External challenges to Sri Lanka

One would expect oppositional or dissenting political discourse to differentiate between real and unreal threat, accurately depicted and exaggerated threat, and treated and untreated external problems. That, however, is not the case in Sri Lanka.
by Dayan Jayatilleka

(April 12, Paris, Sri Lanka Guardian) Behind its splendid stone facade, the Acadamie Diplomatique Internationale has been in existence from the early decades of the last century, and according to its head, was discussing Western military intervention in the Middle East then as it was that very day last week when a team from the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), on a Paris-London visit, presented on ‘Developments in the Arab World and the Impact on Asia: an Asian Perspective’. I attended eagerly, not only because of the subject’s salience but because these were my recent colleagues and friends.

The team’s presentation bracketed out the domestically driven developments, most importantly but not exclusively in Tunisia and Egypt, from external military intervention in Libya’s armed civil conflict or civil war. Prof Tan Tai Yong, the Vice Provost of the National University of Singapore (with which Yale has just signed a deal to establish a liberal arts college) and Executive Director of the Institute pointed out that while Asian opinion agreed that the intentional killing of unarmed civilian protestors de-legitimised any regime and constituted a new ‘red line’ for the international community which if crossed would trigger R2P, Asia with its organically evolved societies and states of long historicity (contrasting with many an Arab state such as Libya carved out as a patchwork of tribes, clans and ethnicities mere decades ago by colonial fiat, with Egypt a monumental exception), its functioning political parties and use of universal suffrage, its familiarity with and history of street protests, and its better shared prosperity in an era of economic upswing, has states of an entirely different formation and type from those of the Arab world, and does not suffer the same structural vulnerabilities of legitimacy. Having made much the same point in the Sri Lankan press prior to events in Libya, I was gratified to hear such expert scholarly confirmation.

By contrast, the dramatic external dimension of the developments in Libya and the resultant deflection/distortion of domestic struggles of democratisation and reform were seen by the delegation to have a marked impact on Asia.

The team pointed to the role played by the most dogmatic adherents of the doctrine of ‘liberal humanitarian interventionism’ and their distortion of the Responsibility to Protect endorsed by the UN Security Council. I had discovered on a recent visit to the USA to present a paper by invitation at a Workshop on Global Leadership at Yale (at which the keynote speaker was Marwan Muasher, Jordan’s former deputy Prime Minister), that these were the same trinity of personalities who had been pushing the case of Sri Lanka’s ‘accountability’ for the closing stages of the war.

The most incisive comments at the Paris dialogue were by the former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, Dr Ifthikar Ahmed Chowdhury, who had been among those in the Security Council who negotiated the consensus on R2P. Quipping that R2P should not be used in a manner that made for its interpretation not as the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ but the ‘Rush to Plunder’ he cautioned that the most important impact of the intervention in Libya was that it would halt progress in efforts at nuclear non-proliferation. States would note that Libya had given up its nuclear programme and was being bombed, while that would not have been the case had it still possessed a nuclear capacity. Thus, those states that had ongoing nuclear programmes would be even more reluctant than before to give them up, while others would seek to embark on such programmes. On this point, Dr Chowdhury was supported by Emeritus Professor SD Muni of the JNU.

While the most stridently unambiguous criticism of external military invention in Libya has come from the leftwing leaderships, governments and movements of Latin America, which know a thing or two about revolution, counterrevolution, imperialism and national sovereignty, Prof Muni drew attention to the abstention by the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and the dissenting remarks by India during the Security Council debate on Libya. Echoing the more recent criticisms made by the BRICs, he ventured the suggestion that these would emerge as the moral, ethical and Realist centre of the world community, not engaged in warlike activism and risking overstretch, but in peaceful economic expansion and cooperation.

The most direct impact of the events in the Arab world on Asia were seen to be economic: the hike in oil prices and the possible diminution of remittances from migrant labour, which could constitute a shock effect on Asian economies and living standards, thereby triggering social unrest.

It is against the backdrop of these developments that the current commentary on the external challenges to Sri Lanka must be embedded.

Governments the world over certainly do point to external threats to shore up domestic power and legitimacy. Sometimes these threats are real, sometimes not. Sometimes they are real but exaggerated. Sometimes the threats could have been better met with a different government or existing governments could themselves have better met the threats had they conducted themselves differently.

One would expect oppositional or dissenting political discourse to differentiate between real and unreal threat, accurately depicted and exaggerated threat, and treated and untreated external problems. That, however, is not the case in Sri Lanka. Here, criticism of the government with regard to external challenges falls into two equally absurd categories. One is that there is no such threat and that all mention of such external foes or challenges is but a ploy of the Rajapaksa regime which must be exposed and rejected as fake by all brave and discerning souls. Another argument is that yes, there are challenges looming but those external forces are not a threat to Sri Lanka and its people — only to the ruling elite, and liberation through ‘regime termination’ will someday be at hand by the blessed intercession of these external factors and forces.

Taken together, the anti-government discourse is that there is no external threat to Sri Lanka as a country, a state, and if there is, it is to be welcomed as a lever to prise out the incumbent administration.

A dissenting discourse less irrational than this would have yielded a different line of argument, namely that there is an external threat which should be combated but that there are better and worse ways of so doing; choices between projects of defending national sovereignty and defeating the secessionist and pro-secessionist forces in the Cold war being waged against Sri Lanka.

Yet, this is not the case made by the local oppositional ideologues. The decisive and virtually complete decimation of the military apparatus of the LTTE is used as argument that there cannot be any external threat because there is no LTTE to constitute that threat. This argument is absurd on two counts. Firstly, it is manifestly the case that while the Tiger armed force was wiped out, or to put it differently, the Tigers were wiped out as an armed force, the Tiger movement or network based overseas could not be wiped out and remained intact, simply because it was out of the physical reach of the Sri Lankan state. Secondly, winning a hot war in no way precludes a Cold war.

Recent developments in the global arena demonstrate the truth of the old cliché that lies at the heart of the Realist discourse from Thucydides onwards: the world is a dangerous place. In such a dangerous environment, states must be watchful of their independence, interests and power.

Our old enemies, the secessionists, seek to resume the struggle by other means, and win by them. These enemies are manipulating the dangerous trends in the world arena which threaten national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. The overseas-based secessionists hope to leverage these external trends and factors so as to isolate Sri Lanka.

While the Rajapaksea administration may be accused of many a sin of omission and commission, it did not create the Global Tamil Forum, the British Tamil Forum, the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam and the pro-Tamil secessionist tendency in Tamil Nadu. Nor is it responsible for Tamil nationalism’s imprudent refusal to regard the existing Constitutional provisions for Provincial autonomy and power sharing as the point of departure for political dialogue.

There is an inherent contradiction between the call for a so-called independent international inquiry into the conduct of the legitimate Sri Lankan armed forces in the closing months of the war, and the imperative to defend a popular war of national liberation and reunification and the armed forces that waged it on behalf of the nation.

There is also an inherent contradiction between those who claim to stand for greater democratisation and post-war ethnic reconciliation, and the call for an inquiry, with its inevitably attendant lacerating and polarising implications. Developments in the Middle east highlight the crucial role of the armed forces, and those with the armed forces ‘on side’, enjoyed a peaceful denouement or development. It is an impossibility to retain the support or neutrality of the armed forces, itself a bulwark of peaceful democratisation, and simultaneously advocate an external or externally induced wide-ranging inquiry into its conduct in recently concluded, necessary and nationally popular war.

In conclusion I confess a certain perspective: my paper at Yale was classified by the senior professor who organised the event as "post Neo-con Realism". To my mind, the more valuable debate in the Sri Lankan media would be over how external threats should realistically be countered, the armed forces best defended, national sovereignty best protected in the inclement international weather, and the historic military victory made permanent. This debate is not taking place. Instead there is a three way split between those who acknowledge a threat but see it as emanating from every quarter and are unwilling to display the pragmatic flexibility to counter these threats, those who assert that the threats are imaginary and denounce the country’s elected leadership for attempting to alert and resist, and those who, with little hope of electoral legitimacy, are awaiting the landfall of those inimical external trends onto Sri Lanka’s shores.

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