The Master and his Puppets: Some Comments on ‘Tamil Moderates’
Article jointly written by Krisna Saravanamuttu and myself. Originally published on JDS
Around Geneva, the Rajapaksa regime and its mercenaries raise some self-righteous noise against the ‘neo-colonialists’ in the West. Quarters in the US-led West, tired with Rajapaksa’s intransigence wrt the human rights situation in the island and his supposed inability to provide a stable liberal democratic regime, have been releasing this report and that resolution criticizing the current state of affairs in the island. This contradiction will grow. The US will get angry with Sri Lanka for being unable to provide stability. Its natural allies then will be the Tamils, who are inherently free-market capitalists. And voila, you will have Tamil Eelam on a platter.
Or so some Tamil pundits in the West fantasize. And thus, they believe that it is in the best interest of the Tamil nation to adopt the narrative of ‘reconciliation and accountability’ that is chanted as a prayer in the hallways of Geneva. You don’t want to disappoint your large hearted allies after all.
We wish we could share such colorful dreams, but realpolitik is sadly very sober and requires a ratiocination of the most rigorous kind. Trust ‘Taraki’ Sivaram, senior editor of TamilNet and military analyst, an exemplar of parrhesia, the courage to speak truth to power, and who was assassinated for the same virtue.
In the feature he was working on at the time of his death, ‘US’s strategic interests in Sri Lanka’, noting the defense cooperation between US-Sri Lanka, Sivaram argued that “Stabilizing the Sri Lanka state was considered critical for the US at this juncture to consolidate and cement its strategic interests here. The LTTE was a stubborn impediment to achieving this end – particularly the constant threat to Trincomalee and Palaly. Containing the Liberation Tigers and making them more malleable were also identified as priorities.”
A year later, the west managed peace process collapsed, LTTE was criminalized in Europe under US-UK pressure, and Sri Lanka got a free hand to continue its war on the Tamil nation to the best of its potential. And oh, the Sri Lanka signed the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement with the USA in 2007, a deal to secure exchanges in logistical support, supplies and services. On another front, the Tamil diaspora was extensively studied by US based defense corporations like RAND in studies like the 2001 publication “Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements” or the 2007 article by William Rosenau ‘Subversion and Insurgency’, where the author describes the LTTE as “Subversion on five continents”. The internationally coordinated COIN ops against the Tamil struggle that led to the climax of the genocidal war in 2009 have been discussed earlier.
But why criticize American concern for human rights now? Doesn’t Uncle Sam have a heart after all?
In his feature referred above, Sivaram had said “The ‘management’ of the ethnic conflict, among other things, is also important for the US to “sufficiently” expand and consolidate its military and intelligence relations with Sri Lanka as an important security partner in the region.”
One portion of this ‘management’ was the internationally coordinated war on the LTTE. And the US is pretty honest on this – Ambassador Michelle Sison in an event in Sri Lanka on March 2013 affirmed “The U.S. also helped the government and people of Sri Lanka in every way we could to try to end the LTTE’s reign of terror”. She also talked about reconciliation and accountability.
Moreover, to properly analyze the current American engagement with the Tamil liberation struggle, we must objectively establish the history of US engagement with the island’s politics. To this end, Jeffrey Lunstead, former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, provides an insider’s perspective in his report The United States’ Role in Sri Lanka’s Peace Process. Though the US publicly espoused its support to a politically negotiated solution, in actuality it provided a “commitment to strengthening the Sri Lankan Armed Forces”. The American strategy marginalized the LTTE in the international arena (i.e. maintaining the LTTE on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list, excluding the LTTE from the Washington Donor Conference) and intensified the US military-to-military relationship with the Sri Lankan government.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in on 19th November 2006. Two days later Under Secretary Burns said “We also believe that the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE, is a terrorist group responsible for massive bloodshed in the country and we hold the Tamil Tigers responsible for much of what has gone wrong in the country. We are not neutral in this respect. We support the government”.
The Americans provided the Sri Lankans with training, education, and weapons infrastructure. The US played a key role in cutting off the LTTE’s own financial networks yet it handed over millions in foreign military funding to the Sri Lankan government. And Paul Moorcraft, a British military analyst, in his recent book on the war in the island notes the level of assistance that the US gave to Sri Lanka, including the advice to use cluster bombs against the Tamil population. All this while the US insisted that it sought to deter war and not encourage it.
The other portion of this ‘management’ is best observed at, what one diaspora grassroots activist so poignantly termed, ‘the Geneva thiruvizha’. Introducing the US sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka, 2013. No talk on Tamil nationhood. No talk on Tamil genocide. No mention even of the word ‘Tamil’. But yes, “reconciliation and accountability.”
In order to pacify the Diaspora, the backers of US based resolution give the false impression that it is against Sri Lanka and its adoption would somehow benefit the Tamils. The resolution, whose only implicit reference to the Tamil struggle is ‘terrorism’, harps on reconciliation and the LLRC as a solution to the ongoing conflict. The undeniable fact, however, is that the LLRC was conceived as an escape route for Sri Lanka. When legitimate criticism does emerge about the LLRC based approach, the knee jerk reaction of its lobbyists is to simply argue that the UNHRC resolution is a ‘first step.’ A fine ‘first step’ indeed. Towards a political disaster, perhaps.
After the Mullivaaykaal genocide, Sivaram’s analysis of COIN remains critical to assessing American engagement with the Tamil Diaspora. A key COIN tactic Sivaram addressed was “the promotion and propagation of the conceptual/political dichotomy of the moderate and the militant/terrorist”. Today the Diaspora seems to be a target in US COIN strategy, wherein “the global proscription regime is an institutional, structural violence which criminalizes diaspora politics and affective connections to the idea of Tamil Eelam”. Unfortunately, some sections of the Tamil lobby Diaspora developed selective amnesia regarding US intervention to tilt the parity of status earned by the Tamils in favor of the Sri Lankan war machinery.
First, any serious observer of the Tamil Liberation struggle cannot deny the role played by the global Tamil Diaspora. After all, it was the same Diaspora that was criminalized through the US led proscription of the LTTE in the western world due to its moral, political and economic support of the liberation struggle. The U.S. Army & Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24 (2007) advises, “Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy and stops actively and passively supporting the insurgency”. Thus, to establish victory over the Tamil independence struggle on the international front, the Tamil Diaspora must be conceptually and politically demobilized from its primary objective.
The pro US lobbyists may argue that the Americans looked away in a ‘war without witnesses.’ The sad truth, as seen above, is that the Americans and their allies provided the weapons and the diplomatic cover for Sri Lanka to commit the 2009 genocide. The defeat of the LTTE and the 2009 genocide are an example of what Herman and Peterson called a “constructive genocide” that served the major US interests of stabilizing the island by getting rid of the stubborn LTTE impediment.
With the defeat of the military force of Tamil independence, the US fixed its aims on the Diaspora political force by seeking to reshape and moderate the terms of the debate. Classical COIN theorists like Galula have stressed the importance of the counterinsurgent to work on appropriating and diluting the cause of the insurgent so as to eradicate support while contemporary theorists like Kilcullen have stressed the importance of creating an alternate narrative that excludes the narrative of the insurgent.
To distort and dilute the cause of the Tamil liberation struggle, the LLRC based approach is attempting to change and moderate the debate from sovereignty, freedom, and self-determination to accommodation, integration and co-existence, thus moderating the perception of the oppressed about the conflict rather than helping end the system of oppression itself. The debate shifts from genocide and national liberation to individual human rights problems and political devolution, which can be rectified under a more liberal, democratic Sri Lankan regime. A recent TamilNet feature raised a question whether resolutions and HR reports that fail to recognize genocide or Tamil sovereign nationhood is the other side of a coin where military minds hail the ‘Sri Lanka model’ as a successful addition to COIN theory.
The lobbyists in favor of the US resolution are given the bait of political recognition while those who reject it on principled grounds are deemed as radicals and leftists. The ‘moderates’ are seen to be effective because they can invite their political masters in the west to their meetings and engage in photo ops with them. Yet, the ‘moderates’ can only beg for scraps of justice from their masters but remain powerless to halt, challenge or even address western complicity in the structural and protracted genocide that the Tamil homeland endures.
Why does this same lobby not reject the US approach and demand a more concrete political program of an international investigation and a referendum to establish a sovereign Tamil Eelam? Hair-splitting and claims of being pragmatic aside, the answer is that the pro-US lobby will lose its utility in the eyes of its political superiors at the US State Department. Some take up the ‘reconciliation for all citizens’ narrative as conscious agents, getting perks, grants, and funding. Others do it as unconscious agents, in the best of intentions that by bending over backwards, the world powers will pay heed to Tamil suffering and deliver justice. Either way, the effect is the same.
Of course, the liberal lobbyist brigades will argue that they are keenly aware of the broader strategy at play. These ‘moderates’ insist that they are politically savvy and clever enough to navigate through the western agenda and secure Tamil liberation. Sadly, it is one thing to think like an American and an entirely different thing to think the way the American wants you to think. Confused and impotent, they forget that the dog can wag the tail but the tail can never wag the dog.
Through the use of a resolution that is impotent as far as the Tamil nation is concerned and reports that do not address the crucial questions facing the Tamil nation, the US is pushing for a more user-friendly regime in Colombo. Emphasizing the paradigm of human rights and reconciliation over liberation and justice will in the end only help Sri Lanka rehabilitate itself in the world when a more liberal regime takes over from Rajapaksa.
Like the butchers Pinochet, Pol Pot or the recent Efrain Rios Montt, it can be argued that the US may someday discard Rajapaksa when his usefulness to them is over – or it may not. Rajapaksa’s personal fortunes or misfortunes are of no concrete concern to the Tamil nation. The point is whether Tamil Eelam is to be or not to be. And those who choose to obscure it are by definition against it. It is that simple.
But do puppets ever see the strings attached?
1. William Rosenau, “Subversion and Insurgency”, RAND Report prepared for the Office of Secretary of Defence, 2007, p12
2. Jeffrey Lunstead “The United States’ Role in Sri Lanka’s Peace Process: 2002-2006.” Colombo 7: The Asia Foundation (2007), p17
3. Ibid, p39
4. Paul Moorcraft, “Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War”, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword, (2012), p110
5. Mark Whitaker, “Learning Politics From Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka”, London: Pluto Press, (2007), p152
6. Vicki Sentas’ “One more successful war? Tamil diaspora and counter-terrorism after the LTTE” in “Counter-Terrorism and state political violence: The ‘war on terror’ as terror” edited by Scott Poynting and David Whyte, Routledge (2012), p111