By Lorenzo Fiorito and Sowjeya Joseph –
On September 19, 2021, speaking to UN Secretary-General Guterres, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa offered negotiations with the Tamil Diaspora, to help resolve ongoing tensions in Sri Lanka. Stating that an “internal mechanism” would deal with “internal issues,” Rajapakse nevertheless appeared to have made an about-face from a recent Gazette (released February 25, 2021), which banned certain Tamil Diaspora organizations and individuals.
There can be no doubt: Rajapaksa’s call for engagement is an attempt to draw the Tamil Diaspora’s foreign investments into Sri Lanka. This seemingly desperate move is due to economic pressure placed on Sri Lanka. All three major ratings agencies (S&P, Fitch, and Moody) have downgraded Sri Lanka’s creditworthiness. As a result, the country is also facing a food emergency due to the depreciation of the currency value, inflation, foreign debt burdens and low tourist activity during the pandemic. These credit downgrades are, in turn, the result of effective and meaningful Diaspora advocacy.
Sri Lanka’s problems with debt, and lack of investment inflows, are not new. A 2009 US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report entitled “Sri Lanka: Recharting US Strategy After the War” stated that, after its recent military victory over the Tamil people:
“The [Government’s] budget suffered from the high cost of fighting the war….it has been harder to lure foreign investment into the private sector. The overall defense budget has yet to see any sort of ‘peace dividend.’ Longer term contracts with foreign suppliers of military equipment, particularly China, continue to weigh heavily on the budget, and the military has pushed for an expansion of bases and personnel in the North.”
So, Sri Lanka’s cycle of debt can be traced back to borrowing for military spending on its war against Tamils.
As “Sri Lanka’s import regime is one of the most complex and protectionist in the world” – one that allows the government to intervene in a wide range of potential investments – it will be very difficult to attract foreign investors unless the government alters the terms on which foreign direct investment (FDI) can enter the country. This puts Tamils in a position of relative strength towards the government, compared with a few years ago: foreign investors can now demand economic and political reforms as a condition of entering Sri Lanka.
There are indications that these two approaches, Tamil Diaspora FDI (the carrot) and international economic pressure (the stick), might crystallize into two distinct streams of
Diaspora thinking. Norwegian MP Kamzy Gunaratnam appears to promote this split approach.
Sri Lankan media quotes her as saying: I don’t believe in boycotting. There need to be investments. Only that will ensure employment.”
This would be a mistake. These two approaches supplement each other, and they must be seen as interconnected, if either one is to be effective in promoting Tamil interests.
* Investments need to be tied to economic conditions, such as development and employment opportunities for Tamils in the Northeast.
* Investments must also be conditional on political change, such as Constitutional reform that will permit Tamils to exercise their right of self-determination.
Economically driving Sri Lanka to its knees is desirable, but only insofar as it gives Tamils greater power to negotiate for and achieve concrete demands. In the same way, the demands placed on the table during these negotiations are meaningless, unless the Diaspora holds both an incentive and a sanction: a carrot, and a stick. Simply feeding carrots to an opponent does not win a negotiation.
The term needs to be defined: who is the Tamil Diaspora?
Democratic Legitimacy and the Sovereignty of the People
Ascertaining the Tamil people’s will, and deciding who will represent Tamils in talks, is fundamental to the exercise and continued practice of sovereignty. Forgetting our sovereignty is part of the awful heritage of 2009: there is no more place for it among Tamils.
We believe that the following arguments are fundamental to determine the will of the Tamil sovereign.
1. The Diaspora should not ignore President Rajapaksa’s invitation to talks – that would be a public-relations coup for Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa can rightfully claim to have offered negotiations to ease the suffering of Tamils in the Northeast, which a tone-deaf Diaspora snubbed.
2. Any decision arrived at with President Rajapaksa, without a Tamil plebiscite to affirm it, may rightfully be portrayed as a back-room deal. This does not mean that such a deal would necessarily be bad for Tamils; rather, it would be tainted by a lack of ratification.
3. The Tamil Diaspora and the Tamils living in the Northeast homeland form one indivisible people. This Tamil people has the right of self-determination under international law.
4. No one party, organization, or group can currently claim legitimacy to represent the whole of the Tamil people. Nevertheless, mass elections to choose authorized representatives can confer such democratic legitimacy on more than one group.
5. There are political parties in the Tamil homeland through which Tamils express their aspirations within the confines of the Sri Lankan Constitution, based on electing party representatives to the Sri Lankan Parliament. The only organization in the Diaspora that is structured for mass elections is the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE).
Through a mass voter registration drive, followed by a round of nominations and a ranked voting ballot, the TGTE’s mechanisms can provide the platform of democratic legitimacy to any organization or individual who wants to represent the Diaspora in negotiations. An organization that has acquired such legitimacy may then pass judgement on the outcome of any attempt to negotiate without it. Facilitating democratic representation is the role of a government-in-exile.
We then put forward a final thesis.
6. Without a united front in negotiations, and a plebiscite to ratify the outcome of those negotiations, Tamils will be scattered and easily played off against each other.
Parties and organizations who wish to form part of the Tamil side in negotiations should not approach the Sri Lankan government separately, but form a united front, with each participating organization bolstered by democratic legitimation: much like the Thimpu talks.
Placing Conditions on Tamil Investment, While Maintaining the Threat of Economic Pressure
With democratic ratification in the Diaspora, as well as for elected Tamil leadership in the homeland, a united front of democratic organizations would be in a strong position to negotiate.
Similarly, since Diaspora investment is so important to Sri Lanka, Diaspora financiers who back Tamil entrepreneurs in the Northeast homeland are in a position to demand terms of trade with businesses in the South. Tamil investors and democratically ratified Tamil representatives should coordinate between each other to maximize benefit for both.
If President Rajapaksa wants to reap the benefits of Tamil Diaspora investment from abroad:
* He should offer a trade agreement, on equal terms, between the South and the Northeast of the island. Tamil leadership should have veto power, with respect to foreign investment in the Tamil homeland.
* He should offer the withdrawal of all troops and dismantling of all settlements in the Tamil homeland. He should freeze the colonization schemes that take the guise of archaeological research, development schemes, and forest preservation.
* He should ask the UN Human Rights Commissioner to put the evidence it has compiled against Sri Lankan personnel at the service of an international criminal tribunal.
* He should abolish the Sixth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, and set a firm timetable for a referendum that allows the Tamils to decide their political destiny. The referendum should have various options, including an independent and sovereign state of Tamil Eelam.
The Tamil people will be happy to engage in reconciliation with the people of Sri Lanka, if and when the people of Sri Lanka recognize Tamils as sovereign equals. In this bid for recognition, Tamils hold both a carrot and a stick. They should sacrifice neither one.
*Lorenzo Fiorito (LL.M) and Sowjeya Joseph (LL.M) are lawyers and activists for Tamil human rights. They argue that economic pressure on Sri Lanka is essential to achieve respect for international law, in the post-conflict environment. Both authors are members of the Tamil Diaspora.