The March Of Folly

| by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

( February 13, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In his authoritative presentation on his January 2014 trip to Geneva and the US, Secretary to the President Mr Lalith Weeratunga made a pointed reference to the IPKF, which was noted as it was doubtless meant to be, by Indian commentators. It came across as an attempt to up the ante (to my mind, rather clumsily), by signalling the Indians that if the resolution goes through and results in a war crimes probe, Sri Lanka will tell all, so therefore Delhi had better help us.


Knowing Mr Weeratunga, I rather suspect it wasn’t his idea but that of someone of considerable influence who thinks himself capable of brilliant strategic moves.

If the IPKF reference is the Sri Lankan administration’s idea of a deterrent, then we are in a more serious mess than I thought. That reference was a classic instance of the condition known as being “too clever by half”.

In the first place, the probe that is sought to be foisted on Sri Lanka brackets off everything but the ‘last stages of the war’. This is not accidental. It is the last stages that the LTTE was on the run and incapable of maintaining its usual rate of atrocities. So anyone who wants to frame Sri Lanka would concentrate on the last stages. A Sri Lankan attempt to broaden the scope of the inquiry to include the whole of the war, encompassing the IPKF operations, wouldn’t get the requisite votes in the UNHRC if it were known that India was unhappy. That’s hardly fair but that’s the way it is.

In the second place, even if the years 1987-1990 were included in an international inquiry, one can bet that the hard-line Tamil Diaspora —which will furnish the witnesses— will focus on the Sri Lankan military and not rat out the Indians, because Sri Lanka is the enemy and India a possible ally or patron.

In the third place, the (probably) incoming Narendra Modi administration is likely to take greater exception to “anti-Indian” rhetoric by the Sri Lankan administration than the more moderate and understanding Congress administration. It could be a replay of the hostility between the JRJ administration and Indira Gandhi.

Lacking the ‘hard power’ to fight anything but an internal war, and incapable to either project hard power or use it as shield against vastly superior hard power projection by external powers, Sri Lanka must know that its only defence shield is diplomatic.

The Weeratunga signal, applauded and amplified as it was by editorialists and columnists in the State media, does nothing to repair the hole in the Indo-Lanka equation which was a vital part of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic shield.

This wasn’t the only occasion on which Mr Weeratunga, probably acting as proxy, dropped a heavy hint about India. On the occasion of the launch of the unwisely named book ‘Gota’s War’ (unwisely because if you own the war you own the war crimes, and if you own the crime you get to do the time), Mr Weeratunga mentioned the Indian intrusion into Sri Lankan airspace and opined that it was lucky that Mahinda Rajapaksa was not President at the time, thereby clearly indicating that the present President unlike JR Jayewardene, wouldn’t have caved in to the Indians.

Whoever the ventriloquist was, that’s not the point. The point is that having isolated Sri Lanka through an imprudent foreign policy, JR Jayewardene had no option at that moment. Any resistance would have— as JN Dixit told JRJ—generated a wave of Indian airstrikes on a pre-selected target list, which would have damaged our armed forces and thus the Lankan state beyond repair. One can only wonder what Mr Weeratunga thought President Rajapaksa would or could have done or could indeed do if the same situation confronted him. Professor Rohan Gunaratne, a security academic known to be close to the Sri Lankan defence bureaucracy as well as the Israelis and the US military, can confirm that in the aftermath of the airdrop, President Jayewardene sent none other than the present (and eternal) UNP leader Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe to China and Pakistan to shop for anti-aircraft missiles and he came back empty handed.

If Sri Lanka gets its India policy wrong it gets its foreign policy wrong. If it gets its foreign policy wrong, it is strategically vulnerable in the face of superior external power. No domestic militarization can remotely compensate. Mervyn de Silva who dominated foreign policy and world affairs analysis in Sri Lanka for four decades, enunciated as a geopolitical and geostrategic axiom almost three decades ago, two years before the airdrop, the Accord, the IPKF and 13A, that “Sri Lankan foreign policy must be centered on a non-hostile relationship with India”. (Lecture at Marga Institute on ‘External Aspects of the Ethnic Issue’ 1985)

Today, Sri Lanka faces the external relations tsunami it does in the UNHRC precisely because it got its foreign policy wrong, beginning with its India policy, in the post-war period, beginning in 2009, precisely in Geneva.

In the aftermath of the military and diplomatic victories of May 2009, there were two policy paradigms within the Sri Lankan state, one of which was weaker than the other. It is ironic that the paradigm which had proven successful was precisely the one in decline, having peaked in May 2009 with the diplomatic success in Geneva. We may term this the Realist (or Realist-Third Worldist) line. That perspective held that the sole guarantee of stabilising Sri Lanka’s military victory over the long term rested on a firm continuation of the Indo-Lanka relationship as the main axis of Sri Lanka’s attempt to leverage multi-polarity, allying with the global South and the emergent/pivotal powers (e.g. the BRICS). That strategy saved us from an international war crimes probe in Geneva in May 2009. The Realist paradigm recognised that given the Tamil Nadu factor, the Indo-Lanka equation would be eroded without devolution and that without the Indian factor, the Tamil Diaspora influenced West would move against Sri Lanka, which could not be adequately protected by China alone ( or by China and Pakistan).

The other policy perspective which eclipsed the Realist paradigm was what one may term the Neoconservative-unilateralist or militarist-unilateralist one. It was not new; it had merely been reborn. It was the same policy perspective that had been held and practised by the National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali as well as President JR Jayewardene’s son Ravi Jayewardene in the 1980s. Strangely, a perspective that had led the country to isolation and disaster arose from the grave to possess the soul of the Sri Lankan state in the aftermath of the military victory, driving out the Realist perspective which had helped further secure that victory by extending it to the diplomatic arena. One reason could be that both the Army chief at the time as well as a member of the ruling troika were war veterans humiliated by the Indian airdrop of 1987 which aborted a Sri Lankan victory over the Tigers. Having served in the Athulathmudali years, they adhered to that doctrine and attempted to extend the victory over the LTTE to reverse the after effects of the Indo-Lanka Accord. For them, India was the new, or rather the old, enemy, and could be confronted now that the main instrument of India’s old policy, the armed Tamil insurgency, had been vanquished. In their world view, devolution, the 13th amendment, the provincial councils could all be ignored or rolled-back.

Thus the excellent Indo-Lanka equation of May 2009 was sacrificed to undo the old wrongs in the Indo-Lanka relationship, ignoring the strategic fact that it was precisely the Indo-Lanka accord and the resultant 13th amendment that formed the bedrock of the protective relationship that Sri Lanka now enjoyed with India. It was thought that Sri Lanka did not need India’s protection. Instead it was felt that Sri Lanka needed protection from India. Who would provide it? China, Pakistan and Israel, was the answer, in an echo of the failed answer of the Athulathmudali doctrine, namely the USA and Israel. The only difference between the Athulathmudali doctrine of the 1980s and its new avatar in 2009 was that the USA was improbably substituted by China, notwithstanding the clear signalling to the contrary by China itself.

The neo-Athulathmudali doctrine was sourced not merely in the security bureaucracy but also in the Ministry of External Affairs which had bitter memories of being bested by Indian diplomacy in the 1980s, including in Geneva. For this faction, relations with the USA were more important than those with India and could be improved even bypassing India. In their worldview only the USA and China mattered; multi-polarity and multi-polar balancing didn’t.

That President Rajapaksa was not initially a full convert to the new doctrine is best evidenced by the policy contradictions between him and General Sarath Fonseka over the ‘Indian threat’ in 2009. However, even after the split between the two and the political defeat of General Fonseka, the hawkish Neo-con doctrine with its anti-Indian emphasis, prevailed. While Fonseka was dislodged, the Fonseka Plan was pretty much adopted. Its most influential adherents included the country’s three top officials, two of whom remain while the third is a senior Ambassador (who may have undergone a conversion to realism, though his current successor in the MEA plays to anti-Indianism).

The first signs of the policy shift were precisely in Geneva. Therefore it is no surprise that the first bitter fruits of the errors of this policy line are to be felt in Geneva. What the policy shift achieved was to jeopardise the broad defensive coalition built up in Geneva which enabled the pre-emptive counteroffensive that pushed back beyond the horizon the ‘war crimes inquiry’ threat in 2009.

In 2008, the websites LankaWeb and Asian Tribune carried a story of a Sri Lankan High Commissioner announcing at a staff meeting that she would soon replace the then Ambassador/Permanent Representative of the UN in Geneva. That would prove prophetic, but later than foretold, thanks to the intervention of President Rajapaksa (as noted in The Island, April 31st, 2009). In February 2009, a top official in Colombo promised Mark Soper, the Israeli Ambassador accredited to Sri Lanka and based in Delhi, that the Sri Lankan Ambassador/PR in Geneva would be replaced in six months, when the war was over. That promise was kept, while those to the Indian Government and the UN Secretary General, made on May 21 and May 23rd 2009 and contained in joint statements were not.

The Sri Lankan policy in Geneva post-August 2009 was one of a shift to dependence on Israel and a courting of the West while downgrading the supportive bloc of the Special session of May 2009. Kow-towing to Tel Aviv was prioritized at the expense of continuity in Geneva which could have consolidated the diplomatic success of May 2009 and maintained the broad bloc which protected Sri Lanka from a war crimes inquiry. A reverse shift took place in 2011-2012, but it was episodic; a Third Worldist lurch without a solid relationship with India which in turn was possible only if there was a renewed public commitment to devolution. After the success in Geneva in May 2009, Sri Lankan diplomacy, far from staying with what had demonstrably worked, totally abandoned any commitment to devolution. The ‘D’ word disappeared from the discourse of the Sri Lankan state, even in its conversations with the world. Even today, while the elections to the Northern PC are rightly pointed to by Sri Lankan government representatives such as Minister Pieris and Mr Weeratunga as an important step forward, there is a silence on devolution, the 13th amendment and its implementation.

Viewed in retrospect, the ‘decapitation’ in mid-2009 (despite the diplomatic success of Sri Lanka at the Special session of May) of the sole diplomatic voice articulating the ‘D word’ and urging that it be understood as key to the equation with India which in turn was key to Sri Lanka’s defences in the world arena, signalled a sharp discontinuity of policy; a deviation, almost a rupture. The new policy was one of dependence on, overestimation of and imitation of Israel (and delusional overreliance on China). This was reflected in post-war domestic policy in the North and East as well as in the unilateralist truculence towards the outside world and the United Nations. Meanwhile Israel was counted upon to change US policy towards Sri Lanka. In short, Israel replaced India in the mental architecture and consequently the policy architecture of the Sri Lankan decision-making elite. Occasionally it was even said that the US resolution was cunningly driven by India, rather than by the UK. India was perceived in certain quarters as The Enemy in the new (post-war) Cold War. Colombo was where it started; Geneva was where it first manifested itself. The intelligence of that shift in policy paradigm will be tested in a few weeks, in Geneva.

The March of Folly that will take us to Geneva March 2014, commenced in Geneva a few weeks after Sri Lanka’s diplomatic victory over an attempted war crimes inquiry resolution in May 2009. It is but a re-play of the March of Folly that led us to 1987.

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