American ambiguities in dealing with terror - 4 January 2009
Understandably enough, the liberation of Kilinochchi on January 2nd prompted a range of reactions. The most predictable was that of the Tigers, firing off in all directions as it were, to show the world that they are not down and out, but in fact doing precisely that by proving how wedded they are to terrorism.
Conversely, there has been much less triumphalism than might have been anticipated. Though doubtless there are some who would like to see this as justification for a chauvinistic agenda, they have been effectively silenced by the unswerving commitment of the President to the pluralist vision he enunciated in his manifesto, and which he has asserted consistently since.
In complete congruence with this was the approach of the armed forces. Whilst they have had to face immense difficulties in their struggle, their commitment to the lives and welfare of their fellow Tamil citizens has been heartening. As we read daily of the ruthless treatment of civilians elsewhere, sacrificial victims of wars conducted against and by terror, we can feel immensely proud of the care taken by our own forces for their fellow citizens.
As importantly perhaps, they have also shown that such care also means thinking of the future, of creating opportunities for our fellow Tamil citizens who have had to live so long in the shadow of terrorism. Thus it was very timely that the week Kilinochchi was freed was the week in which the forces organized an industrial exhibition in Jaffna. With their encouragement, the private sector also participated actively, to make clear to youngsters in the North the development that would be available in those areas in a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka.
In such a context, when the government and the forces together were making clear their vision of a pluralistic democratic Sri Lanka, it was ironic that the United States was reported to have 'urged the Sri Lankan and Tamil Tigers to start negotiating over the "legitimate" demands of the Tamils after Colombo announced a key win over the rebels'. I was more than astonished by this, because in general the Americans have been less indulgent to the Tigers than most. However, on rereading the news item, issued in Washington it seems by AFP, I realized that this was yet another case of misreporting.
What the US State Department spokesman, aptly enough named Gordon Duguid, had said was, "We would also like to see that the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil opposition enter into a discussion that will resolve the legitimate issues held by the Tamils... But we repeat our call that the differences they have should be resolved peacefully. The Tamil Tigers have been one of the most notorious and brutal terrorist organizations over the past 20 years and a peaceful dialogue is what's called for in order to resolve the differences and the legitimate concerns of the Tamils."
Put like that of course the message is clearer, the Tigers are not likely to engage in dialogue, and the government should talk to the Tamil opposition. But, given how AFP misrepresented the statement, suggesting that negotiations should be with the Tigers, one wishes that do-guiders were more cautious in their pronouncements.
What he said indeed suggested that Mr Duguid was not aware of what was actually going on in Sri Lanka. Interestingly, one of the most intelligent Western diplomats to have served in Sri Lanka in recent years told me that perhaps one of our problems was that the West did not send its best foreign service personnel to Sri Lanka. This is understandable enough, but when not so bright youngsters are sent to a place where the opposition puts them on pedestals, and tells them only they can save the country, those who are anxious to make a name for themselves start believing in their own infallibility.
Thus the reports they send back get skewed, as when poor Mr Chilcott fell into the trap of attacking the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, all the time claiming that he appreciated what the government was doing but thought we were getting too militaristic - as though the British had shown any other way of dealing with terror.
Fortunately Bob Blake is not as na�ve, and has done more than other Westerners to support the government's efforts to expand opportunities for Tamils held in thrall previously by the Tigers. One suspects therefore that Mr Duguid was a victim of misrepresentations in America itself, and therefore has not realized that the Sri Lankan government does not really need a do-guider to advise it to do what it has long been doing.
This Sri Lankan government has long known that discussions are the only way forward to find a political solution to political problems. Though it tried to negotiate with the Tigers, it realized soon enough, when the Tigers refused to talk but instead attacked, that the Tigers were not interested in negotiations, but only used them to build up their military strength. It has therefore continued discussions with Tamil parties that wish to discuss, and has promoted democratic elections in the East and will soon promote them in the North too.
What then does Mr Duguid mean by ignoring all this and talking of the Tamil opposition? It is possible that he has fallen into the trap of thinking that there is a Sinhalese government and a Tamil opposition, and nothing in between, a myth the Tiger lobby have long spread. But this is unlikely, since one would assume a man with such a name would read his briefs.
If so, the explanation seems to lie in that perennial chestnut, the idea that there is no point in talking to the other Tamils, it is the TNA that should lead discussions on behalf of the Tamils. What this really means however is that the government should ignore the Tamils who resisted terrorism, and have worked with government whilst pointing out the need for reforms, and should instead deal with those who have supported the Tigers explicitly or implicitly over the last several years, even old Mr Sambandan who should know much better, and probably will, if the fate of his former TULF peers no longer looms over him.
America surely should not fall into the trap of the Europeans, who issued a sort of demarche to our ambassador in Brussels, saying we should not have elections in the East since they were told that elections there would be unfair, and that the previous elections there, in 2004, were manifestly unfair. Not being very logical, it never occurred to that particular do-gooder that it was those who had been elected in the unfair 2004 election who were most against any other election - i.e., the position they enjoyed, through murder amongst other strategies, of being the elected representatives of the Tamils of the East (Sambandan preposterously claimed that 95% of people in the North and East had expressed support for the LTTE) should not be endangered by any chance for the people to express their views in freedom.
Given these uncertainties however, and the hankering after the TNA alone that some diplomats still evince, It would be good if Bob Blake were to explain exactly what Mr Duguid meant. It would certainly help to clear the air of what AFP, doubtless unintentionally, seemed to suggest in saying the government should negotiate with the Tigers. But, given the history of the TNA, whether it is due to conviction or cowardice, as surrogates for the Tigers, it would be good if the Americans made it clear that that was not what they meant at all, what they meant was that all democratic Tamil parties that abjured terror should be involved in negotiations.
That of course is what we want too. The danger of ambiguity is that the Tigers will spin what is said to make it sound as though the Americans were extending a lifeline to them. I cannot believe that that is what the Americans want. Concerned as they are about terror, they should be firm in their condemnation in Sri Lanka, as they are elsewhere, not only of terrorists but of those who place terrorists on a pedestal and take direction from them. Affirming the need for a political solution to political problems is one thing. Wording it in a manner that seems to excuse support for terror is another.
Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process