Iraq: The Sri Lankan Context

Iraq: The Sri Lankan Context

“Only the most incorrigible legalists can pretend to be shocked by the conclusion that the perpetrator of an aggressive war acts at peril of being punished for his perpetration, even if no tribunal has ever previously decided that perpetration of an aggressive war is a crime.”
Telford Taylor, The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials (New York, 1992), 641

Judge C. G. Weeramantry, former Vice-president of the International Court of Justice and the President of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, told the Hague Appeal for Peace in New York on 14th February 2003 that “the Security Council has never authorized force based on a potential, non-imminent threat of violence. All past authorizations have been in response to actual invasions, large scale violence of humanitarian emergency.” Judge Weeramantry also maintained that without moral, legal and factual evidence for a war against Iraq, the Anglo-American alliance has painted itself into a corner by dragging the troops to the borders of Iraq.

His comments found resonance in the country of his birth as well. Several hundred Sri Lankan workers held a two-hour protest picket outside Fort Railway Station in central Colombo on 8th March 2003 to oppose US plans for war against Iraq. Nearly 100 young workers came from the Biyagama Free Trade Zone (FTZ) near Colombo, as well as employees from the railways, banks, port, hospitals and school. The protest was organised by the Alliance for the Protection of National Resources and Human Rights (APNR), a coalition of trade unions, non-government organisations and protest groups. The demonstration was organised under the theme “Do not spill blood for oil”. Chanting slogans – Join the world mass opposition to the war, Condemn the war threat against Iraq, Bush wants a puppet rule in Iraq!, No bombs to Iraq but food for children – the protest reflected the perception of the war against Iraq by the masses in Sri Lanka.

This was not the last such public protest. On 21st March 2003, more than 1,000 people rallied in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, against the US-led invasion of Iraq. The demonstration included Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Arranged by the Joint Organisation Against the American Invasion of Iraq, the protest was also attended by the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Sri Lankan Communist Party, Muslim Congress, People’s United Front (MEP) and the Ceylon Trade Union Federation. Many who took part, however, were not members of these organisations but came to vent their frustration and anger over the US-led war. At the end of the march, demonstrators were addressed by a number of speakers who simply called for more protests to pressure the government and the president to oppose the war.

A curious blend of domestic war fatigue, fears of a fledgling peace process going astray and anti-American feeling propelled by chauvinistic forces who wished to use the war on Iraq for partisan political gains animated much of the anti-war protests in Sri Lanka. Informing this complex dynamic was the current peace process – after over two decades of a devastating war, which had led to the economic and social ruination of the country, people in Sri Lanka looked upon war as an evil that they would loathe to re-visit or see inflicted upon another country. However, while the war was distant and abstract, its ramifications were concrete and real.

On 20th April 2003, the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) confirmed that no Sri Lankan workers employed in the Middle East region has been affected by the Iraq war. A special Command Centre at the Bureau Head Office had been set up soon after war broke out to enable interested parties to know about their family members employed in the Middle East, in addition to a special fund of Rs. 500 million to help workers in case of war.

This was in contrast to the assistance sought by the Government from the United States to solve problems in exporting tea to countries in the Middle East as a result of the war. The war had brought tea exports to Iraq, the fourth largest buyer of Sri Lanka’s tea, to a standstill. Tea prices at the Colombo tea auction had significantly declined, Sri Lanka’s “low-grown” teas, favoured by the Middle Eastern market, dropped between 10 and 15% in price and large stocks remained unsold.

Sri Lanka’s economic recovery, which the incumbent government believes will be the harbinger of a sustainable peace, was put in question on account of the war. Japan’s peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi, on a visit to Sri Lanka in February 2003, said he hoped “outside events” would not divert attention from Sri Lanka’s Norwegian-backed peace process. Akashi also noted that a major aid pledging conference in June 2003 could be during a post-war situation in Iraq. Akashi’s concerns dovetailed with those of the incumbent government, that international attention on the war in Iraq would detract monetary pledges for the rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in Sri Lanka, especially in the North-East.

President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, in an online interview with the Washington Times in March 2003, stated that there should not be any war with Iraq, especially without the sanction of the United Nations. She went on to say that three-quarter million Sri Lankan expatriate workers in the Middle Eastern countries would be affected by a war in Iraq and that it would have an impact on global economic growth and stability as well.

Echoing the sentiments of the President, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the situation in the Middle East in a Press Release on 20th March 2003. In it, the Government unequivocally expressed support of the UN system – “Sri Lanka … continues to firmly believe that issues affecting international peace and security should be as far as possible identified, considered and resolved through the UN, the primary global institution through which the will of the international community can be legitimately expressed. Therefore, it is essential that the role of the UN and its credibility and authority be restored and respected.” However, there was no overt condemnation of America’s actions, or a questioning of the war and its raison d’etre. However, it does link the Iraqi war with the other problems in the Middle East, and in particular urges “substantial progress towards an enduring and just peace in which the States of Palestine and Israel”.

Other voices were not so sterile. Tissa Vitharana, spokesperson for the Opposition People’s Alliance said on 10th March 2003 that “[President George] Bush and [Prime Minister Tony] Blair have become war criminals by their action of going to war [with Iraq] without United Nations approval… The Government should not help US forces in any way.”

With the current involvement of the United States in the peace process, much of the anti-war protest, though directed at them, lacked sustenance and died down with the de-escalation of the ground offensive. A murmur of dissent still exists, but it is unlikely that anti-Americanism will hold sway in the annals of the incumbent government. The visible involvement of senior figures in the Bush Administration in the peace process in Sri Lanka, the good relations that exist between the two countries, the economic benefits can all, as Richard L. Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State said in his Opening Remarks at the recent Washington meeting with donors and the Government of Sri Lanka, result in “…an infusion of international support can add an unstoppable force to this momentum of peace.”

I believe Sri Lanka will pay lip-service to a policy of non-alignment, but with the paradigms of Cold War alliances now moot, it is increasingly evident that Sri Lanka will continue to develop a cosy relationship with the United States on a whole spectrum of issues.

It can be said that the next three years in Sri Lanka will not constitute a post-conflict situation in terms of formal political and constitutional structures confirming this, but rather a post cease-fire period. In this period, the prevailing emphasis on rehabilitation by the negotiating parties and donors alike will continue. It will be accompanied by incremental progress in the determination of a final political and constitutional settlement, as well as in the establishment of robust safeguards for democratic governance and human rights in the interim. Consequently, there is a danger that this pre-eminent emphasis on realising a ‘peace through development’ rationale in practice, will fatally compromise the former and stymie the latter.

Furthermore, continued social and political upheaval in the Middle-East will invariably impact the fragile peace process in Sri Lanka. With the pockets in the South as under-developed as vast tracts of land in the North-East, communities on both sides jostle for attention in developmental efforts. With the economy showing slow signs of recovery, its fate will depend to a large extent on the mood swings of the global markets. Tourism, a major industry in Sri Lanka, will also suffer on account of protracted conflict in the Middle-East. Another downswing in tourist arrivals could mean disaster for an industry that is painfully recovering from years of neglect.

Public support of the peace process hinges upon the realisation of an elusive peace dividend, the delivery of which in turn depends largely on economic growth. Iraq is a distant country for those in the North-East whose livelihoods have been wrenched away from them. And yet, developments in the Middle-East, and American’s voice in world affairs, may very well shape the contours of their future in Sri Lanka.

Asia after Iraq
Friedrich Ebert Foundation | net edition: Urmila Goel | Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Asia

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