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Sri Lanka: Emerging encirclement, slow siege


Lanka stands ‘indicted’ for waging an unavoidable and the necessary war of self defence; a war we did not start. Did any of our critics call for Sri Lankato be given the satellite intelligence and equipment that would have allowed us to prevail more surgically? Do these critics take into account that armed forces with far greater sophistication, such as the use of drones, have been unable to avoid civilian casualties? Do these critics expect legitimate states to be blackmailed into letting terrorists escape, because they are holding civilians as human shields, in a mega-Beslan tactic? Have those who scourge Sri Lanka called for an international inquiry into hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq?


The external pressure is not to be discounted. The new spate of anti-Sri Lanka agitation has two targets: one is the mind of the UN Sec-Gen and the other, more important, is the US government. Moral pressure is being brought to bear in the hope of leveraging a Congressional or institutional process which in turn will uncover all the electronic intelligence accumulated by a variety of US agencies, on the last stages of the war. The second prong is the call for US courts, and indeed courts around the world, to gun for Sri Lankan leaders and officials on the grounds of ‘universal jurisdiction’ and ‘command responsibility’ for alleged atrocities and war crimes.

The Provisional Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam (PTGTE) has extended a tentacle to Venezuela. In the meanwhile the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) will be sitting pretty with a friend as Britain’s Leader of the Opposition and a future Prime Minister.

Taken cumulatively, one may discern a serious danger of a growing external encirclement of Sri Lanka.

Now there is a smart way for Sri Lanka to handle things, and a dumb way to do so – and I am unsure that we’ll take the smart option. The dumb thing to do is to attribute this mess to a ‘Sarath Fonseka conspiracy’ against either the Secretary of Defence or the able officer who succeed him as Army Commander, thereby transforming the whole thing into a divisive domestic mud wrestling match and demoralising the masses. The ICG report makes very clear who the targets are: in ascending order up the chain of command, Gen Jagath Jayasuriya (as overall theatre commander during the last stage), Gen Sarath Fonseka, Secy/Def Gotabhaya Rajapakse and President and C-in-C Mahinda Rajapakse.

The domestic constituency and component of the ICG-AI-Channel 4 ‘surge’ against Sri Lanka is not Sarath Fonseka and the DNA, it is the Ranil Wickremesinghe leadership of the Opposition. The day the Opposition and UNP leadership changes hands and a patriot takes over, Sri Lanka can have a bi-partisan consensus on matters pertaining to the armed forces and external affairs.

What is the smart thing to do? How will the new domestic mechanism of investigation, accountability and reconciliation or whatever work?Colombo has still to understand the words ‘credibility’, ‘legitimacy’ and the link between them. To illustrate, had the panel been chaired by Justice Christie Weeramantry, it would have both.

Let’s get to brass tacks. Sri Lanka cannot and should not agree to any international investigation and must resist it with the support of our friends, not because it is guilty and afraid but because it would be an encouragement of pressure tactics and frame ups, and a violation of our national sovereignty.

There are however, three things we can do; things which our friends and allies as distinct from our unfair critics and foes urge on us. These three things will be intrinsically good for us and are the right thing to do. These are: improve IDP conditions swiftly and release them rapidly; set up a credible National Human Rights Commission; and effect political reform through devolution of power to the provinces.

True we have some dilemmas with devolution. The Northern Province is a border zone, it has a disaffected Tamil populace and there are hostile elements beyond it in Tamil Nadu. The TNA’s collective call to mourn shows that it is not as moderate as one would wish or, at best, that it vacillates between moderation and radicalism. Certainly the Tamils have a right and a reason to mourn victims of war and political violence, but why on that date, the date on which Prabhakaran died, instead of in the last week of July (to commemorate Black July 83)? This theatrical gesture was not responded to by a Tamil population in the North and East which is far more pragmatic than the TNA leadership. It has however set back the prospects of the ITAK/TNA being embraced as a partner in peace and nation building by the State and the public. However legitimate the trust deficit between the TNA and the Sri Lankan State, it must remember that the State is what it has to settle with. More important is the trust deficit between the Sinhala people and the TNA; a deficit which has just widened with the call to mourn on the V day.

Still, the TNA plus Douglas and his duo, are the democratically elected representatives of the Tamil people of the North and East, and therefore Colombohas to talk seriously to them. Even if the TNA is not the peace partner we are most comfortable with, I see no signs of a devolutionary settlement underway with those Tamil leaders closest to us either: Devananda, Karuna, and Pillaiyan.

Devolution of power to a province which is a ‘frontier’ or ‘ buffer’, is a sensitive affair, especially when the prospective administration may not be one’s allies ( which is why I urged its implementation sooner rather than later). However the security concerns can be taken care of by maintaining a sufficiently strong but ‘smart’ (not ‘heavy’) military presence in the province, on its perimeter and embedded in small deployments within the community (as recommended by David Petraeus’ COIN doctrine). While the degree of devolution cannot be excessive, a dilution and delay of devolution can have worse consequences of a hostile populace in a sensitively located province. Attempts to tamper with the demographics of the area will only cause disaffection to deepen—which is bad for stability and security.

Reading the ICG and AI reports it is clear that a crucial variable in the conclusion of the last war was the conduct of India, much to the dismay of the ‘international humanitarian intervention’ lobby and some in Western capitals. In the face of serious and targeted external pressure, the failure to fulfil our solemn and reiterated bilateral commitments with respect to devolution will only leave us bereft of our vital regional umbrella.

Referring to the continued US presence in Asia and the rise of China, Lee Kwan Yew spoke to the editor of Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, of Singapore ‘seeking to enjoy the shade’ in the spot beneath where the branches of those ‘two great trees’ intertwine. The same must be said by Sri Lanka, with regard to India and China. The latter is too far away to project power to our environs, while the former has demonstrated the clear ability to do so during the tsunami, even up to Indonesia. So, of course has the US, much more impressively and far further. Settling the Tamil issue in the spirit bilaterally agreed upon with our great neighbour, is a security and strategic imperative, which enables us to pre-empt or contain the threat of the ‘near enemy’ (hostile elements in Tamil Nadu) and balance against the ‘far enemy’(the Tamil Diaspora and elements in the West).

Last week I watched Singapore’s Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam outshine Larry Summers (an ‘Alpha brain’ who is Obama’s ‘economic Kissinger’) and IMF boss Dominic Strauss Kahn on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS programme (CNN). So where’s the connection? Sri Lanka falls so far behind the contemporary Asian standards of intelligence and intellect in politics and public policy, as demonstrated by the sheer surgical strategic skill of the Shanmugaratnam performance. A fortnight ago, the staid Financial Times(UK) ran an unusual, upbeat full page piece illustrated with photographs, highlighting the emergence of a new, ‘well educated generation of globalising politicians’ in India, symbolised by Rahul Gandhi and Chief Minister Abdullah of Kashmir; men and women all in their 40s or 30s, all with postgraduate degrees from First world universities. Then there are the contenders for the leadership of Indonesia’s Golkar party, Senator ‘Noynoy’ Aquino, president-elect of the Philippines and President Naushad of the Maldives which was just elected in New York, to the UNHRC in Geneva, with 185 votes. Call them Asia’s Obama generation (or the Obama-Cameron-Clegg-Miliband generation). Sri Lankan institutions must return to such standards as to incubate and nurture them, and public spaces must be of such quality as to attract and retain them. This is an existential imperative in order to face the mounting external challenge, given that there are a large and growing number of educated youth of many nationalities on the anti-Sri Lanka side of the global barricades.

~ ~  Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka