not always coincide with what are the aspirations and expectations of those who are their former colony.
“When you change the relationship, you just have to give yourself to take the humility to stop and listen. And when you listen, then you take into account the other side. You put your case, then you take the other side. In a way, you harmonise interests of both sides.”
Let us move beyond Graca Machel to those of an individual who is probably the most universal emblem of uncompromising struggle against oppression, exploitation and the Establishment as of strivings for justice—Che Guevara. Stephen Soderbergh’s two movie epic starts with Che’s visit to New York in December 1964 and depicts almost his entire speech to the UN General Assembly. At the time Cuba had been ejected from the OAS, the Organization of American States. Che’s notion of sovereignty is instructive and paradigmatic:
“Cuba comes here to state its position on the most important points of controversy and will do so with the full sense of responsibility that the use of this rostrum implies, while at the same time fulfilling the unavoidable duty of speaking clearly and frankly…We feel that we have the right and the obligation to do so, because our country is one of the most constant points of friction. It is one of the places where the principles upholding the right of small countries to sovereignty are put to the test day by day, minute by minute…To the ambiguous language with which some delegates have described the case of Cuba and the OAS, we reply with clear-cut words…”
In speeches from Havana to Algiers, from Punta del Este to New York, Che, internationalism incarnate, drew a line in the sand on national independence and “the principles upholding the right of small countries to sovereignty”. In his famous speech of 1961 in Uruguay he declared:
“…It is a revolution that has reaffirmed national sovereignty… And every time that an imperialist power subjugates a territory, it is a blow against every inhabitant of that territory. That is why we struggle for the independence of other countries, for the independence of the occupied territories, indiscriminately, without asking about the political regime or about the aspirations of those who fight for their independence.”
To those who applaud a UN investigatory mechanism on Sri Lanka’s war, one may reply with the words of Che at the UN rostrum:
“How can we forget the betrayal of the hope that Patrice Lumumba placed in the United Nations?…Who can deny the sad role that the imperialists compelled the United Nations to play?”
“…there must clearly be established the obligation of all states to respect the present frontiers of other states … we feel it necessary to stress, furthermore, that the territorial integrity of nations must be respected and the armed hand of imperialism held back…”
One commends to the reader’s attention the point Che Guevara makes, namely that the sovereignty of states, especially of small states, must be defended from imperialism— even when it operates under the cover of the UN— “indiscriminately, without asking about the political regime”.
Thus the character of the political regime in Sri Lanka should not be a criterion when defending the sovereignty of the state, the country, especially against imperialist moves and pressures of the most hypocritical sort. However, this does not mean that the struggle against the political regime must not go on or must be suspended.
It does mean though that at a time that national and state sovereignty are under siege and one of the forces propelling that siege are ethnic secessionists in the Diaspora and neighboring Tamil Nadu who would like to see the end of Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity, then the contradiction with the existing political regime becomes secondary if that regime is taking a stand in defense of sovereignty. This statement must immediately be qualified because the political regime is not proving effective in the defense of national sovereignty and its own behavior is one of the factors rendering sovereignty a target. Nonetheless, under the current circumstances in which there is no viable alternative leadership of political competitor who is more committed to and capable of defending Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, the present regime cannot be the primary political target or regarded as the main enemy of the people.
I presented my perspective as a third view, but the only choices we are sometimes presented with in a concrete situation, are two, not three or more. Following Che’s injunction to use ‘clear cut words’, may I state that if it boils down to a choice between being brainwashed into damning the last stages of Sri Lanka’s war as some kind of a mini-Holocaust (perhaps as a reaction to the regime’s no-brainer ‘humanitarian war/zero casualty policy’) and upholding the necessary and just character of the war as a whole, I choose the latter. If it is a choice between the state that dumped Agent Orange on Asian children and the Sri Lankan armed forces, I choose the latter.
While I have no problem with those who criticise or oppose Mahinda Rajapaksa, I do have a problem with those who do so while not having opposed Velupillai Prabhakaran with at least the same vehemence.
While I do not have a problem with those who reject the Rajapaksa regime, I do have a problem with those who do so while remaining uncritical about the stances on Sri Lanka of David Cameron and Jayalalitha.
In short, I have serious problem with those whose criticism of Mahinda Rajapaksa supplants or supersedes their defence of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
If the choice is between David Cameron and Jayalalitha on the one hand and Mahinda Rajapaksa on the other —and only so long as that remains the choice— I have no hesitation in opting (or more accurately, continuing to opt) for Mahinda Rajapaksa. I believe that will be the politico-existential choice of the overwhelming majority of my fellow citizens.