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Not just a question of prosperity

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We thank Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead for his comments on the 9th January [‘Peace and Prosperity: US Policy Goals in Sri Lanka’] outlining to the Tamil people the enormous amounts of American economic aid that they are supposedly foregoing by their pursuit of freedom.

But he will find, on examination of the facts, that the Tamils of Sri Lanka fully understand the benefits of economic prosperity, having enjoyed such prosperity long before their marginalisation by the post-independence Sri Lanka state and the ensuing the civil war. Indeed it was the Tamils’ supposedly disproportionate educational and commercial success that lead, in the first place, to racially biased legislation such as the university quota system and the Sinhala-only language act and ultimately to the anti-Tamil pogroms which expressed the historical resentment of the majority against a successful minority.

The Tamils as a nation are more than aware of the future economic value of the strategic assets of their homeland, including, by way of example, mineral deposits such as Titanium and maritime assets such as the Trincomalee harbour. We are equally aware that the United States, among others, will have interest in these resources too.

A few observations on economic proficiency, to begin with. The United States, while a major investor abroad, is facing an increasing trade and current account deficit. Simply put, the Ambassador’s great nation consumes more than it produces and increasingly so. The United States also consumes more oil, a crucial economic resource for its current economy, than it produces. It needs to ensure supplies and routes for those supplies from regions including Asia. The present government of the United States has also widened its budget deficit – the government spends more than it earns, and this impacts its ability to provide services such as welfare and disaster management to its own people.

These potential unstable dynamics are not in themselves entirely calamitous though perhaps incomprehensible to the rest of the world. But that is America''s prerogative. Perhaps not entirely incomprehensibly, when the time comes, the Tamils might also wish to freely navigate global economic dynamics for themselves and determine the true cost of capital for the optimal, long term exploitation of their strategic assets.

The Ambassador is known for his scholarship of South Asia. He will of course be aware that the Tamils are among the oldest international maritime trading civilizations in the region, also being geographically strategically placed. It is hence perhaps conceivable that the present Tamil leadership has the ability and the acumen to recognise the need to understand both international commerce and globalisation.

The economic activity that has been achieved and sustained in areas such as Kilinocchi in the past few years needs to be seen in the context of an almost decade long embargo of essential goods to the Tamil areas imposed by the Sri Lankan government. The Ambassador’s government, while preaching free trade, had done little to oppose the embargo, and in fact, sought to further economically isolate the Tamil homeland by imposing restrictions on the means by which the Tamil expatriate community supports the Tamil administration in the North East.

A government is measured not only by its ability to create prosperity for a portion of its citizens but also by its capacity to execute essential functions particularly in times of deep crisis. We are confident that the Tamil administration’s unflinching and comprehensive efforts in the first few days when the Tsunami struck in December 2004 will stand more than ordinarily favorable comparison to the US government’s response to the natural disaster in New Orleans last year.

Furthermore, any post Tsunami progress in the Tamil areas needs to be viewed in the context of the inability or unwillingness of the Ambassador’s government, to influence the Sri Lankan state to implement the PTOMS or a comparable alternative. Even the great generosity of the expatriate Tamil community in the Tsunami period was greatly hampered by animosity towards the TRO, one of the most effective grass roots aid organizations in the North East.

Nevertheless the purpose of this comment is not to discuss the economic future of the Tamil homeland: it is understood that a prosperous economic future can be achieved only once a strong and defensible foundation of Tamils’ civil liberty is won.

Instead let us focus on a fact that the Ambassador missed entirely in his speech to the American Chamber of Commerce: that there are some things that money cannot buy. These are often the most important blessings of life.

We speak in the context of the recent circumstances experienced by the civilians of the North East. Jaffna has been under the occupation of an army that speaks a foreign language since 1995. In the last six weeks we have witnessed increasing violence against civilians by the armed forces, including rape, disappearances. Member of Parliament Joseph Pararajasingham, who the Ambassador has met several times, was shot dead during Christmas Mass military intelligence operatives. The Ambassador is no doubt aware of all of these developments, apart from those he opted to speak about.

Many Tamils have died for the simple reason that they were of a different race from the majority state, and had no access to a genuine ‘government of the people… by the people.. for the people’. No amount of the American government’s money and technology investment will bring their families either justice or solace. Indeed, what would have been priceless would have been something that is entirely without monetary value: the government of America’s unequivocal condemnation of repressive violence by the state against its unarmed citizens.

The Ambassador asks what kind of Tamil leaders will forego the considerable economic handouts he describes in his speech. We may respond to him with the words of one of the greatest leaders the world has known in recent times. “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.”

The vision that drives the Tamil people and their leaders is echoed in his words: “Our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…… . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . . shall not perish from this earth.”.

And we ask, how the Ambassador and his American colleagues could have forgotten the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln?

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