War, Diplomacy and National Interest
need of the hour is multilateral diplomacy to ensure Sri Lanka’s
national interest, including Defence, is not undermined.
As a sovereign nation, technically, Sri Lanka is free to conduct
bi-lateral relations with any country to secure its own national
interests. But, national interests must not be limited to a few months
or even the life span of a government.
In the process of securing its national interests, relations with
regional power India, superpower United States and the 25-member
European Union (EU) must not be allowed to suffer, provided the big
powers bail out a vulnerable client State in rough times.
Bilateral piecemeal diplomacy must find its place in the grand scheme of
multilateral diplomacy in a globalised world.
Non alignment is still the best course in diplomacy but, when fighting a
separatist war and foreign help is needed, the equation changes.
Notwithstanding the Tamil diaspora in the EU, US and Canada, the LTTE
was banned by the 25-member strong European Union and the two North
American States. Together, they make up the affluent West.
India has also retained the ban on the organization, despite a 60
million Tamil population in Tamil Nadu. The ruling alliance at the
centre is also dependent on the ruling party in Tamil Nadu.
Heroes’ Day rhetoric
For the first time, Prabhakaran, on Tuesday, during his Heroes’ Day
speech, in a mark of desperation, appealed to the “80 million Tamils
living around the globe.”
As predicted, he continued to point to Sinhala chauvinism being
responsible for undermining a political solution. That the international
community would be taken to task, was also predicted by Senpathi last
Prabhakaran asserted that the propping up of the ‘genocidal Sinhala
State’ by the “international community, through economic aid, military
aid and subtle diplomatic efforts, will be counterproductive.”
He blames the present situation in the island on the international
community’s failure to condemn, unambiguously, the military path of the
Separate State a non event
After making out that there was no hope of a solution vis-à-vis the
‘Sinhala State,’ Prabhakaran moves to a different plane and stakes a
claim for a separate Tamil State.
“Although 80 million Tamils live around the globe, the Tamils do not
have a country of their own,” said Prabhakaran, appealing to the Tamil
diaspora “to rise up for the liberation of Tamil Eelam.”
Is he drawing inspiration from Israel, supported by the scattered Jewish
Prabhakaran’s comments coincided with President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s
state visit to Iran, which is threatening to wipe Israel off the map.
EU, US, Canada and India do not support a separate State in Sri Lanka,
but have reiterated the need for a political and not, a military
solution to the decades-long ethnic conflict.
A majority of the population—Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others—are
not agreeable to a separate State, but want the national question
settled with devolution of power to the north and east, where the
Tamil-speaking minority is the majority.
If the influential world feels that the regime is heading towards a
military solution, what will it do?
These are questions the current administration must address, as it maps
out its overall State, defence and economic policy, not, of course,
forgetting political survival.
This week, the situation in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Africa and West
Asia figured prominently during high level talks between European
Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Indian Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister Pranhab Muherjee and Trade
Minister Kamal Nath.
Barroso referred to the impact the two largest democracies (India and EU)
could have in addressing global challenges such as peace and security,
governance and climate change.
On Thursday, the British High Commission in Colombo, which currently
holds the EU presidency here, as Portugal does not have a mission,
expressed grave concern over “civilians caught up in Sri Lanka’s
conflict—in the Wanni, in Colombo or wherever it happens. A statement
called on the parties to exercise utmost care to avoid civilian
casualties, in accordance with international humanitarian law.
Standing by friends
Within the space of a week, Sri Lanka chose twice to stand out
internationally, by doing what others dared not.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a powerful statement defending
Pakistan, after his own Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollogama and
representatives of 53 other nations agreed to suspend the country from
No doubt, solidarity with Pakistan and Iran are important in the local
domain of defence and economics, to further the country’s prime
interests at a time the war is intensifying and the economy, tottering.
The President undertook a state visit to Iran, despite the recent sharp
differences between the US and Iran, branded as a State sponsoring
terrorism. (See box story)
A little over two months back, on October 25 the US Government
designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Quds
Force, an arm of the IRGC as terrorists, while three Iranian State-owned
banks -- Bank Melli and Mellat and Bank Saderat were named terrorist
“These actions will help to protect the international financial system
from the illicit activities of the Iranian government and they will
provide a powerful deterrent to every international bank and company
that thinks of doing business with the Iranian government,” said Rice.
“We have worked with our fellow members of the UN Security Council to
impose two sets of Chapter 7 sanctions on the Iranian government and we
are now discussing a third Chapter 7 resolution,” said Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice recently.
Sparring with HR
The government managed to prevent a resolution at the Human Rights
Council in Geneva a few months back, but if the human rights (HR) record
of the country gets completely out of hand and Sri Lanka continues to
resist a HR office here, the matter could be taken up at the UN Security
HR Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe undertook a two-day visit on November
29 and 30, 2007, to Geneva, to brief Regional, Cross-Regional Groups and
the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) on the
latest efforts undertaken by the Government of Sri Lanka regarding HR.
During a meeting with UNHCHR Ms. Louise Arbour, Samarasinghe discussed a
possible working arrangement but ruled out the establishment of a full
fledged field presence here, while proposing an alternative national
The government’s attempt to explain HR violations as occurring while
fighting one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organizations is
insufficient. Pointing to the LTTE’s attacks on civilians is of no
purpose, as these countries have banned the organization, precisely, for
its wanton acts of terrorism.
A possible presidential visit to Iran has been on the cards for over a
year. It was initially stalled by former Foreign Secretary H.M.S.
Pallihakkara. The proposed visit to Iran in September was also postponed
on advice by the Foreign Ministry.
Despite displeasure by the US over the proposed visit, the superpower
went ahead last month and provided surveillance boats to the Sri Lankan
Navy, as well as froze the assets of the Tamil Rehabilitation
Organisation (TRO), a front of the LTTE.
During a press conference on the TRO asset freeze, US Ambassador Robert
Blake, to a question on a possible presidential visit to Iran, said Sri
Lanka was a sovereign country and could do what it wished.
However, the Americans were informed that the President undertook this
mission, in national interest. The justification was the state of the
economy given the ongoing war.
But, the international community has maintained that the two sides
should come to the negotiation table, which the LTTE is not willing to
do from a weak military position. The pro-military government, however,
claims that it was only by weakening the Tigers that they would come to
Pleasing all the friends some of the time
This government has the knack of getting things in its favour from
diverse political parties, including those with opposing ideologies. The
foreign policy appears to be an extension of this Machiavellian
Nine months back, Ambassador Blake signed the Acquisition and Cross
Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on
March 5, almost coinciding with a presidential State visit to China, to
mark 50 years of diplomatic relations. The agreement was shelved during
the previous UNF administration owing to objections by India.
Within a week (March 12), an agreement was signed with the Chinese
government to build the Hambantota port.
India and the US were not too pleased with this development.
This administration is pursuing a dual policy of improving the country’s
Defence and foreign investment simultaneously, but, in the process, may
lose the goodwill of the larger international community which the UNF
cultivated to its advantage.
The UNF policy was to pursue peace with an eye on foreign investment,
while winning the admiration of the wider international community.
A sum of US$ 4.5 billion was pledged to Sri Lanka at the 2003 June 10,
Tokyo Donor Conference. But, since there were strings attached, with the
peace process crashing, the pledges have evaporated.
Iran’s ‘token of appreciation’
In this backdrop and the unprecedented oil prices, President
Rajapaksa undertook his visit to Iran. He secured concessions to the
tune of US$ 1.5 billion at a crucial time when a barrel of crude oil has
risen to nearly US$ 100 from US $ 18 in 2004, when President Kumaratunga
made her official visit to Iran.
In fact, international observers were closely monitoring how long Sri
Lanka would survive this steep rise in oil prices.
President Rajapaksa was able to secure a seven-month credit facility
that included a four-month credit line and a further three-month credit
with concessionary terms.
This will help the country tide over the foreign currency pressure.
An MoU for US$ 600 million Uma Oya Hydropower and Irrigation Project was
also signed and the foundation stone for the project is to be declared
open in March 2008 by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad himself.
A further grant of US$ 400 million is to be made for renovating the
Sapugaskanda Refinery. Sri Lankan Ambassador to Iran M.M. Zuhair P.C.
did the spade work for the State visit to Iran that raised eyebrows as
the incumbent President was considered a hardliner by the west.
Then and now
President Chandrika Kumaratunga undertook a State visit to Iran in
November, 2004, at a time Tehran was not in the firing line, with
Mohammad Khatami as President.
The country got a waiver of the required international bank guarantee
for opening a Letter of Credit by the People’s Bank to import oil,
thanks to the handy work of the then Ambassador to Iran, Omar Kamil when
the Power and Energy Minister was Karu Jayasuriya during the UNF
To date, this has saved Sri Lanka between US$ 1 and 2 billion, as the
country imports 70% of its total crude oil requirement from the National
Iranian Oil Corporation. A 1% charge is levied by international banks
for a guarantee.
Kumaratunga’s visit also resulted in Iran lifting the ban on importing
tea from Sri Lanka. With the re-entry of Sri Lanka into Iran’s tea
market, where the country was purchasing some 30 million kilograms of
tea annually, the price fetched in the international market has more
than doubled from US$ 2 to more than 4 per kilo.
During Kumaratunga’s presidency, Army Commander Shantha Kottegoda, and
the third in command of both the Navy and Air Force visited Iran for
equipment but this did not materialize as western powers had expressed
One of the implications of being listed as a State sponsoring terrorism,
is a ban on arms-related exports and sales.
Foreign policy strategists must advise the government on the possible
fallout from statements supporting countries listed as States sponsoring
terrorism. (See related box story). This should be factored in the
overall foreign policy as piecemeal diplomacy could undo all the good
work to secure the goodwill of the international community.
(It was President Bill Clinton who first banned US trade
with and investment in Iran by Executive Order 12959 more than a dozen
years back). What was the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) became the
Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) in September 2006 and extended till December
The law also recommended against US nuclear agreements with countries
that have supplied nuclear technology to Iran. It contains a provision
to try prevent money laundering by criminal groups, terrorists, or
The other named State sponsors of terrorism as of April 30, 2007,
include Cuba, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.
The US government imposed further sanctions on Tehran recently after it
refused to suspend the controversial nuclear programme.
Rice said that Iran was offered new incentives to cooperate and
negotiate with Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, Germany and the
“We offered to support a civil nuclear program in Iran under
international supervision, if it agreed to give up pursuit of the fuel
cycle. But we also said that if the government of Iran continued to
violate its international obligations and continued its unwise campaign
for nuclear weapons capability, they would face serious circumstances
and sanctions,” said Rice.
Rice said that the Iranian government continues to spurn the US offer of
open negotiations and instead, is threatening peace and security by
pursuing nuclear technologies that can lead to a nuclear weapon,
building dangerous ballistic missiles, supporting Shia militants and
terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian
Douglas Devananda time-line
Kathiravelu Nithyananda Devananda (born 1957 in Jaffna),
popularly known as Douglas Devananda, was originally a Tamil militant,
who gave up violence and is currently the leader of the Eelam Peoples
Democratic Party (EPDP). Due to his strong opposition to and vocal
criticism of the LTTE, the Tigers have unsuccessfully tried to
assassinate him several times. He continues to remain high on their list
of targets for assassination.
He says “I am humanist and a Hindu without the holy ash, a Christian
without a cross, and a Muslim without the cap.”
Following are some of the attempts on his life as narrated to The
Nation. Of the attempts on his life not mentioned in the list below, he
said he could not remember them.
1. In 1983 when he was held at the Welikada prison, there was a death
threat on him. He escaped, but 52 others were killed.
2. On September 23, 1983, he also escaped from the Batticaloa prison
despite several prison guards opening fire.
3. In 1986 when he tried to cross the Palk Straits, the Navy started
shooting at his boat. Devananda and others in the boat went under the
water to escape the shooting. Of the 19 who were on board, nine were
killed. Devananda and others remained in the deep sea from 7.00 pm till
8.00 am the following day, escaping death.
4. In Madras following an argument with some villagers, there has been a
scuffle between Devananda and the villagers. In this incident the
villagers had opened fire at Devananda, but he had run for his life and
5. In 1995 a Commando type of attack took place in Havelock place. Four
bodyguards were killed. Devananda escaped.
6. On July 7, 1998, an attempt was made on his life in the Kalutara
prison. Devananda escaped.
7. In 2002 in Kayts, a LTTE cadre had come in front of Devananda and
started shooting. Immediately an EPDP cadre had jumped in front of
Devananda and saved him. But the cadre was killed instantly. In this
incident another EPDP cadre was seriously wounded.
8. On July 07, 2004, a suicide bomber had visited Devananda’s office.
Upon suspicion she was sent to the Kollupitiya police station for
checking where she blew herself up. In this incident five police
officers were killed and seven injured.
9. A vehicle in which Devananda was travelling came under land mine
attack on August 6, 2006. While former EPDP Member of Parliament
Sivathasan succumbed to his injuries Devananda escaped.
10. On November 28, 2007 a woman suicide bomber attempted to enter
Devananda’s ministry but when she was checked by the security she blew
herself up killing Devananda’s personal secretary. Two others were