The innocent threatened by an American-Chinese cold war
WRanasinghe Premadasa hen assumed the presidency of Sri Lanka in 1989, its government faced two armed rebellions. In the north, the Tamil Tigers were fighting to establish an independent state. In the south, a leftist group called Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) claimed that Colombo’s rulers had no legitimacy and called for a national revolution. Even before Premadasa’s inauguration, the state had waged war on both fronts.
The fight against the Tamil Tigers will continue for two more decades, killing thousands and gaining international notoriety. The battle with the JVP lasted only a short time, and few people remember it outside of Sri Lanka. Yet it was one of the deadliest conflicts of the time. “People just disappeared,” says Nira Wickramasinghe, a historian of modern Sri Lanka at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “Anyone with any leftist association was threatened. “
The JVP was leading an armed insurgency and the Sri Lankan government decided to end it. Their tactics were horrific: students, union members, artists and intellectuals were drawn into a sea of anti-Communist violence. The authorities worked with paramilitary groups to crush the JVP. Estimates put the number of lives lost between 40,000 and 60,000, but no careful accounting has ever been done. British government records indicate that Western governments knew that Sri Lanka and its proxies systematically killed innocent civilians. And according to Britain’s top diplomat in Colombo at the time, Sri Lankan officials were confident the West would back them, prioritizing the fight against communism over human rights.
“They felt they had carte blanche,” David Gladstone, UK High Commissioner to Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1991, told me, referring to the Colombo government. Officials believed “the United States would look the other way, as long as it killed Communists.”
Western voices have begun to label the US-China rivalry as a New Cold War, with the more hawkish of them demanding that Washington and its allies confront Beijing. Too often, these conversations assess this potential conflict and its consequences as if it only concerns people in the United States and China. What damage, economic or military, would the two powers tolerate? How much could anyone suffer? Who would win?
These questions are insufficient. If a new Cold War is like the previous one, it will not primarily be American or Chinese citizens who will suffer. During the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, large numbers of people were reduced to collateral damage, far from famous First World hotspots like Berlin, with their deaths considered acceptable, if not celebrated.
One of the most important lessons from this conflict should be that it is mainly the innocent, mainly poor developing countries, who have paid the price. Our media have paid them little attention and our governments have called off their deaths in what is now called “great power competition”.
THElast year, I published a book about a 1965 US-backed Indonesian program that killed an estimated 1 million leftists and people accused of being associated with the Indonesian Communist Party. I also covered similar episodes throughout the Cold War – there were a lot of them, so many that I missed the case of Sri Lanka.
In my research, I have found a range of instances in which Washington has provided direct assistance or tacit approval to governments to kill accused leftists or leftists. These atrocities have profoundly shaped the world we live in today. Right-wing governments, Washington allies, and fanatic anti-Communist movements exchanged tips and tactics, often with the help of US officials. They learned that if they killed America’s putative enemies during the Cold War, they would be rewarded. When these groups were inspired by what happened in Indonesia, they used the metonym Jakarta, most famous when they filled the streets of Santiago, Chile, with ominous graffiti Jakarta is coming. The victims of these mass murders were not Soviet Communists – they were residents of places such as El Salvador, the Philippines, and Argentina, many of whom had no connection to Moscow.
Focusing only on these campaigns, as I did in my book, fails to take into account the full impact of the US-Soviet rivalry on innocent people elsewhere: hot wars have also been fought. Many Americans know, for example, Vietnam, because our compatriots went there to fight, and more than 50,000 lost their lives there. Fewer, however, realize that 3 million Vietnamese have died, two-thirds of whom are civilians. Even fewer are aware of the wars in Angola or Mozambique, or the Malay Emergency. The Cold War claimed the lives of several million innocent people in the countries of the South. The total American and Soviet deaths are only a small fraction of that.
In all, I found 22 episodes during the Cold War, including the massacre in Indonesia, in which this “Jakarta method” was used. Sri Lanka is 23.
gLadstone was trying to raise awareness of violence in Sri Lanka for decades, and wrote a book about his experiences in the country. I have spoken with Gladstone, now retired in Cumbria, northern England, on the phone several times since last year. (It was introduced to me by United Kingdom declassified, an investigative medium.) His memories of the time are vivid and echo the stories I have heard throughout my research.
Sri Lankan Defense Minister at the time, Ranjan Wijeratne, told Gladstone in 1989 that he had a plan to topple the JVP, calling it “the Indonesian solution”. Like anyone who had paid attention to the Cold War in the developing world, Gladstone immediately understood what it meant.
In the months that followed, the former diplomat told me, “there were dead bodies lying around, people floating on the river and bodies piled up under bridges.” He continued, “It wasn’t hard to see what was going on if you wanted to know.”
Gladstone said he tried to raise the issue with authorities in London and his US counterpart, but was rejected. According to Gladstone, James W. Spain, the US ambassador in Colombo at the time, explained to him the line coming from Washington: “We see Premadasa as a strong leader, and he is exactly what we want in this. part of the world. “
Declassified files at the British National Archives confirm that London was well informed of the extent of the atrocities. In a 1989 cable, Gladstone wrote that Sri Lankan security forces and affiliated death squads killed up to 30,000 people that year. “Most of these victims,” he wrote, “were young men whose only ‘crime’ was being associated or even linked to JVP suspects. Anyone defending human rights or fair trials was called a sympathizer of the JVP, and in many parts of the country the security forces had no legitimacy with the local populations and reigned in terror, he said. writing. In another communication, dating from the early 1990s, Gladstone noted that Sri Lanka’s Inspector General of Police admitted that “local army commanders were deliberately strewing corpses in the belief that it was deterring people from join the JVP ”.
The US State Department and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office declined to comment on the period in question and Gladstone’s claims. FCDO has provided me with information on its commitment to human rights in Sri Lanka in recent years. Spain died in 2008. Premadasa and Wijeratne were assassinated in the early 1990s. The current Sri Lankan government, which has changed a lot since, has also declined to comment on the crackdown.
Many cold war case are even more shocking than the tragedy in Sri Lanka and provide more damning evidence of how conflict has distorted the 20th century. Unlike the unarmed Indonesian Communist Party – which Richard Nixon and the British Secret Service recognized would win a fair election – the JVP had chosen the path of violent struggle. Its tactics have divided the Sri Lankan left, even alienating some of those who had previously supported them. I have found no evidence that Western governments actively encouraged or assisted in the killings in Sri Lanka, as they did in Indonesia.
The success or failure of the JVP is unlikely to be a turning point in the formation of world order. In contrast, progressive democratic movements in Chile, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of the Congo could have changed the outcome of the Cold War in the Global South without the brutal repression of the right.
The case of Indonesia, in particular, has changed everything. Not only did anti-Communist movements draw inspiration from murderous violence, but many leftist movements came to the conclusion that they had to radicalize or suffer a similar fate. The JVP is now a legal political party in Sri Lanka, but Bimal Rathnayake, a senior JVP official, told me that his initial decision to take up arms, before his first uprising, in 1971, was heavily influenced by what ‘he’s seen performing in Indonesia. .
Like other examples of using the Jakarta Method, however, Sri Lanka should prompt us to “ask what makes certain populations torturable, disposable and ignorable,” said Thushara Hewage, an expert on recent Sri Lankan conflicts. at the University of Ottawa. me. In the case of Sri Lanka, he said, multiple factors enabled the dehumanization of the victims. Class and caste, for example, made it easier to target them with impunity.
Their relationship with a global conflagration was also very important. These individuals could be described as part of the “international communist conspiracy”, or what might now be called a threat to “the rules-based international order”.
The atrocities I examined had multiple causes, but this last element made the results as horrific as possible. Complex mental gymnastics is not necessary to imagine how this might apply today. Countries like Venezuela and Iran have been viewed as threats for decades, and the sanctions imposed on these countries are killing innocent people without producing any significant positive results. We don’t need to cross an invisible line in a new Cold War to see this dynamic escalate.
I asked Gladstone what he took away from his experience in Sri Lanka. He told me that he now believed that neither the mainstream media nor the Western authorities cared much about the individuals who perished during the Cold War. “Much of it depended on the wealth of the people involved,” he said. “Our political masters would ask, ‘How many battalions can this country put on the ground? How many businesses can they order? So for them Sri Lanka didn’t matter.
I have added the case of Sri Lanka to the new edition of my book. It’s a testament to the horrors of the Cold War that it’s just one more on a long list.