Lessons from the Yugoslav Experience

On 17 February Kosovo, which had been part of the Republic of Serbia since the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) and its independence was quickly recognized by some of the leading players in the International Community including the US. This has several implications for the separatist struggle of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Indeed the entire post-War history of what was the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is important in this regard. There are similarities between the case of former Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka which will not disappear by simply wishing them away. But it is important to note that there are significant differences as well and it is not possible to translate the experience of one country to another. But it is important to distinguish between these similarities and differences if SL is to learn from the Yugoslav experience. The so-called 'Hela patriots' (q.v. ACSLU Glossary have been quick to point out differences but in the process they have ignored some international implications. This blog will take a more dispassionate view of this problem.

The facts relating to the complex history of modern Yugoslavia can be stated briefly. The territory of Yugoslavia was liberated from the Nazi occupation largely through the guerilla war led by Tito. It was Tito who organized this territory into the Yugoslav Federation.. The country was composed of many ethnic groups living in distinct areas. Federalism along ethnic lines has no great history of longevity but Yugoslavia was able to hold together under the rule of Tito. But after Tito died in 1980 it took a little over a decade for the disintegration to happen . This started in 1991 and very soon a number of new new states, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, etc. adorned the map of Europe, This took place amidst scenes of unparalleled ethnic carnage and cleansing. Finally only Macedonia and Serbia was left within Yugoslavia. But these two also parted company and Serbia was left as a unitary state. The word 'Yugoslavia' vanished from the current world political lexicon. The Slavs were main ethnic group in Serbia and they were Orthodox Christians. But the southern region of the Serbia, called the Kosovo province, was inhabited by Albanians who came to be known as Kosovars. They were descendents of Muslim Turkish invaders, or were converted to Islam by them. They are now generally referred to as 'Kosovars' who claimed that they were discriminated by the Christian Slavs. This is a situation smilar to what has happened in SL.

The Yugoslav experience consists of two distinct episodes that hold lessons for Sri Lanka. One is the disintegration of a Federal state build on the principle of ethnic separation. The other is the breaking away of Kosovo from the unitary state of Serbia to form a separate state of its own.

The first episode is a foretaste of what will come if federalism along ethnic lines is given as the political solution to the Sri Lankan problem. This happens to be the only solution that SL politicians have been able to think of. It started when Solomon Bandaranike, the father of the Hela Revolution, recommended devolution as a solution to the Tamil problem. For on reason or another his pact with Chelvanayakam did not take place. The latest along this line is the attempt by Mahinda Rajapakse (MR) to dust off the 13th Amendment (13A) of J. R. Jayawardene. It appears that MR can only turn to the UNP for inspiration! The other example is the CFA initially negotiated by Ranil Wickremesinghe, but upheld by MR longer than anyone else. But even those who support 13A like India consider it as only the first step. The direction that this move will take the country is Federalism, but even that will only be at best a temporary resting place. It may not even last as long as Yugoslavia did.

Other than 13A MR does not seem to have a political solution. Even if his current military campaign against the LTTE succeeds, which is doubtful given the questionable military strategy that is being adopted, the separatist problem would have reverted to square one. This was the situation in 1956 but the situation in 2008 is quite different to that of 1956. In 1956 a policy of non-action was feasible but today that may no work. Too many foreign interests now have a finger in the pie.

There have been consistent attempts to camouflage the true nature of devolution. MR is trying to conceal the federal nature of his move by saying that the devolution is to the Provinces, i.e. on a territorial basis. This is because long-lasting Federations like the USA, Australia, etc. have been constituted as territorial federations. But neither 13A. nor MR's endorsement of it, is not a genuine territorial devolution. There is no fundamental difference or necessity for provincial devolution for the non-Tamil areas. The main difference will be between the Tamil area and the non-Tamil area. There will be a big gulf between these two areas that you will not see between the non-Tamil provinces. Thus the Provincial Council system of devolution is simply a camouflage for an essentially ethnic-based devolution. It is not a unitary state solution, despite what the supporters of MR will say.

Thus the devolution "solution" will simply open up all the problems that the ethnic federalism of Yugoslavia encountered after Tito. There will also be a multiplicity of contenders for ethnic devolution. Apart from the Tamils we see the Muslims emerging as a separate factor in the East. They are already laying the basis for their own ethnic state based on Islam. In the longer terms the Estate Tamils in the centre may also be inspired by the success of the Northern Tamils and the Muslims, should this come about. Thus an implosion along ethnic lines, as in Yugoslavia, cannot be ruled if the principle of ethnic devolution is accepted, the rudiments of which can be seen in the 13A political solution of MR.

But before the devolution solution is even considered we have the problem of the LTTE in Sri Lanka. The LTTE is opposed to Federalism. What they want is separation and the possibility of UDI if full separation is not conceded by SL which no party in SL is prepared to do. It is in this context that the second episode identified in the Yugoslav experience become relevant. This is the splintering of the unitary republic of Serbia into smaller Serbia and the new state of Kosovo. The question at issue is if this is credible scenario for Sri Lanka.

It is in this context that the position of the Hela Patriots become relevant. Briefly the Hela Patriots argue that the island of Sri Lanka should be considered as the homeland of the Hela people. To make this clear they want to rename it Sinhaleh (or Sinhalé), Heladiva or similar name. The idea is that while other ethnic groups (like the Tamils) would be permitted to live they have to acknowledge the priority of the Helas in terms of language, and perhaps even religion. According to the Hela Patriots the Tamils have their own homeland in Tamilnadu, and while it would be impossible to repatriate all of them into their supposed homeland they will have to acknowledge the priority of the Helas in Sinhaleh (Sinhalé). In fact some of them, like the 'Tar brush brigade' (see ACSLU Glossary) want to rename Tamil place names in the North and East into their original Sinhala names. It is significant to note that while the MR regime has not endorsed the demands of the Hela Patriots they have not clearly denounced them either. Thus many see Sinhaleh (Sinhalé) and Eelaam as occupying opposite positions in this conflict. The question is which of them will prevail. If the Serbian experience is allowed to occur in SL then now de factor Eelaam, recognised in the CFA of Ranil and MR, will become this new Kosovo. It would require much ingenuity to prevent this happening and the question is whether the current GOSL of MR is capable of stemming this outcome.

The principal argument why the Kosovo experience is not relevant to SL. as advanced by the Hela Patriots, is summed up by their assersion that "SL is no Kosovo". But the comparison of SL with Kosovo is incorrect. SL has to be compared to Serbia before UDI (of Kosovo). Here there are many similarities. Both had minorities which were ethnically different and who aspired to a separate status. In both cases the minority complained of discrimination by the majority community. In both cases the minority had resorted to arms. Serbia could not defeat the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) just as GOSL has not (so far) been able to destroy the LTTE. (Of course GOSL of MR claims to be in the process of destroying the LTTE but this not, at time of writing, an accomplished fact.)

If Kosovo is to be compared to any entity in SL it is to the de facto Eeelaam conceded by the CFA of 2002. ACSLU has argued before that while the CFA was negotiated by the UNP of Ranil, it was upheld and endorsed by the SLFP of MR for a longer period than Ranil. Thus it should accurately be described as the joint Ranil-MR agreement with the LTTE. This is not the place to analyse the circumstances that led to the abrogation of the CFA by the MR regime but it is clear that this was a move that was more forced on it than one taken with deliberation. Besides while the former Serbia banned the KLA the MR regime has still not banned the LTTE. It was the banning of the KLA that led to the European (and Western) intervention on the side of Kosovars. One wonders whether the reluctance of GOSL to ban the LTTE stems from a similar fear that the International Community will openly side with the LTTE. Banning an insurgent group means that the door of negotiation with it si closed, and clearly as far as the GOSL of MR is concerned it still speaks of its military action as undertaken to bring the LTTE to the bargaining table.

The big difference between the SL situation and the one in Serbia is that so far the Western powers have not so far openly intervened on the side of the insurgents. On the other hand many Western countries have banned the LTTE however cosmetic this ban was initially. But it must be remembered that given the twists in the international War on Terrorism this opposition to the LTTE may also change. Some countries like Australia are in the process of abandoning theiry participation in the War on Terror, and even in the US if the Democrats win the next Presidential election a similar move may take place. Given that the Western opposition to the LTTE has been based on its War on Terror, any relaxation in this will have consequences for the Western attitude to the LTTE. The MR regime seems to think that the Western opposition to the LTTE is a fact that will never change. This is another reflection of its naivety in international relations.

Another factor that is relevant in comparing SL with Serbia is the role of India in relation to the SL problem. It is true that Russia played a similar role in the Serbian dispute with Kosovo, but as far as the Western powers are concerned there is a difference between India vis-à-vis SL, and Russia vis-à-vis Serbia. The West did not concede that Serbia was in the sphere of interest of Russia (just as they did not concede that the old Yugoslavia of Tito was in the sphere of interest of the USSR). But they are prepared to concede that SL is in the sphere of interest of India. But India has been a patron of the LTTE, and even now despite the assassination of Gandhi, continues to meddle on the side of the Tamils if not exactly on the side of the LTTE. Indian objective is to create a Federal system in SL. MR's 13A was originally cooked up by J.R.J. with Rajiv Gandhi. Whatever relevance it may have had in 1987 it is clear that the Indian position on 13A has somewhat changed. They now see it only as the first step. This is simply polite language that it is no longer the sought-after political solution. This is also broadly the position of the Western powers. The US has stated openly they want the Federal solution for SL, and as India is also pursuing this goal the West is willing to leave the matter in the hands of India. MR's relation's with India cannot be compared with JRJ's with India, and are at best ambivalent.

More recently the West through the UN seems to be moving towards direct involvement, even by-passing India. Many UN humanitarian bodies have been quetly co-operating with the LTTE often under the banner of Tsunami help. In his regard the PTOMS agreement, which was introduced to parliament by Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was PM seems still to have a ghostly presence. This accounts for the proliferation of UN relief vehicles throughout the de facto Eelaam territory. It has been reported that on 20 February 2008 "Angela Kane , UN Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs, arrived in Colombo to hold talks with the Sri Lankan foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama , foreign secretary Palitha Kohona and diplomats from the European Union, Norway, India and the U.S. in addition to a meeting with the leader of the main opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe ". Then at the same time it is reported that "The UN Security Council's working group on children and armed conflict met for the second time since February 2007 to consider violations against children committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lankan government forces, and the Karuna group". It is significant that SL is put on the same level as the LTTE and the Karuna group on the matter of the recuritment of child soldiers.

These are ominous developments which could be seen as the thin edge of Western direct interference in the SL problem. The Hela Patriots seem to think that the GOSL of MR can withstand this creeping international involvement in Sri Lanka. They think that like Sirimavo Bandaranike an isolationist policy can be adopted. They forget that this led to shortages of almost everything until the public revolted and elected the UNP. They also forget that economic sanctions have already been informally enforced in the form of foreign aid freezing and the threat against textile preferences in Europe and America. The wrong military strategy of using an expensive high tech war against basically guerilla insurgents as well as the massive corruption have virtually depleted the coffers of GOSL and inflation is imposing heavy burdens on the population. All these are not good omens to avoid a recurrence of the Yugoslav experience in SL, even though that possibiity is still fairly distant.

We have seen that the ideology of the Hela Patriots is not conducive to a rational approach to this problem. At the same time GOSL seems to be mired in its response to Western and UN interventions in SL. Recently Mahinda Rajapakse appointed Dayan Jayatilleke as the SL representative at the UN in Geneva. Dayan is well-known as a former supporter of the Tamil cause. He recently wrote an article entitled "Kosovo countdown: Lessons for Sri Lanka". It gives basic facts about the Kosovo secession, but gives no indication what SL should do. Dayan represents succinctly the diplomatic bankruptcy of GOSL. In the concluding section of his article Dayan pontificates with much verbosity as follows:

"All tendencies in world politics which weaken, fragment and destabilise states, undermining their sovereignty and making them vulnerable to hegemony and intervention, are inimical to Sri Lanka. All tendencies which strengthen and defend state sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, are friendly and helpful towards Sri Lanka. By extension, all state and non-state actors which work towards the weakening of state sovereignty in the non metropolitan areas of the world, i.e. the global South and East, cannot be regarded as the strategic friends, allies and partners of Sri Lanka. All state and non-state actors which support, defend and work towards the preservation and strengthening of the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of states, are objectively the friends, allies and partners of Sri Lanka."

Here Dayan speaks of those who are not "strategic friends" of SL and those who are "friends, allies and partners". Unfortunately he does not name names, and it is clear that the strategic non-friends greatly exceed the allies of SL in this matter. Dayan also states: "Kosovo and earlier Chechnya disprove the identification that some make between Western interventionism and particular religions." His point is that both Serbia and Russia are "Christian" like the Western powers. But they are Orthodox Christians and this is viewed as heretics by the dominantly Catholic and Protestant West. But in SL they are confronted with Buddhists whom they regard even more adversely than the Orthodox Christians. This kind of view express by Dayan shows the futility of maintaining diplomats at great expense simply because they are are fluent in English.

What is significant in the successful Kosovo UDI is the rapidity with which it was accepted by the West notwithstanding that it went against a formal Security Council resolution that Serbia should not be broken up. Many countries had opposed the LTTE demand for secession on the ground that they favoured the existing status quo that already established states should not be divided. It appears that this principle has been given up by the international community. There are only a few countries where there is a credible threat of secession, and SL is one of these. That is why this turn of events by the leading Western powers should give much concern to those interested in the future of SL.

What is dangerous here is the attitude of the Hela Patriots, and indirectly of GOSL, to these developments. It is important that this experience of Yugoslavia and of Serbia be carefully analyzed. This blog has been written as a contribution to the rational analysis of this new developments in international relations. Sri Lanka still has an window of opportunity to avoid the Kosovo experience. But this window cannot be used if the views of the Hela Patriots and the inaction of GOSL diplomacy prevails.

Victor Gunasekara
for ACSLU