By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Political correctness or the fear of it makes Sri Lankan commentators on the draft resolution on Sri Lanka as well as the calls for an international inquiry at the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva blame the Government, the West (‘imperialism’) or the Tamil Diaspora. This uni-dimensional analysis fails to regard the thing holistically, and neither traces the chain of causation nor unearths the root of the matter.
While it is the myopic and misplaced post-war policies, national and external, and the sheer crassness of the discourse, of the incumbent administration that has left us wide open to an intrusive resolution for an international inquiry, that alone is not an accurate answer to the question that many, if not most Sri Lankans are grappling with today. That question is ‘why Sri Lanka?’ Why is Sri Lanka under far greater scrutiny than many other states, for far less heinous sins? Why is the ‘international community’ that did not get on the LTTE’s case with the same degree of sustained purpose during decades of daily terrorism, targeting Sri Lanka?
The answer is the geostrategic weight and comparative geostrategic advantage of the Tamil community in the world system, enhanced, indeed multiplied by the backwardness of the Sri Lankan state. In the global matrix, the Sri Lankan state is backward in every sense, while the pan-Tamil secessionist vanguard is more advanced.
The Sri Lankan state — and the Sinhalese— are no longer internationally competitive, while the Tamils are increasingly so. To spell it out, because of the specific character of the Diaspora, the Tamils punch above their weight in the world community while the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhalese punch far below their own earlier weight because of the anachronistic character of the official discourse and the deterioration of the quality of human resources of the Sri Lankan state, stemming from decades of substandard social policies.
This diagnosis is confirmed in a new and indispensable book on Sri Lanka’s war by Prof Paul Moorcraft, Director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis, London, and more pertinently a former senior instructor at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College. An internet search shows that he worked in Corporate Communications in the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall and is a crisis management consultant to Shell, British Gas, 3M, and Standard Bank. He also worked for Time magazine and the BBC as a freelance producer/war correspondent. He has worked in 30 war zones in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Balkans, often with irregular forces. Most recently he has been working in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine/Israel and Sudan. Prof Moorcraft writes that:
“In some countries the Tamil community stood next to the Jewish Diaspora if not in wealth, perhaps in organization; it was less assimilated too. It was much smarter at playing on tender hearts in the host community while funding an insurgency back home. It outdid the Kurdish, Irish, Kashmiri and even Palestinian diaspora in this regard…
The Tigers’ International Secretariat established a worldwide system of weapons procurement, financial, and political support and media outlets. Much of the network survived intact after the defeat of the insurgency in Sri Lanka itself… After the LTTE was banned in the US and the EU, various front organizations were set up in fifty four locations in thirty two countries. The LTTE contained some brilliant propagandists who established a range of TV and radio stations, websites and printed media. The front organizations worked assiduously on foreign politicians as well as the approximately one million Tamil exiles, notably in Europe and North America. …Hundreds of Tamil schools were set up in the Diaspora regions (350 in Europe alone) to inculcate third generation children in the cause. Often these children were mobilized on behalf of pro-LTTE protests…
…around ten percent of Tamil exiles were active radicals. They were often successful business people and highly capable of organizing vote banks in regions and cities where their numerical concentration could sway the local votes and thus secure a ready ear from politicians. In Britain the LTTE (under a political and legal guise) formed dedicated organizations to liase with both the Labour and Conservative parties…” (Pp.103-105, ‘The Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers’, Pen & Sword, UK, 2012)
Bad as this picture is, it leaves out the enormous weight of yet another factor: Tamil Nadu, with its 70 million strong population. Today Tamil Nadu is bidding to play the same role in Delhi’s policy towards Sri Lanka that a near hysterical Cuban community in the state of Florida used to play for decades in Washington’s policy towards Cuba.
Thus Sri Lanka is in a far worse situation internationally than almost all states, especially democratic ones, which have won a war against a ruthless non-state actor because the community that sustained that non-state actor through all its fascistic depredations is far more significant than the communities which sustained just as ruthless or even far less ruthless non-state actors in other conflict situations.
Faced with a foe of such international capacity, the Sri Lankan state had —and still has— one of three ways to go.
1. It could have increased its dependence on, compliance with and capitulation to the West. This is the neo-Kotelawalan ‘Bandung Booruwa’ line of the UNP of Ranil Wickremesinghe (and the ex-SLFP Mangala Samaraweera).
2. It could have relied almost exclusively on strengthening its ‘hard power’ grip on the island, most especially its North and East — which is what the Rajapaksa regime sought to do, driven by its Sinhala hard-line faction and/or dominant impulses.
3. It could have judiciously reinforced its leadership of the island (the DS Senanayaka strategy) while expanding its space and increasing its competitiveness globally. With variations, this is the line of SWRD and Sirima Bandaranaike, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Lakshman Kadirgamar. Somawansa Amarasinghe and Tilvin Silva can attest, as can Nirupam Sen and I, from long conversations with an alienated and anxious Lakshman Kadirgamar, that this was not the line of Chandrika Kumaratunga in the last (PTOMS) years of her presidency.
It is the third perspective listed here that was also the policy practice that enabled Sri Lanka to prevail decisively in Geneva in May 2009 while Westminster was blockaded by thousands of Tamil demonstrators and the traffic in Geneva was snarled up by tens of thousands of Tiger flag waving demonstrators blockading the Palais de Nations (one of whom immolated himself in full public view).
The multiple yet interconnected strategic blunders of the present administration were:
a. To forget the political potential of the international reserve army of Tamil secessionism ( embedded in Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Diaspora)
b. To believe that it could be countered without either the political empowerment of the government’s own Tamil allies or a political rapprochement with the admittedly inconsistent and volatile moderates of the TNA.
c. To believe that the global geostrategic weight of the offshore Tamil community could be countervailed without maintaining the wartime alliance with Delhi and indeed while reneging on the pledges made to India during the war and just after it.
The Tamils forgot both the geostrategic weight of the Sinhalese on the island and the existential reality that they had nowhere to retreat, and took them on frontally in war. The Sinhalese forgot the geostrategic weight of the Tamils off the island and sought to reorder the political space of post war Sri Lanka in manner that went beyond a natural and legitimate reinstatement of Sinhala leadership but sought to impose Sinhala-Buddhist domination outside their natural demographic and cultural zone.
In Geneva this month, to quote Malcolm X, “the chickens are coming home to roost”. That however, is neither a cause for grim satisfaction at a comeuppance nor is it the end of the story. The West is on the verge of getting it wrong as it did during the entire period of the Norwegian negotiations and more especially the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA)— just as India did in an earlier avatar. It is one thing to seek to restore equilibrium by containment of the Sinhala triumphalism of the Sri Lankan regime and state. This would require an even-handed approach. It is quite another to shift from containment of Sinhala excess to humiliating roll-back and a manifest tilt towards the Tamils, triggering collective memories of colonial bias and reinforcing older ones of South Indian expansionism.
Just as the island’s South —and the South driven or Southern centric State—resisted and reversed the humiliating retreat of the CFA years, the overwhelming majority will simply not countenance over-lordship by the West, Tamil Nadu, and the Tamil Diaspora lobbies even in the form of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.
The latest Channel 4 video with its sickeningly bestial necrophilic sexual abuse, seems authentic to me— but it comes from the same part of the moral Inferno as the video of US soldiers unzipping themselves and peeing on dead bodies of Taliban terrorists. These crimes must be exposed and punished someday, as they have been from Brazil to Bangladesh— by the society itself at a historical time of its choosing.
Any kind of international inquiry must be regarded as non–negotiable by any Sri Lankan administration. However, the technical support of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights may be sought for a robust, credible national process.
If the UNHRC resolution contains the component of an intrusive external inquiry, the mood of the Sinhala majority, with or without the Rajapaksas, will be ‘the resolution be damned!’ The mood shift will be conducive to more radical shades of nationalism. The results of the upcoming provincial council elections will be interesting in this regard, not least as the respective campaigns of the government and the main Opposition are being led from the front, by Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe respectively.
An intrusive UNHRC resolution will see the island state evolve into a hedgehog, however short-lived that avatar may be. Since the TNA and NPC leaders have eschewed the smart option of playing good cop to the Diaspora and Tamil Nadu’s bad cop, openly calling for an international investigation and thereby painting themselves as anti-national and pro-Western (as in the days of the colonial compact), the psycho-political space for dialogue and reconciliation will narrow rather than widen after the passage of an intrusive resolution. This atmosphere and setting will be particularly inhospitable for any attempt at political reconciliation by an incoming administration in Delhi and/or a concerned South Africa.
In Geneva today, Sri Lanka must be realistic above all else. Together with its friends, it must negotiate flexibly, creatively and sincerely, making all compromises necessary to remove any reference to an international or external inquiry by any agency whatsoever. If however, the Resolution is endorsed while it contains such an aggressively intrusive component, there can be no question of compliance or cooperation, certainly with that aspect, whatever the cost. Sri Lanka will just have to take the hit, or, as Elmore Leonard wrote (introducing his hero Marshal Raylan Givens, the protagonist of the TV series ‘Justified’), we’ll just have to “ride the rap; that’s all anyone has to do”.
In 2009, Justice CG Weeramantry rightly warned that a victorious Sri Lankan state must avoid the bad example of the big powers at Versailles who imposed a victor’s peace on a defeated Germany only to witness the rise of Nazism. The Sri Lankan regime ignored his advice and now we have the resurgence of the Tamil secessionist project and the prospect of the encirclement of Sri Lanka. Today, if it capitulates to the international human rights NGOs, the Tamil nationalists, the West will make yet another blunder in its long line of blunders in Asia. A Treaty of Versailles in respect of the defeated was horrific in its results, but to seek to impose a Treaty of Versailles on a victorious side— or to hold a Nuremburg Lite on the equivalent of the victorious Allies rather than the defeated Nazis— would be catastrophic in its consequence. Since the JVP is no longer auditioning for the role of national liberation or resistance movement, the agency of resistance could be the very target of the call for an international inquiry. This time the Southern/Sinhala backlash could shift the centre of gravity to a rather more praetorian patriotism. Unsustainable though it will be as a project, it may serve as a holding action and transition.
It will also be but a symptom of a far more permanent reality which the West and the Tamil nationalists often ignore: the two thirds of a strategically significant island are inhabited by an ethnic community that constitutes two thirds of its populace.