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|Home > Truth is a Pathless Land > Selected Writings by Nadesan Satyendra >|
2 October 2007
On the 138th Birth
Anniversary of Mahatma
The few words that I spoke in Sinhalese and in Tamil reflect in a small way the internal dimension of the conflict whose international dimension we are seeking to address here today.
There is also another reason why I spoke those words in Sinhalese and in Tamil. Here, I am mindful of the remarks made by Professor Galtung that today, many who speak on international conflicts are usually trained by English professors and that their political horizons are generally limited to Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and such places. Professor Galtung may be right. Said that, the question is not only which university you may have attended but also what language you speak.
Language is not simply a means of communication. It has something to do with the way in which we segment the world - language shapes the way a people look at the world and that is true of all peoples, including the Tamil people and the Sinhala people. In 1835, it was the power of language to influence, which led Lord Macaulay in his Education Minute to prescribe for India, an education in the English language. He said
"We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect."
The struggle of the people of Tamil Eelam for freedom arose amongst those who spoke in Tamil and who may not have understood much of what we are discussing here in an alien tongue. Again, the growth of the Sinhala language together with Buddhism, the Mahavamsa and so on are not to be dismissed as inconvenient 'myths'. Sinhala nationalism is a product of that growth. And Sinhala ethno nationalism is not a myth - though it may often masquerade as 'Sri Lankan civic nationalism'. Sometimes we too easily forget that even words like 'nation' are not easily translated into Tamil, or for that matter into Sinhalese. And, much may be lost in translation.
Said all that, I am very happy to have been invited to deliver one of the three key note addresses at this seminar. It is not that there has been a shortage of seminars on the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka. There have been many seminars. I believe one researcher has commented that the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka is one of the most researched in the world.
But, in one way, this seminar is a first. We have had seminars before where a session or two was devoted to the international dimension. But, this is the first seminar which is focused entirely on the international dimension of the conflict in the island. Given that, I do not propose to spend much time attempting to offer prescriptions for the resolution of the conflict in the island. In any case, I have always regarded the story of the mice who held a seminar to resolve the conflict with the cat as a cautionary tale. I will therefore limit myself to the narrow confines of the seminar subject - and that is the international dimension of the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka - and to contribute in whatever small way I can, to a discussion of that dimension.
Many years ago in 1955, in Cambridge University, Krishna Menon was addressing the Cambridge India Society. It was a packed audience and the title of his speech had been announced as "India's non-alignment policy". Krishna Menon had been recently appointed Minister without Portfolio in the Indian Cabinet. But, ofcourse, for years before that he had led the Indian delegation to the United Nations. He had a sharp mind and perhaps a sharper tongue.
Krishna Menon was scheduled to speak for one hour and to respond to questions thereafter. Menon got up before the packed audience and said "Well, I was not consulted on the subject of my talk. On the subject of my talk I have only one sentence to say to you, and that is: India's foreign policy is non-aligned". Whilst the audience was digesting this information he went on to say: "However, I am willing to spend the hour set apart for my talk, to respond to any questions you may want to ask".
After some initial hesitation, the questions started to flow. 1955 was a time when Taiwan (or Formosa) had a seat in the Security Council as 'China'. Mao Tse Tung's China was not recognised by the US and it had not been admitted as a member of the United Nations. At the time of Menon's visit to Cambridge, the US Sixth Fleet was engaged in naval exercises near Taiwan. It was a time of some tension.
A youthful questioner stood up rather hesitantly and asked "Mr. Menon sir, what do you have to say about the situation of Taiwan"? Menon's reply came in a flash. He said "the situation of Taiwan is that it is 150 miles from China and several thousand miles away from the United States". The audience dissolved in laughter. However, the fact that some 50 years later, Taiwan continues to exist (albeit, not as a member of the Security Council) reflects, perhaps, the long reach of US naval power. Mao was not wrong when he had said that power flows through a barrel of a gun.
I sometimes wonder whether if Krishna Menon was alive today and he was asked what he had to say about the situation of Sri Lanka, he may have responded: "Sri Lanka is an island about 20 miles away from India in the vast expanse of the Indian ocean, several thousand miles away from the USA and a couple of thousand miles away from China."
Geography plays an important (though silent) role in the affairs of states - and also in nations without a state. Where a state has a large internal market, the size of that internal market is itself a strategic asset. Where a state does not have a large internal market, it seems that it is often a question of location, location, location. The smaller the country, relatively more important becomes the location - and the location itself becomes a strategic asset.
The Indian Ocean is not the largest ocean in the world. It is the third largest. But it has something like 47 countries around it and contains several islands.
You can see them on the map. Coco island is not far from Myanmar where of course now the Chinese have a base. Then we have Andaman Islands, Maldives, Madagascar and of course Gawdor in Pakistan and Kawar in India. And if you go down south you may even get to Diego Garcia with its US naval and air base. India itself projects something like 1200 miles into the Indian Ocean. And many Indians take the view that after all, the Indian Ocean is the Indian Ocean.
The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean has been recognized for many years. US Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan said more than a century ago, "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." Again, the British Empire owed much to British dominance of the Indian Ocean - a dominance which Hitler sought to undermine with his U-boats during the Second World War.
Ocean contains an estimated 40% of the world's oil
production. And today fresh exploration for oil and
gas continues in the Mannar seas off Sri Lanka, the Cauvery
Basin off Tamil Nadu and in the seas off Myanmar. But
the significance of the Indian Ocean arises not simply
from the resources it has. The Indian Ocean is a
critical waterway. It includes half of the world's
containerized cargo, one thirds of its bulk cargo and
two thirds of its oil shipments. Its waters carry heavy
traffic of petroleum products. And unlike the Atlantic
Ocean, much of this traffic is to countries outside the
The sea lanes of the Indian Ocean give a graphic picture of its strategic significance.
China, which has been a net oil importer since 1993, is the world's no 2 oil consumer after the United States. It achieved that status in 2004. Before that the second largest oil consumer was Japan. China has accounted for as much as 40% of the world's crude oil demand growth during the period 2000 to 2004.
Access to energy resources is a very critical factor for continued Chinese economic growth. And, not surprisingly China has stepped up efforts to secure sea lanes and transport routes that are vital for its oil supplies. The geo political strategy adopted by China has been dubbed 'the string of pearls' strategy.
'The emergence of new powers like China and India is expected to transform the regional strategic landscape in a fashion that could be as dramatic as the rise of Germany in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th century'  and the 'Indian ocean region has 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 are contributing to the advent of a less Western centric and a more multi-polar world.'
Hopefully, sufficient has been said to sketch the strategic significance of the Indian Ocean region. One matter of significance is that the dynamics of the region calls for a balance of power approach rather than a straight alliance.
"…the dynamics of the region calls for a balance of power approach rather than a straight alliance…. The rise of India as a major power, coupled with the better-known - and frequently analyzed - Chinese rise, is changing the structure of the world system. Not only is U.S. 'unipolar' hegemony in the Indian Ocean facing a challenge, but the strategic triad U.S.-Western Europe-Japan, which has ruled the international political economy for the past few decades, is now also under question…We can expect the South Asian region to be one of the system's key areas to be watched in the next decade." 
The balance of power in the Indian Ocean region is not a simple black and white matter. And it is not static. The frame is multilateral and the interactions are nuanced - and calibrated.
There is a word that was coined some years ago in a different context - in the study of multinational corporations and the market economy. The word was co-petition. You compete in some areas but you also co-operate in other areas. When you cooperate in some areas and compete in other areas - that's co-petition. For instance India and US do have a strategic partnership in some areas. At the same time the US will remain watchful of India's relationship with China. New Delhi is not simply a partner of the United States or China. It will attempt to march to the beat of its own drummer. Whether New Delhi will succeed, only the future can tell.
The doubt arises for two reasons. Firstly, the penetration of multi national corporations into the Indian private sector and the increasing linkage with the US for defence (and nuclear know how) may deprive India of the independence that it may seek. Ramtanu Maitra reported in July 2007
Here it is not without relevance to note, for instance, something which Lt Gen (retired) Dan Christman, senior Vice President (international affairs) of the influential US Chamber of Commerce declared in March 2007 whilst leading a 38 member delegation to Tamil Nadu -
Secondly New Delhi will need to recognise that, in the end, the strength of India will lie not in the nuclear bomb, but in its peoples. The economy of India will not grow unless the different peoples of India are energised to work together to achieve their shared aspirations. There may be a need for New Delhi to address the concerns such as those expressed by Arundhati Roy in her conversation with Shoma Chaudhury in March 2007 -
Here, the failure of successive Indian governments to openly recognise that India is a multi-national state, has served to weaken the Indian Union rather than strengthen it. The European Union (established albeit, after two World Wars), may serve as a pointer to that which may have to be achieved in the Indian region in the years to come. India may need to adopt a more 'principle centred' approach towards struggles for self determination in the Indian region. A myopic approach, apart from anything else, may well encourage the very outside 'pressures' which New Delhi seeks to exclude. And there may be a need to pay more than passing attention to the views expressed by U.S. Congressman Edolphus Towns in the United States Congress ten years ago on 2 October 1998 -
In contrast to India, China has taken pains to construct an independent defence policy. Lt Gen Zhang Qinsheng, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, People's Republic of China explained at the Shangri La Conference in Singapore in June 2007 -
And, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - has emerged as a potential rival to Western groups. Significantly it includes India but the US was denied membership.
Given the China - India equation, the US may welcome a 'balance of power in Asia' as a way of securing its own pre-eminence as the sole global super power - a unipolar world 'with a multipolar perspective' a la Condoleezza Rice  or to use an older and perhaps better known phrase, divide et impera.
In the 19th century, British foreign policy was directed to secure a 'balance of power' in continental Europe so that Brittania may rule the waves and the sun never set on the British Empire in the world. It will not be a matter for surprise if New Delhi and China may feel challenged by the US 'balance of power in Asia' approach. Whilst the US is intent on securing an unipolar world with a 'multipolar perspective' for the foreseeable future, New Delhi and China may see a multi lateral asymmetric world where the 'asymmetry' progressively diminishes - and a truly multipolar world emerges.
Recently Shyam Saran Special Envoy to Indian Prime Minister, and Indian Foreign Secretary 2004 - 2006 declared in Singapore -
Given all this, the question is: in what areas are the US, New Delhi and China competing with each other, and in what areas are they cooperating with each other? And this may be the appropriate stage to turn to an examination of the strategic significance of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean Region.
Here I am reminded of the occasion of Ceylon's independence in 1948. Independence was proclaimed on 4 February 1948. The ceremonial opening of the first independent parliament of Ceylon was on the 10th of February 1948. As a young teenager, I was present at the ceremonial opening. Two memories have stayed with me during the past several years.
One was the picture of the Ceylon Prime Minister, the Rt Hon D S Senanayake, one of His Majesty's Privy Councilors. A large marquee had been set up for the opening of parliament. It was a warm day in Colombo and the Rt Hon D S Senanayake was there, resplendent in a top hat, and a morning coat with tails. It seemed that Lord Macaulay's Education Minute of 1835 had secured some success in creating "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect."
The other memory was that of the King's representative who delivered the 'throne speech'. He was the Duke of Gloucester, the brother of the King at that time and he was dressed in the uniform of an Admiral. At that time the significance of the naval uniform escaped me.
But the fact was that Ceylon had entered into a defense agreement with the United Kingdom in 1947/48 for the use by the United Kingdom of the naval base in Trincomalee. The Defence Agreement was a condition precedent to the United Kingdom granting independence in February 1948. Interestingly the exchange of letters between the UK Foreign Office and Australia (in 1947 and before Ceylon was granted independence) reflected the importance that not only the United Kingdom but also Australia (with its western coast on the waters of the Indian Ocean) attached to that Defence Agreement.
I relate this story to show that the strategic significance of Sri Lanka existed before the present conflict in the island - and will continue to exist even after the conflict is resolved.
Said that, the strategic significance of Sri Lanka arises not only from Trincomalee. It is not as simple as that - we need to include Hambantota, the Voice of America installations and so on. Ramesh Somasundaram of Deakin University in his 2005 publication 'Strategic Significance of Sri Lanka' gives three reasons for the 'interest of the international community' in Sri Lanka -
" (1) Sri Lanka is strategically
In 1985 I was in Bhutan as a member of the Tamil delegation to the Thimpu Talks. The Research Analysis Wing of India spent some considerable time informing us of the threats that US submarines posed in the Indian Ocean and the difficulties they had and why it was important that some agreement must be achieved with Sri Lanka.
The Thimpu Talks themselves failed but two years later in 1987, the Indo Sri Lanka Accord did secure for India its strategic interests. The exchange of letters between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lanka President J.R.Jayawardene on 29 July 1987 preceding the Signing of Agreement provided inter alia that
That said, we must bear in mind that the intervention by the United States and by India in the conflict in the island has a long history.
In 1979 the Governor of the State of Massachusetts proclaimed 22 May 1979 as Eelam Day. In 1981 the legislature of the State of Massachusetts passed a resolution calling for 'the restoration and reconstitution of the separate sovereign state of Tamil Eelam'. And it is perhaps not without significance that the Proclamation of the Mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts on 22 June 1981 declared interalia that
"..The harbour of Trincomalee is one of the wonders of nature and is a strategic area in the Indian Ocean; and that Trincomalee had been a purely Tamil area along with Jaffna, Mannar, Vavunia, Batticaloa and Ampara, until the administrative fusion with the Sinhalese country; and that the Tamils of the island had been there from time immemorial.."
At the same time, Tamil Nadu in India (like the State of Massachusetts in the US!) was vociferous in its support for Tamil Eelam, and Indira Gandhi's India armed and trained Tamil militants in their struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam.
In 1998, Jyotindra Nath Dixit who served as Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka 1985 /89, Foreign Secretary in 1991/94 and National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister of India 2004/05 declared disarmingly -
"...Tamil militancy received (India's) support ...as a response to (Sri Lanka's).. concrete and expanded military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, Israel and Pakistan. ...The assessment was that these presences would pose a strategic threat to India and they would encourage fissiparous movements in the southern states of India. .. a process which could have found encouragement from Pakistan and the US, given India's experience regarding their policies in relation to Kashmir and the Punjab.... Inter-state relations are not governed by the logic of morality. They were and they remain an amoral phenomenon....."
When these matters are mentioned today, it is sometimes said that all this may have been relevant during the time of the cold war but that the world has moved on since then. It is true that the world has moved on - but today we are in the midst of a new cold war. The United States may be the sole super power, but it lives in an 'asymmetric' multi lateral world where strong regional powers (including the EU, Russia, China and India) have increasing global impact. We are living in a world where the current 'asymmetry' is progressively diminishing. This is the new cold war. It is a cold war because open warfare is to nobody's benefit. And this is so not only because of the inter linked nature of the global economy but also because of the deterrent effect of the nuclear capability of today's enlarged nuclear club.
Today, for Sri Lanka, China is a 'benign friend'. Sudha Ramachandran warned in the Asia Times on 13 March 2007
".. China is all set to drop anchor at India's southern doorstep. An agreement has been finalized between Sri Lanka and China under which the latter will participate in the development of a port project at Hambantota on the island's south coast. ...the significance of Hambantota to China lies in its proximity to India's south coast and on the fact that it provides Beijing with presence midway in the Indian Ocean."
In March 2007, B. Muralidhar Reddy commented on the ten year Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) signed by the United States and Sri Lanka on 5 March 2007 -
"The ten year Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) signed by the United States and Sri Lanka on March 5, which provides for among other things logistics supplies and re-fuelling facilities, has major ramifications for the region, particularly India. For all the sophistry and spin by the Americans, the ACSA is a military deal and, on the face of it, is loaded in Washington's favour " 
These then are some aspects of the international dimension of the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka - an international dimension constituted by the geo strategic political triangle of the US, India and China. And for the US we may also read 'the Trilaterals' i.e. US, EU and Japan - though the interests of the three may not always be congruent. Iraq was a recent instance of disharmony.
It will be fair to say that there are two conflicts in the island. One is the conflict arising from the people of Tamil Eelam struggling to free themselves from oppressive rule by an ethno-Sinhala nation masquerading as a 'civic' Sri Lankan nation. The other is the conflict between international actors jostling for power and influence in the Indian Ocean region.
And the record shows that these international actors are concerned to influence the resolution of the conflict in such a way that each of their own (conflicting) interests in the Indian Ocean region are advanced - or at least not undermined.
For instance, today, the US and India may find common cause in 'weakening' the LTTE and the Tamil Eelam struggle for freedom - but weaken it in such a way that thereafter each of them may successfully jockey (if necessary, against each other) for position and influence in the Indian Ocean region. Each has a need to 'embed' its influence in the Sinhala body politic during the conflict resolution process. After all, if Tamil resistance is totally annihilated, both US and India may lose an useful lever to influence a Sinhala Sri Lanka. This may be more so for India than for the US. The US is a super power and may feel that it has other weapons in its armoury to advance its foreign policy objectives.
And so the US espouses the cause of 'human rights' (but not self determination) in UN fora, builds links with sections of the Tamil diaspora concerned with human rights, and at the same time strengthens its links with the Sinhala opposition in Sri Lanka to bring about a 'grand coalition' among the Sinhala political parties and in this way increase its leverage in the island.
Here the US may be mindful that the traditional urban/mercantile/land owner electoral constituency of the opposition United National Party may be more supportive of US economic policies than the left of centre 'Sinhala nationalist' constituency of the SLFP and/or the Marxist JVP. A JVP delegation led by JVP leader Wimal Weerawansa, during a recent tour to China urged the Chinese Foreign Bureau and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party to "resist the intentions of western powers to create an Israel in South Asia".
At the same time, New Delhi which has no desire to lose its ability to play the 'Tamil card' as a useful lever (as in fact it did in the early 1980s), builds its own network amongst dissident Tamils both in Sri Lanka and abroad and makes contributions to the political funds of Sinhala political parties to propagate its interests.
Amidst all this, the public stance of each of these international actors is to deny the existence of their strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region - and, more importantly, the conflicting nature of those interests. For instance, former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Jeffrey Lunstead in a recent paper on the 'United States Role in Sri Lanka Peace Process 2002-2006' said -
"..With the end of the Cold War, U.S. interest in Sri Lanka waned. As recently as 2000, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was planning for significantly reduced development assistance levels. The enhanced engagement that commenced in 2001 occurred despite the absence of significant U.S. strategic interests in Sri Lanka. Political-military interests are not high, and the U.S. has no interest in military bases in Sri Lanka. From an economic and commercial standpoint, Sri Lanka is unlikely to be a major U.S. trading partner in the near future. There is not a large enough Sri Lankan-origin community in the U.S. to have an impact on U.S. domestic politics. "
Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead fails to mention that with the end of the old cold war a new cold war has started. He fails to address the issues raised by United States Lt.Col. Christopher J. Pehrson in 'String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China's Rising Power Across the Asian Littoral'. But, though strategic interests may be denied they cannot always be hidden -
"..US Marines will conduct exercises with the Sri Lanka Navy later this month, deploying more than 1,000 personnel and support ships for amphibious and counter-insurgency maneuvers with the aim of 'containing' growing Chinese presence in the region and to test its latest theories on 'littoral battle' without putting American soldiers at risk…" Indian Marines to train Sri Lanka Navy - Rahul Bedi, 25 October 2006
"..At the last meeting of the Indo-US Defence Joint Working Group held in New Delhi (on 10 April 2007), China's 'growing naval expansion in the Indian Ocean' was noted with concern. The meeting also noted: ''China is rapidly increasing military and maritime links with countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar… The 200 years of the Anglo-Saxon presence in the region has now been replaced by the US-China presence to further and protect their interests. Isn't it time for the 'owners' of the Indian Ocean to get together to protect their own interests? " Atul Dev in the Mauritius Times, 25 May 2007 
The reluctance on the part of the international community to openly state their interests may be understandable. And we may also need to recognize that human rights and humanitarian law are more often than not simply instruments through which states selectively intervene in the affairs of other states, so that they may advance their own strategic interests in an acceptable way. We had for instance Helsinki Watch which played an important role in the old cold war. Now of course Helsinki Watch has matured into Human Rights Watch which has on occasion acted as an arm of US Foreign Policy (see Human Rights Watch in Service to the War Party). The gallery of friendly dictators supported by the international community from time to time also serves as a constant reminder of the political dimension of human rights and humanitarian law.
Said that, the denial by international actors of their conflicting strategic interests in Sri Lanka draws a veil over the real issues that any meaningful conflict resolution process in the island will need to address. We cannot ostrich like bury our collective heads in the sand - and, to mix the metaphor, ignore the elephant in the room. Whilst the goal of securing peace through justice is loudly proclaimed by the international actors, real politick leads them to deny the justice of the Tamil Eelam struggle for freedom from alien Sinhala rule.
The harsh reality is that on the one hand international actors are concerned to use the opportunity of the conflict to advance each of their own strategic interests - and on the other hand, Sri Lanka seeks to use the political space created by the geo strategic triangle of US-India-China in the Indian Ocean region to buy the support of all three for the continued rule of the people of Tamil Eelam by a permanent Sinhala majority within the confines of one state.
The record shows that Sinhala Sri Lanka seeks to engage in a 'balance of power' exercise of its own by handing over parts of the island (and its surrounding seas) to India, US and China. We have India in the Trincomalee oil farm, at the same time we have a Chinese coal powered energy plant in Trincomalee; we have a Chinese project for the Hambantota port, at the same time we have the attempted naval exercises with the US from Hambatota (to contain Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean); we have the grant of preferred licenses to India for exploration of oil in the Mannar seas, at the same time we have a similar grant to China and a 'road show' for tenders from US and UK based multinational corporations; meanwhile we have the continued presence of the Voice of America installations in the island and the ten year Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) was signed by the United States and Sri Lanka on 5 March 2007. It will not be a matter for surprise if the US has found Sri Lanka's attempt to engage in a 'balance of power' exercise of its own somewhat irritating - and has cautioned Sri Lanka privately that Sri Lanka was not a super power and should not try to behave like one.
But, behind the machinations of real politick, there is also something that history teaches. History shows that a people's struggle for freedom is also a nuclear energy. Sri Aurobindo, the sage of Pondicherry said it all a hundred years ago -
Again, all of us, including the Sinhala people of Sri Lanka, may also want to remember that which Sardar K.M.Pannikar, Indian Ambassador to China from 1948 to 1952, and later Vice Chancellor, Mysore University said in Principles and Practice of Diplomacy, in 1956 -
At the end of the day, it is for all to recognise that it is the Tamil people and the Sinhala people who will need to have the conversation with one another as to how two free and independent peoples may associate with one another in equality and in freedom.
I will end here - with the words of the Leader of Tamil Eelam, Velupillai Pirapaharan on Maha Veerar Naal in 1993
"Every country in this world advances its own interests. It is economic and trade interests that determine the order of the present world, not the moral law of justice nor the rights of people. International relations and diplomacy between countries are determined by such interests. Therefore we cannot expect an immediate recognition of the moral legitimacy of our cause by the international community... In reality, the success of our struggle depends on us, not on the world. Our success depends on our own efforts, on our own strength, on our own determination..." 
Thank you very much.