Colombo Telegraph

Loopholes: How Tamil Advocacy Penetrates US Foreign Policy Making

By Michael Roberts

Dr. Michael Roberts

At the height of Eelam War IV, as the WikiLeaks material reveals, American officials in Colombo as well as Washington and New York were bombarded with email demands and/or information from ardent Tamil advocates concerned about the deteriorating situation of the LTTE and the populace corralled within Thamiīilam’s declining terrain.

The very diversity of fervent messages had an impact on the thinking of key American policy makers in 2009. The extremism of the vast majority of messages was immediately dismissed. But, in unplanned manner, these missiles opened the door for the US personnel of the State Department to give credence to the claims of the moderate few. This is the implication one can draw from Blake’s Despatch No. 314 of 20 March 2009.

I go further. In explicit conjecture I contend that the same process has been at work in the past few years, especially at the moments when the UN bureaucracy was witch-hunting Sri Lanka in the interests of the desired regime change and/or reform in the island. So, it is a continuing process proceeding now, TODAY.

The American policy makers are directed in part by the liberal-arts thinking developed in US academic institutions, working within the limits set by USA’s definition of its interests. Since the early years of this century “Responsibility to Protect” (or R2P) has been the new flag-bearer of hardline intervention with a moral façade. In relation to Sri Lanka this line of pressure was ratcheted up after the Government of Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa clan defied the Western world and defeated the LTTE at war in April-May 2009 (Peiris 2007).

Despite reservations about the LTTE among US functionaries, American realpolitik was guided by lines of policy set out by the US embassy staff in Colombo in the early 1980s as the pathway for the easing of Sri Lanka’s conflict situation: namely, devolution under a federal scheme (Gamage 2011).

That may have been a reasonable notion THEN in the 1980s. But, to any knowledgeable observer in the period 2000-09, such a notion was manifestly out of place because the Sri Lankan Tamils were under the control of a fascist party led by Velupillai Pirapāharan (Hoole 2001: 423-40; Bavinck 2014: 97, 158, 191, 211, 294, 325). How could a provincial unit be set up under the guidance of former Tiger personnel nurtured in fascist ways and military activity! But that is precisely what the Political Attache of the US Embassy in Colombo, Michael Owens, was pointing towards on 6th May 2009. This arose in the course of a public communique indicating USA’s desire to negotiate an LTTE surrender to a third party via a “limited amnesty” as a step that would initiate “the beginning of a political process” (in Gamage 2014).[1]

That mumbling bumbling public disclosure by Owens and the US Embassy in 2009 was not an aberration. It was in line with several American policy pronouncements in 2006-08 from such personnel as Richard Boucher and Robert Blake. Visiting Lanka in 2006 as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Boucher told a press gathering that in order “to achieve its full potential Sri Lanka needs a final political settlement” (see Boucher 2006). “Sri Lanka is a country of great promise and opportunity if the fighting can stop and a political solution can be agreed on that satisfies Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim aspirations,” said Ambassador Blake when addressing an audience in Chennai in October 2008 (Roberts 2015d). With the entry of Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State in December 2008 such inclinations would have received a further boost. Clinton does not believe in half-measures.

Understood within such a context, then, Despatch No. 314 of 20th March 2009 from Blake in Colombo is a revelation. “The Tamil Diaspora is vocal, internet-savvy and heavily influenced by hard-line views … Ambassador and a number of Embassy officers receive e-mails from the diaspora on a daily basis, most of them expressing points of view similar to those of the demonstrators. At times these e-mails include fake or exaggerated claims posted on pro-LTTE websites”

That evaluation is discretion personified. But Blake then goes on to say that

  • “Ambassador and other Mission staff have made a point of engaging those who have written. In reply, we stress the USG’s commitment to a viable long-term political solution that meets the aspirations of all of Sri Lanka’s communities.” … and that
  • “While the most vocal elements of the Diaspora are often the most hard-line, the Tamil community overseas is not homogeneous. The Norwegians speak to the more moderate elements of the Diaspora in an attempt to engage the community as a whole.”

Thus, one sees here that some moderate Tamil voices in the diaspora as well as Sri Lanka managed to get their foot in the American door. Seeds could be planted in powerful US office desks fashioning American policy. Let me stress again that in my conjecture the Tamil extremists and moderates were not working in concert. What I have identified in the course of the researches among Wikileaks data is an unplanned consequence of some significance for the broad Tamil cause.

Note that only two days previously, on the 18th or 19th March 2009 the US Ambassador had warned the Foreign Minister Bogollagama at a face-to-face meeting that he “strongly cautioned the government not to enter the safe zone forcibly” and stated that “if there were civilian casualties the government of Sri Lanka would be accused of war crimes” (Roberts 2015e). As we know, this programme was instituted after the war ended, with Sri Lanka being targeted for its temerity via the machinery of the UN bureaucracy marshalled by USA – with the “UN Panel of Experts” as the initial strike force (Roberts 2015a & 2015f).

This is not to suggest that the Tamil advocates exerted a decisive impact. Rather it points to some threads of influence then in 2008/09. In a geo-political order where Chinese influence within the Rajapaksa government was a major concern, the official readings of US interests rather than Tamil insinuations would have been the major force moulding Washington’s decisions. The insidious impact of Tamil advocates would have been interstitial rather than arterial.

However, one should not underestimate the capacities and influences arising from the continuation of this process from 2009 to 2015. The ardour, persistence and vigour of the Tamil nationalists of the diaspora and those in Colombo and Jaffna remain unabated. The veneration of Pirapāharan is probably as strong as ever (Jayaweera 2015).. All the signs indicate that Sri Lankan Tamil bitterness runs deep, even boiling over into hatred (TamilNet 2013a). The hate-filled communications to US personnel that continue today from extremists may cause revulsion, but in my surmise these open the door to the threads and seeds cast by more moderate voices. The impact may not be world-shattering, but the drip-drip effect has the potential to weigh significantly in favour of the Sri Lankan Tamil movement for self-determination.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bavinck, Ben 2014  Of Tamils and Tigers. A Journey through Sri Lanka’s War Years, Part II, Colombo: VijithaYapa Publications.

Boucher, Richard 2008 “Richard Boucher in Press Q and A at SAARC Meeting in Lanka, 3 August 2008, 8 September 2008, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/richard-boucher-in-press-q-and-a-at-saarc-meeting-in-lanka-3-august-2008/

Gamage, Daya 2008 “Barack Obama & Civil War in Sri Lanka; Robert Blake’s Mind-Set; Negating R2P Psychology Build-Up,” 2 November 2008, http://www.asiantribune.com/?q=node/14004.

Gamage, Daya 2011 “Tamil Issue in Sri Lanka: US Policy Development 1981-1995,” 5 June 2011, http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2011/06/04/tamil-issue-us-%E2%80%93-sri-lanka-relations-proper-perspective-part-one-policy-development-

Gamage, Daya 2014 “The American Agenda for Sri Lanka’s National l Issues, 1970s-2014,” 5 July 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/the-american-agenda-for-sri-lankas-national-issues-1970s-2014/

Richard Gowan 2015 “A Hardline R2P Interventionist? An American Analyst’s Interpretation of Samantha Power,” 22 November 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/11/22/a-hardline-r2p-interventionist

Gunatilleke] 2015 “International Pressures & Island Fissures: Gunatilleke faces Ratnawalli,” 5 November 2015 https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/international-pressures-island-fissures-gunatilleke-faces-ratnawalli/

Hoole, Rajan 2001 The Arrogance of Power, Nugegoda: Wasala Publications.

Jeyaraj, DBS 2011 “KP” Speaks Out, Vavuniya: NERDO.

Ladduwahetty, Neville 2014 Sri Lanka’s Armed Conflict, Colombo.

Marga 2014 Issues of Truth and Accountability. The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka, https://www.dropbox.com/s/tdxwntf7wu5andq/The%20Last%20Stages%20of%20the%20war%20in%20Sri%20Lanka.pdf?n=66191473

Peiris, Gerald H. 2007The Responsibility to Protect and External Interventions in the Sri Lankan Conflict,” reprint on 20 November 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/the-responsibility-to-protect-and-external-interventions-in-the-sri-lankan-conflict/

Roberts, Michael 2011 “People of Righteousness target Sri Lanka,” 27 June 2011, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/people-of-righteousness-target-sri-lanka/

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Generating Calamity, 2008-2014: An Overview of Tamil Nationalist Operations and Their Marvels,” 10 April 2014, http://groundviews.org/2014/04/10/generating-calamity-2008-2014-an-overview-of-tamil-nationalist-operations-and-their-marvels/

Roberts, Michael 2015a “Targeting Sri Lanka by playing ball with Tamil Extremism,” 24 July 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/wpadmin/post.php?post=17127&action=edit&postpost=v2

Roberts, Michael 2015b “Ambassador Blake in Never-Never-Land: Misreading LTTE Capacity in Early 2009,” 26 August 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/ambassador-blake-in-never-never-land-misreading-ltte-capacity-in-early-2009/

Roberts, Michael 2015c “American Action and Inaction on Sri Lanka, 2008/09: A Critical Evaluation,” 5 September 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/robert-blake-on-u-s-perspectives-on-sri-lanka-at-chennai-24-october-2008/#more-17684

Roberts, Michael 2015d Robert Blake on ‘U.S. Perspectives on Sri Lanka,’ 24 October 2008,” 8 September 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/robert-blake-on-u-s-perspectives-on-sri-lanka-at-chennai-24-october-2008/

Roberts, Michael 2015e “The Realities of Eelam War IV,” 27 October 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/10/27/the-realities-of-eelam-war-iv/

Roberts, Michael 2015f “Sturdy Advocacy: Marga’s Questioning of the UNPoE Assassination Job,” 25 November 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=18544&action=edit&postpost=v2

UNPoE Report 2011 Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, March 2011, http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/The_Internal_Review_Panel_report_on_Sri_Lanka.pdf


[1] This tentative programme never got off the ground because the SL Army overran the LTTE terrain over the next 12 days. For Selvarasa Pathmanathan’s efforts to rescue the LTTE leadership – attempts that provided the lead-up to Michael Owens’ comment – see DBS Jeyaraj, “KP” Speaks Out, Vavuniya: NERDO, 2011

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