13 January, 2010

America’s Dementia: King-Making in Sri Lanka

This was an article that I wrote which was was intended for a news source here in the U.S. I am re-posting it here with the necessary links.

On Sunday, the NYT put Sri Lanka at number one on its list of places to go in 2010:

“For a quarter century, Sri Lanka seems to have been plagued by misfortune, including a brutal civil war between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. But the conflict finally ended last May, ushering in a more peaceful era for this teardrop-shaped island off India’s coast, rich in natural beauty and cultural splendors.” (NYT, January 10th, 2010).

It seems, however, that the Obama administration is not quite as delighted with the peaceful state of affairs in Sri Lanka.

On January 26th 2010, Sri Lankans go to the polls. They vote for the first time in thirty years without the looming threat of terrorism. The incumbent President, Mahinda Rajapakse, is tipped to win this one, albeit by a closer margin than many imagined possible given the extraordinary support he had in conducting the war against the LTTE militants both from the public and moderate Tamil politicians. That war ended on May 18th, 2009 and, unlike in most countries where such victories are followed by the consolidation of power, President Rajapakse devoted his time, among other things, to the internal matters of clearing landmines from previously rebel-held territory, repatriating the displaced Tamil population and inviting the Diaspora to return and participate in the rebuilding of the North. Despite the extraordinary powers held by an executive presidency, the kind of power that could lead to equally widespread abuses and has in other countries where a head of state has had such tools at their disposal (Robert Gabriel Karigamombe Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Than Shwe of Burma and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia– a country with which the U.S. continues to have close ties – come to mind), Sri Lanka’s president chose to put his presidency to the test in the space of six months, announcing the election in November of that same year. Meanwhile, nearly a decade after 9/11, America’s searchlights mark the skies each September as if searching for help from God while its memorial honoring the victims of terrorism remains unbuilt, the 9th Ward lurches from day to day with its dispirited inhabitants flung across several states looking to recourse from Brad Pitt and the Make it Right Foundation, and we shall not even begin to discuss Iraq because America’s efforts at compensating that nation for its assault on its soil is, actually, laughable.

During the last year and a half the United States, perhaps due to its own preoccupations with the distribution of power between the Man of the Century, Barack Obama and the equally redoubtable Hillary Clinton, played two games. On the one hand, its back-channel negotiators attempted to maintain that they were against terrorism (as Senator Clinton did during her elections), and would welcome an end to the vice in which the people of Sri Lanka and, thereby, those within the Diaspora on American soil, were being held by the LTTE. On the other hand, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made successive statements decrying President Rajapakse’s government and expressing “concern” based not on fact but on conjecture, and pushed international organizations to sanction his government. (Hillary Clinton’s ability to be undiplomatic is, par for the course, as demonstrated by her comments about Pakistan on the eve of her visit there). Meanwhile, not far from Sri Lanka, America launched a new and improved war in Afghanistan, assaulting it with indiscriminate aerial bombing and pressuring the government of Pakistan to crackdown on so-called Islamic militants in exactly the same way in which it was asking Sri Lanka not to crack down on its lunatic fringe. But perhaps that was just American tunnel vision.We cannot seem to look at more than one country at one time and, like the multitude of Americans who are routinely diagnosed with dissociative disorder, our leaders cannot seem to remember what they learn in one place and use it to address a problem faced in another.

Given the dissatisfaction among the rank and file of America’s military (think Major Nidal Malik), and the security breaches on its airlines (think Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab), one would imagine that America’s foreign policy makers might consider the lack of prudence evident in deciding to back a ruthless former General, a military man with no experience at political leadership, to run what is, for now, a relatively stable landing-ground for American diplomats and personnel – both by air and by sea – in the supremely important neighborhood of America’s new war. America has had difficulties with President Rajapakse, there is no disputing that. Its difficulties arose not only because it presumed to dictate the conduct of internal affairs in Sri Lanka, but by its blocking of a much-needed loan from the IMF and by its determined effort to scuttle the end of the war even as the LTTE remains proscribed in the United States and even as its ties to the ongoing piracy on the high seas around the Horn of Africa – which has affected American industry – and its history of training suicide bombers in other regions of conflict with which the U.S. professes to be concerned were being established by America’s own intelligence personnel. But most of all, their relationship with President Rajapakse was strained by America’s obstinate refusal to engage with him as an equal and because they began to exert pressure on him by turning his top General against him.

American has had and continues to have some difficulty in understanding the vital role of cultural knowledge when it comes to dealing with countries whose beliefs run counter to its own. The failures in Iraq (after the original sin of invading it), can be traced back to that shortcoming and the continuing failures in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iran and in Palestine all leave a clear and uncluttered trail that demonstrate the fact that American policy makers choose to shoot now and ask questions later. A policy which leaves nothing resolved and many people dead; a policy which, sadly, overshadows the considerable good intentions of many within the State Department who take up their positions with great faith in the power of diplomacy. The response of South Asian leaders as well as those who lead predominantly Islamic countries has always been to close ranks behind family when threatened. President Rajapakse’s response to American pressure has taken that familiar route – he looked to China, Pakistan and Japan, countries with which Sri Lanka has deep and long ties and, at home, to his closest advisers, including his family. The only people reeling with surprise and feeling betrayed are the Americans.

To work with the leader that the Sri Lankan people chose to take them out of the dark ages of terrorism into the freedom of peace, no matter the points of disagreement, would have been the way to go. Instead, America now finds itself anointing a military man with no experience in statesmanship, with a track record of brutality against the Tamil people and who, unable to stand on his own abilities has cobbled together a motley collection of dissatisfied political groups including the UNP and the JVP (which were, together, responsible for the murder of thousands of youth, most of them students, and whose combined shenanigans closed down the universities of Sri Lanka for the large part of two years). But it ain’t no entrance if you cannot make one on your own and you can’t lead – much less unite – a country when you are nothing more than the puppet of several warring factions who have merely come together for the purpose of ousting the one man who managed what none of these groups could: end the war and make it possible for Tamil people to once again speak their language freely in the streets of Colombo. It also finds itself in the surely untenable position of saying that it is alright with America to have people with American permanent residency vie to become head of state in a different one although here in America one cannot stand for election without first renouncing such fealty to any other places of domicile.

But perhaps a stable Sri Lanka is not in America’s best interests. Its former president was clearly comfortable with not merely making lists of bad countries and checking them twice, but actively attempting to shove the “good” ones over to the dark side. And our new President, deep though my support runs, has proved that he is not that different from the last with regard to his foreign policy. Either that or we are living with two presidents: the one who runs the country, and the other, Hillary Clinton, who is ruining the world. On January 26th, Sri Lankans may yet prove that she does not. If and when they do, the only hope lies in those top tier American policy makers who have had the opportunity to live and work in Sri Lanka and therefore understand, perhaps, a little more about what it takes to build a partnership with the leader of a nation whose literacy rates, equality of pay between the genders as well as the inclusion of women in positions of political office, thriving media, highly educated trilingual third estate and all round civic participation places it, in all these respects, above the United States.

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3 Responses to “America’s Dementia: King-Making in Sri Lanka”

  1. Mehraj says:

    Well writen article. Can I please get in touch with you in the event you want anonymity.

  2. Ru says:

    Hi Mehraj – Absolutely. I don’t necessarily seek anonymity, particularly on the blog.

  3. Lal Rupasinghe says:

    Hi Ruvani,

    Welcome to Galle. Its Amrit’s father. Great words .
    I remember you sweating out in Obama’s campaign trail. The feeling of disappointment is mutual. Miliband seems to be having Hillary in a spell.Typical ‘ Para Suddha Stuff ‘.

    All what America wants here is a ‘small air strip and a few facilities like refuelling etc’. Weinberger even did the trek all the way here for it. I wonder where it all went wrong- when we were eating out of their hands during the JR days.
    I am sure that can be worked out by just being honest.

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The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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