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Speech given by US Ambassador in Sri Lanka Ashley Wills to the Tamil people of Jaffna at the Jaffna Public Library.

Tigers not Tamils' sole representatives

"The LTTE must accept that the goal of Tamil Eelam cannot be achieved and should give up violence if it really cares for the Tamil people. The United States rejects the idea of an independent Tamil state carved out of Sri Lankan territory; regards the LTTE as a terrorist organization, and does not believe it is the sole representative of Sri Lanka's Tamil people."

United States Ambassador in Sri Lanka E. Ashley Wills conveyed this message to the Jaffna people recently. Mr.Wills who was on a two-day visit to the peninsula, was delivering an address on the topic, "Observations on Sri Lanka's conflict," at the Jaffna Public Library.

"We do not believe Sri Lanka, or any part of it, is the special preserve of any one ethnic group; indeed we regard Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural state," he stressed.

The U.S. Ambassador also noted: "Those in Sri Lanka who advocate separation of the state long for ethnic purity, a genetic and geographical impossibility. Worse than that, it is an atavism, a denial of the harmonizing, connecting forces at work in the modern world. These ethnic hygienists, or separatists, are about the past, not the future - or at least not a future that we should wish for our children."

Following are excerpts from the Ambassador's speech:

The United States and South Asia are closely connected, despite the geographic distance that separates us. Family ties are strong; almost two million Americans are of South Asian descent. Trade between us is growing; we are already South Asia's, and Sri Lanka's biggest export market. And ideas link us, including the idea of human rights. This latter idea arises often when US policy-makers regard South Asia. This region has several flourishing democracies and yet these democracies are being tested and torn by conflict, in particular ethnic conflict. The United States - a nation committed to equality, the rule of law and human rights - wants to be helpful in resolving these conflicts. But we must be careful about how we do so.

We know the limits of our power and wisdom. We do not believe that the planet comprises the United States and countries aspiring to be the United States. In devising policy toward this region of ancient cultures, we know that a rounded historical perspective and due regard for South Asian attitudes are needed. And so is humility! As an American diplomat who has lived five years in India and about six months here in Sri Lanka, I appreciate the need for humility in approaching South Asia. Sometimes, frankly, it seems to me that this region produces more history than it can consume. So complex are the various religious, ethnic and political relationships in South Asia that I often think one needs a degree in higher match to make sense of it all.

Forgive me for whining for a moment. One of the afflictions of being a super power is that in most cases the actual leverage the United States can bring to bear is perpetually overestimated. Nowhere is this true than in Sri Lanka. Many of the letters I have received from concerned Americans regarding Sri Lanka are permeated with the notion that, if only we wanted to, we could right all the wrongs in Sri Lanka, a country half a world away from us. Some write to me in tones that suggest I am the Governor of the 51st state. Their underlying assumption seems to be that American power must match the level of their personal concern. The problem, of course, is that it doesn't and never will. The only puzzling aspect of this is that this kind of thinking prevails among those who are often the first to bemoan American interventionism elsewhere.

Another aspect of these letters is their frequent use of simple syllogisms. One kind of letter argues thusly: the USA has declared war against terrorism worldwide; Sri Lanka is being attacked by terrorists, the LTTE; therefore the Untied States should declare war against the LTTE. Another kind takes this tack; the United States opposes discrimination; Tamils are discriminated against in Sri Lanka; therefore the United States should support the creation of Tamil Eelam. If arguments acquired cogency from vehemence, then these cases would be made. But the cases are not compelling because the logic breaks down even if the emotion is understandable. Of course we acknowledge that terrorism is an ugly feature of Sri Lankan life, and of course we are aware of the deprivations visited on Sri Lanka's people, notably the people of Jaffna, and the northeast, by this conflict. To be fair, I must also point out that this ugly war has affected tens of thousand of Sinhala families too. The point is we do not see solutions in simplifications of Sri Lanka's complexity.

What does our moral reasoning tell us about Sri Lanka, and how does this translate into policy? Our approach to Sri Lanka proceeds from the following officia1l US opinions:

(1) this war must end, the sooner the better;

(2) we reject the idea that there is a military solution to this conflict and favour a negotiated outcome (all that is needed is the political will to negotiate; we are also convinced that in these negotiations neither side need be the loser, both can win);

(3) the opportunity cost of the war in economic terms, and the human cost in deaths, injuries displaced persons and dysfunctional families, are staggering and no longer tolerable;

(4) that is why me, India, the EU, Japan and many other nations support the noble effort of the Norwegians to facilitate direct talks between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE;

(5) we reject the idea of an independent Tamil state carved out of Sri Lankan territory;

(6) we regard the LTTE as a terrorist organization and do not believe it is the sole representative of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka; we also are for Tamil rights; the Tamil people must be treated equally, respectfully and with dignity within a democratic Sri Lankan state whose exact political form should be determined by the people of this country;

(7) we do not believe Sri Lanka, or any part of it, is the special preserve of any one ethnic group; indeed, we regard Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural state;

(8) and although we are convinced that the solution to this conflict can and must be negotiated by Sri Lankans, we stand ready to assist in ways the principal parties find appropriate.

These then are the essential views of the US Government regarding Sri Lanka's conflict. Please take them for what they are worth. This is your country, your future and you, Sri Lankans, must decide in which direction to go. But as a friend of longstanding, the United States offers these views for your consideration. Within these broad official US parameters, there are of course many nuances. One of these regards our view of the LTTE. The French have a wonderful word, lucidite, whose metaphorical meaning is the ability to face facts. One of the facts we must face is that although we regard the LTTE as a terrorist organisation and do not believe it is the sole representative of the Tamil people, we accept that the leaders of the Tigers will be involved in the negotiations. This is because of the LTTE's military standing.

Let me also say a word about the wish for separation. Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict in a sense is a planetary drama. As Salman Rushdie has written, cultures collide constantly in the modern world, crisscrossing at high velocity; one moment we are in a village with a charming sense of remoteness; in the next, we turn on TV and are connected instantly to a global village. In this confusion, it is entirely understandable that some people want to retreat into a community where everyone believes the same thing. But as I said at the outset, such a retreat was possible for Odysseus. It is not possible, or even desirable now. My father used to say that we find comfort from those who agree with us - growth from those who don't. Diversity, having to cope with differences, tolerating the points of view of others, and accepting that all of us have multiple identities - ethnic, racial, religious linguistic, sexual, professional and, yes, geographical - this is the normal state globally, including here in Sri Lanka.

In the years before the American Civil War, "abolitionists" wanted slavery abolished. But that could not be done immediately, so some of them favoured abolishing the American nation lest they be sullied by further association with the slave states. That would not have helped the slaves, but helping slaves was not their primary concern. A sense of purity - rightmindedness - was. Those in Sri Lanka who advocate separation of the state long for ethnic purity, a genetic and geographical impossibility. Worse than that, it is an atavism, a denial of the harmonising, connecting forces at work in the modern world. These ethnic hygienists, or separatists, are about the past, not the future - or at least not a future that we should wish for our children.

As I reflect upon the prospects for peace in Sri Lanka, I must say that I regard the coming months hopefully. I have lived in several ethnically diverse nations and regions - Romania, South Africa, the West Indies, Yugoslavia, Belgium, India and of course the United States - and I am struck not by the hopelessness of Sri Lanka's dilemma but by how tractable and soluble it is. The differences - believe it or not - are not all that great. Sri Lanka's various ethnic groups have lived together on this lovely island, mainly peacefully, for many centuries. All that is needed is to find a mutually satisfactory, contemporary political system to accommodate the island's diversity. In making this perhaps surprising assertion, I do not minimise the difficulties. Among the Sinhala and the Tamils, there are ethnic supremacists to be sure. Certain people in Colombo and Kandy have told me Sri Lanka is for the Sinhala; in Trincomalee and Batticaloa and here in Jaffna, I have heard that North Eastern Sri Lanka is Tamil terrain. Such views are extreme. They remind me of the man who regards the American flag and only sees the colour red; he is not describing the American flag in all its multi-coloured glory. I am by no means an expert on your country, but it seems to me obvious that Sri Lanka - north, south, east and west - is a diverse nation.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe most Sri Lankans accept that this is a complex nation and that they also believe its people can live together peacefully. Serious thinking about how to get from here to there is in order. Among other challenges, the Sri Lankan Government must find a way to make the Tamils and other minorities feel welcome and secure in Sri Lanka while assuring those who are worried about secession that the territorial integrity of the state is inviolable. In this part of Sri Lanka, meanwhile, I have heard some people, who tell me they support democracy, express support for the LTTE, an essentially military entity with an ugly past of killing those who disagree with its leadership. Can the LTTE be transformed into a democratic, political, non-violent organisation? If it can, those who have seen it at its ugliest and those who are opposed to its tactics, including the United States, will be obligated to reconsider how they regard the LTTE. Certainly, we can even today acknowledge that there are encouraging indications in the LTTE's recent conduct. We hope that the LTTE will continue to refrain from attacking civilian targets and respect the other basic rules of conflict.

If anyone in this audience has contact with the LTTE leadership, please convey two messages from the US Government; A. If the LTTE is still fighting for Tamil Eelam, please accept that the goal cannot be achieved; and, B. If the LTTE really cares about the Tamil people and about assuring their rights, giving up violence and negotiating are the way to go. A new world is developing in Sri Lanka, like a Polaroid photograph, a vivid surreal awakening. The effect is contradictory: a sense of sunlight and elegy at the same time, of glasnost and claustrophobia. The reality of the last nearly 18 years - conflict and hardship - could be giving way to something new, something more tranquil. "All changed, changed utterly" in W. B. Yeats' smitten lines about the Irish rebellion of Easter, 1916. Eighty-five years later, the Irish troubles proceed but there is hope. The eczema of violence in Ireland fades and peace is at hand.

Perhaps the same is true in Sri Lanka. The heroes of the coming months will be those who advocate tolerance, not violence, those who see the need for compromise and moderation rather than those who wish to push ahead toward unattainable visions of separation and exclusivity. As I said at the beginning, we are all subject to the inter connectedness of things in this modern world. This includes Sinhala, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and all other Sri Lankans, who have more in common with each other than the extremists suggest. On the Great seal of the United States you will find the Latin phrase, "E Pluribus Unun," which means, of course, "Out of Many, One." Even more than two centuries ago, the founders of the United States saw that our country would be diverse and we should reject efforts to stress differences among its people. The idea was and is that diverse people can come together and build one country, one nation. I think Sri Lanka can do it, too. The United States fervently hopes that you all can come together again and live in peace. Pluralism and prosperity, as with other diverse societies, will then keep you united.

 

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