Defending Sri Lanka: Response to Michael Colin Cooke

Image taken from ‘Interrogating a public intellectual: Noted bloggers and youth activists engage Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka‘, published on Groundviews

The phrase ‘a man for all seasons’ being a compliment -which is clearly not the writer’s intent- I find Mr Michael Colin Cooke’s sense of irony rather leaden (read A Man for all political Seasons: Dr Dayan Jayatilleka). No matter. I have two options in responding. One is to enter a slugfest of quotations and ideological polemic, for which I simply do not have the time, and nor I suspect, do most readers. The other route is to address the substance, with a view to advancing clarity and political discussion.

MCC accuses me of “idealisation of the current government of Sri Lanka”. That’s plain silly, and he would find it impossible to back it up with a single quotation or example, while none of those he has furnished amount to anything remotely approaching idealisation.

I do defend the Sri Lankan state, its elected leadership and its elected government, in that order, but selectively and hardly uncritically. I have never urged anything but a policy of qualified and critical support, of ‘unity and struggle’ towards these entities.

It should strike Mr Cooke that the 90% approval rating that Mahinda Rajapaksa enjoys, going by the last Gallup poll, is not an indication of “idealisation” of either his leadership or the role and functioning of his government.

Mr Cooke should also examine the possibility that one may support and defend because the object of that support is a bulwark or counterweight against a far greater threat or threats. Still more clearly, one extends support because the object of that support is the only or best available alternative against a greater, more insidious danger. It is a matter of the hierarchy of contradictions; of judging which one is primary and which is secondary in a given stage or phase of history, or a given conjuncture.

At the time he was elected to office and until the successful completion of the war, Mahinda Rajapaksa was far more solution than problem, and was by no means the main danger to the interests of Sri Lanka, its peoples and the anti-imperialist cause as a whole. Though the case is less clear and more complex in the post-war period, this remains so, perhaps to a far lesser extent, as long as (a) Diaspora and Tamil Nadu based pro-Tiger secessionism and external hegemonic interventionism remain a threat and (b) Ranil Wickremasinghe and his UNP remain the only real alternative in terms of the electoral endgame. (Whatever upheavals and however radical, the endgame in Sri Lankan politics at the centre, is always electoral). Were both or indeed either condition to be absent, the entire analysis would be subject to change.

Now, is this my convenient reconstruction or is it the structure of real choices that prevailed when I supported Mahinda Rajapaksa? Let us turn to a scholar whose perspective is almost totally at variance with my own. In a recent Routledge publication, Bradford University’s David Lewis reassesses the war and the diplomatic battle from a perspective that is sharply hostile to the final war and the Rajapaksa administration. (See David Lewis, 2010: The failure of a liberal peace: Sri Lanka’s counterinsurgency in global perspective, Conflict, Security & Development, 10:5, 647-671) Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for International Co-operation and Security in the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, Lewis headed the International Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka programme in 2006-7. 

“…From 2005 onwards the new government led by President Rajapaksa rejected all of the explicit or implicit premises that were associated with the conflict resolution mechanisms of the peace process: that the government and LTTE had parity; that there was no privileged status for the sovereign state; that changes to territorial integrity—either through federalism or forms of confederation—were possible avenues towards conflict resolution; and that only external mediation and oversight could enable a settlement to be achieved”. (p 652)

The choice was clear: either these ‘premises’ or their rejection.  I criticised and rejected them from the outset, as did the majority of Sri Lankan people later. My support for Mahinda Rajapaksa as presidential candidate and president was because he stood opposed to or was the only candidate critical of these premises, while the other candidate was their co-architect and agent. I continue that basic support for Mahinda Rajapaksa today, although in a far more nuanced manner, because those who stand against him (except for those forces to the left of him) are those who supported these ‘premises’ or did not oppose them, and who wish to punish him and Sri Lanka’s military for rejecting those premises. That basic support will continue as long as those conditions exist and preponderate.

David Lewis sets out Rajapaksa’s response: “Rajapakse rejected any notion that the LTTE was an equal partner in negotiations; he refused to acknowledge its claim to be the ‘sole representative of the Tamil people’, and instead labelled it as ‘the demonic forces of terror’. The state was declared ‘indivisible’ and no concessions either in territory or political power would be ceded to the LTTE; instead Rajapakse aimed for a ‘single country unified under a single standard’.  Finally, external mediation would no longer be required…” (Ibid)

I not only supported and defended this response; I had been advocating it for years. My stand did not derive from any variant of Sinhala nationalism. If it did, it should have been limited to the Sinhalese and not proved capable of obtaining broad support including from progressive and anti-imperialist global forces.

Again, David Lewis coming as he does from a contrary standpoint, provides objective confirmation of the global stakes.

“…This shift—if it develops more broadly—will be the result primarily of a reassertion of sovereignty norms against the liberal norms and conflict resolution practices which have made up the international peace-building agenda of the past two decades…The various elements of this approach to peace-building, which was institutionalised in a range of interventions from Bosnia to East Timor, came to be labelled (primarily by its critics) as the ‘liberal peace’, a set of policies and programmes that often prescribed liberal political and economic policies in conflict-affected areas as part of a broader international effort to bring an end to civil conflict…” (p649)

“This shift in approaches to conflict resolution was also encouraged by a change in attitudes and norms related to state sovereignty. In the Cold War period sovereign states had a special status, and governments held a privileged position in any conflict resolution process, relegating opposition movements to the subordinate position of “rebels”’. The maintenance of existing state structures and their territorial integrity took precedence over claims of self-determination and movements for secession. Only in specific circumstances, such as that of an anti-colonial liberation movement, could ‘rebel groups’ claim a special status that conferred international legitimacy. In other circumstances, such as the Biafra conflict in Nigeria, or Katanga in the Congo, international support was primarily provided to the central government; the norms of sovereignty became increasingly embedded. In the early 1990s, the break-up of the USSR and Yugoslavia and the growth of supranational organisations, such as the EU, helped to undermine sovereignty norms, assisted also by the growth of non-governmental organisations and the ‘Third Wave’ democratisation processes…Nicholas Wheeler and others have argued that a new norm of ‘humanitarian intervention’, with obvious implications for sovereignty norms, began to gain ground in the UN in the 1990s.

These changes in norms related to sovereignty had a significant impact on the way governments dealt with armed rebellion and civil wars. In these new approaches to resolving conflict, states and non-state actors were often given effective parity in peace negotiations, and secession or significant levels of autonomy were considered a possible avenue for conflict resolution. The inviolability of state sovereignty came under attack, fuelled by a new privileging of democratic values and universal understandings of human rights, which gave new status to groups claiming to be the victims of state repression. The emergence of new states such as Kosovo and East Timor were the logical, if controversial, outcome of these new approaches…” (Ibid p 650-1)

“The Sri Lankan peace process included many of the elements and approaches that had become familiar during the 1990s. The peace process was heavily internationalised…” (p 651)

What Michael Colin Cooke cannot understand, but David Lewis does, is what this meant from the point of view of contemporary global dynamics. I might disclose with some modest degree of satisfaction, that the latter devotes considerable attention to the battles in the UN HRC, their embedding in the world context and their implications, citing me (in GV!) a few times:

“However, it was not merely this direct bilateral financial and strategic support that assisted Sri Lanka nor the military hardware that it could access from China and from other countries such as Pakistan or Ukraine. Sri Lanka also ably took advantage of shifts in the international geopolitical balance to promote and benefit from changes in the understanding of international norms …related to international responses to internal conflicts.Two normative areas were of particular relevance: those norms that reinforce or undermine particular understandings of state sovereignty; and those norms that propose limitations on the use of force in internal conflicts or advocate peaceful resolution rather than the use of force. In both areas, key influencing states in international forums (such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, Indonesia and South Africa) have tended to support a reversion to pre-1991 norms, supporting maximalist understandings of state sovereignty and resisting norms that constrain particular ways in which force is used inside state borders. 

Many of the battles over conflict-related norms between Sri Lanka and Europe took place in UN institutions, primarily the Human Rights Council (HRC), of which Sri Lanka was a member until 2008…it was Sri Lanka which generally had the best of these diplomatic battles. On 27May 2009 a HRC resolution congratulated Sri Lanka on defeating the LTTE… Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa were notable supporters of the Sri Lankan resolution…During the conflict China and Russia—backed by some other states, such as Vietnam and Libya—made it clear that they would block any efforts to place the Sri Lankan crisis formally on the Security Council agenda. Under pressure from the UK and France, in particular, Security Council members finally agreed a compromise statement in May 2009, expressing ‘grave concern over the worsening humanitarian crisis in north-east Sri Lanka’, although this too was produced without a formal discussion in the Security Council chamber. Similarly, a move to produce an investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka came directly from the office of the Secretary-General, and did not require a Security Council vote, much to the displeasure of Russia.

These successful alliance-building efforts by Sri Lanka in the HRC and the Security Council reflect broader trends…

There is also evidence of growing resistance to other controversial conflict-related norms, such as the Responsibility to Protect concept. Although most major powers, including China and India, formally adopted the concept in 2005, they have resisted its application in a number of conflict environments, and there have been attempts to dilute its application and scope…” (ibid pp. 658-9)

“…Although this process of contestation reflects shifting power relations, and the increasing influence of China, Russia and other ‘Rising Powers’, it does not mean that small states are simply the passive recipients of norms created and contested by others. In fact, Sri Lankan diplomats have been active norm entrepreneurs in their own right, making significant efforts to develop alternative norms of conflict management, linking for example Chechnya and Sri Lanka in a discourse of state-centric peace enforcement. They have played a leading role in UN forums such as the UN HRC, where Sri Lankan delegates have helped ensure that the HRC has become an arena, not so much for the promotion of the liberal norms around which it was designed, but as a space in which such norms are contested, rejected or adapted in unexpected ways. 

….As a member of the UN HRC Sri Lanka has played an important role in asserting new, adapted norms opposing both secession and autonomy as possible elements in peacebuilding—trends that are convergent with views expressed by China, Russia and India…The Sri Lankan conflict may be seen as the beginning of a new international consensus about conflict management, in which sovereignty and non-interference norms are reasserted, backed not only by Russia and China but also by democratic states such as Brazil.

If the international normative environment begins to fracture further as non-liberal states gain greater influence over international governance structures, there may be a break-down in common understandings of normative approaches to conflict resolution, reflecting the potentially sharp differences between liberal norms and the influential alternative approaches that …describe as ‘Eastphalia’.” (pp. 658-661)

What was at stake in the Sri Lankan conflict and what continues to some degree (with the raucous calls for an ‘international inquiry’) to be at stake, is conformity or resistance to the post Cold War global order. David Lewis, a supporter of that order, understands this. Michael Colin Cooke’s reliance on Noel Malcolm’s nonsensical narrative about Yugoslavia and Kosovo clearly reveals that he does not. Here is what Fidel Castro had to say just months ago, in the aftermath of the Libya intervention, about Kosovo:

“…NATO assumed this global repressive role as soon as the USSR, which had served as the U.S. pretext for its creation, disappeared. Its criminal purpose became obvious in Serbia, a country of Slavic origin, whose people heroically struggled against the Nazis during World War II. In March of 1999, when the countries of this nefarious organization, in its efforts to break up Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Broz Tito, sent in troops to support the Kosovar secessionists, they met with strong resistance on the part of the country´s experienced forces which remained intact. The Yankee administration, advised by the right-wing Spanish government of José María Aznar, attacked Serbian television stations, bridges over the Danube River and Belgrade, the capital of the country. The embassy of the People’s Republic of China was destroyed by Yankee bombs and several functionaries died. This could not have been any mistake, as those responsible alleged. A great number of Serbian patriots lost their lives. President Slobodan Miloševic, overwhelmed by the power of the aggressors and the disappearance of the USSR, submitted to NATO demands and allowed the presence of troops from this alliance within Kosovo, under United Nations command, which finally led to his political defeat and subsequent prosecution by the less than impartial court of The Hague. He died under mysterious circumstances in prison. Had the Serbian leader resisted a few more days, NATO would have faced a serious crisis which was about to erupt.” (Reflections of Fidel Castro: NATO’s Genocidal Role, Oct 23/24, 2011)

Deriving from Fidel’s re-emphasis in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, on national independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity against attempts at ‘dismembering’ ( his term) countries,  this was precisely my understanding of Kosovo and its implications for Sri Lanka, which David Lewis correctly notes that I linked and deployed in my discourse in Geneva.  Michael Colin Cooke’s failure to comprehend the turning point that was Kosovo is symptomatic of his larger failure to comprehend — especially from the perspective of the South– imperialism, hegemonism and the struggle for global equilibrium today. He also fails to understand why every government or state born of a revolutionary or liberation struggle, as well as governments led by those with a revolutionary project or provenance, ranging from Cuba to Vietnam, from Brazil to China, from Uruguay to Angola, from Venezuela to Laos, from Ecuador to Ethiopia, from Venezuela to Mozambique, defend and support Sri Lanka in the terms, for the reasons of principle, and to the extent that I do (“idealization of the current government” having nothing whatsoever to do with it). Debating Marxism with such a man is a waste of time.

In the face of Western pressure towards the end of the war, Mahinda Rajapaksa did what Fidel thought Milosevic should have but did not. Sri Lanka did not blink. Any project worthy of support (especially by progressives) that seeks to supplant or supersede Mahinda Rajapaksa must defend the gains made by him in matters of national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity. It must support what is correct in what he has done and is doing, while being critical of what he should do but is not, and what he shouldn’t but is. So long as there is real pressure and threat from outside, the Sri Lankan people will not opt for anyone who is perceived as a weaker leader than Mahinda on these issues. The Sri Lankan people will only turn to a leadership or project that is more enlightened, pluralist and progressive; that can defend and consolidate his gains using ‘smart power’ while rectifying his errors– never someone who is perceived as a weaker defender of national independence, state sovereignty and the ‘general will’ of the people.