History tells us that ports are not only a driver of rapid development but a multiplier of modernization, and the Deep South, which after centuries of neglect has generated and benefited from a provincial power shift, will never be marginalised again. The quiet pride, hope and gratitude that most Sri Lankan citizens feel with regard to the Hambantota port and our long standing friend China, must be set alongside another lesson about our friends that we could learn from another recent development which has not drawn anything like the attention it merits.
If anyone should be called upon to testify before the Lessons Learnt panel, it is surely Mr Pathmanathan, better known as KP, who in an interview given to DBS Jeyaraj makes disclosures —or allegations— which are truly shocking. He says that several Western states stood ready to evacuate the top leadership of the LTTE, including Velupillai Prabhakaran, to safety in a third country. This is what he has said, on the record: “I was in touch with international political leaders, top bureaucrats, diplomats, opinion-makers of different countries and also high –ranking UN officials. I contacted some of them directly. Influential people contacted some others on my behalf. In March 2009 I thought I had made a breakthrough but sadly Prabhakaran rejected the proposal.
I had a tentative plan with international endorsement. The LTTE was to lay down arms by hoarding them in specific locations. The words used were “lock –off”. That is arms particularly heavy weapons were to be locked off in specific places. They were to be handed over to representatives of the UN. Afterwards there was to be a cessation of hostilities in which the people were to be kept in specific “no firing zones”. Negotiations were to be conducted between the Govt. and LTTE with Norwegian facilitation.
Tentatively about 25 to 50 top leaders with their families were to be transported to a foreign country if necessary. The middle level leaders and cadres were to be detained, charged in courts and given relatively minor sentences. The low-level junior cadres were to be given a general amnesty. The scheme was endorsed by the West including Norway, EU and the USA. The Americans were ready to send their naval fleet in to do evacuation if necessary.
I don’t think there was any official intimation to Colombo but maybe they were sounded out informally. But the plan was never concretized because the main man concerned, Prabhakaran rejected it. I had written an outline of the plan and sent it to him for approval. If he said “Proceed” I would have concretized it and started work on implementing it. But when I faxed the details in a 16-page memorandum he rejected the 16 pages in just three words ‘Ithai Etrukkolla Mudiyathu’– ‘This is unacceptable’.” (KP Speaks Out -2, DBS Jeyaraj Column, Daily Mirror Saturday, August 14, 2010)
If his disclosures/allegations were true (and if they weren’t I would have expected a contradiction) not only was KP, at the time a representative of a proscribed and notorious terrorist organisation, in touch with highly placed sources in the UN system and the West, but Prabhakaran, the man who stood accused of responsibility for the murder of a former Prime Minister of India, a Sri Lankan President, Foreign Minister, and Opposition Leader, was a candidate for evacuation by US forces. From their safe exile the top leadership of the LTTE would have re-kindled the dreadful war that ate at the entrails of Sri Lankan society. All Sri Lankans must surely digest the implications.
A cautionary note, though. Nothing that others can do to us can be quite as damaging as the gross strategic mistakes we ourselves make and the correct turning that we ourselves fail to make. The doctrine that ‘by oneself is one defiled’ and the injunction to ‘turn the searchlight inwards’ holds true for countries, nations and societies too.
Just last week, ISAS, the institute at which I am currently based, was a third leg of a tripod that hosted an especially interesting event on South Asia’s future at the National Library of Singapore. The catalyst was the Boston University’s Pardee Centre for Long Range Studies which tied up with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) and the Institute for South Asian Studies (ISAS) to discuss ‘South Asia in 2060’. The seminar was chaired by Prof Simon Tay, head of the SIIA, which describes itself as ‘think tank for a thinking society’, and author of Asia Alone: the Dangerous Post Crisis Divide From America.(I was glad to gather that Nihal Rodrigo and Dr Rohan Samarajiwa were contributors to the Pardee Center’s study).
Of the four factors that were identified as the key determinants of the future of each South Asian society and South Asia as a whole, the first and the last were: identity. As the Director of the Center of Long Range Studies from Boston, himself an Asian, said, the repetition of the term identity was neither mistake nor witticism. The first reference to identity was the current problems of identity of each society and the final reference to identity was how these would evolve and consequently how, as sum total, the identity of South Asia would evolve over the next fifty years.
The panellists were senior scholars or scholar-diplomats heading various institutions of advanced studies. Each South Asian state was treated in turn and their references to Sri Lanka were lucid and significant. The consensus was that “having overcome the challenge of terrorism, Sri Lanka had the potential to effect the fastest turn around in South Asia and catch up with the economic renaissance of the rest of Asia on condition that the Tamil minority was successfully integrated and a broadly inclusive identity was finally forged, as it had not been since Independence”.
Thus, these top-notch analysts, none of them biased Westerners, clearly identified “the successful integration of the Tamil minority” as the most decisive single task facing post-war Sri Lanka, and the one which would ultimately determine whether or not there would be sustainable economic prosperity and social development, as distinct from temporary episodes of economic growth.
To my mind, this requires generosity on the part of the Sinhalese and pragmatism on the part of the Tamils, or if one may reduce it to single requirement, enlightened self-interest on the part of both communities and their leaderships.
No area of policy requires more careful thinking through than that of the state in the former high conflict areas of the North and East. These policies have their effect along two axes. The first is that of the integration of the Tamil minority and the overall project of nation-building. Nowhere is this more fraught than in a region where the populace is predominantly of a different, aggrieved ethnicity and/or religion than those of the makers and implementers of policy. Alienation can lead to resentment and resentment to resistance. Even if resistance does not lead to revolt and rebellion by a future generation, a sullen alienation will hang like a dark cloud over the picture of post-war Sri Lanka that the world sees.
Since our giant neighbour contains 70 million Tamils who consider themselves as having a relationship with the Tamils of Northern Sri Lanka (the proceedings, patronage and optics of the International Association of Tamil Research conference in Chennai this year should have put paid to any doubts on that score), our relationship with our Tamil citizens cannot but impact on our relationship with our giant neighbour.
Given the entrenched presence of the Tamil Diaspora in Western societies and the animus it has towards Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese, the proposition that Sri Lanka’s primary strategic relationship must be with the West looks untenable. Colombo must brace itself for continuing pressure from that quarter while striving to communicate better with those states and societies. The worst case scenario is not pressure from the West and the institutions it dominates, but pressure from the West and an absence of integration with the East.
Sri Lanka has to find its place as a liked and respected member of the Asian family and derive protection from that place. Increasingly critical scrutiny from the Global North is a problem but not the most serious one; intrusive scrutiny from the North combined with discomfiture, detachment and distancing on the part of the Global South, is a far worse prospect.