Sri Lanka: The Isle of Serendipity Meets the Challenge of Terrorism
By H.E. Bernard Goonetilleke, Sri Lanka Ambassador in the U.S.
at the Sixth Annual Juneau World Affairs Council Forum, Juneau, Alaska 10 May 2008
Ladies and Gentlemen,
American audiences in general tend to identify Sri Lanka with two specific phenomena - the tsunami of December 2004 and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or the LTTE, a terrorist group also known as the ‘Tigers.’ The war with the Tigers, in particular, has continued unabated for close upon thirty years, and no one could be faulted for being horrified at the violence, death and destruction unleashed upon Sri Lanka by the Tigers. Some might even think that is all one can speak of Sri Lanka. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Let me briefly introduce Sri Lanka to you - it is a teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, just above the equator, separated from the Indian subcontinent by approximately twenty-two miles of sea. Located amidst strategic sea routes, Sri Lanka has had much exposure to the world, and, consequently, was known by many names over the centuries, such as, Lanka, Sihale, Sihaladiba, Seehalam, Eelam, Tambapanni, Taprobane, Serendib, Ceilan and Ceylon. The British author Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in 1754, from one of the names used for the island i.e. ‘Serendib’, which means, “making wonderful discoveries by accident”, as many seafarers of yore would have attested.
History and People
Sri Lanka has a multi-ethnic social fabric, comprising Sinhalese (74.5%), Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils (11.9% and 4.6% respectively), Moors (8.3%) and several other ethnic groups such as Malays, Burghers etc. It is also a multi-religious country, where Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians co-exist harmoniously - so much so, that there are places of worship like Adam’s Peak in the central highlands and Kataragama in the deep south, where Sri Lankans of several religions meet in prayer.
Sri Lanka is one of the oldest and most vibrant democracies in South Asia, having enjoyed universal adult franchise since 1931, mere 14 years after the United States, with regular elections, both parliamentary and presidential. Per capita income of the country is slightly above $1600/- per annum. However, the social indicators are quite impressive, and even surpass some high-income countries. For instance, Sri Lanka’s literacy rate is over 90%, and life expectancy at birth is 71.7 and 76.4 for males and females, respectively.
Being an island, Sri Lanka is surrounded by the ocean and golden sandy beaches, and is known as “The Hawaii of the East.” No larger than the state of West Virginia, and being twice the size of the island of Hawaii, with 25,000 square miles in extent, Sri Lanka has a varied climate, topography and soil, which has resulted in rich biodiversity. In fact, Sri Lanka is known as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, with many indigenous fauna and flora. Sri Lanka’s virgin rain forest, the Sinharaja, was declared an International Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978, a National Wilderness Area in 1988, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989. Sri Lanka is also a bird watcher’s paradise, with its 426 species of migrant and resident birds, 26 of them endemic to Sri Lanka. The island, with its diverse geographic and climatic conditions, offers many opportunities to the adventure seeker, with deep-sea diving, fishing, white water rafting, mountain trekking, hot air ballooning, cave explorations, jungle camping etc.
With its long recorded history, Sri Lanka is extremely rich in culture, and famed for its hydraulic civilization and monuments that rival the pyramids of Egypt, built in brick and constructed in the pre-Christian era. Some of the first irrigation reservoirs that were constructed then still provide water for irrigation of rice paddies and for domestic use, despite the passage of more than two thousand years. The ruins of ancient capital cities, like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, reveal how well planned the cities were, during ancient times. The Mahavamsa, the chronicle of Sri Lanka, describes how King Pandukabhaya, who reigned in the 4th century B.C., planned the city of Anuradhapura.
Nevertheless, Sri Lanka, with a population close to 20 million, is a tiny speck on the world map. So, why should the U.S. focus on Sri Lanka? The island’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean was a powerful reason for interests of imperial powers in Sri Lanka, during the colonial era. During seafaring days, the island’s strategic location between the Cape of Good Hope, the Suez Canal and the Malacca Straits, brought it to the limelight. In fact, even before the ancient mariner Hippolus discovered the monsoon winds as a means of navigation, Sri Lanka’s ancient seaport of Mantota, also known as Mahatitta, near Mannar, off the island’s western coast, had been an important entrepot.
Furthermore, Sri Lanka has one of the world’s largest natural harbours, in Trincomalee, in the east, which proved to be a considerable asset to the allies, during the Second World War. The strategic importance of Sri Lanka continues in the post-colonial era, with most of the gulf oil moving past Colombo, and through the Malacca Straits, toward the Far East, and manufactured goods, westward to markets in Europe. The Colombo Port is also a vital centre due to its location at the tip of South India, and its importance as a transhipment point for the Indian subcontinent.
Current issues and events of significance to Sri Lanka
To make a complicated situation more complex, if the ethnic composition of the Eastern Province is separated from that of the Northern Province, the Muslims and the Sinhalese taken together, far exceed the percentage of the Tamils in the Eastern Province. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the Muslims and the Sinhalese in the east are vehemently opposed to a separate state under the hegemony of Tamils from the north, and the Tamils in that province, for understandable reasons, will rue the day they come under the brutal control of their twice-removed cousins from the Northern Province.
Indeed, the brutality of the ‘Tigers’ is without parallel. Take for instance, the ‘Shining Path,’ which, in its heyday in the 1980s, was considered the most formidable insurgent movement in South America, waging a bloody war against the Peruvian state, causing some 70,000 deaths, until its leader Abimael Guzman was captured in 1992. Yet, ironically, the atrocities committed by the ‘Shining Path,’ pale in comparison to those committed by the ‘Tigers, ’ and bear similarity to those committed by the Pol Pot regime of Cambodia. In the course of some 30 years, Tigers have used suicide bombings and other modes of assassination to kill their opponents, be they Tamil politicians or civilians, Government Cabinet members, such as Foreign Minister Kadirgamar and Highway Minister Fernandopulle, two fellow Tamils, - the latter was assassinated last month - or even the Executive President of the country. They have also carried out truck bombings and other modes of attack targeting economic nerve centres of the island, such as the Central Bank, oil refineries and oil storage points, airports, seaports, passenger buses and trains, and even shopping complexes, at regular intervals, where civilians congregate by the thousands. Even if one were to agree that the ‘Tigers’’ political objective is justifiable, which certainly is not, there cannot be any justification for their resorting to acts of terrorism, targeting innocent civilians and civilian infrastructure.
One could well ask, why people living half a world away, like in the United States, or in Juneau, the capital city of Alaska, be concerned about what has been described by the media, as an “ethnic” conflict, in a far away island in the Indian Ocean? To view Sri Lanka’s conflict in such a manner is to oversimplify a complex situation. Living in a global village as we do today, we are all too aware that what happens on one side of the world, create waves not mere ripples on the other side of the world. Take for example, 9/11. The plot was hatched in one location in Asia, the operatives came from several other continents, and the dastardly deed was carried out in the city of New York. What is more, the ripple effects of the attack on the Twin Towers were felt acutely in all parts of the world, leading, practically, to a global economic meltdown.
This begs the question, “What has the world done to address the situation in Sri Lanka?” Let me explain frankly. As I said earlier, Sri Lanka had to face the brunt of untrammelled terrorism by the Tigers, for approximately 30 years, which killed nearly 70,000 of its citizens and severely challenged the country’s economic development. During the early years of the conflict, Sri Lanka’s plea for help, a lone cry in the deep wilderness, was unheard by the world, until the ferocity of terrorism reached the western hemisphere. Undoubtedly, 9/11 was the catalyst, opening the eyes of the western world to the lethality of terrorism. However, in fairness to the United States, I need to say that it was the second country in the world, after India, which lost its former Prime Minister Gandhi to the Tiger assassins, to designate them as a Foreign Terrorist Organization or an FTO.
While the U.S. took that step in 1997, the UK took several more years to consider the merits of listing the ‘Tigers,’ which they eventually did, in 2001. Canada designated the LTTE as a FTO in April 2006 and the 27-member EU followed suit in May 2006. In that sense, one can conclude that the vast majority of the western democracies took decisive action against a malignant terrorist organization that has the capacity to destabilize, not only Sri Lanka, but also other countries in the region.
The LTTE is not merely an evil entity; it is the veritable hydra-headed beast of Greek mythology, with unbelievable resilience and resourcefulness. One can cut off one head, only to be confronted by another. To meet any eventuality, the LTTE has in its armory, many front organizations, depending on the location of the country. For example, in the U.S., the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization or the TRO, over the years, siphoned off funds collected for charity, to fill the LTTE war chest, until the U.S. Department of Treasury proscribed it as an LTTE front organization, in November 2007. The World Tamil Coordinating Committee (WTCC) is another LTTE front organization operating in the U.S. and many other countries in the west. The U.S. leader of WTCC was arrested by the authorities in New York in April 2007. With the banning of the LTTE in Canada in April 2006, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been vigilant about the World Tamil Movement (WTM), an LTTE front operating in Canada. Substitute organizations wait in readiness to spring into action, if one front organization is unlucky enough to appear on the authorities’ radar screen. The case of the U.K. is one such example. When the Charity Commissioner of the U.K. discovered that the TRO funds were being siphoned off for purposes other than charity, he introduced restrictions against the TRO. However, that did not dissuade the Tigers. They promptly established another charity, named ‘White Pigeon.” When that too came under scrutiny in the U.K., the evermore resourceful Tigers launched another charity. This time it was ITRO, the same poison in a new bottle!
US action to curb terrorism in Sri Lanka
The US and Peace Negotiations in Sri Lanka
U.S. support for a negotiated settlement in Sri Lanka, continued into the second administration of President Bush, with the former Under Secretary of State, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, visiting Colombo in January 2006, with a strong message of support, for the government and against LTTE terrorism. When fighting resumed in early 2006, in the face of renewed provocative and unabated acts of terrorism by the Tigers, additional high-level visits by the U.S. administration to Sri Lanka, took place.
Human Rights situation and US concerns
As the fighting escalated amidst mounting allegations of human rights violations, Sri Lanka’s traditional friends have expressed concern, even though the government of Sri Lanka continues to make serious attempts to address these concerns through directives to the armed forces and the police, and through judicial action and institutional arrangements to bring offenders to justice. The government’s position is that if human rights violations have indeed taken place, they are not a reflection of government policy, but of unilateral action of individual members of the armed forces and the police, who are liable to be brought to justice where credible evidence is available.
To persuade the Sri Lanka government that such alleged human rights violations need to be addressed seriously, an amendment was introduced to the Department of State Appropriation Bill for FY 2008, placing restrictions on defense co-operation with Sri Lanka, under the “Foreign Military Financing Program”. Meanwhile, the 2007 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Sri Lanka, released by the Department of State in March 2008, has caused considerable concern in Sri Lanka as the government felt that it had misrepresented the situation in the country.
It is widely accepted that in situations of war, violations of human rights do take place. While such violations cannot be totally eliminated, governments of such countries, particularly democracies, are expected to be responsible for ensuring that those who engage in such violations are brought to justice. This is exactly what the government of Sri Lanka is doing, where credible evidence is available to pursue legal action. Since concerns were raised, the Embassy has shared information on arrests and indictments against members of the armed forces and police, with specific details containing names, offences committed, including details of the court cases, with the US Congress, the administration, as well as with concerned human rights organizations. However, I have to admit that legal processes in Sri Lanka are painfully slow, whether they are against human rights offenders, or pertaining to other civil or criminal cases. Clearly, such laws delays are not unique to Sri Lanka. For example, the judiciary in the U.K. took over a decade to reach a verdict o the death of Princess Diana. Moreover, shortcomings such as lack of facilities for DNA testing hamper effective conduct of investigations. We have requested international help to address those lacunas.
Terrorism Takes Toll on Democracy
In an era of instability, Sri Lanka has successfully maintained a relatively stable political environment, despite the long drawn out armed conflict. As one of South Asia’s oldest democracies, Sri Lanka has consistently supported democracy, and most importantly, the international struggle to contain terrorism. Furthermore, Sri Lanka is a party to all the major United Nations Conventions relating to terrorism as well as human rights. Sri Lanka’s late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who was assassinated by the Tigers, warned the international community, long before 9/11, about the threat posed by terrorism to the democratic way of life, not only in Sri Lanka, but across the globe, and tried to unite the world with a common definition of “terrorism,’ which, unfortunately, remains unresolved, even today. The inability to agree on a common definition is rooted in the cliché, “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” However, it must be emphasized that terrorism is not an option even for freedom fighters.
There is yet another reason why terrorism continues to thrive worldwide. I am reminded of Mr. Kadirgamar’s words when he addressed an audience at the London Royal Institute of International Affairs, on 15 April, 1998. I quote, “There are, as I have discerned, two basic approaches to terrorism adopted by states. The first is what I call “a Nelsonian approach” - turning a blind eye! Many states which are not directly affected by acts of terrorism on their own soil, but who are aware that terrorist acts are committed on the territory of other states - but where there are links between the terrorists concerned in the other state and in your own state - adopt a policy of, “Well, what’s happening is happening somewhere else, those people are their terrorists, not our terrorists, thank heavens for that, we will wait and see.” Unquote
As events have shown, there is no room for complacence, and no time to dither. Dr. Martin Luther King often said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Similarly, every nation in the world needs to wake up to the fact that terrorism anywhere is a recipe for terrorism everywhere. The deliverance of countries ravaged by terrorism, like Sri Lanka, depends upon the global acceptance of this truism.