The West, Mr. Wickremesinghe and the coat-hanger

| by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

(December 14, Paris, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Minister of External Affairs Prof GL Peiris usually gives no reason to be described as ‘irate’. That however, was the newspaper description of his uncharacteristically sharp remonstration, urging Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe not to ‘outsource’ the role of the Opposition to the international/diplomatic community. The MEA website carries the story: “Prof. Peiris lambasted Wickremesinghe for taking all domestic issues before the international community instead of having local mechanisms to tackle problems faced by the Sri Lankans. An irate External Affairs Minister stressed that the responsibilities of the Opposition shouldn’t be handed over to Colombo-based foreign envoys…” (Source: ‘Don’t outsource Opp. responsibilities to foreign missions, GL tells Ranil’ The Island, 2 December 2011). Was there perhaps an unstated flipside to that coin? It may be argued that sections of the international community have also shown a propensity to outsource their Sri Lankan policy at least in part, to Mr Wickremesinghe or to rely upon him as an instrument of policy.
Cartoon by Indiaka Dissanayake
Western policy towards post-war Sri Lanka contains several important and unresolved contradictions. One set of these resides in the policy towards Tamil politics and ethnic reconciliation. The other is located in the domain of Southern or Sinhala mainstream electoral politics. The two areas intersect, and therefore the contradictions, gaps, asymmetries and paradoxes in each domain reinforce those in the other. Simply stated, not only is Western policy on the North (ethnic reconciliation through reform) cleft by an intrinsic contradiction, that policy prong is at variance with the West’s political preferences in the South.
What is the goal of Western policy towards the Tamils of Sri Lanka? Is it to secure the implementation of reforms to provide for a level playing field as citizens and some irreducible measure of power-sharing? Is it to carve out a separate statelet for the Tamils of Northern Sri Lanka? Is it to use the Tamils as an instrument of pressure on Colombo so as to secure a change in policy direction or a change of regime? Is it to get Tamil Diaspora voters off the back of western politicians or tap into their votes in the upcoming year 2012 which will be an electoral year in the most important member of the Security Council? Is it all or some of the above, and if so, is it a policy mix, a mix-up or a mix that will lead to a mix-up; a multi-track policy that will result in a tangle?
I rather doubt that the West has studied the negative experiences of the world’s largest democracy in its dealings with Tamil politics in the 1980s. Even today, the refusal of a current of opinion in Tamil Nadu to condemn the Tigers for the murder of Rajiv Gandhi, and indeed the refusal of the TNA to condemn the Tigers for murdering a great many of the leaders of its own constituent parties, should act as an alarm signal for the West, but does not seem to function as such.
Take the so-called Mahaveera Day this year. The Tamil expatriate community is legitimately entitled to mourn the dead of thirty years of conflict, but why not pick July 23-29th, the anniversary of Black July ’83, rather than the day which Velupillai Prabhakaran, the closest that South Asia came to a Hitler or a Pol Pot, designated and commemorated with truly Hitlerian torchlight parades? Why the continued identification with Prabhakaran and the Tigers? Why is there no parallel or counter-commemoration within the Tamil Diaspora or the Tamil victims of Prabhakaran, which included many remarkable personalities such as Amirthalingam, Yogeswaran, Mrs Yogeswaran, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Sam Thambimuttu and wife, K Pathmanabha, Sri Sabaratnam, Rajani Tiranagama, Kethesh Loganathan and Lakshman Kadirgamar, not to mention hundreds if not thousands of youngsters belonging to other organisations who were murdered by the LTTE, such as the TELO boys who were burnt alive in the streets of Jaffna on April 30th 1986?
Several interlocking factors in Tamil politics render problematic the task of peace-building in post-war Sri Lanka. These are (1) the political, organisational, ideological, symbolic and more importantly, socio-psychological dominance of the LTTE’s martial-separatism within the Diaspora (2) the non-emergence of a clear cut moral-ethical critique of the LTTE within Tamil politics and society (3) the failure or refusal of the mainstream Tamil parliamentary alternative to erect a firebreak between itself and the pro-Tiger element of the Tamil Diaspora (4) the location of the Tiger demonstrations, in the benignly tolerant West and Tamil Nadu which enhances the Sinhala perception/ misperception of Western/external pressure as being tilted towards the Tamils, or being Diaspora-driven or the Diaspora functioning as Western ‘neo-colonial’ agency, all of which combine to (5) generate/re-kindle a threat perception at the centre of the state, the South as a whole and among the security sectors in particular that a devolved/autonomous territorial-political unit for the Tamils would be but a stepping stone for secessionist agitation which would draw in external patronage.
These threat perceptions, warranted or unwarranted, result in an impulse, inspired by counsel from or policy practices in other regions, to ‘create facts on the ground’ which hedge against the day that such a devolved unit will have to be re-activated. So long as factors 1-4 operate upstream, factor 5 will persist downstream. The state, the armed forces and the voters will always weigh in the balance, the dangers of a devolved territorial political unit acting as a bridge, not between the North and South, but more so, between a militant Tamil Diaspora and the North of the country, or, more basically, between a hostile exterior environment and the island. Seeing the footage of Mahaveera Day 2011, the preponderant tendency will be to pull up the drawbridge, and opt for those who can be trusted to, or are on balance more likely to, man the ramparts and guard the gates.
This brings us to the contradiction embedded in Western policy towards mainstream Sri Lankan politics. On the one hand, the Wikileaks cables confirm a clear Western tilt towards Ranil Wickremesinghe and make transparent the reasons for that tilt. On the other hand, the Norwegian post-mortem identifies a structural or systemic reason, which involves precisely the same Ranil Wickremesinghe, for the lack of political space and leverage for democratic minority parties and issues. Ambassador Butenis who served in El Salvador would be familiar with the line that did the rounds among the guerrilla leaders, about why a military victory over the Salvadoran army was just not possible: “it is like beating a coat hanging on a coat hanger. However much you beat it, it sways but won’t fall. The Salvadoran army is the coat while US support is the coat hanger”. Out in Tahrir Square, where demonstrators show TV crews the markings on highly potent tear gas canisters, educated young Egyptians feel the same about their establishment.
Hosni Mubarak was in power for 30 years. Ranil Wickremesinghe has been ruling the UNP for more than half that time, 17 years. It took the UNP government a dramatic shift in leadership (JRJ to Premadasa) to last 17 years in office, just as did the SLFP (CBK, MR), but Mr Wickremesinghe has stayed on for 17 years without the benefit of any shift. How come? Only the coat hanger hypothesis works: external support and the pathetic mindset of the post-’93 UNP itself, where such external support from the West (mistakenly identified as ‘the international community’ in an era where the centre of gravity is shifting to Asia) matters more than chronic local un-electability.
Here’s a sample Wikileaks cable of 2003, authored by then Ambassador Ashley Wills, which explains the Western tilt to Wickremesinghe.
“…Since coming to power in late 2001, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken steps to steer Sri Lankan foreign policy closer to the U.S. Wickremesinghe’s pro-U.S. views have been long-standing and are in part a function of family connections. His uncle, J.R. Jayewardene, for example, was Sri Lanka’s president from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, and maintained very close links with the U.S. (Note: In fact, Jayewardene was called “Yankee Dickey” by leftists for years.) Moreover, Wickremesinghe, who comes from a very wealthy business family, is a strong advocate of free enterprise and strongly opposed to the disastrous socialist policies of former governments…In moving forward on a pro-U.S. agenda, the PM has had some notable successes…In another sign of a pro-U.S. tilt, the PM directed the MFA to take a relatively moderate posture regarding Operation Iraqi Freedom, despite strong anti-U.S., anti-war currents in Sri Lanka’s polity, including from the large Muslim population (see Reftels). Although the government’s statement was not all we would have wanted, it was relatively constructive, with the prime minister going so far as to ask us for comments re the draft…One key test of the prime minister’s chosen course is whether he uses UNGA to take on NAM and propose some sort of new grouping. If he does that, he would have consummated a dramatic shift in his country’s foreign policy orientation. END COMMENT. WILLS” (May 29, 2003)
Now the Western ‘coat hanger’ has caught itself in a twist. The recent NORAD report names the Sri Lankan political situation as one of uni-polarity. This provides a welcome opportunity from moving away from the usual categories and bringing to bear a systemic analysis on the Lankan condition. Such an analysis means understanding the whole, as a system, in which the parts behave according to the logic driving the system. Thus leader or political personality X would behave differently if the system was differently configured, while a different political personality would behave similarly if the systemic configuration remained unchanged. The key determinant is the uni-polar character of the system, which as the Norwegian study shows, was not always the case. It is a result, a product of the ‘lack of a credible alternative’, deriving from the ‘leadership crisis’ of the UNP, which itself has two sources, the ‘legitimacy crisis’ of the UNP leadership ‘because of its pro-western orientation and its neo-liberal economic policy and ‘the refusal of Wickremesinghe to step down despite successive defeats’.
The uni-polarity is consequence of this causation and the by product is the possibility of electoral victory purely by appeal to Sinhala voters with the further resultant being the marginalisation and lack of leverage of democratic minority stakeholders. Thus, the Western (ideological) preference and support for Wickremesinghe undergird the uni-polar character of the ‘game’, and undermines the West’s stated post-war policy goals. That support and Mr Wickremesinghe’s posture of leaning on it, cripples his party’s political viability. It thereby creates a systemic context in which democratic minority parties are politically devalued and electorally dispensable. The West-UNP nexus also threatens Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and stability – and hence Minister GL Peiris’ ‘irate’ remonstration. It is a rare example of a lose-all-round scenario. There are no winners. Re-set buttons, anyone?


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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