Sri Lankan rebuff

Print edition : March 28, 2008

SRI LANKA and Kosovo are continents apart literally. And yet no single event in the global sphere in recent years has caused such trepidation and discomfort in Sri Lanka as Kosovos Unilateral Declaration of Independence. The resounding rejection of Kosovos UDI by the government and a vast majority of civil society in the island is on a par with the consternation in Belgrade and Moscow over the development, and for good reasons.

With its own three-decade-old, unresolved ethnic conflict and the one-point agenda of the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to pursue the goal of a separate state of Eelam consisting of territories in the north and the east, the island nation is demonstrably alarmed over not only Kosovos UDI but also the unabashed manner in which the United States and its allies rushed to grant recognition to the new state in contravention of all norms of international relations and diplomacy.

For Sri Lanka, Kosovos UDI is a painful reminder of what it had gone through 18 years ago and the island nation is understandably horrified at the prospect of the notion gaining international currency. On March 1, 1990, Varadaraja Perumal, the then Chief Minister of the North-Eastern Province and the leader of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), made a unilateral declaration of the state of Eelam. (Today, the EPRLF is committed to resolving the ethnic problem within a united Sri Lanka and is a registered party.) It was no more than a symbolic act of defiance born out of frustration, but for Colombo the ghost of that action refuses to go away. The LTTEs decision to write to the United Nations Secretary-General, weeks after the Sri Lankan government ended the Norwegian-brokered 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) on January 16 this year, seeking recognition of a separate state of Eelam has only increased Colombos discomfort.

It was against this backdrop that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government deemed it necessary to let the world and the powers behind Kosovos act of defiance know in unambiguous terms that it could ill-afford to turn a blind eye to the developments in the Balkans. Sri Lankas disapproval of the Kosovo UDI is aimed not only at the LTTE but also at the powerful Western block led by the U.S. In a brief statement on the very day Kosovo declared independence, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry put on record its strong note of disapproval.

We note that the declaration of independence was made without the consent of the majority of the people of Serbia. This action by Kosovo is a violation of the Charter of the United Nations, which enshrines the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Member States. Moreover, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244 of 10th June 1999 reaffirms commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all States of the region. This action is particularly regrettable, since all efforts at reaching a negotiated political settlement on the future status of Kosovo, as envisaged by the Security Council Resolution 1244, have not been exhausted. The Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Kosovo could set an unmanageable precedent in the conduct of international relations, the established global order of sovereign States and could thus pose a grave threat to international peace and security, the statement said.

For obvious reasons, the Foreign Ministry did not get into the issue of implications of Kosovos independence for Sri Lanka. However, Dr. Dayan Jayatilaka, Sri Lankas Permanent Representative at the U.N. Office in Geneva and a non-career diplomat, felt no such restraints. Incidentally, Jayatilaka was a member of the North-Eastern Council of 1990. In a signed article titled Kosovo countdown: Lessons for Sri Lanka, a day before the Kosovo UDI, he forcefully articulated the diabolical implications of the move for his own country.

These then are the lessons for Sri Lanka: never withdraw the armed forces from any part of our territory in which they are challenged, and never permit a foreign presence on our soil. After 450 years of colonial presence, and especially after the experience of the Kandyan Convention, we Sri Lankans should have these lessons engraved in our historical memory and our collective identity. The Western imperialists who failed to capture our island militarily were able to take control of it only because we double-crossed our leader, trusted the West, signed an agreement and allowed the foreign presence into our heartland, he argued.

Jayatilaka reasoned that there were options other than secession for Kosovo. One was the fullest autonomy within Serbia. The other was the carving out of the Serbian majority portion of Kosovo and its annexation with Serbia. However, all options were aborted by the obduracy of the Kosovo leadership, which insists on independence. It must be noted that the current leader of Kosovo is a former leader of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, he noted.

The envoy argued that all tendencies in world politics which weakened, fragmented and destabilised states, undermining their sovereignty and making them vulnerable to hegemony and intervention, were inimical to Sri Lanka while all tendencies which strengthened and defended state sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, were friendly and helpful to his country.

Endorsing the sentiments of Jayatilaka, the Sri Lankan English daily The Island noted in an editorial that if independent states were to be carved out haphazardly according to the whims and fancies of a handful of powerful nations, then the U.N. ought to be given a grand funeral. It further noted that the LTTE, which was elated over Montenegros independence in 2006, are not so upbeat this time round; it felt that the Tigers had chosen to tread cautiously because of Indias fears and concerns about their Eelam project.

Jayatilakas arguments seem sound. However, there is one aspect which the envoy has sidestepped, and that is the failure of successive regimes in Colombo to come forward with a credible political solution to the grievances of minorities. A political package could provide the much-needed muscle to the moderate forces that are arraigned against the LTTE. It is the inability of the polity to come out with a solution to the ethnic conflict that provides oxygen to the LTTE.

B. Muralidhar Reddy
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