By Daya Gamage –
Rejecting military assistance to Sri Lanka to combat the emerging separatist Tamil Tigers in mid-1980s at the request of US-West friendly JR Jayewardene administration, Washington expressed fear of alienating minorities in other countries the US had strategic interests according to a 1984 joint CIA-State Department de-classified report. The U.S. strongly believed, spelled out in the joint document that the Jayewardene administration was engaged in suppressing minority Tamils’ legitimate concerns and that Washington was not in a position to intervene to help such Sri Lankan efforts.
Throughout its involvement in Sri Lanka’s national issues until the military defeat of the Tigers in 2009, and thereafter in UNHRC forum, the Department of State cast aside vital historical factors that formed the fabric of the Sri Lankan nation: the intra-Tamil (caste) struggle; the systematic (often brutal) dismantling (by Tamil Tigers) of the high cast Vellâla in predominantly Tamil northern peninsula of its dominant political and societal leadership; the demographic distribution of majority Sinhalese (74%) and minority Tamils (12%) that resulted in a minuscule percentage from the two ethnic groups reaping economic, employment and educational benefits since independence in 1948, and how these factors affected the national political trajectory. With such lacuna when formulating US foreign policy planks, Washington became partly responsible in transforming the Tamil (LTTE) political agitation; manner in which the Sri Lankan authorities addressed those concerned into global issues; a collateral effect that strengthened the public diplomacy endeavors of professional operatives within the Tamil Diaspora who were in league with LTTE’s Sri Lanka bifurcation project.
The failure to closely understand the fabric of the Sri Lankan society, a structure which has led to intra-communal and inter-communal tensions in Sri Lanka, and the distribution of political and societal power and wealth within this social structure led Washington to adopt improvident policy planks on Sri Lanka.
Having this lacuna in policy deliberations which led to the internationalization of Sri Lanka’s national issues while providing passive assistance to enhance the global voice of pro-LTTE operatives within the Tamil Diaspora, Washington misjudged the internal revulsion that engulfed this South Asian nation from the period the democratic Tamil political leaders and their movements – totally controlled by the high cast Vellâla – were flirting with the ‘Tamil Homeland’ concept since Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known until 1972) gained independence from Great Britain, the gradual rise of Sinhalese nationalism since the mid 1950s and the violent uprising orchestrated by the Tamil Tigers which severely threatened the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation.
Washington’s less concern of its need to help Sri Lanka improve its democratic process and help address societal disparities was largely due to its pre-conceived notion, which had already been embedded in its policy planks, that the LTTE terrorism and the Tamil rights were an inseparable single issue. As a result Washington was witnessing the brutal removal of the ethnic Tamils’ democratic national leadership making it subservient to the terrorist organization leading to a process of the erosion of democratic institutions, rule of law and dissent in Sri Lanka’s national structure. The US focused more attention to a politico-military process the LTTE was engaged in deliberations awarding the terror organization equal recognition with the GSL initiated by Norway and endorsed by the Office of the Deputy Secretary of the US Department of State (Richard Armitage) during the 2002 ceasefire agreement instead using its diplomatic channels to make the democratic Tamil leadership a vital stakeholder in Sri Lanka’s domestic process and bringing Sinhalese nationalist elements into the process who could have been largely obstructive if ignored. Washington’s incapability in simultaneously associating with Sri Lanka’s efforts to eliminate LTTE terrorism and improve the nation’s democratic institutions had far-reaching consequences: the Tamil issues and associated grievances failed to get adequate attention as they were interlocked with LTTE terrorism; the GSL undertaking to militarily combat terrorism underscored it’s serious desire to protect the nation’s territorial integrity and sovereignty resulted in upholding of rule of law and democratic institutions a secondary matter; Washington’s failure to use its good offices to assist Sri Lankan administrations move toward the prevention of the bifurcation of the island nation – meaning help eradicate separatist terrorism of the LTTE – while help sustain democratic institutions resulted in a partial abortion of the rule of law and democratic institutions especially during the final years of Eelam War IV. The next five years since the total annihilation of the Tamil Tigers Washington lost its persuasive power – due to its history of refusing to provide the much needed military assistance during the war – to prevent the erosion of democratic institutions and rule of law (under the second Rajapaksa administration), and further antagonizing the administration of this South Asian nation in (mis)using the UNHRC forum to castigate it for alleged war crimes and human rights abuses. Washington’s behavior during the Eelam War IV, and thereafter, effectively pushed Sri Lanka toward the emerging Asian giant China which roped Sri Lanka to its ambitious ‘Silk Road’ project.
The overwhelming economic factors that Washington failed to pay much attention were alarming: The US took scant interest to connect the societal revulsion – the result of the Sinhalese and Tamil nationalist resurgence – to the disparity between the urban and the rural sectors in terms of economic opportunities, educational facilities, employment availability, and the lack of essential social structures. The manner in which Sri Lanka’s conservative administration liberalized (opened) its economy since 1977 seriously affected both the northern (Tamil) farming community as well as the southern (Sinhalese) farming community. The devastation of the rural farming community became a catalyst for both the northern and southern insurrections. Further, a vast majority of the rural population was denied of their upward mobility in the society. In adjacent urban centers, central and local governments had perennially engaged in improving the lives of the population. Washington did not recognize that all ethnic communities were visibly entangle in this unusual Sri Lankan process that awarded preferential treatment to those in the urban centers, and historic injustice to those in the rural sector. This perennial disparity was highlighted long after the Eelam War IV was concluded in the October 2015 World Bank Country Report on Sri Lanka.
The significant factor that escaped Washington policymakers when engaged in formulating foreign policy planks on Sri Lanka’s national issues, especially ethnic relations, Tamil demands, Sinhalese concerns and human rights, was that the rural sector which comprised 77 percent of the landmass of the whole country – in which 75 percent of the population lived – consists a potpourri of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, and that the country is 19 percent urban in which Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims jointly made up 18.1 percent of the total population, the latter receiving preferential treatment at the expense of the rural sector. This aspect of human rights was not on Washington’s agenda. There is great doubt that the GSL officials even made this hard fact known to the West.
At the height of the GSL’s final military offensive against the Tigers, 54 percent of the minority Tamils was domiciled outside the North-East Provinces in the majority-Sinhalese districts inter-acting with the Sinhalese engaged in numerous trades and employment. Despite this significant demographic change, it is interesting to note, there were no Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic disturbances since the Black July in 1983. This vital factor escaped the attention of Washington policy-makers.
A Further Analysis
The U.S. made an initial self-confession in regard to its misguided foreign-policy executed during the entire period of the Eelam war IV in the December 2009 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, just seven months since the war was concluded, declaring that Washington “underestimated Sri Lanka’s geostrategic importance for American interest”.
Washington’s regret of ill-conceived policy of equating Tamil Tiger separatist campaign with overall Tamil grievances, and the over emphasis of socio-economic and political issues of the Tamil-majority north was well manifested in the senate report when it declared “US strategy should also invest in Sinhalese parts of the country, instead of just focusing on Tamil-dominated North and East.”
It faulted U.S. policy of ‘over-emphasis’ of humanitarian issues, and lack of political concern over Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean.
According to the Congressional Research Service report issued during the same time, “Chinese activity in the region appears to be taking friends like Sri Lanka to secure its sea lanes of communication from the Straits of Hormuz and the western reaches of the Indian Ocean to the Strait of Malacca to facilitate trade and secure China’s energy imports” as a significant factor.
The December 2009 Senate Foreign Relations Committee caution fell on deaf ears of Washington as it was seen pounding Sri Lanka domestically, and in international forums such as the UNHCHR and UNHRC in Geneva, and all the way to UNSG office in New York on issues such as civilian casualties, human rights violations, and proceeding to the extent of even accusing of war crimes providing fodder to former LTTE operatives and ‘material suppliers’ within the Tamil Diaspora to make a global case against the Sri Lanka.
It was difficult to understand as to why Washington totally ignored the wisdom spelled out in the U.S. Senate report, and it was even a greater mystery why a co-author of the report – John Kerry – who subsequently became secretary of state took a complete opposite foreign policy position the senate report clearly professed as:
“While the United States shares with the Indians and the Chinese a common interest in securing maritime trade routes through the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Government has invested relatively little in the economy or the security sector in Sri Lanka, instead focusing more on IDPs and civil society. As a result, Sri Lanka has grown politically and economically isolated from the West.
“This strategic drift will have consequences for U.S. interests in the region. Along with our legitimate humanitarian and political concerns, U.S. policymakers have tended to underestimate Sri Lanka’s geostrategic importance for American interests. Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia.”
It was during the tenure – 2011 through 2015 – of a co-author of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report as secretary of state that Washington adopted the most ballistic foreign policy toward Sri Lanka patronizing and initiating four resolutions at the UNHRC calling for international scrutiny of alleged violation of IHL nakedly violating its sovereignty as an independent nation that has never been a threat to any country in the region instead protecting itself from a terrorist organization that was aided and abetted by many global terrorist movements that Washington was combating as a ‘Global War on Terrorism’. Washington which fought UNHRC bias against Israel used the same UN forum to strangle Sri Lanka. In later years – 2018/2019 – U.S. administration refused entry of ICC personnel who wanted to interview those who knew U.S. engagement in the Iraq and Afghanistan declaring the ICC move as a violation of the sovereignty of the United States. Although the U.S. was not part of the UNHRC, it was one of the 40 countries that sponsored the March 2021 Resolution on Sri Lanka.
Notwithstanding what was expressed in the December 2009 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, the combative foreign policy stance taken by Washington since 2011 was well connected to its developed mind-set toward overall Sri Lankan issues.
At different times Washington believed it could use the Tamil Tiger adventurism and Sri Lanka’s premier Tamil political entity Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to bring pressure on GSL authority to evolve a package toward the resolution of Tamil issues. The US wanted the GSL to acknowledge ‘the self-determination of the Tamil people’ or ‘self- rule’ as the basis of any resolution to Tamil issues. Washington, at all times, recognized the indispensability of the Tiger movement which motivated them to stress the importance of a ‘negotiated settlement’ with the Tamil Tigers. In fact, a former senior US Foreign Service Officer who served as ambassador in Colombo in late 1990s who later joined a Washington think that covered ‘strategic international studies’ told a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in 2005 that the LTTE should be recognized as an equal partner with the GSL to bring a negotiated political solution. LTTE’s indispensability was thus recognized in Washington. Despite U.S. law enforcement agencies blocked money laundering, raising funds and procuring combat equipment on American soil, Washington equated the Tiger movement with minority Tamil issues. How and why Washington believed in the invincibility of the LTTE and the outfit’s usefulness toward the resolution of Tamil issues, especially changing the structure of governance, is central aspect of the US mind-set. Washington expressed its open frustration when it sensed the decline of the Tigers a month prior to its total defeat when a senior state department official at a specially-convened media event at the State Department in Washington – two weeks prior to the total annihilation of the Tiger outfit – questioned as to “why did they have a following in the beginning” to which he himself declared – exposing Washington’s mind-set – “and I think it’s because some in the Tamil community do have legitimate grievances, we need to find.”
However it is on record, in official U.S. documents and numerous pronouncements, that Washington was critical of LTTE’s terrorist tactics and its adventurism seeking redress for Tamil grievances, and that it totally opposed the establishment of a separate ethnic state in the north-east of Sri Lanka following the declaration of the outfit as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997 under the provisions of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Administratively in late September 2001, Washington took the LTTE out of the group of Al-Qaeda terrorists that the Bush administration targeted in its GWOT as it considered the LTTE a totally different movement.
However, Washington desired – as openly indicated at the State Department April 2009 media event – a cosmetic military defeat and surrender of the Tigers and not a total annihilation of a movement it believed could be a pressure group to bring changes in Sri Lanka’s polity which is undoubtedly Sinhalese dominated but mistakenly viewed as chauvinist . It is this set back Washington was motivated since 2011 to initiate the adoption of resolutions at UNHRC exposing Sri Lanka to international scrutiny on issues such as civilian casualties, violation of IHL coming closer to the accusation of war crimes and genocide targeting individuals, both military and civilians, who strategized and executed the annihilation of the LTTE along with its supreme leadership. What was stated in the December 2009 diplomatic cable from U.S. Embassy to Washington that the “Rajapaksa brothers and Army Commander had committed war crimes” had an impact in Washington policymakers, even now. In December 2019, the vice chair of the influential Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate Menendez commented that “an alleged war criminal” – referring to Gotabaya Rajapaksa – “has just being elected president of Sri Lanka”.
Washington continued to make tactical blunders in allowing Sri Lanka to geopolitically be within the Chinese sphere of influence despite its overt expression being supportive of the new government but imposing its will on human rights and war crimes initiating the 30/1 resolution, a federalist constitution and tying economic assistance to the fulfilment of clauses in the 30/1 October 2015 resolution to the frustration and irritation of a section of the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena government. Washington’s domestic diplomacy was blindly partial toward the new regime distancing itself from the nationally-influential opposition political forces that had brought in the ousted president a formidable national alternative. Further, Washington displayed its failure to recognize the unprecedented nation-wide urban-rural electoral gain the opposition forces, led by the former president, achieved in February 2018 nationwide local government elections, to realign its domestic diplomacy to strategically influence opposition power centers to distance Sri Lanka from the Chinese influence should they gain political power in 2020. The Rajapaksa brothers’ administration installed in late 2019 and 2020 with overwhelming electoral gains was not seen moving out of the Chinese influence even with the visit of US Secretary of State in late October 2020.
The previous Rajapaksa administration, especially during its second term – 2010-2014 – immediately after the defeat of the LTTE, displayed a faulty and ruptured rule of law which resulted in its nationwide ouster from political power. Washington’s influence was seen minimal due to its own faulty and ruptured foreign policy toward Sri Lanka in reducing or slashing military assistance – at a time Sri Lanka needed the most to face a lethal terrorist movement – angering the regime and forcing it away from the U.S. In maintaining marginal or no contacts with influential figures in Sri Lanka’s national opposition, Washington had failed to redesign and strategize its domestic public diplomacy and strategic communication to bring the national opposition, which was steadfastly behind the Rajapaksas, within its influential sphere in the interest of vitalizing democracy and rule of law which were secondary to the Rajapaksas. Washington was neither focused on promoting democracy and rule of law nor realigning its domestic policy instead a potpourri of all highlighting war crimes and IHL and constitution-making failing in its focus on a far-reaching sustainable diplomacy.
The United States suffered severe diplomatic cost due to its misreading of historical events and facts, its failure to understand the social fabric that has shaped the Sri Lankan nation, its unconsciousness of the twists and turns of socio-political-economic process, the cause and effect of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalist resurgence at various times since independence, and the nature of the Sinhalese domination of many aspects of the Sri Lankan society, and Tamil responses to it. Washington failed to understand that both the Sinhalese and Tamils resist the imposition of ‘outside’ panacea for all national ills. This was clearly reflected in the August 2020 national parliamentary election in which the Tamil Diaspora elements had minimal influence in the northern Tamil electorate, in the words of a prominent jurist turned politician in the north – Wigneswaran-declaring “Tamil nationalism went into hibernation”.
Washington, to some extent, lost its leverage to impress the importance of maintaining a vibrant democracy with rule of law, accountability and transparency. Since it failed to understand the social fabric that has shaped the Sri Lankan nation, Washington failed to comprehend that it cannot impose the ‘whole set of values’ the American nation gradually built up, and proud of, in its 200 or more years of independence on other nations. Foremost, Washington ignored the emerging geo-political formation in Asia-Pacific Region and failed to retain Sri Lanka under its sphere of influence working with an administration – which was seriously in combat with a separatist-terrorist movement which had tentacles in many parts of the globe – headed by an extreme nationalist leader never seen in independent Sri Lanka before. The United States did not fashion and shape its policies toward Sri Lanka even when the FBI declared in 2008 that the LTTE was worse than Al-Qaeda.