Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa said in the Sri Lankan Parliament recently that
Indira Gandhi should not play hide and seek with Sri Lanka. He added: "If Mrs.Gandhi
wants to invade Sri Lanka and conquer this country, let her do so openly". It
appears that Prime Minister Premadasa cannot endure subterfuge.
But Sri Lanka's National Security Minister and ex Oxford Union President, Lalith
Athulathmudali, who is engaged in his own hide and seek game with the Indian Government
was quick to respond. He said that Sri Lankans should refrain from making any statement or
taking any action that could provoke India. And presumably, by Sri Lankans, he meant the
Prime Minister of Sri Lanka as well.
The quickness of ex Oxford Union President Lalith Athulathmudali's response had
something to do with the increasingly important role that he has been assigned in the
affairs of Sri Lanka in recent times - a role which links him with the Sri Lankan armed
forces and with the national aspirations of the Sinhala people. This is a potent mix for
any ambitious young Minister and Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa must have been
concerned about its effect on the future devolution of power.
The seemingly different stands taken by Prime Minister Premadasa and National Security
Minister Athulathmudali are related to the factional struggle for succession in a country
where the life of the present Parliament has been extended from 6 years to 12 years and
where the Tamil opposition has been disenfranchised and the Sinhala opposition leader has
been deprived of her civic rights. Both Prime Minister Premadasa and National Security
Minister Athulathmudali know that the successor to 78 year old President Jayawardene will
achieve and retain power, not so much through the vote, but by the measure of his control
of the armed forces and his appeal to Sinhala chauvinism.
But Tamils would be unwise, if they explained away the seemingly conflicting statements
of Prime Minister Premadasa and National Security Minister Athulathmudali merely as a
reflection of an internal power struggle. The matter is not as simplistic as all that.
After all both the Prime Minister and the National Security Minister speak on behalf of
the Government of Sri Lanka.
This was underlined by Information Minister Ananda Tissa De Alwis in a press briefing
on the 30th of May 1984. The Information Minister said that Prime Minister Premadasa's
speech was a reiteration of Sri Lanka's earlier position. He said that even President
Jayawardene discussed the same matter when he participated in the Commonwealth Heads of
States Conference. Minister de Alwis added that Prime Minister Premadasa's view
represented 'one shade of opinion' of the Sri Lankan Government. Commenting on National
Security Minister Athulathmudali's statement, the Information Minister said that was
'another view of the same problem'. He went on in his inimitable style:
"It was not possible for Government Ministers to speak with one voice on this
problem. It is not strictly possible. The Government however speaks in one voice but
expressed views in different shades."
And so we have the truth from the Information Minister of the Sri Lankan Government.
Government Ministers speak with different voices, but the Government speaks with one
voice. The Government speaks with one voice but expresses views in different shades. The
seemingly different stands of Prime Minister Premadasa and National Security Minister
Athulathmudali reflected but different shades of the one voice of the Sri Lankan
President Jayawardene in Hongkong was equally frank. The Government controlled Sri
Lanka News reported on the 7th of June that a number of Western and Indian correspondents
were present at a news conference that President Jayawardene held in Hongkong and when he
was questioned about the recent speeches made by Prime Minister Premadasa and national
Security Minister Athulathmudali he cheerfully replied:
"They both represent government policy...They are both members of the government
and the speeches they make reflect government policy...No Minister speaks outside
As Tamils have noted before, the government of Sri Lanka is sometimes frank and on
such occasions, it is important that it should be taken at its word. What then, was the
policy of the Sri Lankan government on the question of its relations with India? What was
the message that the Sri Lankan Government sought to convey through the voices of two of
its important Ministers?
Information Minister de Alwis was right when he said that Prime Minister Premadasa had
reiterated something which President Jayawardene had said some time back. In April 1983,
President Jayawardene gave a delightful and revealing interview to the Madras Hindu. It
was delightful because of the way in which it was done. It was revealing because of that
which he said. It was an interview that was given long before the holocaust of July and
President Jayawardene was asked to express his views on Afghanistan and his reply to
his Indian interviewer was startling and seemingly irrelevant. He said: "If India
invades us, it must remember that it will have to rule over some 15 million Sinhala
people." His interviewer was taken aback and reminded the President that the question
was about Afghanistan. But President Jayawardene continued: "I may be an old man, but
I will fight for the liberation of my people, if India invades us..."
And it was then that President Jayawardene went on to speak about Afghanistan. These
were not the meanderings of a President who had reached his 78th birthday and who had not
understood his questioner.
President Jayawardene was well aware in March 1983 that the path of murder and
intimidation that the Government of Sri Lanka had set upon would clearly have an
international dimension. He was speaking to the Madras Hindu and that was a convenient way
of communicating to the Indian Government in advance that an Indian invasion of Sri Lanka
had some attendant problems for India.
President Jayawardene had clearly foreseen the international dimension of the Tamil
national question. It was the same clarity of vision that led him in 1978 to bring
Savyamurthy Thondaman, the leader of the Estate Tamils into the Sri Lankan cabinet. It was
the Indian card and he played it well. The representative of the Estate Tamils (with links
to India) was in his cabinet and he was mindful that this would help to diffuse the
response of the Indian government to his plan to subjugate and absorb the Tamils of Sri
Recently his National Security Minister, spoke at some length in Parliament to show
that the Tamils of Jaffna are a small minority and that the majority of the Tamils of Sri
Lanka lived out side Jaffna. He stated that he had told the Indian government about this
and President Jayawardene in a recent interview with an Indian magazine said: 'Yes, the
Tamils in Jaffna may have grievances, but what are their grievances elsewhere'.
Ex Oxford Union President and National Security Minister was somewhat more explicit in
a speech he made at the 87th Mahapola which was held at the Sinhala Vidyalaya,
Kahatagasdigliya to a Sinhala audience on the 27th of May. He said:
"If victory was to be achieved, it could not be done by uniting all
opposing forces but by dividing them and creating dissension among
them... Sri Lankan Kings never opposed the entirety of India. When there was conflict with the Pandyans, they sought the
aid of the Cholas and acted against the Pandyans. When the Pandyans and Cholas combined,
they sought the aid of Kalinga. Sinhala Kings had that high intelligence and knowledge of
And so ex Oxford Union President Athulathmudali and the Sri Lankan government seek to
follow in the intelligent footsteps of the Sinhala Kings by creating dissension amongst
the 'opposing forces'. Who were the 'opposing forces' that the Sri Lankan government had
President Jayawardene and the Sri Lankan government have shown a certain clarity in
their perception of the international frame of the Tamil national question and the Tamil
people would do well to recognise this - otherwise, we will be like the blind men in the
dark room, hitting everywhere, connecting sometimes, but more often than not, waving our
arms with great passion, but without either direction or result.
We must remember that we are dealing with a leader who candidly admitted a couple of
years ago that in politics, one must aim at the head and hit at the stomach. Be that as it
may, in recent times, President Jayawardene has visited China, South Korea and now the
United States. He also plans to visit India on his way back from the United States. In
some instances he may be only aiming at the head whilst intending to hit at the stomach.
But the clear intention of his foreign policy is to manage the Indian response to the
Tamil national question.
The Tamil - Sinhala problem is a problem between two nations, the Sinhala nation and
the Tamil nation. It is manifestly an inter - national problem. President Jayawardene
seeks to create a suitable international frame within which he can 'deal' with the Tamils
of Sri Lanka.
Geography plays a basic but silent role in the affairs of a people. It was many years
ago - sometime in 1956 or so that the late Krishna Menon was addressing an English
undergraduate audience. The United States Navy was patrolling the waters around Taiwan and
it was a period of some international tension. A youthful questioner stood up and asked:
"Mr.Menon, Sir, what are your views on the position of Taiwan?" Krishna Menon's
response came in a flash: "The position of Taiwan is that it is a few hundred miles
from China and several thousand miles away from the United States of America." The
audience dissolved in laughter.
The visit of President Richard Nixon to China twenty years later underlined the
significance of that which Krishna Menon had said.
The position of Sri Lanka is that it is a few miles from Tamil Nadu and the Indian
sub continent and several thousand miles away from the United States of America. Its
influence on the outside world and in turn the influence of the outside world on the
affairs of the people of Sri Lanka is a function, not of its size, but of its
location near the large land mass of the Indian subcontinent and in the centre of the vast
expanse of the waters of the Indian ocean.
We live in an increasingly small world and no nation is an island. The end of the
Second World war witnessed the emergence of an international arena dominated by two super
powers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union. It was a bipolar power
structure, with Washington and Moscow as the two power centres. If history serves as a
guide, the confrontation between these two powers would have, in the ordinary course of
events, led to war and the supremacy of one or the other as the sole world power. And in
time, of course, the hegemony of that sole world power would have decayed and given way to
a number of smaller powers and to a multipolar power structure, leading again to a bipolar
world and so on. But, the years after the end of World War II did not lead to direct war
between the two super powers
The nuclear deterrent prevented direct conflict. We are reminded of the words of
Arthur Koestler: "If I were asked to name the most important date in the history and
prehis-tory of the human race, I would answer without hesitation, 6 August 1945. The
reason is simple. From the dawn of consciousness until 6 August 1945, man had to live with
the prospect of his death as an individual; since the day when the first atomic bomb
outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a whole has had to live with the prospect of
its extinction as a species."
But although the nuclear bomb prevented direct war between the two super powers the
confrontation between them has continued unabated after 1945. It was a cold war -
sometimes less cold and sometimes more so. The Prussian military theorist Clausewitz
remarked in the 19th century that war is a conti-nuation of politics by other means.
Nikolai Lenin, some years later, charac-teristically and brilliantly restated the
proposition and said that politics is a con-tinuation of war by other means. It would seem
that in 1984, we have arrived at the Orwellian truth that war is peace and peace is war.
It is this that is sometimes called 'detente'.
The result is that in the years after the second world war, the two super powers,
whilst avoiding direct war against each other, have fought many wars by proxy, in the
third world and elsewhere and have sought to influence the actions of many 'independent'
states, either by exerting econo-mic pressure or by engaging in under cover activities
intended to de stabi-lise unfriendly governments. In the bipolar world, although we live
in seeming peace, war continues by other means.
There is another aspect of the matter. Given the nuclear deterrent, and the consequent
unlikelihood of a nuclear war of confrontation, we may also be witnessing an emerging
multi polar power structure. New powers will rise in Asia, Africa, South America and for
that matter in Europe as well. These new power centres will grow from regional groupings.
Both China and India have the potential of becoming influential powers of the world of
tomorrow, although today, even they find the need to lean toward either the Soviet Union
or the United States from time to time. These are some of the realities of the
international frame in which we live.
What does all this mean to the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka?
President Jayawardene seeks to subjugate the Tamils by armed force - sometimes overtly
by actions of the army and the police, sometimes covertly by turning a blind eye to the
actions of goondas organised by henchmen of his Ministers. He knows that this a path which
will result in an outcry amongst 40 million Tamils in neighbouring Tamil Nadu which is a
federal state in the Indian Union. Such an outcry will result in pressure on New Delhi to
intervene. So long as such intervention is peaceful President Jayawardene will not be
He has always enjoyed dialogues. He talked endlessly with the Tamil United Liberation
Front from the time of the burning of the Jaffna public library in June 1981 until shortly
before the holocaust of July and August 1983. So after the
massacre of July and August, President Jayawardene must have welcomed the opportunity to
talk again - until the Chunnakkam massacre heralded the Biafra
style military operation against the Tamils in their traditional homeland.
Words tend to diffuse the response of a people threatened with genocide and time is a
great healer. President Jayawardene was well aware that it was important to set the
international frame so that he may be left in peace to 'deal' with the Tamils.
On the one hand he sought to re assure Indira Gandhi that the Sinhala people had no
problem with India. After all relations between New Delhi and Colombo had been reasonably
cuddly during the thirty years after independence. They both had a vested interest in
containing a rising Tamil consciousness.
But the open economic policy of President Jayawardene's government since 1977, led to a
greater linkage with the West and the United States of America. With trade and aid, come
political alignments and the Sri Lankan government has increasingly taken stances, more in
line with Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew than with Indira Gandhi's India. It was National
Security Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali's role to emphasise to reassure India that
despite this linkage with the United States, Sri Lanka desired to continue its 'cuddly'
relationship with New Delhi.
Again, President Jayawardene recognised that Indira Gandhi may be moved by the
political pressure of the Tamil electorate in Tamil Nadu. At appropriate intervals,
suitably aggressive noises were made and the latest instance was the statement by Prime
Minister Premadasa in the Sri Lankan Parliament. This was coupled with ostentatious
overtures towards the United States. In this he was circumspect. He knew that if he moved
too close to the United States, this may turn out to be counter productive and may provoke
India to intervene, not because of the Tamils of Tamil Nadu but because of India's own
interests in the region.
Further, although the political move towards the United States was facilitated by
the open economy policy of the Sri Lankan Government which had linked it with the Western
world, President Jayawardene was mindful that in terms of market size, India afforded much
greater opportunities to U.S. business interests than little Sri Lanka and that it was
likely that the United States would balance the benefits of Sri Lanka's strategic location
against the size of the Indian market. In an interview with an Indian magazine in
early April 1984, President Jayawardene said:
"...I know the whole situation. No country in the world would like India to be
annoyed with it. Because you are 800 million people, you are a big market for trade
purposes. It is not just the British who are shopkeepers. The Americans are shopkeepers
President Jayawardene knows that it will not be in the interests of the United States
to alienate India unless India itself had cast its lot irrevocably with the Soviet Union.
President Jayawardene's foreign policy was therefore based on a realistic appraisal of the
basic national interests of India and the United States.
Governments do not have permanent friends - they have permanent interests. President
Jayawardene will seek to reassure both the United States and India that their national
interests will be served if they stand and watch, whilst he subjugates the Tamils in the
island of Sri Lanka.
President Jayawardene showed his principled approach to political problems by
cheerfully declaring at a news conference in Hongkong: '...the Sri Lankan government will
accept help from the devil himself...' His admission that he seeks to consort with the
devil was in accord with the statement that he made to the Daily Telegraph in July 1983:
"I am not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people... now we cannot think of
them, not about their lives or their opinion. ...
The soft underbelly of President Jayawardene's policy lies in his assumptions about the
Tamil nation. He refuses to see that in the end, the strength of a people must come from
within themselves. In the years to come, he will be remembered as the Sinhala leader who
set his people on a path of confrontation which inevitably led them to economic chaos and
The year 1983 represented a watershed in the struggle of the Tamil people for more
reasons than one. It was the year when the Tamil parliamentary struggle was rendered
illegal. In a sense, the entire freedom struggle was compelled to go underground. It was
not only those who believed that the gun was the way to freedom who were compelled to go
underground - those who believed that Tamils should be free, were also compelled to go
underground. Even more importantly, the overt repression in Sri Lanka led to the locus of
the struggle being shifted to Tamil Nadu and abroad. More than thirty thousand Tamils from
Sri Lanka have sought refuge in Tamil Nadu.
In the years to come, 1983 will be remembered as the year when the freedom struggle of
the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka began to merge with the rising national
consciousness of fifty million Tamil people living on the other side of the narrow Palk
Strait. Twenty miles of shallow water cannot for ever separate the Tamil people. Sri Lanka
will find that the world will not and cannot ignore the to-getherness of over fifty
million Tamil people who seek to live in peace and equality with their brothers and
sisters of the Indian sub-continent.