Sri Lanka’s Dismal Ignorance Of The U.S. System & The Mindset Of U.S. Policymakers


Forty two years later – in 2021 – to the amazement of many, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister displayed his ignorance of the working of the American system: The Daily Mirror of June 8 (2021) edition reported “Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena today sought the immediate intervention of the US State Department to convey the concerns and the position of the government on the proposed resolution No. H.Res.413, which was introduced by Congresswoman Deborah Ross, to the Chair and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well as the respective Congresspersons in order to withdraw or amend it”.

In late May 1979, civic-political organizations stormed the outer perimeter of the American Embassy in Galle Face, Sri Lanka, with anti-American slogans accusing the United States of maneuvering to divide the nation in facilitation of a separate state for the minority Tamils in the North-East region. The demonstrations-protest marches went on for many days while the print media editorially, and in special features, accused Washington of its ‘subtle’ move to bifurcate, and threaten the territorial integrity of the country. Political leaders, parliamentarians and activists, most from the opposition liberal SLFP and left parties, were attacking the U.S. accusing its alleged collaboration with the ‘Eelamist elements’. Even many ruling party UNP politicians were expressing their dissatisfaction.

The outcry was the result of the ‘Proclamation of Eelam Day’ by the Governor of the State of Massachusetts Edward J. King in support of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF)- adopted resolution declared at its 1976 session for an ‘independent Tamil homeland state’– popularly known as the Vaddukkodai Resolution. The TULF’s diplomatic approach of the Governor and several State Legislators brought dividends. 

The officials of the American Embassy considered this a serious public affairs-public diplomacy lacuna, and at a meeting chaired by the Deputy Ambassador which included senior Foreign Service officials and their selected (Sri Lankan) national staff scrutinized the situation. The consensus was that neither the media, nor the civic-political leaders/activists had adequate understanding of the governing system of the U.S., and that they had missed the reality that the Massachusetts State was one of the fifty states in the Union with socio-economic-administrative powers devolved except foreign affairs and national defense, and that neither the White House nor the U.S. Congress had any authority over any of the fifty states except law enforcement if the necessity arose. With that, Embassy’s Executive Office, political and public affairs divisions reacted immediately meeting media personnel, political activists, parliamentarians to refresh their minds about the functioning of the American system.

With that public affairs and public diplomacy initiative, verbal and print onslaught on the United States had a natural death. When the Massachusetts State Assembly on June 18, 1981 – with the presence of TULF leader M. Sivasithambaram in the VIP gallery – adopted the Vaddukkodai Resolution, there was no upheaval against the U.S. in Colombo or elsewhere.

Forty two years later – in 2021 – to the amazement of many, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister displayed his ignorance of the working of the American system: The Daily Mirror of June 8 (2021) edition reported “Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena today sought the immediate intervention of the US State Department to convey the concerns and the position of the government on the proposed resolution No. H.Res.413, which was introduced by Congresswoman Deborah Ross, to the Chair and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well as the respective Congresspersons in order to withdraw or amend it”.

The Minister had made this appeal when Charge d’ Affaires of the US Embassy in Colombo Martin T. Kelly called on him at the Foreign Ministry, reported the Daily Mirror.

It is distressing Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who is Sri Lanka’s conduit for foreign relations with the United States (and elsewhere), failed to comprehend the U.S. system: that the State Department, one of the federal units of the Executive Branch headed by the President, has no authority to dictate terms – even make simple suggestions – to the Legislature how to run its affairs. Both branches of the Congress – Senate and the House – have their own independent research units that produce material for the respective committees, one of such is the Foreign Affairs. These analytical documents are used by the lawmakers to shape their opinion on issues. Occasionally they meet foreign diplomats to get a better understanding of issues related to those countries.

At present the Biden administration is disabled in its efforts to get Legislative approval to a couple of vital ‘nation building’ bills due to obstruction of Members in the Senate of both parties. The vital ‘infrastructure bill’ and the ‘voting reform bill’ are in peril.

Sri Lanka’s central government since the conclusion of the Eelam War IV in May 2009 had the difficulty in mending Washington’s mindset to mitigate the influence of the pro-eelam operatives within the Tamil Diaspora. Two reasons: (1) Washington policymakers and lawmakers were not provided a clear understanding of the domestic issues that affect all ethnic communities often clouded with the feed-backs of the operatives within the Tamil Diaspora (2) Sri Lankan authorities had failed to gauge the correct approach with studied issues to influence the mindset of Washington. Sri Lanka never had effective advocacy as is shown even at present.

To effectively advocate, Sri Lanka couldn’t identify who were the most effective persons among the Members of the Congress and their staff, or principal officials in the White House attached to the policy-making National Security Council (NSC) covering the areas of South Asia and Human Rights. Washington should have been told the truth, the truth about the ground situation, the demographic patterns that affect all ethnic communities. To ‘speak the truth’ to Washington without establishing trust is counterproductive. Colombo needs to make more efforts to understand the dynamics of policymaking organizations, individuals and systems. Policymaking takes place in an environment with many policymakers, many authoritative organizations, venues, or networks with their own rules that take time to understand. How the policymakers understand the world, where and with whom to engage, how to form effective alliances, and how to spot the right time to act are all essentials. When there is a lacuna of all these, neither Washington gets the correct picture nor Sri Lanka is able to identify vital issues that fit into a dialogue for policymakers and lawmakers to understand what the pro-Eelam operatives within the Tamil Diaspora are exaggerating, fabricating and misinterpreting.

Had Sri Lanka ‘broadly’ understood Washington’s limited knowledge of the ground realities– very well displayed during the 2002-2005 Peace Negotiations which eventually failed but lifted the separatist LTTE as an equal partner to that of the democratic-legitimate state – it could have formulated a diplomatic strategy to approach Washington that would have brought some dividends. It was well seen that Sri Lanka was unable to discover the issues/areas that Washington failed to comprehend.  Had the Sri Lankan authorities knew Washington’s limited knowledge – which the LTTE operatives within the Tamil Diaspora were aware and took advantage– they could have avoided many obstacles that are even seen in the year 2021 in Geneva.

The overwhelming economic factors that Washington failed to pay much attention were alarming: The US took scant interest to connect the societal revulsion – the result of the Sinhalese and Tamil nationalist resurgence – to the disparity between the urban and the rural sectors in terms of economic opportunities, educational facilities, employment availability, and the essential social structures. The manner in which Sri Lanka’s conservative administration liberalized (opened) its economy since 1977 seriously affected both the northern (Tamil) as well as the southern (Sinhalese) farming communities. The devastation of the rural farming community became a catalyst for both the northern and southern insurrections. Further, a vast majority of the rural population was denied of their upward mobility in the society. In adjacent urban centers, central and local governments had perennially engaged in improving the lives of the population. Washington did not recognize that all ethnic communities were visibly entangle in this unusual Sri Lankan process that awarded preferential treatment to those in the urban centers, and historic injustice to those in the rural sector. Sri Lanka failed to comprehend the importance of this socio-economic factor to make the West knowledgeable of a significant issue that engulfed the nation that the latter made no attempt to focus. This perennial disparity was subsequently highlighted in the October 2015 World Bank Country Report on Sri Lanka. The result was the West, especially the United States, believed – and made to believe – that Sri Lanka was engulfed in an ethnic battle, and nothing but a ‘free-for-all’ between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. Neither the Sri Lankan authorities highlighted nor the U.S. (and the West) questioned as to why there were no ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamil since 1983 when the LTTE mercilessly killed hundred-odd Buddhist monks, attacked and damages the secret Temple of the Tooth and brutally killed two busloads of school children in Sinhalese-majority southern districts.

The significant factor that escaped Washington policymakers when engaged in formulating foreign policy planks on Sri Lanka’s national issues, especially ethnic relations, Tamil demands, Sinhalese concerns and human rights, was that the rural sector which comprised 77 percent of the landmass of the whole country – in which 75 percent of the population lived – consists a potpourri of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, and that the country is 19 percent urban in which Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims jointly made up 18.1 percent of the total population, the latter receiving preferential treatment at the expense of the rural sector. How many policymakers in Western countries were told that a 52% of ethnic Tamils are living outside the North-East provinces among the Sinhalese – the urban sector – gainfully employed and have access to advanced educational system that the Tamils and Sinhalese are deprived of in the rural sector?

Despite U.S. law enforcement agencies blocked money laundering, raising funds and procuring combat equipment on American soil, Washington equated the Tiger separatist movement with minority Tamil issues, a fact that the Sri Lankan authorities never took seriously. How and why Washington believed in the invincibility of the LTTE and the outfit’s usefulness toward the resolution of Tamil issues, especially changing the structure of governance, is central aspect of the US mind-set. Washington expressed its open frustration when it sensed the decline of the Tigers a month prior to its total defeat – in mid April – when a senior state department official at a specially-convened media event in Washington questioned as to “why did they (the separatist-terrorists) have a following in the beginning” to which he himself declared – exposing Washington’s mind-set – “and I think it’s because some in the Tamil community do have legitimate grievances, we need to find.” These subtle messages escaped the Sri Lankan political system that, as much as Washington wanted to see the LTTE defeated it never wanted it totally annihilated expecting it to survive as a ‘pressure movement’, in the mindset of Washington, to solve issues that the ethnic minority Tamils faced. Sri Lanka never realized that with the demise of the LTTE the West engaged in constant dialogue with representatives within the Tamil Diaspora who took the LTTE place in becoming the pressure group. The haphazard manner foreign affairs is handled by the Government of Sri Lanka has given a continued monopoly to the (former LTTE) operatives within the Tamil Diaspora who have now become spokesperson for Sri Lanka’s Tamil community to consolidate the mindset of policymakers and lawmakers in Washington. The ‘episode’ is continuing at present.

However it is on record, in official U.S. documents and numerous pronouncements, that Washington was critical of LTTE’s terrorist tactics and its adventurism seeking redress for Tamil grievances, and that it totally opposed the establishment of a separate ethnic state in the north-east of Sri Lanka following the declaration of the outfit as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997 under the provisions of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. However in late September 2001, two weeks since the Patriot Act was promulgated to deal with al Qaeda and other global terror groups that were responsible for the attacks on the American soil, Washington took the LTTE out of the group of al Qaeda terrorists that the Bush administration targeted in its Global War On Terror (GWOT) as it considered the LTTE a totally different movement that addressed Sri Lanka’s domestic issue. This Washington policy decision went unnoticed in Colombo: In doing so, Washington in fact equated the LTTE separatist endeavor with minority Tamil issues. The moves Bush administration’s Secretary of State Colin Powel and his Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage initiated – both who took a special interest in the 2002-2004 Peace Negotiations – was for a specific purpose: The U.S. tied the separatist campaign of the LTTE with minority Tamil issues. (The policy plank was continued under the Obama administration with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton taking the lead even advocating the cut of IMF grants to Sri Lanka). When Powel met with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in Washington on eve of the Peace Negotiations, the former wanted Sri Lanka to solve ‘Tamil minority issues’ and that adequate devolution of power to the North-East sector put in place. Sri Lanka failed to scrutinize all these factors to get into the mindset of the Americans. Sri Lanka’s inability to understand this reality resulted in severe setback.

The expansive 25-page June 03 (2021) document of Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry presented to the U.S. Congress through its diplomatic envoy in Washington as a reply to the May 18 (2021) Resolution before the U.S. House on Sri Lanka has satisfied itself in declaring “In 2008, the group was named the ‘most dangerous and deadly extremists’ in the world by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), whose ‘ruthless tactics have inspired terrorist networks worldwide, including Al-Qaeda in Iraq”.  The American lawmakers – especially those in the Foreign Affairs Committee – are aware that the Bush administration separated the LTTE from the rest of the global terrorist networks which was an indication that the Tiger network was never a threat to American national security. It was the Bush administration that encouraged the state department’s two top-most officials to help Norway in its efforts in the Peace Negotiations. On the sidelines, Deputy Secretary of State Armitage and LTTE chief negotiator Dr. Anton Balasingham had a long discourse in Oslo during the Peace Talks. And it was the Obama administration that was in total blindness of Sri Lanka’s ground situation that brought many obstacle to the Sri Lankan state.

It is time for Sri Lanka to comprehend what went wrong, what it missed, what it failed to let Washington know to move forward to progressively deal with the Biden administration identifying the officials who are connected to issues in South Asia and human rights in the policy-making National Security Council in the White House and in the Department of Homeland Security under which the Division of War Crimes and Human Rights function. Unlike the Trump administration, Sri Lanka is now destined to deal with liberals in all agencies in the Biden administration. The liberals have already taken control of committees of foreign affairs in both the Senate and the House. Sri Lanka needs to design its approach having taken note of the past disabilities, and current obstacles on its path.

It is true that US Congressional resolutions have no force of law but just expression of sentiments: These sentiments had governed the mindset of Washington – in both the lawmakers and policymakers – for a long time, and the Foreign Ministry should not satisfy itself in proclaiming “the Biden administration has no effect on Sri Lanka” and “the U.S. needs to organize its own backyard”.

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