Tea and other things

Judge CG Weeramantry, former vice president of the International Court of Justice and the president of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, told the Hague Appeal for Peace in New York on 14th February 2003 that "the Security Council has never authorised force based on a potential, non-imminent threat of violence. All past authorisations have been in response to actual invasions, large scale violence of humanitarian emergency".  Judge Weeramantry also maintained that without moral, legal and factual evidence for a war against Iraq, the Anglo-American alliance had painted itself into a corner by dragging the troops to the borders of Iraq.

His comments found resonance in the country of his birth. Throughout March, there were pickets and protest rallies in Colombo. Workers, human rights groups, people from all communities and of diverse political hue marched under banners such as "Do not spill blood for oil". Chanting slogans – join the world mass opposition to the war; condemn the war threat against Iraq, Bush wants a puppet ruler in Iraq; no bombs to Iraq but food for children – the protests reflected the perception of the war on Iraq by the masses in Sri Lanka. Demonstrators were often addressed by speakers who usually simply called for more protests to pressure the government and the president to oppose the war.

A curious blend of domestic war fatigue, fears of a fledgling peace process going astray and anti-America feeling promoted by chauvinistic forces who wished to use the war on Iraq for partisan political gains animated much of the anti-war protests in Sri Lanka. In particular, it was the current peace process that played on minds – after over two decades of a devastating war, which has led to the economic and social ruination of the country, people in Sri Lanka look upon war as an evil that they are loath to revisit or see inflicted upon another country. However, while the war was distant and abstract, its ramifications were concrete and real.

The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment set up a special command centre at its head office soon after war broke out to enable people to know about family members employed in West Asia. In addition, a special fund of SLR 500 million was set up to help workers in case of need. On 20 April 2003, the bureau confirmed that no Sri Lankan worker employed in West Asia had been affected by the Iraq war.

In contrast to the people on the street, the government sought assistance from the United States to solve problems in exporting tea to countries in West Asia. The war had brought tea exports to Iraq, the fourth largest buyer of Sri Lanka's tea, to a standstill. Tea prices at the Colombo tea auction had significantly declined; Sri Lanka's 'low-grown' teas, favoured by the West Asian market, dropped between 10 and 15 percent in price and large stocks remained unsold.

Sri Lanka's economic recovery, which the government believes will be the harbinger of a sustainable peace, was put in question on account of the war. Japan's peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi, on a visit to Sri Lanka in February 2003, said he hoped "outside events" would not divert attention from Sri Lanka's Norwegian-backed peace process. Akashi also noted that the major aid pledging conference scheduled to be held in June 2003 could coincide with a post-war situation in Iraq. Akashi's concerns matched those of the government, that international attention on the war in Iraq would divert monetary pledges for the rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in Sri Lanka, especially in the north and east.

Money talks
President Chandrika Bandarnaike Kumaratunga, in an online interview with The Washington Times in early March 2003, said that there should not be any war with Iraq, especially without the sanction of the United Nations. She went on to say that 75,000 Sri Lankan expatriate workers in West Asia would be affected by a war in Iraq and that it would have an impact on global economic growth and stability as well.

Echoing the sentiments of the president, the foreign affairs ministry issued a press release on 20 March 2003. In it, the government expressed unequivocal support for the UN system: "Sri Lanka … continues to firmly believe that issues affecting international peace and security should be as far as possible identified, considered and resolved through the UN, the primary global institution through which the will of the international community can be legitimately expressed. Therefore, it is essential that the role of the UN and its credibility and authority be restored and respected". There was no overt condemnation of America's actions, or a questioning of the war and its raison d'etre. It did, however, link the Iraqi war with the other problems in West Asia, and in particular urged "substantial progress towards an enduring and just peace in which the States of Palestine and Israel".

Other voices were not so sterile. Tissa Vitharana, spokesperson for the opposition People's Alliance said on 10 March 2003, 10 days before the war began, that "Bush and Blair have become war criminals by their action of going to war without United Nations approval… The Government should not help US forces in any way".

Because of the involvement of the United States in the peace process, much of the anti-war protest died down with the de-escalation of the ground offensive in Iraq. A murmur of dissent still exists, but it is unlikely that anti-Americanism will hold sway in the annals of the government. The visible involvement of senior figures in the Bush administration in the peace process in Sri Lanka, the good relations that exist between the two countries, the economic benefits can all, as Richard L Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State said in his opening remarks at the April Washington meeting with donors and the government of Sri Lanka, result in "…an infusion of international support [which will] add an unstoppable force to this momentum of peace".

Sri Lanka will probably pay lip service to a policy of non-alignment, but with the paradigms of cold war alliances now moot, it is increasingly evident that Sri Lanka will continue to develop a cosy relationship with the United States on a whole spectrum of issues.

The next three years in Sri Lanka will probably not constitute a post-conflict situation in terms of formal political and constitutional structures confirming this, but rather a post cease-fire period. In this period, the prevailing emphasis on rehabilitation by the negotiating parties and donors alike will continue. It will be accompanied by incremental progress in the determination of a final political and constitutional settlement, as well as in the establishment of robust safeguards for democratic governance and human rights. Consequently, there is a danger that this pre-eminent emphasis on realising a 'peace through development' rationale in practice now will fatally compromise the former and stymie the latter.

Furthermore, continued social and political upheaval in West Asia will invariably impact the fragile peace process in Sri Lanka. With the pockets in the south as under-developed as vast tracts of land in the north and east, communities on both sides jostle for attention in developmental efforts. With the economy showing slow signs of recovery, its fate will depend to a large extent on the mood swings of the global markets. Tourism, a major industry in Sri Lanka, will also suffer on account of protracted conflict in West Asia. Another downswing in tourist arrivals could mean disaster for an industry that is painfully recovering from years of neglect.

Public support of the peace process hinges upon the realisation of an elusive peace dividend, the delivery of which in turn depends largely on economic growth. Iraq is a distant country for those in the north and east whose livelihoods have been wrenched away from them. And yet, developments in West Asia, and American's voice in world affairs may very well shape the contours of their future in Sri Lanka.

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Himal Southasian