International Intervention in Liberation Struggles: Sri Lanka – Tamil Eelam Case Study

International Intervention in Liberation Struggles
Sri Lanka – Tamil Eelam Case Study


Nadesan Satyendra


2 October 2007


This is a revised and extended version of a key note address delivered at a Seminar on International Dimensions of the Conflict in Sri Lanka presented by the Centre for Just Peace & Democracy (CJPD) in partnership with TRANSCEND International in Luzern, Switzerland, 17 June 2007. Three key note addresses were delivered – the other two  were by Professor Johan Galtung and Professor Sumantra Bose



Ayubowan, Vanakkam

Co chairs, colleagues and friends.


The couple of  words that I spoke in Sinhalese and in Tamil reflect in a small way the internal dimension of the conflict whose international dimension we are seeking to address here today.


I am mindful of the remarks made by Professor Galtung that today, many who speak on international conflicts  are usually trained by English professors and that their political horizons are generally limited to Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and such places. Professor Galtung is right. Said that, the question may be not only which university you attended but also what language you speak.


Language is not simply a means of communication. It has something to do with the way in which we segment the world – language shapes the way a people look at the world and that is true of all peoples, including the Tamil people and the Sinhala people. In 1835, it was the power of language to influence, which led Lord Macaulay in his Education Minute to prescribe for India, an education in the English language. He said


“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect."[1]


The struggle of the people of Tamil Eelam for freedom arose amongst those who spoke in Tamil and who may not have understood much of what we are discussing here in an alien tongue. Again, the growth of the Sinhala language together with Buddhism, the Mahavamsa and so on are not to be dismissed as inconvenient ‘myths’. Sinhala nationalism is a product of that growth.  And Sinhala ethno nationalism is not a myth – though it may often masquerade as ‘Sri Lankan civic nationalism’.[2]  Sometimes we too easily forget that even words like ‘nation’ are not easily translated into Tamil, or for that matter into Sinhalese.[3]  And, much may be lost in translation.


Said all that, I am very happy to have been invited to deliver one of the three key note addresses at this seminar. It is not that there has been a shortage of seminars on the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka. There have been many seminars. I believe one researcher has commented that the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka is one of the most researched in the world.


But, in one way, this seminar is a first. We have had seminars before where a session or two was devoted to the international dimension. But, this is the first seminar which is focused entirely on the international dimension of the conflict in the island. Given that, I do not propose to spend much time attempting to offer prescriptions for the resolution of the conflict in the island. In any case, I have always regarded  the story of the mice who held a seminar to resolve the conflict with the cat as a cautionary tale. I will therefore limit myself to the narrow confines of the seminar subject –  and that is the international dimension of the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka  – and to contribute in whatever small way I can, to a discussion of that dimension.


Many years ago in 1955, in Cambridge University,  Krishna Menon was addressing the Cambridge India Society.  It was a packed audience and the title of his speech had been announced as “India’s non-alignment policy”. Krishna Menon had been recently appointed Minister without Portfolio in the Indian Cabinet.  But, ofcourse,  for years before that he had led the Indian delegation to the United Nations.  He had a sharp mind and perhaps a sharper tongue. 


Krishna Menon  was scheduled to speak for one hour and to respond to questions thereafter. Menon got up before the packed audience and said “Well, I was not consulted on the subject of my talk. On the subject of my talk I have only one sentence to say to you, and that is: India’s foreign policy is non-aligned”. Whilst the audience was digesting this information he went on to say: “However, I am willing to spend the hour set apart for my talk, to respond  to any questions you may want to ask”.


After some initial hesitation, the questions started to flow. 1955 was a time when Taiwan (or Formosa) had a seat in the Security Council as ‘China’. Mao Tse Tung’s China was not recognised by the US and it had not been admitted as a member of the United Nations. At the time of Menon’s visit to Cambridge, the US Sixth Fleet was engaged in naval exercises near Taiwan. It was a time of some tension. 


A youthful questioner stood up rather hesitantly and asked “Mr. Menon sir, what do you have to say about the situation of Taiwan”? Menon’s reply came in a flash. He said “the situation of Taiwan is that it is 150 miles from China and several thousand miles away from the United States”. The audience dissolved in laughter. However, the fact that some 50 years later, Taiwan continues to exist (albeit, not as a member of the Security Council) reflects, perhaps, the long reach of US naval power. Mao was not wrong when he had said that power flows through a barrel of a gun.


I sometimes wonder whether if Krishna Menon was alive today and he was asked what he had to say about the situation of Sri Lanka, he may have responded:  “Sri Lanka is an island about 20 miles away from India in the vast expanse of the Indian ocean, several thousand miles away from the USA and a couple of thousand miles away from China.”


Geography plays an important (though often silent) role in the affairs of states – and also in the affairs of nations without a state.  Where a state has a large internal market, the size of that internal market is itself a strategic asset. Where a state does not have a large internal market, it seems that it is often a question of location, location, location. The  smaller the country, relatively more important becomes the location – and the location itself becomes a strategic asset.


The Indian Ocean is not the largest ocean in the world.  It is the third largest. But it has something like  47 countries around it and contains several islands.[4] 


You can see them on the map.
Indian Ocean Rim


Coco island is not far from Myanmar where of course now the Chinese have a base[5]. Then we have  Andaman Islands[6], Maldives[7], Madagascar[8] and of course Gawdor[9] in Pakistan and  Kawar[10] in India. And if you go down south you may even  get to Diego Garcia[11] with its US naval and air base.  India itself projects something like 1200 miles into the Indian Ocean. And many Indians take the view that after all, the Indian Ocean is the Indian Ocean.


The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean has been recognized for many years. US Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan said more than a century ago, "Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key

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