23 April, 2024


Icarus Ascending? A further Response To Dayan Jayatilleka

By Mark Salter

Mark Salter

To bowdlerise Jane Austin, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Dayan Jayatilleka has a certain facility with words. For evidence of this, look no further than his latest, characteristically quick-fire response to me. In this context, however, another Jayatillekan linguistic tour de force is no substitute for sober, factually-rooted analysis – however extensive the range of (to quote) ‘hesgemonic liberal-‘humanitarian’ interventionisms’ and other assorted -isms and -wasms with which it attempts to seduce the unsuspecting reader. Indeed, I find myself wondering if there isn’t a distinct possibility that Jayatilleka’s current flight of the political imagination, visible both here and in his latest (12 Aug) FTDaily offering, hasn’t potentially launched him on an upward trajectory that recalls Joni Mitchell’s ‘Icarus ascending, on beautiful foolish arms’: here’s hoping that things don’t end the same way here.

By contrast, for the purpose of this response I intend, as previously, to stick to historical facts and their interpretation, happily leaving discussion of weighty matters of a meta – or perhaps I mean stratospheric? – bound defence of ‘nationalist Left populism’, lengthy citation from a recent academic tome on the decay of liberal democracy to which Jayatilleka himself contributed et al to others.

Jayatilleka’s opening contention that my allegedly ‘dogmatic myopia’ is ‘completely unhelpful’ to understanding the results of Sri Lanka’s recent parliamentary elections in fact completely misses the point. Here, as earlier, my chief concern is to set the facts straight in the context of both describing the ethnic conflict’s historical trajectory and interpreting the same. Any further conclusions I draw regarding the critical importance of embracing an inclusive, accommodating understanding of Sri Lankan-ness in the past, no less than the current political context are precisely that: conclusions drawing on clear, past evidence. 

With these contextual preliminaries out of the way, let us return to historical matters, specifically those raised by Jayatilleka in his latest rejoinder. First, he asserts that ‘while a negotiated settlement with armed insurgents is a desirable option, it cannot be so in situations in which those insurgents have repeatedly turned their backs on negotiations, and murdered the negotiators including their own. Such movements leave only a military option open.’ Where to start with this wholly inaccurate depiction of the negotiations-directed aspect of the Sri Lankan conflict? 

Prior to the peace process initiated with the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA)’s signature in early 2002, there had been a number of efforts to end armed hostilities as a first step towards a wider peace agreement: notably in Thimpu (1985) and the – as it turned out, temporary – ceasefire initiated by a newly elected President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1995. To assert the Tigers simply ‘turned their back’ on negotiations in either instance is plain wrong. With respect to the summer 1985 Thimpu talks, hosted by the Indian government, which resulted in an important Declaration of Principles by the composite Tamil delegation (at this stage the LTTE had not yet effectively wiped out its radical Tamil competitors and thus did not enjoy a monopoly of seats at the table), a fair assessment of the negotiation’s eventual collapse might be that it was the outcome of displays of intransigence on both sides: not – as Jayatilleka’s analysis might suggest – a unilateral display of Tiger grumpiness and/or maximalism. 

The early 1995 ceasefire effort is a more complex affair: starting in October 1994, four rounds of talks between government and LTTE teams were held in Jaffna. These talks were supplemented by a voluminous, 40-strong exchange of letters between President Kumaratunga and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Judgements as to why the Jaffna talks, and consequently bilateral ceasefire, broke down in April 1995, heralding a return to armed hostilities, vary, not least depending on the analyst’s ideological disposition, ethnic identity and/or both. 

In my own view it is fair to say that, in essence, the breakdown boiled down to the two side’s very differing agendas. While government negotiators were keen to reach simultaneous agreement on a range of issues – chiefly meaning a ceasefire, a reconstruction package for the North and East and a ‘political solution’ to the ethnic conflict – the LTTE team emphasised the need for a step-by-step approach, including a formal ceasefire and ‘normalisation’ of civilian life in war affected areas, as a prelude to a more far-reaching political agreement. In other words, remedying the consequences of the conflict as a prelude to addressing its consequences. 

Thus, to depict the April 1995 resumption of hostilities pace Jayatilleka as a consequence of the LTTE once again ‘turning their backs on negotiations’ is simplistic bordering on the plain fanciful. Here as always in negotiations, it takes (at least) two to tango. And if neither party is willing to enter the dance, the consequences are both obvious and blame for the outcome jointly shared. It further follows that any decision to return to war in such a context is neither inevitable or unavoidable, as Jayatilleka also appears to suggest. It is quite simply a choice. 

Nowhere is this more evidently the case than with the resumption of open hostilities in August 2006 after over four years of ceasefire that in its latter period from 2004 onwards, as detailed in the field reports of the Nordic Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), was increasingly observed by both sides more in breach of than adherence to the CFA’s provisions. In line with by now well-established political nostrums, Jayatilleka describes the President and Prime Minister as ‘continuing to reap the well-earned political capital of having recognized the nature of the Tigers and resolutely defeating them’, offering as supporting evidence then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speech at the autumn 2005 funeral of assassinated Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar – a despicable act the Tiger’s resolute denial of responsibility for which did nothing either to stop either the EU eventually joining the ranks of countries proscribing the LTTE as a terrorist outfit, or to convince a largely sceptical world of their professed innocence in this regard.

In reality, the then President’s position with regard to the LTTE was a good deal more malleable than that suggested by Jayatilleka. Evidence for this assertion is amply supplied in my book, and it is evidence of which Jayatilleka ought to be well aware, having claimed at the book’s Colombo launch to have read it from cover to cover – and with his critical approval. On the Norwegian side, I quote ex-Deputy Foreign Minister and negotiation team member Vidar Helgesen recalling a conversation with MR sometime in early 2005 i.e. well before the November presidential elections, in which he expressed a clear willingness to explore a ‘federal solution’ with the LTTE. 

Norway’s chief negotiator Erik Solheim’s recollection of 2005 pre-election conversations with MR is even more explicit in this regard. In particular, Solheim recalls MR explaining that he had no time for ‘messy’ negotiations, preferring the idea of a straight man-to-man encounter with Prabakharan to iron out a total ‘deal’. In this context, MR also reportedly expressed his ‘openess’ to letting the LTTE leader ‘have’ the North and East, providing he agreed to leave the rest of the country alone. Moreover, in this context elections in LTTE-held territory were also not deemed to be a necessity by MR.

In other words, where post-war hagiography paints a picture of a resolute, determined will to fight and beat the Tigers right from the political get-go of winning the 2005 presidential elections (a victory whose complex, controversial causes I analyse carefully in my book) reality, and facts, tell a rather different story. Recall, too, that, even if the motives for doing so can be questioned on both sides, MR’s government also participated in two further rounds of (somewhat futile) talks with the LTTE in early and late 2006.

Moving on, Jayatilleka rehashes his earlier claim that the Norwegian facilitation effort in Sri Lanka was ‘doomed because of bad design’, and in support of this view cites a statement then Irish Prime Minister John Hume is alleged to have made in Sri Lanka to the effect that it i.e the peace process ‘may as well be shut down’.  

It’s hard to verify this statement. Hume visited Sri Lanka in early April 2003, a time when the peace process was experiencing a major crisis on account of the failure to invite the LTTE to participate in a pre-June 2003 Tokyo donor conference meeting held in Washington DC – a failure that eventually led to the Tigers suspending their participation in the peace process. (As an officially proscribed organization in the US, the Tigers could not have been invited – to which the obvious rejoinder at the time should have been, ‘well, hold it somewhere else then’). 

But whatever Hume did or did not say – and I confess to suspecting Jayatilleka of quoting him devoid of all-important context – surely more important to our evaluation of the peace process’s design is that it was chiefly a consequence of the parties themselves’ clearly defined and expressed wishes in this regard. In particular, Norway’s relatively ‘lightweight’ facilitation role – to use Kadirgamar’s description – was determined principally by the government side’s wish to keep things that way. 

While I would be the last to suggest the Norwegians got everything right in Sri Lanka – they didn’t, as they themselves fully acknowledge – their involvement was a resolute, good-faith attempt to try and help move things in a positive, peace-orientated direction. Instinctively blaming Norway for the process’s eventual breakdown – something at which politicians of all stripes have excelled, particularly since the war’s 2009 ending – is conceptually akin to blaming the victim of a crime for their own misfortune. In Sri Lanka as elsewhere, peace processes are fundamentally as strong as the parties’ determination to proceed with them. While clearly present to a significant degree, and on both sides, at the time of the CFA’s signature, in practice the political will to move forward dissipated almost as quickly as it had (re)emerged. This is not the place to rehearse a detailed analysis of the factors, direct and proximate, that underlay that dissipation. If interested Jayatilleka and others will find that outlined in my book. Contra his opening assertion, it is a narrative that is in no need of ‘rehabilitation’, as it remains in perfectly good health. It rests on a ‘perspective and ideology’ that while marginalized in current political discourse, has certainly not been ‘disproved by history’, as my analysis of pertinent historical facts above clearly indicates.

As to whether it has been ‘conclusively rejected by the electorate’. The time to test that assertion will come when, if ever, a significant Sri Lankan political force opts to present an explicitly inclusivist, non-populist, non-majoritarian, political platform to the country’s electorate at the polls.

Any takers?

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Latest comments

  • 8

    Mark – every one knows about Dr.DJs assortment of -isms and -wasms….Dr.DJ thinks he can explain mesmerise his readers with his cocktail of jargons….but no one is convinced and no one get seduced.

    • 6

      “post-war hagiography paints a picture of a resolute, determined will to fight and beat the Tigers right from the political get-go of winning the 2005 presidential elections (a victory whose complex, controversial causes I analyse carefully in my book) reality, and facts, tell a rather different story.”
      The problem is that Sri Lankans have very short memories.
      It takes someone like Mark Salter to present unvarnished facts, not a hagiographer like DJ.

  • 3

    Mr Salter
    “while a negotiated settlement with armed insurgents is a desirable option, it cannot be so in situations in which those insurgents have repeatedly turned their backs on negotiations, and murdered the negotiators including their own. Such movements leave only a military option open.’” is a rock solid statement. You have attempted to clear the LTTE on ‘turned their back on negotiations’ while conveniently avoiding ‘ ‘and murdered the negotiators including their own’. Of course ‘violations’ during a ceasefire is not unheard of. ‘ Minor skirmishes’ between low level rankers are normally accommodated with patience with a stated commitment to contain their own.

    • 3

      But one side commited to finish off the top ranking officers of the armed officers of the other while on a CEASEFIRE is certainly below a minimum civilised level required for negotiations.
      What a grand way of walking away from negotiations with massacring over 600 unarmed policemen who were instructed to surrender! (Yet our side provided safe passage back to Wanni for the negotiators, remember?)
      It was becoming increasing clear that your ‘complex’ negotiation process was becoming increasingly too complex for us to understand.
      Incidentally, did you facilitators consider that fund raising and arms delivery by diaspora resident in their countries should be permitted to continue unhindered in order maintain the ‘balance’.?
      Once I had the occasion to attend a lecture by Kadiragamar who very emphatically reiterated his conviction that no one had the right to kill or maim innocent third party civilians WHATEVER the objective, be it to save or gain a motherland he very clearly articulated .That day I walked out feeling a small man.


    • 4

      From the Web:
      September 30
      Hitler appeased at Munich
      On this day in 1938, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, French Premier Edouard Daladier, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sign the Munich Pact, which seals the fate of Czechoslovakia, virtually handing it over to Germany in the name of peace. Upon return to Britain, Chamberlain would declare that the meeting had achieved “peace in our time.”
      Although the agreement was to give into Hitler’s hands only the Sudentenland, that part of Czechoslovakia where 3 million ethnic Germans lived, it also handed over to the Nazi war machine 66 percent of Czechoslovakia’s coal, 70 percent of its iron and steel, and 70 percent of its electrical power. It also left the Czech nation open to complete domination by Germany. In short, the Munich Pact sacrificed the autonomy of Czechoslovakia on the altar of short-term peace-very short term. The terrorized Czech government was eventually forced to surrender the western provinces of Bohemia and Moravia (which became a protectorate of Germany) and finally Slovakia and the Carpathian Ukraine. In each of these partitioned regions, Germany set up puppet, pro-Nazi regimes that served the military and political ends of Adolf Hitler. By the time of the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the nation called “Czechoslovakia” no longer existed.

      • 2

        There is a thumb down for the above comment. Is he/she a historian or what?


  • 0

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