By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“And that’s why it’s so encouraging that, at the same time it’s confronting some of the darkest and most painful chapters in its country’s past, the Sirisena administration is also pursuing initiatives…” – US Ambassador Samantha Power
The Ambassador/Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations in New York and the UN Security Council, Samantha Power, holds cabinet rank. She was formerly the National Security Advisor to President Obama. Though her influence has waxed and waned, she is a leading policy intellectual and the closest that the Obama foreign policy team came to an ideologue (of “humanitarian interventionism” one might add). She was also the highest ranking US official to interface with the Rajapaksa administration and is regarded as the one who drove the most hawkish anti-Rajapaksa “regime change” line within the Obama administration; a line, which, it must be added has achieved success, however transitory that may turn out to be.
Despite her formidable credentials, Ambassador Power suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a relatively small developing country just this week. When the annual Cuban resolution against the US embargo came up for a vote in New York, there were zero abstentions and of the 193 member states of the UN, only two voted with the US: Israel and the US itself. All others, 191 to be exact, voted with Cuba against the US (and Israel). That’s how a Third World country with a highly intelligent, principled foreign policy and diplomacy can beat the US. Except for a brief moment, Sri Lanka isn’t such a country, either under the previous administration or most certainly under the present one.
An evaluation of the recent remarks on Sri Lanka made by Samantha Power in Mexico tells us about the failure of the Rajapaksa administration’s foreign policy and diplomacy, the even more abject performance of the UNF government and perhaps most importantly, why there is a wide gulf between the national interest of Sri Lanka on the one hand and the policy and perception of the US on the other, as well as the reasons why US policy towards Sri Lanka, if unaltered, will fail—leaving Sri Lanka to return to its more natural, compatible allies.
Samantha Power was a journalist, author and teacher at Harvard. The Rajapaksa administration’s frontline team pitted against this highly intelligent, opinionated and articulate woman was the troika of SL’s ambassador to the US, Jaliya Wickremasuriya, utterly unimpressive and inadequate for the task, the unlettered, thuggish Sajin de Vaas Gunawardena, and the scheming, shrewish Kshenuka Seneviratne. This was the period of Sri Lanka’s Diplomacy of the Absurd. The encounters that Samantha Power had with the Sri Lankan leadership were not only those with the pragmatic and affable President, but also with powerful insiders who were still living in the era of George W Bush and the Global War on Terror, hoping for Benyamin Netanyahu to effect electoral ‘regime change’ in Washington DC, and working with a motley crew of ‘Tea Party Movement’ type desiccated Sinhala expat activists with tenuous contacts to the Jewish lobby.
Samantha Power has said at a conference in Mexico that the Sirisena administration is confronting some of “the darkest and most painful chapters in the country’s past”. Now, what is she referring to? Could it be the entirety of the Rajapaksa presidency? That is hardly likely because (a) that could hardly be one of the darkest and most painful chapters of the past of a country that was ravaged by thirty years of suicide bombing terrorism and (b) the Sirisena administration is undertaking no such “confrontation”. Could it be the episodes of bad governance in the Rajapaksa second term? It is doubtful, since these too pale into relative insignificance when viewed against the backdrop of decades of war and terrorism.
The closest then that one can come to is the Wickremesinghe-Samaraweera commitment made at the UNHRC in Geneva, in the form of co-sponsorship of the US resolution, to ‘confront’, and welcome external participation in the ‘confronting’ of, the “closing stages of the war’. So it is logical to assume that Ambassador Power is referring to the closing stages of the war when she talks of one of the darkest and most painful chapters of the country’s past. Now what were the closing stages of the war? Precisely that: the closing stages of a thirty year war; the ending of it. Therefore the closing stages of the war were not the darkest and most painful chapters of our country’s history, it was the ending of a dark and painful volume in our history during which a suicide bombing, secessionist, terrorist army ran amuck throughout the island.
Certainly the closing stage of the war saw massive bloodshed and even crimes. But in comparison to what: World War II, which ended with the needless atomic bombing of civilian population centers? Would Samantha Power define the end of WW II as one of the darkest and most painful chapters of Western history or the bringing to an end, precisely such a chapter, characterized by the rise of fascism, fascist aggression and occupation? Just as the liberation from fascism cannot be considered the darkest and most painful chapter of world history and indeed is regarded as a victory to be commemorated; just as the closing stage of the US Civil War, with its used of scorched earth tactics, to defeat the secessionist Confederacy cannot be regarded as a dark and painful chapter but precisely as a progressive outcome, so too must the closing stage of Sri Lanka’s war be seen as a glorious chapter of liberation and national reunification, marred as it may have been by certain excesses.
One notes that in her remarks, Ambassador Power does not have a word of denunciation of Tiger terrorism. She does not commend the previous (elected) administration for having prevailed over it. By contrast to her implicit characterization of the war on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s watch, has no negative characterization of the period in which the Tamil Tigers terrorized our country.
One further notes that in the days preceding the Geneva Resolution, Ambassador Power granted an appointment to MA Sumanthiran, the TNA MP. It is not usual that the US Ambassador to the UN Security Council meets, not with a representative of the Government of Sri Lanka, but with an Opposition representative of the country’s main minority, at the time that the US is moving a resolution on a given country. Media reports tell us that Mr. Sumanthiran stressed the need for international participation in any Sri Lankan war crimes inquiry. His effort to leverage the Zeid report seems to have had a sympathetic hearing from Ambassador Power, because the agreement that Asst. Secretary Nisha Biswal and Ambassador Athul Keshap had arrived at with Colombo, namely that of a “credible domestic mechanism” was qualitatively sharpened and ratcheted upwards when the US resolution was drafted, to include the language of the Zeid report with regard to foreign judges, prosecutors, counsel and investigators.
Samantha Power’s interpretation of our country’s contemporary history would be applauded by those who mourn the defeat of the Tigers. Her verdict would correspond with the sentiments of all those who march under the Tiger flag in demonstrations throughout the world. Her views would have resonance among Sri Lanka’s Tamil community, the citizens of Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Diaspora. There would be hurrahs in the ranks of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, the Global Tamil Forum and the British Tamil Forum. However, the majority of this country’s citizens would vehemently disagree with her. Indeed her notion of one of the darkest and most painful chapters of our country’s history is precisely the closing chapter of a saga in which the good guys won and the light finally broke in after decades of Black Tiger over-lordship.
This is not just a matter of competing ethnic or ethnocentric narratives, though it is inescapably that as well, because Ambassador Power has taken sides with one of the contending discourses. This is symptomatic of a pronounced Western tilt towards the Tamils and against the Sinhalese.
There is another, wider, more universal dimension. In his expert opinion which forms Annexure 1 of the Paranagama report, Sir John Holmes, OBE, a former commander of the British SAS and former Director of UK Special Operations, says that the Tigers were the leading users of suicide bombers in the post WW2 era; were the most formidable asymmetric warfare entity in the world because it had mastered three forms of warfare which it used simultaneously– terrorism, guerrilla war and semi-conventional war; that the challenge facing the Sri Lankan military in 2009 would have been daunting for the best trained and equipped military machines in the world and that the SLA could have looked around and found no precedent for that challenge.
How can Ambassador Power, a leading personality of the West, regard as one of the darkest and most painful chapters, the defeat of so formidable a terrorist enemy by the legitimate armed forces of a democratic state? Can the authoritarian excesses and gross governance practices of an elected government of a democratic state, overshadow the decade’s long depredations of a formidable terrorist force, to such an extent that either such flawed governance or the concluding offensive which finally defeated that evil force is considered a “darker”, more “painful” chapter than the long period of terrorist dominance?
This then is the challenging question that Russia’s President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov posed the West’s leaders and diplomats at the UNGA this year: where do you stand in the battle between legitimate, established states and their armed forces on the one hand, and fanatical terrorist armies on the other?