The Kosovo debate in Sri Lanka

by Dayan Jayatilleka

"An independent Kosovo, recognised by major Western powers, is in effect the first major fruit of the ideas behind R2P…Appropriately Kosovo’s emergence coincided with the establishment in New York of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protest…backed by the Canadian, British and Dutch governments, among others…The Organisation’s mission is the spread of R2P principles...An R2P generation is coming. The prising open of the world is slow work, but from Kosovo to Cuba it continues."

- Roger Cohen, International Herald Tribune, Feb 21, 2008, p.6

The Kosovo debate contains a microcosm of all that is right and wrong about Sri Lankan society. Some argue that in order to avoid a Kosovo outcome, all it takes is to "Just Say No" to the West and the outside world in general, while the others contend that what is needed is to "Just Say Yes", or in a more nuanced variant, "Never Say Never" to the West (especially to the Big Boys) and the outside world. The two responses correspond to the political antipodes of the xenophobes and the appeasers.

Both extremes are wrong, in twin senses: their interpretation and application of Kosovo, as well as their recommendation of what is to be done to combat such a danger.

The key to understanding the reality of the world, resides in a debate between two concepts that dates back to the year 1915. In that year, the young Leon Trotsky advocated a visionary slogan of a United States of Europe, perhaps the earliest pre-figuration of today’s European Union. He based this on an understanding of the underlying unity of the capitalist world system, a unity that to his mind superseded its differentiation. The slightly older Lenin replied by emphasising the opposite aspect: though it may be one system, that system is characterised by underlying unevenness, and this unevenness itself develops unevenly, spasmodically. This was his theory of uneven development. Because of uneven development, the processes in each country had a high degree of autonomy, and though the world system was a single chain, that chain had stronger and weaker links.

What is the relevance of all this to Kosovo, and more pressingly, to Sri Lanka? Though the world is indeed globalised, the distribution of power is uneven. Kosovo is located in Europe, and Europe is, and has been for a very long time, among the strongest links in the chain of the world system, which is of course dominated by the USA and its European allies. Sri Lanka is in Asia, and Asia has long been a weaker link in that chain. Today, the geopolitical and economic tendencies towards multi-polarity manifest themselves more in Asia than anywhere else.

We are also aware, at least since Antonio Gramsci, that the state and society are configured differently in the East than in the West. We in Asia collectively perceive our state to have a vastly greater antiquity and continuity, to be more organic, than that of the West. The combination of old and new consciousness - this perception of a living state with an ancient lineage, together with the recent memory of colonial occupation and humiliation - make an Asian society’s attachment to the state and it response to the threat of dismemberment, a far more deeply felt and violently contested affair than in the West. This is why a wise, war weary US General, completely oblivious to Gramsci, came to the conclusion after Korea: "Never get involved in a land war in Asia." The West forgets that lesson at its peril.

What the West can do in Europe it cannot do outside: when it was rolling back insurgents in post-war Greece, it was losing to Communists in China. This is true even today: the Shans and Karens will not have an independent state carved out for them in Myanmar.

Sri Lanka has therefore to engage in classic balancing off of those powers, Asian and European, which stand for a strong sovereign state, against those which strive to weaken the state in a reversion to Wilsonian notions of self-determination. Such a classic, realist balance of power strategy can work because we are located in Asia, not Europe.

However, no outside power can guarantee that which we ourselves are unwilling to protect. Therefore "balance of power" alone will not do, it has to be backed up with a version of "deterrence". It must be clear that we shall not withdraw our forces, we shall not capitulate, we shall not permit any alien forces upon our soil, and any one who hopes to will face a fight, more unconventional than conventional, from a two hundred thousand strong armed force and many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of radicalised youth.

The problem arises with those who would resort to such strategies of "deterrence" without its concomitant of the "balance of power". Sri Lanka can leverage its Asian location, balancing off certain powers against Western interventionism, but it can balance off the entirety of the outside world, West and East, far away and near, and base itself on a strategy of domestic deterrence, nor can it balance off certain Asian powers against others at the same time that it has to balance off the West!

Let me translate: Sri Lanka must adopt a policy of self–reliance and must not be strategically dependent upon any outside power. Sri Lanka must possess and display the political will to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty "by any means necessary" (as Malcolm X famously said) against anyone who would threaten it. However, Sri Lanka cannot rely on deterrence alone, unlike Cuba in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. Until the USSR existed, Cuba combined deterrence with balance of power, but after it collapsed, Cuba was safe only because it was far too hard a nut to crack, with an armed people, and hundreds of thousands who had fought successfully against South Africa, in Angola.

Sri Lanka, another island in the tropical sun, can gain inspiration from Cuba but cannot imitate it. The primary reason is the difference in the internal political and economic systems. These differences correspond to the different histories, characteristics and collective consciousness of our respective peoples.

The reality of Sri Lanka is that it is a divided society, with an entrenched multiparty democracy and an open economy. As the fate of the SLFP government of 1977 proves, the electorate will not long tolerate an economic model which makes for public privation. The Sri Lankan electorate is so protean that it also elected in 2001, an appeasing, Chamberlain-like Prime Minister, and gave him a sizeable vote at the last Presidential elections - though recent opinion polls render almost indubitable his defeat at the next one.

One sharp difference between Sri Lanka and Cuba is that the latter does not have an internal war (though it did have to combat counter-revolutionary bands for years), and certainly not an internal war of an ethnic-separatist character. Cuba’s armed forces could concentrate its energies on fighting the external enemy.

If Sri Lanka inevitably has to resist on two fronts, internal and external, so be it. However, it cannot resist on the "internal –external" and "external – external" fronts. In other words, Sri Lanka cannot abandon a policy of balancing some powers against others, in favour of a policy of taking on all comers, far and near! If it is to be argued that in the 1980s Sri Lanka fought cross-border separatist terrorism and eventually retrieved its sovereignty, rolling back a regional intervention, it must be recalled that in the 1980s Sri Lanka was not facing the concerted pressure it is today, from the West.

In the minds of some, the answer would be not merely a regime change, but a system change, which renders Sri Lanka economically "self-sufficient" (actually autarchic), and mobilises its people to fight the separatist enemy, domestic traitors and reactionaries, and all external comers. This strategy, in which patriotic or national liberation struggle and social revolution combine, is but a collapsible fantasy, which overlooks economic and geopolitical reality. Few Sri Lankan ultra-nationalists know that Cuba has more than five hundred foreign companies doing business there (since it is one of the world’s most stable and peaceful investment climates) and also enjoys an inflow of over a million tourists per year. A Hobbesian Sri Lanka, locked in a war of all against all, will be unable to sustain itself. Internal discontent and repression, external isolation and cross-border intervention, will constitute the conditions for Tamil Eelam and its recognition.

Sri Lanka must never take as axiomatic the notion that India will never countenance a Tamil Eelam because it will be a danger to India itself, given the proximity of Tamil Nadu. India helped in the birth of Bangladesh irrespective of any threat of West Bengal breaking away from India to join with Bangladesh! India is rightly confident that no one will want to break away from a quasi-federal economic superpower with a secular state.

Sri Lanka must also understand that there is a limit to the assistance that India can give us, given the fact of 50 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu, and the coalitional-regional character of governments in Delhi.

These two factors mean that Sri Lanka cannot take India for granted, it cannot put all its eggs in the Indian basket, but it cannot afford to antagonise or lose India. At the minimum it has to keep India on a spectrum of supportive to benignly neutral. While being realistic about the possible limits of Indian support, and not acquiescing in any "Dog in the Manger" attitudes from anyone or anywhere, Sri Lanka must strive all the time to maximise the support it can obtain from India.

The Tigers are dug in on their home turf, taking heavily casualties but playing for time, hoping for a mini-July 83 which, in the YouTube age can trigger a Kosovo; hoping to influence the Indian elections; or hoping to influence a possible change in Washington DC, which can indeed transform the entire terrain on which the game is played. Their "home turf" advantages must be offset and their international strategies countered by us. This requires building the broadest possible domestic, regional and international united fronts: coalitions that include anti-Tiger Tamils internally, and India, China, and Russia, externally.

The finest political strategist of modernity, Lenin, concluded at the tail end of his life, in an article published in Pravda on March 4th 1923, that: " In the last analysis, the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China etc account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe". This is the decisive weight that Sri Lanka must leverage and bring to bear, to avoid a Kosovo, on behalf of our fighting men and women in the battlefield, and future generations. Neither China nor Russia will support Sri Lanka in a manner and to an extent which runs contrary to the view of India. If it is a choice between India and Sri Lanka, they will choose India, as of course will the USA, and anyone I can think of.

The unravelling of Yugoslavia began with the abolition in the late 1980s by Slobodan Milosevic, under pressure from Serbian ultranationalists, of the autonomy of the Province of Kosovo which had been instituted by Tito in 1974. When Serbia offered the fullest autonomy in the last round of negotiations a few months ago, there was no one accept it. The refusal to defend and retain provincial autonomy resulted in the loss of a whole country (Yugoslavia) and finally, part (Kosovo) of the successor state (Serbia).

The lesson of the break-up of Yugoslavia is clear: federalism along ethnic lines is dangerous but those who reject an autonomous province may contribute to an independent state. Both ethno-federalism and centralised unitarism are dangerously centrifugal, while the most safely centripetal seems to be a unitary state with adequate devolution of powers making for autonomy.

While it is the armed forces and youth of Sri Lanka, backing our political will and our sense of a unique historical destiny, that that stand between us and a Kosovo outcome, it is not only those factors that do so. It is also India that stands between us and the Kosovo/R2P interventionism, as our outer perimeter. Those Sri Lankan elements which block or delay the minimum degree of devolution on the ground that is needed to make India tilt to the maximum towards us and our military effort, are as unpatriotic and helpful to the cause of Kosovo type interventionism as those elements in the Tamil Diaspora who openly advocate such an outcome.

(This article expresses the strictly personal views of the writer)



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