Ambassador Lunstead continues

March 6, 2020


Daya Gamage worked at the American Embassy in Colombo, as the Sole Foreign Service National and as a Political Specialist with Dr Robert Boggs, who in recent times served as Professor of South Asian Studies at the Near East South Asia Centre for Strategic Studies at US National Defence University, from 1989 to 1993. Dr Boggs was the Foreign Service Political Counsellor, while Daya Gamage was the Foreign Service National Political Specialist. Both of them were the Colombo Diplomatic Mission’s key persons who closely monitored the Southern (JVP-88-89) insurrection and the North’s LTTE separatist-terrorist movement for the U.S. State Department. Daya Gamage retired in 1994 and has been living in Las Vegas since retirement. Sharing his knowledge, understanding and his intimate professional association with the US Department of State he has come out in the form of a book ‘Tamil Tigers’ Debt to America. He assures that facts found in his book cannot be found anywhere else! Daya Gamage authorised the writer to ” to quote anything from his book” so that the readers will get a clear picture of  America’s foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s national issues and the LTTE struggle in depth. His book is available at Amazon.

Continued from episode 23

Jeffrey Lunstead’s observations were a clear indication that the United  States regretted the legal impediments that prevented direct contacts with the Tamil Tigers.  Daya Gamage was quite confident with the professional knowledge gained during his association with FSOs that the United States never wanted a total annihilation of the LTTE, which they seriously believed would be a significant setback to redress the grievances of the minority eleven per cent Tamils.  In fact, the government, in the opinion of US officials, was significantly dominated by the majority 74 per cent Sinhalese.

“ The understanding Daya Gamage had during his fifteen years ( 1980-1994) working very closely with the American FSOs at the Colombo embassy, and his discourses with visiting officials from the State  Department and participating in dialogues that involved US congressmen and their senior staff was this: while opposed to the LTTE’s ruthless terror campaign, all of them seriously believed that the Tigers in many ways helped to highlight the Tamil grievances, that the terror movement’s existence, sans its fire-power, was necessary to bring sense to administration dominated by the Sinhala majority.

In contrast, their opinion of the Sinhalese Marxist JVP insurrection was about the issues of governance, which involved the economy and unemployed or underemployed youths. Despite approximately 60,000 youths were brutally massacred by the government military, the United States never raised that issue. In contrast, it focused on Tamil Tiger insurrection and connected Tamil issues with utmost seriousness. In segment 2 of the introductory chapter in Daya Gamage’s book, ‘ Tamil Tigers’ Debt to America’ Daya Gamage has quoted many State Department officials expressing their sentiments about the inaction of the human-rights violation during 1988 and 1989 JVP  nationwide insurrection.

As a postscript, Daya Gamage has emphasises that is 76 per cent rural and, since her independence from the British in 1948, the rural population, which comprised of the majority of Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims, had a raw deal as successive governments made economic, political and educational resources available to the 19 per cent urban centres. It benefitted a small percentage of elite Tamil, Sinhalese, and Muslims. Yet nationally and internationally, it was the Tamil grievances that were given most prominence.

In Chapter 4 in his book, subdivision 4 under “ Avoiding  Desperate Treatment of the Tamils and the Desperate Impact of Sinhalese,” Daya Gamage has given a sketch of what line the  Sri Lanka solution should be pursued along. Lunstead clearly lamented the legal impediments the United States had in dealing with the LTTE.

The legal restrictions were clear:  the US Government could not provide material assistance to the LTTE and had to block LTTE funds. The LTTE officials could not obtain visas to visit the U.S. unless a waiver was granted by the Attorney General based on a recommendation by the Secretary of State. It should be noted that there is no legal description against meeting with LTTE officials. A decision not to meet with the LTTE officials was a policy decision, not a legal one.

He further stated: 

“The U.S. Policy was nuanced in other ways in other ways. On the most basic level, the U.S supported the process as constructed, which involved the acceptance of the LTTE as a negotiating partner of the Sri Lanka Government. The U.S also made no objection to, and indeed generally supported, the direct engagement of other parties with the LTTE. When the GSL indicated that it was uncomfortable with a high-level visitor ( such as European  Commissioner for Foreign Relations Chris Patten) engaged in a dialogue at the LTTE headquarters in Kilinochchi meeting with the LTTE leader Prabhakaran, the U.S strongly supported the proposed visit.  But this former U.S FSO, who was in Sri Lanka in 2003  through to 2006, advocated in May 2007 that the  United States should have kept in touch with the LTTE.

To direct U.S. contact with the LTTE, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO), was difficult in the aftermath of September 11, 20001. One potential advantage of direct U.S. communication with the LTTE, had it occurred, would have been the ability of the U.S. to hear LTTE perspective and to get the measure of some LTTE leaders. Daya Gamage believed that direct communication with the LTTE would have had concrete benefits, including the ability to deliver a clear U.S message about a possible delisting of the LTTE as an FTO. At a minimum, a onetime meeting with the clear guidelines that further meetings would depend on the progress on moving away from terrorism would have been useful.  The U. S. Deputy Secretary Armitage told  Daya Gamage that he believed such contact would have been worth trying, but emphasised the difficulty of doing so at that time.

Why did the United States consider it important to establish contact with the LTTE, especially considering the following?

  1. The Tamil Tigers are not connected to the global terrorism that the United States is fighting tooth and nail.
  2. They have not inflicted any bodily harm to any American or have not been an impediment to U.S.  global interests.
  3. It is, in the words of Lunstead, “ a Sri Lankan Phenomenon.”

Arising out of this, U.S. officials, including Lunstead, believed that despite the LTTE was not the sole representative of the Tamil people, it epitomized the often-discussed Tamil grievances, which Lunstead and his State Department colleagues believed was the major part of the national crises in Sri Lanka.

In a speech to the  American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka in January 2006, Ambassador Lunstead sent a warning  to the LTTE by saying:

“ Let me be clear; our military assistance is not given because we anticipate or hope for a return to hostilities. We want peace. We support peace, and we will stand with the people of  Sri Lanka who desire peace. If the LTTE chooses to abandon peace, however, we want to be clear, they will face a stronger, more capable and more determined Sri Lankan military. We want the cost of a return to war to be high.” ( https//cablegatesearch.whikileaks.org/cablel.php?id=06COLOMBO111).

The impression created among the Sri Lanka diaspora in the West and among political commentators was that the United States had steadily stepped up its military assistance to the GSL. Instead, it discouraged the GSL desire to go for a military solution; the United States, in the meantime was encouraging the LTTE to return to the negotiating table or face serious consequences.

When taking stock of the military support available to them, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, since its advent in November 2005, had to turn to other sources if and when it had to militarily deal with the LTTE.  In fact, Lunstead’s strong warning to the Tamil Tigers in his speech in January 2006 was empty rhetoric when considering what he stated in a May 2007 paper to the  Asia Foundation.

From the practical perspective, the scale of the programme, which was funded at comparatively low levels, meant that it would not have a determinative impact on the ability of the Sri Lankan military to wage war. The practical impact was not negligible, but the main impact was phycological.

In the sum, the U.S. military relationship with the GSL was intended to send two messages such as the U.S would stand with the GSL if the LTTE resumed hostilities. The intent was to make the GSL feel strong enough to take risks for peace.  The message to the LTTE was that a return to hostilities would be more, not less costly. The intent was to encourage the LTTE to seriously seek a negotiated political solution.

Lunstead also observed the following:

“ The U.S. faces a delicate balancing act as it attempts to act positively in support of Sri Lanka and the peace process. On the one hand, it recognises that the Tamils of Sri Lanka have legitimate grievances, which the government must address. The  U.S sees the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, but one which must be engaged if there is to be a movement towards peace.

The  Sri Lanka Government, by contrast, is seen as a democratically elected which deserves support. The U.S. involvement in the peace process and support for the  Sri Lanka Government is based in two-part on the perception that the government, while not perfect, is a representative institution, which is trying to correct faults, and that there are mechanisms in the broader society – the Human Rights Commission, a free press, in general, an active civil society, which can help provide redress for abuses.

This U.S. support could diminish precipitously if the opposite impression gains ground if it appears that the government is not trying to prevent abuses. Widespread abuses by the security forces would have legal and political repercussions, which would make it difficult for the US to continue to support the government to the degree that it has in the past.  In addition to. Preventing human rights abuses, the U.S has made it clear that it expects the GSL to develop a political package that could realistically meet legitimate Tamil grievances.

Moreover, members of the U.S. Congress have publicly expressed their concern about the developments in Sri Lanka and alleged abuses by the government.

If the Government of Sri Lanka appears to so nothing to prevent human rights abuses, or worse condones them,  the U.S support for the government will face increasing legal and political obstacles.

Series continues in the blog.

Courtesy Daya Gamage  – Author of  Tamil Tigers’ Debt to America.

pic Credit: Google Pics

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