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SOFA/VFA: A worrying scenario

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 How deep and extensive the current investigation into the Easter massacre will go is not clear. However, whether there was an American-Saudi connection must be explored. Do Sri Lankan investigators have the resources and capacity to do this? – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

An unrestrained communal animosity towards ethnic and religious minorities, anchored in mythology and historical half-truths, and popularised by sections of the Buddhist clergy and a sectarian media have combined to drive Sri Lanka to a point where the future survival of this plural polity as an independent sovereign state with a viable economy has become increasingly uncertain. 

Successive cycles of communal violence, an unaffordable and unthoughtfully engaged lengthy civil war, and lately, an act of unprecedented terrorism – possibly with international connections, have shattered the historic legacy and image of this country as a nation of highly talented, literate, tolerant and joyous people with a mature democratic system of governance. By all account, Sri Lanka is now a wounded nation and its wounds are self-inflicted. 

The situation has worsened so badly over the last three decades that the country has become alarmingly vulnerable to sinister manipulations by foreign powers. Two regional hegemons, China and India have already entrenched themselves in the foreign policy of this country, and a third and the most dangerous international bully is now knocking at the door seeking entry. If anyone wants expert advice on how to ruin a wealthy and peaceful country in so short a time let them ask Sri Lankan politicians. 

The proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) or Visiting Forces Agreement (VFO) with the US marks the culmination of a trend that set in in the aftermath of the civil war, towards capitulating to the whims of foreign powers. SOFA/VFO, if signed and concluded, will be the thin end of the American wedge. With the unavoidable presence of American boots on the ground, which the Defence Secretary is powerless to prevent, Sri Lankan governments can say goodbye to its sovereignty and territorial ownership over the whole island. The real cost of the civil war is coming to light only now and in a most startling and dangerous fashion.

Where are the so called patriotic monks and their political supporters who were ready to fast unto death and threatening to unleash unprecedented violence island wide, until one minister and two governors, all Muslims, were removed from their positions, because of allegations not yet proved at the courts of law? Will they repeat their exercise now to prevent at least part of the country from becoming another Okinawa or Guam under the US? 

The British East India Company was able to conquer the whole of India, because of disunity amongst Indian rulers, princes and chiefs. Similarly, a communally disunited Sri Lanka will succumb to the same fate to a new strategic power game played among three players, two regional and one global.  The root cause of the nation’s malaise is its ethnic and religious disunity. Independence from colonialism failed to build a nation of Sri Lankans. Politicians of all hue, excluding the leftists, talked about unity in diversity but never worked towards achieving that unity but they actually exacerbated the divisions to capture or remain in political power. For over 50 years it was Sinhalese and Muslims versus Tamils, now it is Sinhalese and Tamils versus Muslims, and tomorrow may be Tamils and Muslims versus Sinhalese. 

After the civil war however, the cry, ‘Sri Lanka is only for Buddhists’, has become louder and louder, and when knowledgeable, fearless and rational Buddhists dare to challenge that notion they are being ostracised with fatwas of excommunication from myopic dignitaries. Underlying this supremacist cry is a deliberate exclusion of other communities from being part of a national family. If that is the intention then the Buddhist supremacists should not accuse the excluded for being unpatriotic. No wonder that one of these prelates even wanted a Hitler to come to power, perhaps with a ‘final solution’ to solve the communal issue. 

Lately, one top level monk wanted the Muslims to be stoned to death. It appears that these hawkish preachers of hate in the name of Buddhism would prefer their worshippers live as slaves to foreigners rather than as equal partners with dignity within a family of indigenised and diverse communities. In spite of all this hate mongering, it is shocking that none of the major political parties and their leaders are prepared to condemn this outrage publicly and demand action against these elements. Is this unholy silence tactical or a sign of endorsement?

With US naval presence under SOFA/VFA, Sri Lanka cannot remain aloof from a triangular geostrategic cold war in the Indian Ocean. Accidents can turn a cold war into a hot one. US is a wounded empire and with its neo-con dominated national security state, with hawkish ideologues like Pompeo and Bolton, is wanting to reassert itself as the world super hegemon. Regime change is the name of its game and to achieve that objective it will resort to instigate even terrorism. 

Having failed to change the regime in Syria it is now turning to screw Iran. The fact that the imperialist ambitions of this super power remains the root cause of much of today’s political and economic turbulence, receives little reference in discussions and analyses of comprador intellectuals and experts who flock to the world fora and give media interviews. 

Max Blumenthal, one of the daring journalists who talk fearlessly in front of power, captures the essence of this root cause in the following words: “Through covert operations and overt invasions, America’s national security state had destabilised entire regions, from the Levant to North Africa, unleashed migration crisis of unprecedented proportions onto Europe and spurred an inevitable right-wing backlash that was unravelling the neoliberal consensus they sought to protect.” (The Management of Savagery, London & New York: Verso, 2019, p. 303)   

It is in this context that one is prompted to ask the question whether the Easter massacre was just the joint handy-work of home grown jihadists and ISIS only, or, mayhem engineered and executed by even more powerful and sinister game players. Because, ISIS is no more an arch enemy of US as once thought to be, but a friend of convenience in the fight against Assad. ISIS lost its territory and caliphate not because of US bombing but because of Russian and Syrian joint attacks. These jihadists are now reported to be fighting along with American backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) with weapons and resources supplied by US’ eternal friend Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. 

In fact, Blumenthal quotes Thomas Friedman, a neo-con author and journalist, writing for New York Times and advising Washington against defeating ISIS but to ‘harness that group to bleed Russia, Iran and the Syrian government’. Isn’t an enemy’s enemy a friend? How deep and extensive the current investigation into the Easter massacre will go is not clear. However, whether there was an American-Saudi connection must be explored. Do Sri Lankan investigators have the resources and capacity to do this?

The timing of SOFA/VFA deal is also significant. The country is about to face Presidential as well as Parliamentary elections soon. Having watched the increasing prospect of a pro-Chinese Rajapaksa regime coming back to the helm, US would like to conclude the deal while pro-American Wickremesinghe still heads a shaky government. The fact that Pompeo himself will be coming to negotiate the deal shows the importance US attaches in gaining a foothold in Sri Lanka. What will UNP and its leader get in return from Pompeo? An assurance to continue with the status quo? Only time will tell. Whether sooner or later, the presence of US boots on Sri Lankan soil presents a worrying scenario.  

(The writer is attached to the School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia.)

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