By Dayan Jayatilleka*
COLOMBO (IDN) – It was perhaps the biggest Sri Lanka related news story of the year that is about to end. It should have been picked up by the international media but unsurprisingly it wasn’t. More shocking however is that it made to the local media but the biggest news was not focused on. There has not been, for instance, a single editorial on it or feature spun off from it.
Let me back up a bit. It was the doyen of foreign correspondents in Sri Lanka, a true Sri Lankan hand of the old school, PK Balachandran of the New Indian Express, who surfaced it, and it was Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror that ran it first in Sri Lanka and it was the best reporter-cum-journalistic commentator on Sri Lankan affairs, DBS Jeyaraj, who gave the story the treatment it deserved.
What was the story? It was the confirmation that the USA (and Norway) had attempted to evacuate Velupillai Prabhakaran, at the time one of the deadliest terrorists the world knew and had ever known. The confirmation came from Shivshanker Menon, former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of India, in his newly released memoirs.
“Leaders of Tamil Nadu, across the political divide, privately but effectively supported the Indian government’s policy of opposing efforts by the U.S. and Norway to rescue Velupillai Prabhakaran so that his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) lived to fight another day,” says Menon in his book ‘Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy’.
Jeyaraj smartly ran the story under the caption “Tamil Nadu Politicians Supported New Delhi’s Policy of Opposing Attempts by USA and Norway to Rescue Prabhakaran and LTTE, says Indian Ex-Foreign Secretary”.
The spin that Norway always consulted Delhi on every move and went ahead only with Delhi’s concurrence is proven false. Amazingly, the U.S. attempt to save Prabhakaran’s skin was due to some factor, some ‘driver’ which made the U.S. feel that it could make the move without India’s concurrence.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not blink. Instead he played the Delhi card with the U.S. to block the evacuation attempt when the goalposts were changed by – and in – Washington DC, from an evacuation of civilians to an evacuation of the LTTE leader.
The goal posts changed because Hillary Clinton had been successfully lobbied by David Miliband. They were trying to secure a UN mandate at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva which they knew could not be obtained in New York due to the Russian and Chinese vetoes. We held the line in Geneva, preventing a UNHRC special session in April, until the war was won in mid-May.
As the New Indian Express story says, such an evacuation of Prabhakaran by the U.S. would have meant that Prabhakaran “would have lived to fight another day”. The evil terrorist monster Prabhakaran would have lived on, giving orders from exile, planning attacks and returning to the fray as he did in 1987, massacring more Sri Lankans for many more years, perhaps decades, as he already had.
Menon seems to conclude that on balance Rajapaksa’s decision could not be faulted. “The way the Sri Lankans fought the war, though criticized for its brutality in the final stages, might have taken a higher toll if delay and stalemate were brought about,” Menon feels in his assessment of the war.
Menon’s confirmation sheds more light on the famous hypocrisy and double standards of the U.S. on the matter of terrorism. It sheds light also on the Norwegian tilt to one side in the conflict. Perhaps most importantly it shows that the U.S. attitude to Prabhakaran betrays a certain nexus with the Tamil cause, the extent of which one does not know. Perhaps the Tamil separatist project or the Tamil ultranationalist movement is seen as a future strategic asset in contentious Asia. Or it could be the Washington-London “special relationship” being leveraged by the UK Tamil Diaspora. One can only speculate as to motivation.
Both from the highly credible Menon’s revelation and the significant absence of a contradiction/denial from any official U.S. source, is that the U.S. was willing to make an exception for Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom the FBI had fingered as having pioneered the suicide vest.
What does all this mean anyway? What’s the main lesson? At the very least it is that we must understand the limits of U.S. friendship and any partnership with the U.S., because our enemies, those who wish to carve out a separate state from our little island and those who support them, have effective connections and/or significant weight in Washington DC, and always will.
The U.S. is therefore a fickle, unreliable friend and ally. By contrast, we know those who staunchly supported us in our years of greatest danger. Our foreign policy must be based on a strong relationship with these firm friends. These are our real friends, allies and partners. They are located in Eurasia and the Global South and adhere to the “Eastphalian” notion of national/state sovereignty.
It is important for Sri Lanka to practice its foreign policy in such a way as to enable Delhi to keep Tamil Nadu neutral, and preserve or at least prolong the broad wartime alliance that gave us the space to win the war. It was ignored prior to India switching its stance at the UN Human Rights Council in 2012. Until then, Sri Lanka had been protected by an alliance in which India was a crucial factor in presenting and maintaining a unified Asian and Non-Aligned front which balanced off the West’s vengeful calls for accountability.
*The writer is a former Ambassador/Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva, a former vice president of the UN Human Rights Council and a former chairperson of the ILO. He was also Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to France and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO. [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 December 2016]
Photo: A LTTE Sea Tiger fast attack fiberglass boat passing a Sri Lankan freighter sunk by the Sea Tigers just north of the village of Mullaitivu, North-eastern Sri Lanka. A version of this article was published in the Daily Mirror. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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