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united kingdom
& the Struggle for Tamil Eelam

On the Conflict in the Island of Sri Lanka

Dr Kim Howells MP, Minister of State
Foreign and Commonwealth Office

12 June 2007
[see also Sri Lanka accuses 'bullying' West 12 June 2007]

Comment by tamilnation.org  It is a matter for regret that the UK Government continues to obfuscate by conflating the two words 'terrorism' and 'violence'. We need to repeat that which we have already said elsewhere. The Cuban revolution was violent but it was not terrorism. The war against Hitler was violent but it was not terrorism. The question that needs to be addressed is whether there are any circumstances in which a people ruled by an alien people may lawfully resort to arms to resist that alien rule and secure freedom. And if all resort to violence to secure political ends is not terrorism then, we may need  to address the question:  what is terrorism?  We need to address the genuine concerns expressed by UN Special Rapporteur, Kalliopi K. Koufa in June 2004

 "The most problematic issue relating to terrorism and armed conflict is distinguishing terrorists from lawful combatants"

By refusing to distinguish between terrorism and lawful national liberation struggles the UK government has in effect encouraged successive Sri Lanka governments to continue to label the national liberation struggle of the people of Tamil Eelam as 'terrorism', and on that basis  torture, rape  and murder  Tamils with impunity in a sustained effort to conquer and rule the people of Tamil Eelam.

One result is that today Sri Lanka's Defence Secretary is unafraid to brazenly declare to the BBC  and to the world -

"When the US does operations they say covert operations. When something is in Sri Lanka they call abductions. This is playing with the words. What I am saying is, if there is a terrorist group, why can't you do anything? It's not against a community... I'm talking about terrorists. Anything is fair." 

Sanmugam Sabesan was right to point out on 28 May 2007 that தமிழீழ மக்களின் அழிவுக்குச் சம்பந்தப்பட்ட மேற்குலகமே காரணம் - 'Today our people are perishing because the international actors have failed to demonstrate justice and integrity.'

UK and the West  may continue to believe that the approach they have adopted will advance their own strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region. Some features of these strategic interests will appear from US Lt.Col. Christopher J. Pehrson's analysis in  String of Pearls:Meeting the Challenge of China�s Rising Power Across the Asian Littoral -

" The geopolitical strategy dubbed the �String of Pearls� is arising as foreign oil becomes a center of gravity critical to China�s energy needs. China�s rising maritime power is encountering American maritime power along the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that connect China to vital energy resources in the Middle East and Africa. The �String of Pearls� describes the manifestation of China�s rising geopolitical influence through efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, develop special diplomatic relationships, and modernize military forces that extend from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the Arabian Gulf. .. "

Other aspects of the uneasy balance of power in the Indian Ocean region will appear from The Indian Ocean Region - A  Story Told with Pictures.

"The Indian ocean region had become the strategic heartland of the 21st century, dislodging Europe and North East Asia which adorned this position in the 20th century.. the developments in the Indian Ocean region were contributing to the advent of a less Western centric and a more multi-polar world." Donald L. Berlin, Head of Security Studies, Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii 

Said that, given the Sri Lanka  government's current belligerent tilt to Asia (and China) (encapsulated in Defence Secretary Rajapakse's statement: "We have all the SAARC countries, the Asian countries. Britain, or Western countries, the EU countries, they can do whatever. We don't depend on them. They think that they we get aid. No, they are not giving anything."),  the UK and the West may persuade themselves that the answer lies in  using the Tamil Eelam struggle as an additional lever to get President Rajapakse to 'play ball' as it were.

Here, the Tamil people may have a feeling of deja vu. They have been there before with India in the 1980s and the eventual betrayal of 1987 no sooner New Delhi's strategic interests were secured by the Exchange of Letters annexed to the India Sri Lanka Accord. A concerted attempt was then made to coerce Tamils into accepting the comic opera reforms of the 13th Amendment and the Provincial Councils Act - as the best deal available on the table.  This time round,  no sooner Western strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region are secured, the Tamils will be called upon to accept a version of the toothless Vitharane proposals - as the best deal available on the table.

Again, if President Rajapakse refuses 'to play ball', the UK and the West may persuade themselves that the answer lies in 'regime change' in Colombo - and help bring in a more pliable Ranil Wickremasinghe who may be amenable to secure Western interests whilst at the same time continuing to deny the existence of the Tamil homeland.  Once again, Sanmugam Sabesan was right to point out in வலியப்போய் ஏமாறுபவர்களும், துணிந்து வந்து  ஏமாற்றுபவர்களும் on 15 May 2007 -

"The international community is concerned to secure a peace in the island of Sri Lanka which will advance their own political, economic and strategic interests. It is not truly concerned with helping to resolve the basic issues faced by the Tamils. The international community seeks a peace, which even though it does not resolve the basic issues of the Tamil struggle, is sufficient to deceive the Tamil people into thinking that it has - this is the position of the international community... "

But the UK and the West will be wrong in believing that approaches such as those that they have adopted will succeed. For one thing, they may want to remind themselves of something which Professor Marshall Singer told the US Congress Committee on International Relations in 1995

"...One of the essential elements that must be kept in mind in understanding the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict is that, since 1958 at least, every time Tamil politicians negotiated some sort of power-sharing deal with a Sinhalese government - regardless of which party was in power - the opposition Sinhalese party always claimed that the party in power had negotiated away too much. In almost every case - sometimes within days - the party in power backed down on the agreement..."

They may also want to attend to the words of  Neil Devotta in 2005...

"...Beginning in the mid-1950s Sri Lanka's politicians from the majority Sinhalese community resorted to ethnic outbidding as a means to attain power and in doing so systematically marginalised the country's minority Tamils...parties in power seek to promote dubious conflict resolution only to be checkmated by the respective opposition which typically claims that the proposed solutions are bound to eventually dismember the island Neil Devotta in From ethnic outbidding to ethnic conflict: the institutional bases for Sri Lanka's separatist war, 2005

For another thing, the UK and the West may want to revisit the words of Dharmaretnam Sivaram in What is really wrong with the counter insurgency methods?

"...Sri Lanka is easily the only country in the world to fight its insurgency with the undivided support of the international community, the backing of all the important nations across the global political spectrum. It is the most advantageous external environment that any country may have ever had in fighting an insurgency. And yet something is obviously going wrong. There are three reasons that may be attributed to the apparent failure of western counter insurgency - CI - methods in Sri Lanka. (It would be countered that nothing is wrong with western CI but with the people who are not doing it right. This, upon closer scrutiny, would be found untenable because less literate armies have succeeded in quelling insurgencies in less favourable circumstances) Firstly, the LTTE has developed over the years a fairly sophisticated counter-counter insurgency system. Secondly, it has consistently focused its resources on building a conventional force and on preserving the minimum required territory to sustain such a force. And thirdly it never lets itself be inveigled or coerced into the political space that is so necessary for diluting and mystifying the basic cause fuelling the insurgency. "

Finally, the UK and the West  may want to consider whether their approach will fail, in the same way that the New Delhi approach in 1987 failed, because it is fundamentally unprincipled.  The approaches of UK (& the West) and New Delhi  were each directed to securing each of their separate (but undeclared)  strategic interests  in the Indian Ocean region. They were mindful of the words of US Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan quoted by Cdr. P K Ghosh in Maritime Security Challenges in South Asia and the Indian Ocean on 18 January 2004

"Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century, the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters."

But, regrettably,  they were not equally mindful of the fundamental issues that had led to the Tamil struggle for freedom. They were not mindful of the words of  Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in "Sri Lanka - the Country will Never be Put Together Again" -

"..We have got to live with the consequences of our actions. .. When I went to Colombo for the first time in 1956 it was a better city than Singapore because Singapore had three and a half years of Japanese occupation and Colombo was the centre or HQ of Mountbatten's Southeast Asia command. And they had sterling reserves. They had two Universities. Before the war, a thick layer of educated talent. So if you believe what American liberals or British liberals used to say, then it ought to have flourished. But it didn't. One-man one-vote led to the domination of the Sinhalese majority over the minority Tamils who were the active and intelligent fellows who worked hard and got themselves penalised. And English was out. They were educated in English. Sinhalese was in. They got quotas in two universities and now they have become fanatical Tigers. And the country will never be put together again.

Somebody should have told them - change the system, loosen up, or break off. And looking back, I think the Tunku was wise. (The reference is to Tunku Abdul Rahman the Malaysian Prime Minister under whose rule Singapore separated from Malaysia). I offered a loosening up of the system. He said: "Clean cut, go your way". Had we stayed in, and I look at Colombo and Ceylon, I mean changing names, sometimes maybe you deceive the gods, but I don't think you are deceiving the people who live in them. It makes no great difference to the tragedy that is being enacted. They failed because they had weak or wrong leaders ".

Sometimes maybe you deceive the gods, but you are not deceiving the people who live in Tamil Eelam. Dr.Howell may want to pay attention to the words of  Professor Jeff Sluka  uttered more than 10 years ago -

 "... oppressed people are not socially stupid even when they are poor, hungry, or uneducated. They understand only too well the social, political, and economic conditions of their lives, and, when the possibility to do so presents itself, they are prepared to act to improve those conditions. National liberation movements are one of the most significant ways people do this...

..National liberation movements are not the activities of small groups of isolated individuals, though state authorities opposed to them frequently describe them as such for propaganda purposes. They are the struggle of rebellious nations against foreign invaders .. To defend their nations from being annihilated, many peoples have taken up arms and engaged in wars of national liberation. To understand armed national liberation movements, it is necessary to strip away the camouflage terms and explanations that states use to hide their true nature...  Instead of identifying them as patriots or freedom fighters battling oppression and injustice and seeking the liberation of their people, they usually refer to them as "terrorists." Every nation people that has resisted state domination or invasion has been accused of being terrorists. But armed national self-preservation or self-defense is not "terrorism" or "banditry". "

UK and the West may need to recognise that state territorial boundaries are not sacrosanct.

"...Let us accept the fact that states have lifecycles similar to those of human beings who created them. The lifecycle of a state might last for many generations, but hardly any Member State of the United Nations has existed within its present borders for longer than five generations. The attempt to freeze human evolution has in the past been a futile undertaking and has probably brought about more violence than if such a process had been controlled peacefully...Restrictions on self-determination threaten not only democracy itself but the state which seeks its legitimation in democracy"  Self Determination & the Future of Democracy  - Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein, 2001

The attempt to freeze human evolution is a futile undertaking . We would commend, yet again to Dr. Howells, the view of Yelena Bonner (widow of Andrei Sakharov) that "the inviolability of a country's borders against invasion from the outside must be clearly separated from the right to statehood of any people within a state's borders." The strategic interests of the UK and the West in the Indian Ocean Region will not be furthered by trying to suppress the freedom struggle of the people of Tamil Eelam. And here let us be clear. The struggle of the people of Tamil Eelam is not about securing benevolent Sinhala rule. It is about freedom from alien Sinhala rule. It was a  freedom struggle that was initiated, some 30 years ago, not by the LTTE, but by the Gandhian Tamil Leader, one of Her Majesty's (Queens) Counsel, S.J.V.Chelvanayagam  -

"Throughout the ages the Sinhalese and Tamils in the country lived as distinct sovereign people till they were brought under foreign domination. It should be remembered that the Tamils were in the vanguard of the struggle for independence in the full confidence that they also will regain their freedom. We have for the last 25 years made every effort to secure our political rights on the basis of equality with the Sinhalese in a united Ceylon."

"It is a regrettable fact that successive Sinhalese governments have used the power that flows from independence to deny us our fundamental rights and reduce us to the position of a subject people. These governments have been able to do so only by using against the Tamils the sovereignty common to the Sinhalese and the Tamils."

"I wish to announce to my people and to the country that I consider the verdict at this election as a mandate that the Tamil Eelam nation should exercise the sovereignty already vested in the Tamil people and become free."

"I have just completed my third visit to Sri Lanka, my second this year. I met His Excellency the President and discussed the role of the international community in assisting Sri Lanka resolve its conflict. As always the people were warm and friendly and the country as beautiful as any I have ever visited. But the clouds that hung over Sri Lanka during my last visit have become darker and more threatening.

The effects of the conflict are being felt directly in Colombo � a cowardly terrorist bomb during the rush hour on 28 May 2007 killing eight people, seven of them civilians. And there was the repulsive abduction and murder of two Red Cross volunteers, whose bodies were discovered on 2 June 2007.

There is no justification for this terrorism and abuse of human rights. They highlight the very real threat the people of Sri Lanka face. In recent weeks there has been speculation that the British Government might lift its ban on the LTTE � allowing it to resume fund raising and political activity in Britain.

This will not happen while the LTTE continues to use terrorism. The targeting of civilians make the case ever more strongly that our decision to proscribe the LTTE was totally justified. Before we change our views on this, the LTTE must renounce violence in word and deed.

There are some that believe the only way to address the LTTE�s violence is to fight fire with fire. They are wrong.  For the last twenty-four years the front lines have moved north and south along the A9 road, but neither side has been able to win a decisive victory. And in any event even if the security forces were able to win - what then? There would still need to be a political deal, otherwise resentment will build up and there will be more violence, in twenty-five or fifty years.

This is a lesson we learnt through bitter experience in Northern Ireland, where violence began in 1969. While the overriding responsibility of British Governments was, like any Government, to stop the killing and to protect the citizens of Northern Ireland, it became increasingly and painfully clear that there could not be an exclusively military solution to the problem. The first Military commander in Northern Ireland was quick to point this out. The army could contain the terrorist campaign, but it could not address the causes.

In fact a security led response to terrorism can end up strengthening the terrorist. The introduction of internment without trial in Northern Ireland in 1971 resulted in the IRA�s ranks being swelled by hundreds of new recruits. I am sure that similarly, the reports of human rights abuses and civilian deaths are being used by the LTTE to win arguments and raise money among Tamil populations, including those overseas.

Human rights abuses not only play into the hands of propagandists, they damage Sri Lanka�s image overseas and make it more difficult for the international community to give the Sri Lankan government the political support it wants. But most importantly human rights abuses are wrong in themselves.

The Red Cross worker deaths and the constant reports of disappearances in Colombo and Jaffna suggest that the situation is, if anything, getting worse.

There has been some concern voiced in Sri Lanka about international attention focussing on human rights. Some claim that comments about human rights are interference in Sri Lanka�s internal affairs.

But Human Rights are not a purely domestic matter. Both Sri Lanka and the UK are signatories to the United Nations human rights conventions, which means we both have an obligation to uphold the highest standard of human rights.

If either of us is perceived to fall below those standards we can and should expect difficult questions.

I realise I have painted a bleak picture. But I do not believe it is a hopeless one. Most moderate people in Sri Lanka, the British and Norwegian governments and the wider international community, want to see Sri Lanka remain as a single country which is able to address the legitimate demands of all its ethnic groups within its existing borders.

Other countries in the region, most notably India and Indonesia, have been able to form prosperous and united nations out of diverse linguistic and religious groups.

In order to guarantee stability, Sri Lanka needs a sustainable political solution, one that allows its Tamil population to feel they will be able to prosper within a Sri Lankan state that takes pride in the identity of all of its people.

No one pretends this will be easy. The All Party Representative Committee provides a clear opportunity to move the debate forward if it publishes ambitious enough proposals.

The way to defeat terrorism is not through relentless military action, but by winning the battle of ideas and with it the support of moderate Tamils. Without some form of political support even the most ruthless terrorist group will have to either come to the negotiating table or become marginalised.

The UK is ready to help with the search for peace and the need for all parties to the conflict to move away from the path of violence and respect human rights.


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