Wednesday March 21 2001:

US Ambassador replies to Tamil Guardian

The US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Mr. Ashley Wills, responds to the Tamil Guardian editorial, of March 14(se nedenfor) which raised issues from the speech he gave to the residents of Jaffna

Please feel free to publish this. In fact, given your strong reaction to my Jaffna speech, I shall appreciate your having the courtesy to publish this.

I read with great interest and equally great dismay your editorial regarding my speech in Jaffna. You have interpreted my remarks very curiously and seem keen to ascribe the worst intentions to my government and me.

I did not dismiss Tamil aspirations, as you allege. Indeed, my government and I personally have great sympathy and respect for the Tamil people. We are quite aware of the discrimination and violence that the Tamil people have faced in Sri Lanka over the years, especially since the 1950’s.

We are also quite aware of the current situation regarding human rights in Sri Lanka. In the latter regard, please refer your readers to our Human Rights Report, available at

What I did dismiss is the idea of an independent Tamil Ealam. If that is what the LTTE is fighting for, it is pursuing an unattainable vision and in so doing it is making many people, including Tamils, suffer. We believe Tamil aspirations can be met through negotiations that will yield a new political system in Sri Lanka, one that guarantees equal rights and protection under the law for all citizens of this country. Such a system could well feature a unit or units of the state where Tamils are the overwhelming majority. That is not our business; it is for the negotiators, representing the Sri Lankan government and the Tamils, to decide.

My point about Sri Lanka’s diversity was aimed both at Tamil and Sinhalese chauvinists, who seem to believe that the whole country or some part of it is the exclusive domain of their ethnic group. Such a view, I repeat, is extreme, intolerant and it also defies reality: Tamils are not the only people living in Sri Lanka’s north and east; Sinhalese are not the only people living elsewhere in the country.

I can understand why Tamils are proud of their ethnic identity. I can also understand that the discrimination against them in Sri Lanka has frustrated and angered them and made them even more acutely aware of their ethnicity. This is one of the saddest aspects of Sri Lanka’s conflict: one’s ethnicity, rather than one’s individual qualities, has taken on too much importance.

Most of the Tamils I have met, nevertheless, seem comfortable with the prospect of living in a democratic, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society that encompasses far more territory than Tamil Eelam. They also seem profoundly uncomfortable with the LTTE’s tactics of targeting civilians and eliminating those who disagree with its leadership.

The U.S. Government wants Tamils, Sinhalese and others to live in peace, in a democracy and in a place that permits them to go about their daily lives with dignity and security. Sri Lanka can be such a place, and it can be such a place without further violence from the LTTE or the Sri Lankan security forces.

The purpose of my speech in Jaffna was to show respect for the Tamil people by speaking honestly to them about my government’s view.


E. Ashley Wills

Tamil Guardian responds to the US Ambassador’s objections

The Tamil Guardian's editorial team responds to objections raised by US Ambassador Ashley Wills to their leading opinion of March14 regarding his speech in Jaffna.

Dear Ambassador,

We thank you for your letter in response to our editorial of March 14, which we read with great interest and are reproducing in full. We would like to respond to the issues and objections you raised in it.

Your Jaffna speech became a subject of much discussion and controversy in the Tamil community, both in the island and amongst the Diaspora. Our interpretation of your statement, as curious as you may have found it to be, reflects widely expressed and held sentiments amongst the community. Any intentions ascribed to your government and yourself are based on what you said in Jaffna, and also on the actions taken and sentiments expressed by your government during the course of the bloody conflict in general.

We feel it is fair to say that the Tamil community as a whole was dismayed and outraged by your comments in Jaffna. We are certain that our 'strong' reaction was not the only response you have received since. And as you were speaking as a representative of the United States, the sentiments are directed towards your government and its policies pertaining to the Tamils also.

The primary issue has been your summary reduction of the Tamils, who constitute themselves a distinct nation of people, to that of a mere ethnic minority in a Sinhala-Buddhist country. Most importantly, you challenged the Tamil people's claim on their traditional homelands, dismissing the notion as ethnic supremacy or chauvinism. You drew parallels to your own country's ethnic situation and territorial arrangements as the basis for this position.

Your argument is flawed, Whilst no group of Americans - except the American Indians - can stake a historical claim to a part of your relatively young country's territory as a traditional homeland, many people in other parts of the world most certainly can. We suspect your dismissal of a people's homeland concept will draw the same reaction in Israel or East Timor or Tamil Nadir, for example, as has come fro-m the Tamil community in the island. It is the notion that an ethnically constituted people cannot claim the land of their ancestors, where they still reside, as their traditional homeland, that defies reality.

Whilst the issues of ethnicity, identity, nationhood and statehood are subject to widespread academic study and are topics of much debate, the fact that the Tamils have been living in the north and east of the island for a considerable period is the basis for their consideration of that region of their homeland. This is not ethnic purism as you contemptuously describe it, nor is it chauvinism. It is simply a people collectively defining where they consider their home in the world to be. In the Tamils case, that does not infer the rejection of non-Tamils residing there - but it does infer the rejection of imposing or aggressive immigration or colonisation.

In your letter, you deny that you dismissed Tamil aspirations in your Jaffna speech. We disagree. The public protests over the past three months by large sections of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka have been based almost universally on their demand for self-determination. That is what the Tamil people aspire to. By dismissing their claim on their homeland, you effectively challenge their basis for self-determination and thus reject this aspiration. Moreover, the Tamil community feels that to be your specific objective in making your comments.

From your letter, we are to understand that your government and you personally have great sympathy and respect for the Tamil people. You also say that you are aware of the discrimination and violence they have faced since the fifties.

Yet, paradoxically, you insist that the Tamil people must remain prisoner to those conditions of discrimination and violence and not be allowed to rule themselves, free from these bonds. The Tamils, if we are to understand your position, must wait for Sri Lanka's Sinhala-Buddhist governors to one day "lighten up and give the Tamils a break".

If, as you say, you "understand that the discrimination against the Tamils in Sri Lanka has frustrated and angered them and made them even more acutely aware of their ethnicity," you ought to be prepared to support their goal of self-governance, free of such discrimination. Yet you oppose an independent Tamil Eelam as an "unattainable vision."

Your have a curious argument for this. You say that there are many Tamils who "seem comfortable with the prospect of living in a democratic, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society." But the majority of Tamils also feel that this, in fact, is an unattainable vision in a Sinhala dominated Sri Lanka. You feel different, but the events of the past fifty years provide you no basis to do so.

Conversely, we do not know any Tamils who would prefer to live in a discriminatory Sinhala-Buddhist country rather than an independent Tamil state (actually we do know one, but we suspect he wouldn't be welcome there anyway!).

We also note, that whilst you are quite specific in what the Tamils cannot aspire to, i.e. a separate state, you are less that keen to suggest a system that will guarantee them equal rights, hastily arguing "that is not our business" and leaving it to the negotiators representing the Sri Lankan government and the Tamils.

Which brings us to the issue of the Tamil leadership. The Tamil protestors in government-controlled areas have universally endorsed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as their representatives in any negotiations with Sri Lanka's government. All the Tamil parties in Colombo -save one - have directly told you the same thing. But that is unacceptable to you. You are still looking for some other entity: the Tamil people apparently, have to pick another representative more to your liking.

Furthermore, the argument you suggest for not accepting the LTTE - that many Tamils you have met "are uncomfortable with the LTTE's targeting of civilians" - is untenable. A large number of Americans we have met are uncomfortable with the deaths of civilians in US military attacks in Iraq and the Balkans and the targeting of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but none of them suggest the US government does not represent them or their interests.

Furthermore, your begrudging acceptance that the LTTE needs to be included in negotiations on account of its military assets, casts considerable doubt on your sincerity over Tamil political rights. One might argue that the LTTE needs to be accepted as the representative of the Ta-mils since no other entity with any popular support wishes to take its place and the Tamil community has been publicly endorsing the organisation.

You may believe that Tamil aspirations can be met through negotiations between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan government, as an internal affair or local matter. We remain strongly sceptical. President Chandrika Kumaratunge ran into more than a little trouble when she brought-ht her devolution proposals to Parliament: despite the entrenchment of Sinhala-Buddhist dominance in the package, the Sinhala far-right led by the Buddhist clergy, derailed it without a moment's hesitation.

No "concession" to the Tamils has stood the test of even short time, under Sinhala nationalist vehemence. Moreover, your government's actions and position embolden the Sinhala nationalists. The US proscription of the LTTE as terrorists and refusal to accept the organisation as the representatives of the Tamil community, are inline with the Sinhala nationalist position. Arguably, this, along with US military support for the Sri Lanka military is instrumental in bolstering Sinhala intransigence towards seeking a negotiated settlement with the Tamils.

Finally, you lament that one's ethnicity, rather than one's individual qualities, has taken on too much importance in Sri Lanka. We agree. But this, we feel, is irreversible now. We also feel that your government and now, yourself, have - admittedly amongst others - aided and encouraged this. Unfortunately, since the fifties, the matter of ethnicity has gradually become part of the Sri Lankan constitution, defining one race, the Buddhist Sinhalese, as supreme. The implementation of that sentiment is the basis reinforcing the Tamil identity and search for political independence today, and making the conflict increasingly intractable.

Our sentiments expressed in the issue dated March 14 were based on your speech to the people of Jaffna, the context in which it was made and the objective conditions surrounding the Tamil question in Sri Lanka today. Having read your letter and considered its contents, we respectfully continue to stand by our editorial