Tamil Diaspora Influence in US Policy Oversights on Sri Lanka

Daya Gamage – An Asian Tribune Analysis

One need not be a political scientist or a legal luminary to comprehend, if one keenly peruses – with an investigative mind – the events that unfolded since the military defeat of the separatist Tamil Tiger or LTTE brutal and lethal force in May 2009 and the internationalization of Sri Lanka’s domestic issues, the emergence of Tiger leader Prabhaharan’s overseas collateral political/diplomatic wing helped set the terms of debate on Sri Lankan issues

In fact, the pro-separatist Tamil Diaspora very carefully selected issues – issues that Sri Lanka at the outset considered to be too insignificant – to put items on the country’s agenda. A careful assessment further reveals that the professional arm of the Tamil Diaspora – who emotionally reacted to the demise of the Tamil Tiger leadership – was so focused that they became a source of information and analysis that provided a great deal of information and data to the United States Department of State officials, Members of the Congress, and their supportive staff, and non-governmental organizations largely shaping their general perspective.

When early signs were emerging the transfer of Prabhaharan’s lifelong dream of a separate Tamil nation in the north-east part of Sri Lanka to this overseas collateral movement – franchised in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Bonn, Canberra, Ottawa etc – a State Department official whom I knew during my days in that ‘encampment’ noted that their emotions were running riot because the civil war in Sri Lanka involved their kith and kin and that emotion and rage was now slowly and steadily being transformed into political action. Sri Lanka failed to understand this sentiments, and that sentiment has gone a long way to what’s going on at present.

Most of the information, data and analyses provided to global forums were largely distortions, misinterpretations, exaggerations of Sri Lanka issues leading to lies, half truths, diabolical falsehood that went unchallenged in the first 48 months since the annihilation of the LTTE by those who handled foreign affairs for Sri Lanka. Or, the handlers thought less of the capability of the principal players of Prabhaharan’s global collateral arm.

Separatist Tamil Diaspora global collateral arm which consisted of franchises in Western cities was fully aware that when issues promoted by it are priorities, and are in line with the American administration, the Diaspora activists have a greater influence in the U.S. policy oversights.

All the issues in the aftermath of Prabhaharan’s death centered on Tamil grievances and rights, a perspective well developed within the portals of the American diplomatic mission in Colombo in the eighties and the first half of the nineties to consolidate policy planks to which this writer had up-close and personal knowledge. The pro-separatist Tamil Diaspora commenced the Eelam ‘War’ V with this advantage to which the policymakers in Sri Lanka had only a scant knowledge.

A careful study shows that the major reason for a considerable success of the Tamil Diaspora in later years which reflected in anti-Sri Lanka resolutions in both chambers of the U.S. Congress, a series of letters initiated by influential Members of the Congress to Obama administration officials highlighting alleged violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL), the pugnacious stance the global rights groups adopted and anti-Sri Lanka fervor emanated in House and Senate hearings in Washington is nothing but the Diaspora understanding of American democratic values and (US) strategic interests.

Another factor of the durability of Tamil Diaspora-American discourse in the U.S and their success in resuscitating and appropriating ethnic identities is greatly influenced by the U.S. administration’s view of the administration in Sri Lanka.

Whether Sri Lanka inadvertently provided fodder to the ‘collateral wing and to its franchises’ to strengthen this discourse is another issue altogether.

Thomas Ambrosio, Assistant Professor of Political Science, North Dakota State University in a submission on the issue of Diaspora communities and their influence on U.S. foreign policy stated that when one seeks to understand Diaspora groups and their influence on U.S. foreign policy, the question is not should ethnic groups influence foreign policy but how they affect foreign policy, what are their goals and why do they mobilize.

Had those questions been addressed one would have, to some extent, understood the strategy and maneuvering of Prabhaharan’s collateral political/diplomatic wing and its franchises to initially shape Sri Lanka’s foreign policy approaches to the emerging issues since May 2009.

Our most recent experience has clearly shown that the Tamil Diaspora lobby sought to influence U.S. policy in three ways. The collateral political/diplomatic wing of the now demised LTTE used these three strategies seeking influence in the State Department and both arms of the Congress. They used those in other European capitals too.

First, by framing the issues “that help set the terms of debate” or “put items on the country’s agenda.”

Second, they are a source of information and analysis that provide a great deal of information to members of Congress and serve as a resource for other branches of government and non-governmental organizations, and shaping general perspectives.

Finally, unceasing lobbying campaigns providing policy oversight.

These are all diplomatic overtures Sri Lanka’s foreign relations/policy arm should have perused. It is the failure in this vital areas that led to the out sourcing of foreign policy/relation overtures to lobbying firms?

There is no mistake in using lobbying firms for certain limited objectives such as the manner in which Dr. Jeyerajah-led US Tamil Political Action Council used the Washington lobbying firm KSCW Inc. to successfully table an anti-Sri Lanka Resolution 177 in the US House with 53 signatures which included influential and prominent House Members in 2012 vastly enhancing the ‘voice’ of the pro-separatist Tamil Diaspora. The records showed that the USTPAC invested US$30,000 to get three reports on ‘specific issues’ besides successfully tabling the H.RES. 177.

A close scrutiny shows that the Tamil Diaspora ability to advance the message was their understanding that the message resonated with the American values and ideals. When issues were promoted by the collateral political/diplomatic wing of the LTTE they strategically placed them in line with the U.S. administration thus having the greatest influence in policy oversights.

A major reason for some success of Tamil Diaspora in affecting U.S. diplomacy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka government is the nature of Amer¬ican politics and especially the power of the individual Congress member–which makes a unitary foreign policy unlikely.

The handlers of the overseas collateral political/diplomatic wing of Tamil Tigers and its franchises have well understood this scenario when engaging in lobbying activities.

Certainly, in recent years the U.S. government is more disposed to hear concerns of ethnic Americans who endeavor to influence American diplomacy toward their country of origin if and when they promote democracy and human rights.

The U.S.-based Tamil Diaspora maneuvered well within these American parameters.

Then the question arose as to how the American polity looked at the US-based Tamil Diaspora claim that it represents broader public interest of the ethnic Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. The representatives of the Tamil Diaspora who envisaged to engage in advocacy and diplomacy since the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 obviously faced issues of representation and legitimacy. The American polity and its decision makers faced when confronted with Tamil Diaspora advocates “Who are these people and whom do they represent?”

The strategy and maneuver the Tamil Diaspora adopted to get the ear of the American polity was to be seen as the sole advocate of Sri Lanka Tamil issues limiting Sri Lanka authorities’ ability to speak for them and eventually hold the hegemony on Sri Lanka Tamil issues. The pro-separatist advocates of the Tamil Diaspora in the United States benefited largely from the perspectives (or mind-set) the American foreign service officers (FSOs) developed between early eighties through mid-nineties within the portals of their Colombo Mission in Colombo on issues that confronted the 12% ethnic Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka. An alternative views did not successfully reach the FSOs to have a broader understanding of Sri Lanka issues as a whole. The Federal Party and Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) discourse with American FSOs greatly contributed to the American ‘perspectives’ which have had larger impact when Tamil advocates faced the post-Prabhaharan era.

The advocates of the Tamil Diaspora which espouses an independent/separate nation in the north/east part of that country has well understood how the American system works to cater to the sentiments of the State Department officials and Obama White House advisors who have entertained that Sri Lanka has serious human rights, governance and rule of law issues that warrant a drastic change in its body politic. The State Department envisages transparency and accountability on the one hand influenced by many factors one of which is its close rapport with the Tamil Diaspora to which the State Department has tied the ‘credibility’ tag, and reconciliation among ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, one of the not so serious agenda items pushed by the Tamil Diaspora when in conversations with American officials in Washington as its final objective was an independent/separate state.

The foreign policy handlers in Sri Lanka have let the advocates of the Tamil Diaspora dominate an issue that should have been within the perimeters of Sri Lanka’s domestic agenda, allowed Prabhaharan’s overseas collateral political/diplomatic wing and its worldwide franchises to influence U.S. policy oversights that has led the American administration to place policy directives before the Government of Sri Lanka (often such policy statements giving the impression that Ambassador Michele Sison acts like the ‘Governor’ of Sri Lanka) and allow the Tamil Diaspora advocates to successfully make the American officials understand “Who are these people and whom do they represent?”

It is this scenario that one could sense the frustration that has developed in defense secretary Colonel Gothabhaya Rajapaksa in penetrating the area of foreign policy cum domestic issues at a time the External Affairs Ministry has exhibited its inability to develop a strategy to break the unsavory ‘discourse’ between the Tamil proponents of a separate state in Sri Lanka and the American polity (not forgetting the EU branch). It is also under these circumstances that Colonel Rajapaksa, despite being a public official who is prohibited by the Establishment Code to express opinion that are only confined to lawmakers and politicians, air his frustration though many pronouncements touching foreign policy, foreign relations and connected domestic issues such as devolution of political and administrative power to peripheral provinces.

Ambassador Sison’s not so distant statement that Sri Lanka may face a situation “Beyond” the UNHRC prompted defense secretary to feel that she is acting like the ‘Governor’ of Sri Lanka.

The question that comes to one’s mind to ask handlers of Sri Lanka’s foreign affairs and relations is: “Who are these people and whom do they represent?”

– Asian Tribune –

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