Daily Archives: December 4, 2006

Tigers, friends and neighbours

Sri Lanka plays diplomatic truant on Palestine vote

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Friday’s assassination bid on Defence Secretary Colonel (retd) Gotabhaya Rajapakse sent a chilling message to President Mahinda Rajapakse. It would force his government to reappraise its strategy, particularly international assistance to face the growing threat. The US backing and Israeli armaments would be crucial as the war enters a decisive stage with the focus on the efforts to block LTTE arms shipments, maintain sea supply route between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai while maintaining the status quo on the ground.

President Rajapakse last Tuesday reiterated Sri Lanka’s support for Palestine. In a special message issued to mark International Day of Solidarity (November 29) with the Palestinian people, Rajapakse said, "We have consistently advocated the realisation of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people and have extended our firm and unequivocal support to the just struggle in obtaining their rights, including the right to statehood."

"For over 30 years, I have associated myself with the cause of Palestine and supported activities aimed at promoting the rights and freedom of the Palestinian people."

"Reports of the continued hardships and deprivations suffered by the people in the occupied territories almost on a daily basis fill me with profound sorrow. It is my most sincere hope that efforts to pursue an end to violence would soon succeed in the emergence of peace in the Middle East."

The message issued in Rajapakse’s absence, who was on a five-day official visit to India, reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s "continuing solidarity with the Palestinian people. "We share your hopes and aspirations of seeing an end to foreign occupation, the achievement of a lasting solution leading to the realisation of a Palestinian state, and durable peace."

Despite his well wishes and genuine concern over the plight of Palestine, Sri Lanka could not afford, at least, to join the international condemnation of Israel. Sri Lankan delegates conveniently abstained when the United Nations General Assembly took up for voting an Arab League resolution calling for an end to Israeli military operations in the Gaza strip. The resolution received the support of 156 countries. Seven countries voted against while there were six abstentions. The US voted against the Resolution. Sri Lanka was among six countries which avoided the vote. Did we have any other option? Could we condemn the Jewish state, one of our major armament suppliers with whom we have established full diplomatic relations in 2000? Rajapakse’s predecessor sought full diplomatic ties immediately after the LTTE overran the strategic Elephant Pass, base which controlled the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula.

Rajapakse’s genuine liking for the realisation of Palestinians’ right to statehood may not necessarily allow him to identify with the cause due to our growing reliance on Israeli armaments. Rajapakse could not afford to antagonise the Jewish state and her main ally the United States. Sri Lanka’s main strike aircraft-Kfir and the best Fast Attack Craft (FAC) are supplied by Israel. They play a crucial role in weakening the LTTE’s offensive capability. During a recent visit to Katunayake airbase, Rajapakse sat in the cockpit of a Kfir. The fact that it was of Israeli make did not put off the President, who during his tenure as Prime Minister reacted angrily when the Foreign Ministry issued a congratulatory message on behalf of Rajapakse to mark IsraelIndependence Day.

The bottom line is that Rajapakse’s government would have to be realistic. It was the sensible thing to do. The decision to avoid the anti-Israeli resolution would have been inevitable given Sri Lanka’s growing dependence on US support and encouragement. Whatever the public pronouncements, Sri Lanka understands the complexity of the Middle East crisis, particularly the readiness of terrorists to trigger chaos whatever the consequences. Four days after Sri Lanka skipped the vote on the anti-Israel resolution, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera referred to the incident which triggered a devastating Israeli response. In his post-Budget speech in Parliament, Samaraweea said, we recently saw how the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers sparked off a terrible war which brought untold suffering to people on both sides of the divide." Samaraweera emphasised that unlike Israel, President Rajapakse exercised restraint and did not retaliate until the suicide attack on Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka last April.

Rajapakse ordered air and artillery strikes to avenge the assassination attempt late April. Security forces went on the offensive in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and brought some strategic positions under their control. The President had no option but to use force to meet the growing threat whatever the consequences.

The Israelis faced international condemnation over their military action following the abduction of two soldiers. The November 17 Resolution followed immediately after the US vetoed a UN Security Council draft resolution that sought to condemn the Israeli offensive in the Gaza strip and demand the withdrawal of Israeli forces out of the Lebanese territory. The draft received ten votes in favour and US against. The UK, Japan and Denmark and Slovakia abstained.

The JVP is critical of the government’s decision to side with the US. The JVP is of the view that contrary to expectations, the government is taking a growing pro-US stand, thereby alienating other countries. The JVP leadership is either blind to the US assistance, including political backing, or ignores the fact for political expediency. Despite criticism of both, the LTTE and the government, following a recent meeting of peace co chairs in Washington, the US emphasised her support for Rajapakse. The JVP must know that unless Rajapakse retains US support, his government would not be able to face the LTTE. The US recently blocked an LTTE attempt to acquire a large consignment of arms, ammunition and equipment. The list included surface to air missiles to shoot down Kfirs and helicopter gunships. The LTTE also sought to acquire armaments used by Special Forces and underwater fighting equipment. The US investigation also revealed the existence of LTTE bank account/accounts in Malaysia, which are used to finance arms purchases. Critics must know that the war could not be fought with galkattas (locally made pistols) and the level of sophistication acquired by the LTTE essentially demands major counter-measures, primarily the acquisition of armaments, providing specialised training and obtaining technology.

Could we antagonise China? We shun Tibetan leader Dalai Lama, periodically repeat ‘One China Policy’ and recognise China’s right to thwart Taiwanese establishing an independent state. Sri Lanka rejected calls to invite the Dalai Lama for 2550th Buddha Jayanthi celebrations as the country valued China’s relationship. The People’s Republic of China is one of the few countries which swiftly came to President JR Jayewardene’s assistance when Indian sponsored Tamil terrorist groups played havoc. The US declined to provide tangible support to counter the Indian managed terrorism, but paved the way for Israeli help.

Without the timely help from China, Pakistan and South Africa, the government could not have tackled the threat. Did we hesitate to secure South Africa’s help due to her then Apartheid policy? We acquired South African-built light armoured personnel carriers-buffels to facilitate security forces movements. Without them their mobility would have been greatly reduced. Although Sri Lanka banned a group of national cricketers for playing in South Africa, the two countries maintained good relations. Ironically, the change of government in South Africa resulted in an immediate policy change. It is no secret that the LTTE operates freely in South Africa.

Hostility towards the Jewish state is almost ridiculous. India maintains close ties with Tel Aviv. The large population of Muslims in India does not alter New Delhi’s stance. In fact, India benefited years before formal diplomatic relations were established. India’s top diplomat Shiv Shanker Menon, who had been here recently, once headed their diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv. President Rajapakse could not afford to lose the support of the US and key defence suppliers as the war enters a decisive stage.

For the first time in the Eelam war, the navy is making a determined bid to choke overseas arms supply routes. Would this have been possible without the necessary equipment? The destruction and apprehension of nearly ten Sea Tiger vessels in separate confrontations, mainly in the Gulf of Mannar this year would not have been a reality unless the SLN had vessels. The SLN’s attack squadrons comprise mainly Israeli built Dvoras. A US Coast Guard Cutter acquired during Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure plays an important role in the ongoing SLN operations. In fact, the small flotilla responsible for the destruction of a large ship over 100 nautical miles east of Kalmunai on September 16 would not have been possible feasible without the US ship, the largest vessel available to the SLN.

Over the years we have acquired armaments from various sources. The much talked of Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) first arrived from Pakistan in 2000. Now the Pakistani MBRLs are not in use. The Artillery Regiment is equipped with Czechoslovakian, Chinese and Slovakian MBRLs. The Czech artillery has been used with devastating success.

The administration would have to acquire the right equipment regardless the cost and any source which is willing to help Sri Lanka to tackle terrorism. But there is a need to block shady weapons deals whoever the parties were.

We should be thankful to the countries which facilitated the transformation of a poorly equipped army, termed as rag-tag, to be regarded as a force to be reckoned with. Today the SLA being invited to deploy troops under UN flag is regarded as a testimony to its fighting skills. The current deployment in Haiti is SLA’s largest deployment. The Special Task Force has won international recognisition for years of counter-terrorist operations. It is no secret that even the British had consulted them, particularly regarding counter-measures against suicide bombings. The Indians, too, have trained at the STF’s training facility at Katukurunda. The bottom line is that countries co-operate to enhance knowledge, know how and share expertise. In our case it would be detrimental for Sri Lanka’s interests to go against Israel due to two reasons namely, the relationship with Israel and the US factor. Could we ignore the fact that Israel came to Sri Lanka’s assistance when Tamil terrorists were receiving training under PLO experts in the Middle East in early 80s? What the President has to keep in his mind is the old saying that one could pick friends but not neighbours.

Take the case of the EU-Pakistan relations. The nuclear Pakistan is a frontline state against what the US and its allies call ‘war on terror.’ The EU steadfastly refused to conclude what is dubbed as a third generation co-operation agreement until the 9/11 Al Qaeda strike on the US. The EU quickly forgot that it declined to finalise the agreement on three key issues, namely the military take-over in 1999, Kagil conflict and the detention of a senior Pakistani newspaper editor. The UK recently negotiated a separated agreement with Pakistan to intensify the battle against terrorism. The EU security interests take precedence over other concerns. This is the hard reality.

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera emphasized the US role in taming the beast. "We must also recognize the vital role the US Government played in clearly indicating to the LTTE that terrorism does not pay. In January 2006, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns stated, "the burden of peace rests upon the LTTE. We hope that the LTTE will understand that it will have no relationship with my government and, indeed, no effective relationship with any country in this world as long as it seeks to redress its own grievances through the barrel of a gun."

"The United States has matched their words with action by cracking down on fundraising and arms procurement activities within their borders. The Contact Group Initiative to stop arms procurement by the LTTE elsewhere in the world can be seen as an added disincentive for the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. The commitment and support extended to us by the US Government must be applauded by all Sri Lankans." Samaraweera added, "Of course, we cannot forget India, our great neighbour and old friend who has played an important role in trying to forge a settlement in our country. Despite domestic political compulsions and pressures, the continued support of the Indian Government for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country must also be appreciated by all Sri Lankans."

Samaraweera quite rightly urged the international community to see Sri Lanka’s problem in its true perspective. "Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem, for which a solution has eluded us for nearly thirty years, is very complex and nuanced. Contrary to what some might believe, Sri Lanka’s problem is not a classic textbook case of conflict resolution where a standard boilerplate solution could be applied."

-The Island


To ban or not to ban…

The government is said be under pressure either to ban the LTTE in response to its violence or to re-introduce the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Those are the measures that a powerful country would have adopted at once, had it come under savage terror attacks. The United States asked Osama bin Laden to go to hell (where he, in fact, belongs), when he offered a truce, and told him in no uncertain terms that ‘the best way to deal with terrorism is to put the terrorists out of business.’ No one has ever questioned America’s right to do what is good for her. India won’t negotiate with the Assamese separatists as well as others who pose a threat to her sovereignty and territorial integrity. She is right in taking up that position as it is her interests that have been threatened. Britain shoots terror suspects in the head slap-bang in public, let alone negotiating with them, while mollycoddling the terrorists of others.

Big nations have, by virtue of their sheer military and economic strength, become ‘more equal’ than their small counterparts and are forcing down their sovereign throats remedies that are worse than the maladies afflicting them. Who dares challenge the mighty? Double standards and Machiavellian morality, as we said the other day, are luxuries that only the powerful countries could afford.

Sri Lanka, depending on aid as it does, has no alternative but to do as the donors say, in the peace process. It may put up some resistance out of desperation initially but in the end it has to fall in line or forego aid. It has to swallow its pride and provide chopper rides to the LTTE negotiators and whisk them through the very airport that they partially destroyed not many years ago. It has to ensure safe passage for the LTTE leaders who order claymore mine and suicide attacks on security forces and assassinations of political leaders. Last week, they came quite close to accounting for the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse but should the LTTE agree to another round of talks, Gotabhaya or no Gotabhaya, the government will have to give LTTE leaders VVIP treatment and ensure their travel back and forth in one piece. How would any other country have treated an outfit responsible for the assassination of an incumbent President, an attempt on another incumbent President’s life, killing of a Navy Commander, an Opposition Leader, a Foreign Minister and a large number of other political leaders? How would the US react if anyone were to throw at least a tomato at President Bush? He or she would be reduced to ketchup instantaneously!

The best description of the predicament of Sri Lanka vis-`E0-vis foreign powers using strong arm tactics to make it abide by a moribund peace process comes from the JVP: ‘It is caught in a trap like an animal.’

It is against such a backdrop that the proposal to re-impose the LTTE ban and/or revive the PTA should be viewed. If the government goes ahead with such measures to tackle the LTTE, it will be doing so at the risk of incurring the wrath of the international community pushing for peace at any cost. For, a ban will stand in the way of the illusive peace talks, while the PTA will militate against the CFA in tatters, which specifically says in Article 2 (12): The Parties agree that search operations and arrests made under the Prevention of Terrorism Act shall not take place. Arrests shall be conducted under the due process of law in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code.

How will the Co-chairs take it? They might even faint at the very thought of such action. They want the government to adhere to the CFA, come what may.

TULF President V. Anandasangaree is reported to have told BBC Sinhala Service that the LTTE is not interested in peace talks. He has requested the Sinhala people not to mistake the LTTE for a representative of the Tamils and hold them responsible for the LTTE’s actions. He has urged them to be amenable to power sharing as a solution.

Those are the words of a well respected veteran Tamil politician, who has been recognised at long last by UNESCO for his outstanding contribution to peace building and the protection of democracy and human rights. Unfortunately, peace making in this country has very little to do with wisdom.

Prudence requires that the government be wary of plunging head first into a course of action that might prove to be counter productive sooner or later. It must weigh pros and cons of its responses carefully. Haste won’t take it anywhere. Festina lente!

-The Island Editorial

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