Bruce Fein challenges Bernard Goonetilleke to open debate in the U.S
By Satheesan Kumaaran
Wednesday, March 10, 2008

Who could have seen this coming? Former U.S. Associate Attorney General Bruce Fein has called upon an eminent Sri Lankan diplomat and present ambassador to the U.S. to an open debate at the National Press Club on American soil. Does the call challenge the intellectuality of our Sri Lankan generations? Will Sri Lankan Ambassador to the US Bernard Goonetilleke accept this call to show that Sri Lankans are prepared for any challenge?

Bruce Fein's challenge reflects his intellectual ability to interact with a powerful, career diplomat by modern Sri Lankan standards, and has come in the wake of the U.S. recognizing the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo from Serbia in the post-Cold War era leading to the further degradation of the relations between Russia and the U.S.

Fein's call for an open debate is like a heavy weight boxing champion thinking that he cannot be defeated in the ring. Will the Sri Lankan ambassador accept the challenge or will he meekly retreat from the debate with his tail between legs? If Goonetilleke rejects the call, Sri Lanka will see it as a betrayal. One should remember that Sri Lanka once produced excellent analysts and intellectuals who contributed in the academic and public service circles, especially within the in the south and southeast Asia region. In this context alone, Goonetilleke should accept the challenge, and demonstrate Sri Lankan prowess in external relations and assertive diplomacy. Fein has given the ambassador the opportunity to pick any date in March of this year, and the Sri Lankan government, if necessary, must even allocate funds to invest in relevant resources on diplomacy, history and geography of Asia and the Americas to help him prepare for the debate.

The call for the debate was pertinent. Goonetilleke's presentation on 25 January 2008 and the commentary that appeared on 17 February 2008 in the commentary section of the Washington Times entitled, "Tamil Homeland Fantasy", must have prompted Fein to speak out against Goonetilleke. Previous ambassadorial statements have presented the world with many factual errors about Sri Lanka's history and the principles of the UN Charter. Goonetilleke claimed that the Tamils did not have the fundamental principles to be recognized as a unique nation and state. Yet, according to the UN Charter's clearly stated principles, Tamils have justified their claim to be recognized as a unique nation and their eligibility for self-determination.

Sri Lankan politicians and diplomats should remember the failure of the Thimpu Talks in 1984 as a consequence of the Sri Lankan government refusing to accept the fundamental demands of Tamil representatives at the talks. The Tamils put forward basic principles, which included the recognition of Tamil homeland, the recognition of Tamil people as a nationality and the recognition of the Tamil people's right to national self-determination. Rather, India, which hosted the talks between the Tamils and Sinhala leaderships at Thimpu in Bhutan, came up with a different set of responses in not accepting the demands of Tamils saying that, while recognizing the northern and eastern provinces as areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking people, the Tamils have also "at all times hitherto lived together in this territory with other ethnic groups." The Sri Lankan politicians and ambassadors should know the differences between the statements above. By citing the Northern and Eastern provinces as Tamil homeland, they gave importance to other ethnic groups. "Other ethnic groups" referring specifically to the Sinhalese. The ambiguity was intended. The disenfranchisement of nearly a million plantation Tamils in 1948 and the escalation of planned Sinhala colonisation after independence shattered all wishes of the Tamils to co-exist. Tamils have blamed the Sinhala leadership for destroying their native habitat in their traditional villages, especially in the east of Sri Lanka, which continues to happen today. No-one can refute the fact that the north and east of Sri Lanka were and are the traditional homeland of Tamil-speaking people. This territory is well-defined and has been inhabited by the Tamil-speaking people from time immemorial. The Tamils of Sri Lankan-origin are not claiming the Upcountry region of Sri Lanka as their homeland because these areas are considered Sinhala homeland. No-one can argue that, since Tamils live in the hill country, the land is the traditional homeland of the Tamils. The indigenous Tamils of the island have lived in the northern and eastern parts of the island from the very beginning of their existence in Sri Lanka.

Thus the Tamils have fulfilled all the principles stated in the UN Charter to be a unique nation. The concept of nation is psychology, but statehood is the legality. Statehood will be legally recognised once the majority of the members of the UN with the support of UN's Security Council declare it a legal state. Kosovo is a unique example to cite because Kosovo has declared independence unilaterally from Serbia. Most powerful countries, such as the U.S., have recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state. With a population of over 3.2 million, twice the size of Kosovo, Tamils satisfy the basic criteria to be recognized as an independent state of their traditional homeland (northeast). This, indeed, will be part of Fein's argument.

Meanwhile, Goonetilleke claims that the Tamils live in the Sinhala south and that, while the LTTE have control, no one can live in peace. This is a horrendous misguided error on the part of this so-called senior career Sri Lankan diplomat. Senior foreign delegates visited the government-controlled areas northeast of Sri Lanka and the LTTE-controlled territories. These diplomats reported on the great administration of the LTTE-controlled areas, and many sad stories -- disappearances, rapes, lootings and killings occurring on a daily basis - in the government-controlled areas. Goonetilleke may not have heard these stories because he lived a cloistered life far removed from reality, and it is pathetic that he was named a senior person in the Sri Lankan peace coordinating committee. It is baffling as to how such people like Goonetilleke could objectively explain the history of Tamil struggle and their history to an international audience let alone to the common Sinhala people in the south. It is pathetic that he claims that the Tamils have no traditional homeland and Tamils have no grievances whatsoever, except the Tamil terrorism (LTTE). He is used to citing the FBI's report comparing the LTTE with other international outfits like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah or Hamas. His lack of knowledge about India's history is evidenced by his claims that India's official language is Hindi and that India does not recognize the other languages. In fact, Indian states and the central government agreed when the central government granted autonomy for the states through quasi-federalism, that the states would have their own language besides English. While the central government recognizes all state languages, they would employ Hindi and English as official languages. Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal, Assam and Punjab are a few of the Indian states who have their own language of administration - in addition to English. There is no Hindi domination of these states at all. If the central government sends out mail to the people of these states, they address the letters in English, rather than Hindi. These states send their MPs to the upper and lower houses in New Delhi to represent their states, where they speak English. Although, Sri Lanka recognized Sinhala, Tamil and English as official languages of government in Colombo, the governments in Colombo had directed their departments to write letters in Sinhala even when addressing them to the people who live in Tamil homeland. These Tamils do not have any knowledge of Sinhala at all. Contrary to what Goonetilleke has said, there are very few Tamil officers in the Sri Lankan armed forces and police force.

On the question of standardisation of University intake on a racial basis, even an anti-LTTE activist like Ratnajeevan H. Hoole, who is attached to the Drexel University in Philadelphia, has written a response to Goonetilleke's commentary that: "Goonetilleke says weighting examinations was never intended to discriminate against us Tamils. I took the common Advanced Level exam in 1969 and was admitted to the engineering faculty. The government then redid the admissions after adding some 28 marks to the four-subject aggregate of Sinhalese students. I lost my seat. They effectively claimed that the son of a Sinhalese minister in an elite Colombo school was disadvantaged vis--vis a Tamil tea-plucker's son. Unable to defend this, in 1973 they created the statistical scheme equating Tamil and Sinhalese averages with regional preferences to which the ambassador refers."

Goonetilleke argues that Sri Lanka's judicial system embraces all sectors of Sri Lankan society. He is trying to please his masters in Colombo by conveying these stories to the men and women of western countries who have either little or no knowledge of Sri Lanka. This is totally dishonest. Senior men like Goonetilleke should maintain their credibility by speaking the truth. He has randomly picked recent court cases and claimed that the Sri Lankan judicial system treated everyone equally regardless of ethnicity or religion. The opinion of the Tamils is that the Sri Lankan judicial system treats the Tamils as second class citizens and, so, they have no confidence in the justice system. The criminal justice system has never been able to punish those culprits who raped and murdered the Tamils in broad daylight in Colombo or in the northeast of the island. Tamils cannot even approach the police stations in the south to lodge complaints against Sinhala criminals. In return, the officers in charge will book these innocent complainants with false allegations. Fearing police retaliation, the innocent Tamils do not file complaints with the police. Besides, if the Tamils took the issues all the way to the courts, these Tamils would either be abducted by the so-called 'white van' abductors, or be jailed by the police for alleged LTTE connections. This is the reality on ground in Sri Lanka.

The distorted statements by senior diplomats definitely will hurt the feelings of Tamils and others who are interested the minority rights and human values. It is easy to make people believe a lie but the truth has to be told a thousand times before they believe it.

Are Sri Lankans willing to expose the state they represent by denying the calls for an open debate? Sri Lankans will definitely feel betrayed if their diplomats, politicians or senior statesmen who fail to defend their country. Fein's call is a challenge for the diplomats or politicians in Sri Lanka to prove whether Sri Lanka is waging a war against terrorists or against freedom fighters. This could be the last chance for Sri Lanka to have an open debate in an international forum. Of course, the Sri Lankan government in the past had a Tamil, Lakshman Kadirgamar, from the Tamil homeland as the foreign minister of Sri Lanka and with excellent speaking and diplomacy skills, but it is impossible for the current Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama to rise up to it.

Sri Lankans from within and outside of Sri Lanka eagerly await Sri Lanka's response. Sri Lankans want to see whether these diplomats will further degrade the prestige of Sri Lanka in the eyes of foreigners. Failure to attend the debate will be an embarrassment and slap in the face for all Sri Lankans. Are Sri Lankans ready to show their chins to receive the slaps from a foreigner? Make a wise choice and prove that Sri Lankans are no less intellectual than any of other developed nations.

(The author can be reached at e-mail: satheessan_kumaaran@yahoo.com