2.5 Gun waving diplomacy: War ships and war pacts
In spite of rising tide of Sinhala nationalist opposition and routine warnings issued by the US embassy and the visiting State Department dignitaries, on the 22rd of April SLMM announced a summarized report on their observations regarding ceasefire violations within the first 60 days since the CFA was signed. SLMM said that ‘they have recognised only one violation of the ceasefire MoU by the LTTE as D day +60 falls today although they had received a large number of complaints.’ (http://www.island.lk/2002/04/23/news02.html).
But within two days, the US Embassy in Colombo announced that a US Naval Ship is planning to visit Colombo on the 30th of April. According to the statement, ‘the USS Hopper, Commissioned in 1997, is one of the latest Arleigh Burke class missile destroyers and was the first visit of an American naval ship to Sri Lanka in more than eight years'. Quoting Colombo’s US Ambassador Ashley Wills ‘The Island’ newspaper reported that “the visit of the USS Hopper is emblematic of the friendship between the people of the United States and the people of Sri Lanka. I am especially pleased that we are again seeing an American ship visit Colombo after such a long time.” As to the report, the ship was supposed to ‘join the United States Central Command’s Fleet after departing Colombo and will patrol the western Indian Ocean as part of Operation Enduring Freedom’. The report further revealed that ‘Commander Ken Auten, who commands the ship will pay his respects to senior Sri Lankan Navy officials during the ship’s brief stay in Colombo.’ (http://www.island.lk/2002/04/26/ news03.html) Though it was made to appear as a normal routine port call, there were too many reasons to be suspicious about the visit of an US war ship, which was the first in eight years, in a middle of a cease fire and a peace process which was showing considerable success.
Realizing the dangers posed by asymmetrical approach adopted by international powers, mainly US, towards the peace process, the LTTE insisted on the importance of ensuring the ‘parity of status’ at negotiating table. Their uncompromising stand regarding lifting off the ban prior to negotiations explains the extent of importance given by the Tigers to achieve this power balance before confronting the government with their concrete political demands.
It seemed like that the UNF government was torn between two conflicting needs. On one hand there was a practical obligation to consider the ground realities where LTTE had emerged as a formidable political force with a clear conventional military capability. On the other hand, there was a need to achieve a strong bargaining power before entering into direct talks in order to keep the Sinhala nationalist forces at bay and also to keep the LTTE under constant pressure to limit its ability to bargain. The UNF government had neither the ability nor the power to deal with any of the two requirements in order to find their way out of the crisis. It was the US coercive policy which bailed them out of their difficult situation by assuring the Sinhala hardliners that US would keep close tab on the LTTE while pressurizing the LTTE to toe their line, through “gun waving diplomacy.”
Here lies an interesting, though quite ‘surreal’, political legacy that runs deep in to the colonial past of the country that ought to be understood as a pre-condition to grasp the complex contemporary political realities. This legacy is connected to the conceptualization process of ‘national sovereignty’ since the colonial days. Even though the whole political discourse in the South revolved around the question of “sovereignty” for several decades, the very concept of “sovereignty” was constructed and understood as a way of legitimizing the ‘supremacist reaction’ to the democratic demands of minorities. For example, during the first three decades of the 20th century, under British colonial rule, the concept of ‘sovereignty’ was interpreted not against the British, but against the ethnic and religious minorities of the country. In the earlier part of post colonial Sri Lankan history, when the Federal Party and its successor Tamil United Liberation Front held the Tamil nationalist ground, ‘sovereignty’ meant denying their demands by violently suppressing Tamil dissent, and maintaining the status quo. Since the ‘80s, the argument of ‘sovereignty’ was largely used as a justification of the state brutality unleashed against the Tamil armed resistance. Therefore the whole issue of sovereignty was nothing but a totally fictitious belief that bound the Sinhala society into one single unit against the democratic rights of the minorities - mainly the Tamils. It naturalized and legitimized the Sinhala majoritarian supremacy over the minorities, which ironically overlapped with the strategic interests of the external powers. In the context discussed here, this internalized and ethnicized version of ‘sovereignty’ made possible even for the Americans to fall in line with “patriotic Sinhala forces” in emphasizing the necessity of safeguarding the “territorial integrity of Sri Lanka”. The hidden bond that unified the “Sinhala supremacist interests” and the “external strategic interests” was re-named as “sovereignty” providing a moral justification to this shameful alliance and to the policies that curtailed the democratic rights of the Tamils. We will see how this mechanism practically worked during the recent phase of ceasefire, through the unfolding events.
In the beginning of May, GoSL announced its first major military recruitment drive since reviving a Norwegian-backed peace initiative. As to a AFP report which quoted army’s deputy chief of staff, ‘it hoped to enlist 5,000 men during a one-month period from May 8 as part of a plan to rebuild depleted units of the military’. The report further quoted him saying that, “the 5,000 men will fill vacancies and that amnesties were being considered for thousands of deserters to bring the army up to its full strength of 120,000 men and women... he discounted claims that the military had lowered its guard due to the cease-fire and said the security forces were ready to respond at short notice."It will be foolish not to make use of this time for our training,” (http://www.island.lk/2002/05/05/news11.html)
Parallel to SL Army’s month long recruitment drive, on the 6th of May, the US Ambassador to Colombo warned Tigers ‘not to import any arms, adding that it would undermine confidence of the people in the peace process.’ while speaking after the signing of an agreement on the mines action programme at the Sri Lanka’s Defence Ministry. As it was reported in one of the Colombo’s pro-Sinhala nationalist English daily, “he added that the solution would have to be one where the Tamils were given the space to live with dignity and respect. This is attainable. But an independent Tamil Eelam is both unattainable and unwise” (http://www.island.lk/2002/05/06/ news10.html)
Just two days after the above statement, the US embassy announced the arrival of another US war ship to Sri Lanka. According to the embassy press release, the USS Sides (FFG-14), a US Navy guided missile frigate, was scheduled to arrive in Colombo on May 11 for a four-day port visit. ‘It will be the second such U. S. Naval visit in just over two weeks’ reported ‘The Island newspaper.’ The report further revealed that “USS Sides is currently in the midst of a regularly scheduled deployment that includes operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and the international war on terrorism.” (http://www.island.lk/2002/05/09/ news05.html)
When interviewed by one of the private TV channels in Colombo, on 19th May, Prime Minister Wickramasinghe said, that his government favours international bans on the LTTE, even after the Tigers are de-proscribed in Sri Lanka. “We are concerned that the international bans (on the LTTE) would also be lifted. But we don’t want them to be lifted.” He said that ‘the US and India had maintained that a decision to de-proscribe the LTTE in Sri Lanka would not have any effect on the bans in their countries. Nevertheless, he revealed that he will visit India, Britain and the European Union within the next three weeks to canvass their support.’ (http://www.island.lk/2002/05/20/news21.html)
Parallel to Prime Minister’s emphasis on organizing an ‘international safety net’ , the US annual report on “Patterns of Global Terrorism” was released by the Secretary of State and the Coordinator for Counterterrorism in mid May, which summarily illustrated the US policy towards Sri Lankan peace process. The report said: “Sri Lanka declared support for US-led military action in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks and welcomed US resolve to root out terrorism wherever it exists... The United States continues strongly to support Norway’s facilitation effort and is helping to bring about a negotiated settlement of the conflict....Nonetheless, given the ruthless and violent history of the LTTE and its failure to renounce terrorism as a political tool, the United States maintains the LTTE on its Foreign Terrorist Organization List.” (page 13 & 14 / http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/ 10290.pdf) The report reiterated the US policy making it certain that the US by no means waver in its policy of treating the LTTE as a mere band of bandits, keeping them out of earning any real recognition as a legitimate political force. This well thought out and calculated US policy assisted the UNF regime to maintain an upper hand in terms of international legitimacy, while providing the hard line Sinhala elements a “feel good factor”.
But the most shocking and disturbing revelation was made by Colombo based English media, just before announcing the dates to commence negotiations. A report published in Colombo’s “Sunday Times” on May 26th revealed that the talks are under way to finalize a military agreement between US and Sri Lanka. “Increasing military ties between United States and Sri Lanka will see the two nations entering into a formal defence pact for enhanced military co-operation” the newspaper said. Describing the proposed content of the agreement, the report further said: “The Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA), as it has been officially termed, will enable the United States to utilise Sri Lanka's ports, airports and air space. As a prelude to the signing of the agreement scheduled for July, this year, United States Naval ships have been calling at the Colombo Port for bunkering as well as to enable sailors to go on shore leave. In return for the facilities offered, Sri Lanka is to receive military assistance from the United States including increased training facilities and equipment. The training, which will encompass joint exercises with United States Armed Forces, will focus on counter terrorism and related activity. The agreement will be worked out on the basis of the use of Sri Lanka's ports, airports, and air space to be considered hire-charges that will be converted for military hardware.” (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/ 020526/front/defence.html)
Apart from shedding some light on the proposed military pact, the report revealed for the first time that a US four member military and legal delegation had already visited Sri Lanka in April 2002, following the visit of US Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca, in March. Though it was been kept as a secret, four member delegations had met with the top defence authorities in the country to hold preparatory discussions on the planned military agreement. “Neither Colombo nor Washington is willing to confirm the release of two maritime surveillance aircraft and one patrol ship to intensify surveillance over the eastern seas of Sri Lanka” revealed the report. It added, “The drafts are now being studied by the State Department in Washington and the Defence and Foreign Ministries in Colombo.... Government sources say the role of the US, particularly in the backdrop of allowing an Interim Administration to the LTTE in the north and east would bolster stability and security.” (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/ 020526/front/defence.html)
The Sunday Times account was confirmed by another report appeared in the prominent Indian daily “The Hindu”. As to a report written by its Colombo correspondent on the same day, unnamed officials attached to the SL Defence Ministry and the US Embassy in Colombo has confirmed the news about the deal. The “Hindu” report further revealed that the “Defence Ministry officials said that effectively, the treaty would allow the U.S. military the use of Sri Lanka's sea and air bases, particularly for refuelling, in return for training assistance and supply of spare parts and repairs... The agreement excludes the delivery of all equipment classified as lethal under the U.S. Munitions Act. Sri Lanka already receives non-lethal assistance from the U.S. under an existing agreement. U.S. Marines have been providing training for Sri Lankan commandos under a programme called Operation Balance Style. Also in the non-lethal category, the Air Force will take delivery soon of two surveillance aircraft fitted with special radar capability, from the U.S. defence company Raytheon. The U.S. Government facilitated the purchase, but the spokesman said it was unconnected to the new agreement, and had been in the pipeline since 2000.” (http://www.hinduonnet.com/ thehindu/ 2002/05/26/stories/2002052602330900.htm)
The controversial content of the report drew immediate reaction from the Tamil politicians. Responding to the news reports, Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian from the Eastern Province, Joseph Pararajasingham out rightly condemned the US move as a step that would encourage the Sinhala majority “to continue the discrimination and subjugation of the Tamil people.” After meeting the head of the political section of the US Embassy in Colombo on 29th May, the MP was quoted as saying “the Tamil people are very much concerned and suspicious about the proposed ‘Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement’ between the United States of America and Sri Lankan Government. From past experience they feel that it can be used as a tool to support the Sri Lankan military’s war against the LTTE. Signing the agreement would mean that you support the majority community (Sinhalese) to continue the discrimination and subjugation of the Tamil people.” (http://www.island.lk/ 2002/05/31/news04.html) He stressed that “the Tamil people look at this agreement with concern and apprehension because it would eventually commit the US to provide logistic support, training and military supplies to the Sri Lankan security forces.” (http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=6984)
On the contrary, the proposed agreement understandably received a warm welcome from the Sinhala nationalist lobby in the south. Two decisions taken by the government – to enter into a military pact with the US and to share the management of oil tank farm in the eastern port city Trincomalee with India – were seen as farsighted initiatives that would safeguard the “national interest” in the long run. These sentiments were clearly evident in an article published in “The Island” newspaper, written by a widely read Sinhala nationalist and a retired diplomat Nanda Godage. “The government ought to be congratulated for the two initiatives it has taken to ensure the security of the country.... The second initiative is also of the utmost significance: The entering into the "Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement" with the US. This is not some unique agreement calculated to pull us into any orbit, over fifty countries have already signed this same agreement. It is a useful tool to support our military in their engagements. It has also a multi-national dimension. It is an agreement under which the US is committed to provide logistic support, supplies and services to military forces of the country with whom she has an agreement. If countries in the region are unable to help us with military support, as we discovered to our horror when the Tiger was at our door, we must be free to enter into Agreements with any country that would help us. There should be no dragging of feet on the matter of signing the agreement with the US, which should be entirely in our national interest.” (http://www.island.lk/2002/05/28/ featur01.html)
The sentiments expressed here well reflect the Sinhala nationalist understanding of the “concept of national sovereignty” which we explicated above. Even when a basic awareness on the US invasion of Afghanistan would have provided a sufficient ground to understand the dynamics of growing US presence in the Indian Ocean and their increasing desire to legalize their access to littoral areas, inward looking Sinhala nationalists remained totally ignorant of the big picture. Instead, they found it was a complimentary advantage offered by the US to keep the Tamils at bay and emphasized the importance of striking a deal with the Americans without “dragging of feet”.
However, in the face of rising Tamil dismay, US responded in the usual manner, brushing aside all the allegations. On May 31st, US embassy in Colombo clarified their position by stressing that “the ACSA is, as its name implies, an agreement that allows the armed services of each party to the agreement to avail itself of servicing, repairs, spare parts and equipment of the other in exchange for payment or through the exchange of identical goods or goods of equivalent value.. ACSA is not a means to acquire major arms. It is not a means to acquire bases. ACSA has nothing to do with access to Sri Lanka’s airspace or waters.” (http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid= 13&artid=6996)
The unfolding scenario seemed grim. The previously existed power balance enabled the parties in conflict to negotiate a deal. But the US policy – including the proposed US Sri Lanka defence deal - struck a structural imbalance in the existed relationship between the two parties. The coercive US policy effectively undermined the importance of preserving confidence between the parties who were getting prepared to meet each other for direct talks. The growing uneasiness on the Tamil side was increasingly visible. Hardly before three months elapsed since the CFA, peace process was at grave risk.
Fanning the growing tension and the displeasure among the Tamil parties, on 31st May, the British authorities issued a statement which perfectly fell in line with the US policy. Following a meeting with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister who was on a visit to Europe, the British Foreign Office said in a statement: “Direct talks between the two parties would be a significant step forward and would have our full backing... We hope that the LTTE realises that violence has no part to play in resolving the ethnic conflict and renounce terrorism once and for all. Before proscription of the LTTE can be reconsidered in the United Kingdom, the LTTE would have to demonstrate a complete and convincing renunciation of terrorism.” (http://www.dailynews.lk/ 2002/05/31/new02.html)
But on the ground level, the CFA remained well and intact. Contrary to the impression given through the regular statements issued by the US (and now the British too), the SLMM who had the sole authority in monitoring the ceasefire on the ground, said in a statement on 29th May, “The Parties compliance with the Cease Fire Agreement is going extremely well. Till the 15th of May 02 SLMM has recorded only 58 ceasefire violations and some 196 complaints and allegations. None of the Cease Fire Violations jeopardised the Agreement.” (http://www.slmm.info/STATEMENTS/2002/29%2F05%2F02++Good+Compliance+With+CFA.9UFRjY5E.ips)