‘We have already commenced the battle against them in the international sphere and are committed to continue it’. President Rajapaksa said so at the ceremonial passing out parade of Cadet officers at the Sri Lanka Military Academy (SLMA) in Diyatalawa today (21 Dec).
We are now at a significant phase in the humanitarian operation. Our endeavour is to win hearts and minds after freeing the people and lands from terrorism. The humanitarian operation includes de-mining, resettlement and providing basic requirements among other tasks. All development programmes carried out in the North and East are part of the humanitarian operation, the President stated.
He stressed that this humanitarian operation will not stop until the painful memories of terrorism and all thoughts of separatism are removed from people’s hearts.
‘You pass out today to contribute to this noble humanitarian operation’, the President told the Cadet officers.
A person does not excel through talent and knowledge alone. Instead, the most important element is the love for one’s country, he pointed out. ‘The government not only lined up the security forces for the humanitarian operation but also organized the people against terrorism.
The government received tremendous support from the people in eliminating terrorism’, he said. ‘The highest tribute to these people is to ensure that terrorism does not raise its ugly head’, he emphasized.>> Full Story
The A9 highway that bisects the Northern Province and leads to its capital of Jaffna would be the best advertisement for the government in its election campaign to win the provincial council elections scheduled to be held in September. The dramatic improvement in the highway and the network of roads that connect to it have enhanced the quality of life to all who make use of them, be they the businessman or landless labourer, northerner or southerner. But the A9 highway, which was once called the highway of death on account of the thousands of lives it consumed during the war, also shows why the government cannot win those forthcoming elections unless there is a change of course.
The huge military checkpoint at Omanthai, which was once the border between government and LTTE-controlled territories in the north, still stands like an ageing dinosaur. All vehicles traversing the road at this point have to stop to be checked. At the best it means getting out of one’s vehicle and giving one’s identity card and vehicle number to be written down in a register. But sometimes it can mean having one’s bags poked and opened for inspection. Passengers in private vehicles are usually spared the hassle of getting down to be checked, but those travelling by bus have to disembark and line up to be checked. This war-time practice serves as a reminder of the war and the division of the country.
A police officer who flagged down our vehicle and requested a short ride was present when this exercise took place. He explained that the roots, or is it seeds, of militancy still remained in the people of the North and needed to be guaded against. The visible surveillance serves as a reminder to them that the government is watching and it is better to keep out of trouble. Viewed from the other side the visible presence of the military in the North is a constant reminder to the people that they are mistrusted and being treated differently. It also sends a harsh message that the North is still not fully integrated with the rest of the country, remains a potential threat, and hence it is under a state of military occupation, even if largely benign.
The large military presence in the Northern and Eastern provinces, even after the war, has been a source of grievance to the people living in those parts. The issue of the military presence has re-emerged in full force due to the government’s decision to acquire over 6000 acres of prime land in the Jaffna peninsula to set up a regional military headquarters. It is reported that as many as 25 Grama Niladari divisions (which means more than 25 villages) will be affected. Thousands of people will be affected, with an estimated 29,000 still in camps for the displaced. The military has said that this land is being acquired under relevant law, and this is done in other parts of the country also. But given the large territory and population that will be affected, and the lack of transparency in military affairs, it has also given rise to fears of army-sponsored Sinhalese settlements in the North.
It is noteworthy that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission has recommended the de-militarisation of the north and the full restoration of civilian administration. The two resolutions passed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 and again in 2013 call upon the government to implement the constructive recommendations of the LLRC. The LLRC was very specific on this issue, especially in regard to land issues, which is at the heart of people’s sense of belonging and security. The LLRC said that many people who were displaced in the war had lost their title deeds and other documents proving their ownership or rights to use the land. It recommended an expert and civil administration to restore to the people what had been theirs. It also said that land policy should not be used to effect artificial changes in demography and the ethnic composition of the population.
The refusal of the military authorities to permit the Leader of the Opposition and a delegation of opposition parliamentarians from entering the area to see the situation for themselves is bound to send an adverse message to the Tamil people and to the international community about the ground realities in the north. It highlights the lack of transparency that accompanies military affairs, which is why the military is unsuited to engage in civilian affairs. Unfortunately the indications of a shift in government policy towards the demilitarization of the north are bleak at the present time. The government has recently added a second compulsory checkpoint in the North in addition to the one at Omanthai. This is one at Elephant Pass at the entry/exit point of the Jaffna peninsula. This latest checkpoint was announced a few days ago in the context of the sudden upsurge of politically motivated violence in the North which saw events organized by opposition parties broken up allegedly by security personnel in civilian attire.
The acts of violence that have started taking place against opposition activities in the North, as occurred with the Uthayan newspaper and TNA meetings, can be a harbinger of things to come. The government’s determination to win the Northern Provincial elections reflects the government’s concern that it will pave the way to political and international challenges with the establishment of an opposition Tamil-led administration with a democratic mandate. So far the government’s chief response to its local and international critics has been that it is the sole elected authority in the country entitled to speak on behalf of all the people. Every time it wins an election it reminds its detractors that whatever they may say, it has the democratic sanction of the people. An opposition and Tamil led provincial administration in the North would have a corresponding legitimacy to speak on behalf of the people who elected it.
Already two constituent parties of the government have expressed their opposition to these elections being held. The All Ceylon Muslim League headed by Minister Rishard Bathiuddin has objected to the elections being held until all war-displaced Muslims are resettled in the Northern Province. The National Freedom Front headed by Minister Wimal Weerawansa has stated that these elections can lead to an outcome that is detrimental to the country’s unity. He has also said that the system of provincial councils should be scrapped and replaced by district councils. Interestingly, President Rajapaksa himself articulated this vision of district-based devolution several years ago until local and international pressure caused him to withdraw from this position. It is possible that views such as these are being floated to justify a postponement of the elections.
However, too much is at stake for the government to now seek to either abolish the provincial council system or postpone the promised September elections. The President’s promise to hold the elections by September this year is noted in too many international documents, such as the joint communiqué signed by the Prime Minister of Japan and President Rajapaksa following his visit in March to Japan, and also in the UN Human Rights resolution on Sri Lanka which was also passed by a large majority of countries in March this year. With the provincial elections to be held in September, there is still time for the government to make the shift that would make it more attractive to the northern voters. De-militarisation of the North would come as the first priority accompanied by the resettlement of displaced people in their own lands.
Four years after the war ended, development and reconstruction showcases are eclipsed by raw human suffering during Navi Pillay’s visit to Sri Lanka
Rajeswari Ganesan, mother of a 28 year old Vavuniya prison inmate who died under suspicious circumstances in June last year, sobbed out her grief to visiting UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay in the North last Tuesday. This past year, Rajeswari’s grief over the death of her only son, who authorities claim died of a heart attack but she believes was killed in custody, has been a terrible thing to see. Navi Pillay may not have been able to understand Rajeswari’s representation made in Tamil, but overcome with empathy, the UN Envoy put her arms around the weeping mother and held her.
Navi Pillay was the most senior UN official to have visited Sri Lanka’s embattled north and east since the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon toured the region soon after the war ended in May 2009. For hundreds of families living in the former war zone, whose personal tragedies have been ignored for years, the fact that a high ranking person of international influence was finally close enough to hear their cries for help, was undoubtedly an electrifying experience. “I have never experienced so many people weeping and crying. I have never seen this level of uncontrollable grief,” Pillay was to tell The Sunday Leader three days later in an interview.
Steps in the right direction
In anticipation of her visit, the Government made several strides in the right direction. Whether superficial attempts to pacify the visiting UN Envoy and temper her report ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) scheduled for November or not, the Rajapaksa Administration set up a Commission on Disappearances, appointed credible commissioners, returned military acquired land to the people, promised action on the Weliweriya killings and agreed to give Pillay “unfettered access” wherever she chose to go. It was the first time that the regime had opened up the final theatre of war beside the now legendary Nandikadal lagoon to any foreign visitor.
Yet in the end, none of the Government’s efforts to paint a positive picture of Sri Lanka’s leap forward after the end of the war could mitigate the stark reality of weeping women and children on the streets of Jaffna and Trincomalee. Shiny new roads and railway tracks could not hide fundamental issues in the former battle zones that were obstructing genuine post-conflict healing and reparation. Pillay was confronted with tales of livelihood and land loss, the search for missing family members and justice for senseless death everywhere she went in the north and east. And in the capital, journalists and marginalised groups like the country’s Muslim population made representations to her about the ongoing suppression of fundamental freedoms in post-war Sri Lanka.
When the High Commissioner issued a stinging report of her seven day fact finding mission hours before she left the island, it was clear the representations of ordinary Sri Lankans and civil society groups had made a deep impression. There was no mincing of words or attempt to pacify the host government. Pillay hit back hard at her critics – many of them Government ministers and warned she would report any reprisals against those who had spoken to her during the UN Human Rights Council mandated mission, back to the Council.
If Pillay’s presence had given ordinary people extraordinary courage to publicly air their grievances even in the heavily garrisoned north and east, her parting words that the UN considered reprisals a very serious matter has only extended this boldness. One day after the UN High Commissioner left Colombo, Fr. Veerasan Yogeswaran who runs a human rights group in Trincomalee that works with families of the missing or detained, told the French Press Agency (AFP) that he had been visited at midnight and again at dawn by half a dozen plainclothes policemen last Wednesday, just hours after his discussions with Pillay. The Jesuit priest told reporters that his concern was that security forces personnel were entering homes at midnight or in the pre-dawn hours and questioning ordinary civilians. Met with complaints by Pillay about the reprisals against the priests, journalists and civil groups, the Government vehemently denied the claim and then demanded the High Commissioner provide proof to allow the administration to commence investigations. It has lapsed into familiar arguments, about vested interests intimidating people in order to cast the Government in a bad light and even claimed the UN Envoy had been misled by mischievous political elements. But in other ways, the Government has already commenced its own public criticism of those who made representations before the UN High Commissioner, calling them out as tale carriers to the international community. Minister Wimal Weerawansa has already accused the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress of “snitching’ to Pillay because the Party handed over a report about violence against the Muslim Community to the visiting Envoy. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has also reportedly had strong words for SLMC Chief and Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, about the move.
For Government officials heavily involved with organising Pillay’s visit, her final remarks at the end of the week long tour proved a deep disappointment. The sections of the regime that are advocating greater engagement with the UN system, including Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha who heads the country’s Geneva mission to the UN, genuinely believed that given the opportunity to witness the progress in Sri Lanka first hand, the UN High Commissioner’s perception of the human rights situation on the ground would change. Unfortunately these Government elements are at odds with other more powerful sections of the ruling regime, that are willing only to make superficial changes but have no real intention of meeting international obligations to devolve power to the island’s Tamil population or investigate alleged violations in the conflict’s final phase. Unfortunately for the Rajapaksa administration, Navi Pillay was not willing to merely scratch the surface during her visit.
As for Pillay’s last words in the island, no one is smarting more than President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The explosive statement at the end of her mission, included remarks about the authoritarian direction in which Sri Lanka was headed. Her words continue to rankle power centres in Colombo long after Pillay is gone.
“A dictator is a ruler who does not hold elections,” President Rajapaksa charged at the 62nd SLFP Convention in Kurunegala on Monday, one day after Pillay had left these shores. There had been 11 elections held under his watc, since 2005, he claimed. “What’s more democratic than that?” he asked the SLFP crowd. “What can I do if the Opposition Leader can’t win an election,” he quipped. Under the lighthearted tone however, the rancour is real, Government insiders say.
There is also the question of whether President Rajapaksa was deliberately perpetuating the grotesquely erroneous notion that elections are the sole test of a state’s democratic credentials. Deposed Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein, Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak, Zimbabwe’s President for life, Robert Mugabe and President Rajapaksa’s brand new best friend in Belarus, the self-proclaimed last dictator of Europe, Alexander Lukashenko all belong on a list of autocratic leaders who regularly take their nations to the polls. Elections held under such regimes are tragically flawed affairs. But even so, democracies are measured not merely by whether a country’s leaders are elected (however fairly or unfairly), but also by how a state and its leaders safeguard and uphold the liberties of individuals. In a state where civil liberties are suppressed, elections only impose majority tyranny on the rest of the populace.
The Government has issued rebuttal after rebuttal to Pillay’s statement. External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris even addressed the press in London on Monday evening, in order to reply the UN Envoy as soon as possible. Each rebuttal has dealt extensively with Pillay’s remark on increasing authoritarianism, claiming that the comment was a transgression of her mandate and a political statement. Peiris said her concluding remarks showed a “distressing lack of balance” and claimed her observations suggested that Pillay had “formed her views before reaching the shores of the country.”
The floral tribute
The rebuttal of Pillay’s closing remarks from the Department of Government Information went so far as to accuse the High Commissioner of having attempted to pay a floral tribute at Mullivaikal where the LTTE Leader met his death. The UN Delegation it is learnt was notified by the highest levels of Government in Colombo last Tuesday while Pillay was in the North, that the tribute would not be tolerated.
During her press briefing in Colombo, High Commissioner Pillay said she often lays flowers in commemoration of victims of conflict, in most countries she visits. The question of the floral commemoration has become a hot button issue, with Government insiders insisting Pillay had “shown her hand” in no uncertain terms with the attempted ‘commemoration’.
Given the southern political sensitivities regarding the final theatre of battle where the LTTE leadership perished, the UN`s choice of Mullivaikal for a tribute was perhaps a poor one. But as analysts point out, despite the ubiquitous war memorials bearing unmistakably militaristic symbols all over the country, the Sri Lankan Government is yet to construct a memorial for all victims of the war, despite such a conciliatory memorial being strongly advocated even in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
Nevertheless, for the first time since the High Commissioner’s delegation left Sri Lanka, her Office clarified the issue yesterday. Spokesman for the High Commissioner, Rupert Colville told Daily FT that the UN considered that the the general area where the war ended after nearly 30 years might be a suitable spot to commemorate all those who died during that conflict. Colville said that the Government had learned Pillay’s team was considering this and made it plain they viewed it in a different light. “We considered their point of view carefully and felt in the end that it might be misinterpreted — as indeed it has been — so decided not to proceed,” Colville said.
He said it was a gross misrepresentation to pretend that Pillay was planning to honour the LTTE. “She made her views on the LTTE very clear indeed in her statement,” the High Commissioner’s Spokesman told Daily FT. Colville said that the words High Commissioner Pillay was due to speak in Mullaitivu had been included in her final statement, when she paid her respects to all Sri Lankans around the country who were killed during the three decades of conflict.
He said that the misrepresentation was “just the latest in the pattern of mendacious abuse” Pillay had referred to in her closing remarks.
Needless to say the slurs cast at the visiting High Commissioner became a large part of the narrative, especially after Pillay tackled the issue head on in her closing remarks. According to informed sources, two remarks particularly irked the visiting UN Envoy. Firstly the reference to her by JHU strongman Udaya Gammanpila as a terrorist sympathiser who saw “her husband in every terrorist”. Pillay’s husband was a lawyer and anti-Apartheid activist in South Africa, imprisoned with Nelson Mandela and others on Robben Island, where political prisoners were detained. The second was Minister Mervyn Silva’s offer to marry Pillay to show her what Sri Lanka ‘has to offer.’ The lewd remarks, made worse by allusions to Ravana-Sita folklore drew an apology to the visiting High Commissioner from President Rajapaksa no less, during his meeting with her last Friday. For the 72 year old judge, who has fought relentlessly for women’s rights throughout her career and especially in her present position, Silva’s remarks were not to be borne.
During a meeting with Leader of the House Nimal Siripala De Silva who was briefing Pillay on the recently constituted Parliamentary Select Committee on Devolution proposals, tried to lightheartedly brush off Mervyn Silva’s slurs. “Don’t worry about his remarks,” the congenial De Silva said during the meeting. Pillay was quick on the draw: “It is you that should be worried, Minister” she said.
Making it personal
There is great weight in that brief but powerful sentence. Rajapaksa administration officials repeatedly make a fundamental mistake in its dealings with international diplomats. They attempt, at their own peril, to individualise UN office bearers or diplomatic officials at local missions. Navi Pillay, as far as the Sri Lankan Government is concerned, can be whittled down to a South African Tamil, a sympathiser of the Tamil cause by virtue of her ethnicity and a convenient tool of the West. Similar mistakes were made with her predecessor, Louise Arbour, who was repeatedly vilified by Government officials. Navanethem Pillay, the Government must understand, even at this late stage, is not just one woman to be discredited and ascribed terrorist labels. Pillay is not just a South African or a Tamil, but the holder of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights at the UN, a fixed institution that will continue to advocate and criticise long after Pillay no longer holds the title. When she presents her reports on Sri Lanka following this fact finding mission, that report will not only remain relevant while Pillay remains in office, but even when her successor takes over the reins.
The UN Envoy said as much during her concluding press briefing last Saturday, when she explained that she and even the UN Secretary General were merely civil servants, bound to uphold the regulations and standards set by 193 member states of the UN. The rules, she said, were set by governments of the world, including Sri Lanka. “If the rules and regulations are violated, that is what the UN points out to Governments. You may call it criticism, but that is what the UN does. When there are gaps, we raise a critical voice, but always with the intention to help,” the High Commissioner told the Sri Lankan press corps. In essence, Navanethem Pillay does not make the rules, any more than Ban Ki Moon, Marzuki Darusman or Arbour does. This fundamental truth that the Sri Lankan Government fails to understand, despite the best efforts of saner counsel within the regime, gravely endangers the country’s international standing at forums such as the UN.
There is little doubt that High Commissioner Pillay’s report on Sri Lanka, to be presented orally in September and in full during the Human Rights Council’s March sessions, will be a bare-naked reading of the human rights situation on the ground. The Government has choices to make as it looks towards Council sessions in Geneva in March 2014, which foreign policy analysts repeatedly warn could herald the beginnings of a fully fledged international inquiry against Sri Lanka unless genuine steps are taken to address accountability issues between now and then.
Costing hearts and minds
Acknowledgement that the need to grant people freedom with dignity, protect human rights and the genuinely necessity to hold people to account for crimes committed against sections of the population not because the international community is demanding it, but for the sake of Sri Lanka’s own soul, could be a starting point, if the political leadership was so inclined. The lack of genuine commitment may have been where everything went wrong for the Government during the Pillay mission, despite all its best efforts to showcase progress. As human rights Chief, Pillay is less concerned with physical reconstruction and more focused on the human condition. The inability to understand that fundamental difference, is costing the Government hearts and minds in the former conflict zones and support in the international arena.
For Navi Pillay, the message came through loud and clear. Everywhere she went in the north and east and sometimes even in Colombo, ordinary people mobbed her with tales of their personal suffering. In the north, observers say, all focus has shifted from the Provincial Council election since Pillay’s visit, with ordinary people convinced again that the UN will successfully advocate on their behalf. Her presence inspired hope for civilians, families of the missing, journalists and human rights activists whose post-war reality has been far from peaceful.
“The fighting may be over, the suffering is not,” Pillay said, as she left Sri Lanka.
If it was paying attention to the more human factors of post-conflict rebuilding, the Government may not have had to endure the embarrassment of having Navi Pillay draw attention to the fact that the peace dividend will elude Sri Lanka as long as a section of its populace remains chained to the suffering wrought by brutal conflict. Sandhya Ekneligoda or Rajeswari Ganesan could have articulated the point with equal eloquence. It would have been apparent in the fear of thousands of ordinary Muslims, worrying that a violent day of reckoning may be in their future. Or in the prostate, uncontrollable grief of Sinnakutty Kanapathipillai from Mullaitivu, who lay on the streets outside the Jaffna Library, asking the UN High Commissioner to find her son who surrendered on 18 May 2009, never to be heard of again.
The compulsion to tell the world of their suffering is a direct consequence of the fact that at home, no one is listening.
Indian Ministry of External Affairs took the unusual step of issuing a strong press statement cautioning Sri Lanka not to dilute the 13th Amendment (13A) at the end of a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation’s meetings with Indian leadership including the Prime Minister on June 19, 2013. It was in response in to Colombo’s hectic moves to dismantle the constitutional provision of 13A that confers a level of autonomy to Tamil minority. If 13A is abolished it would not only be negation of the promises President Rajapaksa made to the nation and India but it would set the clock back on the national reconciliation process that is stalled at the start line since 2009.
The much maligned 13A reached its episodic climax during May-June as the September 2013 Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections neared. There was a flurry of activities in Colombo as the President was averse to allow the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) – erstwhile political ally of the LTTE– to capture power in the NPC. There was a bit of confusion as the President was making up his mind on how to go about doing this. This resulted in the administration and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the all powerful Defence Secretary sending confusing signals on future course of action. Lalith Weeratunge, President’s Secretary, added his penny’s worth in twitter justifying the dilution of powers of the “while elephant” provincial councils had not served any purpose, a discovery that came 23 years too late.
In this context TNA MP Sumanthiran’s twitter was interesting: “If PCs have not worked so far, then why has this discovery not taken place all these years? Only when the Tamil people were going to vote did they decided that provincial councils are not required… This shows their malfeasance,” he added.
In a political tear jerker that would vie with mid-day television soap, the last two episodes saw the dramatic change in the ruling UPFA coalition’s political strategy. It hopped from bringing an “urgent bill” to replacing 13A with the 19th amendment (a morphed 13A with its non-flyer wings clipped) to refer it to yet another parliamentary select committee (PSC). Obviously, the quick change of mind came after India hinted dark forebodings and some of the coalition partners loudly protested, while Tamil parties watched.
The President has used the PSC as time-tested weapon to bring to heel recalcitrant Tamil political nit-pickers as much as chief justice. The PSC has two advantages –it buys time and rarely it produces acceptable results because key parties usually do not participate in it. In the present instance also, only the ruling UPFA coalition was quick to nominate 19 members while the main opposition UNP and yesterday’s opposition JVP remained non-starters. TNA’s participation is anybody’s guess, as the troika that pulls it ensures it runs in the same place without moving forward.
As the government appears to be reconciled to hold the NPC elections as scheduled in September 2013 without any change in the 13A, the PSC’s purpose is probably to delay a decision on the issue till the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is seen through in October 2013. As the President has appointed a PSC to “to speed up the process,” Colombo hopes to smoothen India’s ruffled feathers lest it decides not to participate (India never boycotts) in the CHOGM. We can expect the PSC to stretch itself to see through the CHOGM where the President would be anointed lead the CHOGM for two years.
Sri Lanka needs to seriously introspect why the 13A still survives when all politicians, including President Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya speak periodically about changing it or getting rid of it.
The 13A fathered by the wily of Sri Lanka neta JR Jayawardane as political expedience to weather a brewing confrontation with India in 1987. It was a deformed child at birth, with low life expectation. It was never allowed to articulate fully and remained a cradle baby after Prabhakaran massacred hapless policemen and other Tamil activists of EPRLF in hundreds in 1990 and killed the hopes of the Northeastern Provincial Council ever functioning. Prabhakaran’s stand against 13A to give substance to his quest for a free Tamil Eelam suited Southern Sinhalas who were in any case averse to “Tamil terrorists” – regardless of their stripes – coming to power.
However, political parties in the rest of Sri Lanka took to provincial council system with surprising agility because it created one more layer of dispensation of power and favours. It also gave local politicians and their underlings the trappings of non-existent power. So the 13A continues its ambulatory existence as Sri Lanka polity has not been willing to find a suitable substitute that would provide decentralized powers to the provinces.
As the 13A owes it to the India-Sri Lanka Accord 1987 (ISLA), it has another “useful” political purpose – to make India the whipping boy. India is an essential “evil denominator” in Sri Lanka politics; political and military memoirs written by Sri Lankans are replete with instances to describe this phenomenon. Tamil and Sinhala leaders of all hues ranging from Rajapaksa to Prabhakaran to Weerawansa have emphasized 13A’s as an Indian machination thrust upon an unwilling Sri Lanka.
The 13A’s ISLA linkage has been bringing India into the Sri Lanka political scene now and again, though less frequently after India’s unpleasant experience of direct intervention from 1987 to 90. Even the present Indian interest in 13A came about only after President Rajapaksa thawed it out of cold storage when he came to power in 2005 to use it as a political ploy to ward off sermonising Western powers and retain India’s support.
To sustain Indian support during the Eelam War, Rajapaksa went through various committee manoeuvres and promises to “improve” the 13A, which was never fully implemented. Fortunately, for him, New Delhi with its own other internal and external preoccupations had accepted his arguments during the Eelam War. However, after AIADMK dethroned DMK from power in Tamil Nadu using Eelam War issue, New Delhi was pushed into action.
The pay off time for Sri Lanka’s double speak on the subject came at the UNHCR, after the Rajapaksa chose to ignore mounting allegations of war crimes at home and abroad. And New Delhi had little option but (to do the “right thing” as Hardeep S. Puri puts it in his op-ed piece in The Hindu “Why India is right on Sri Lanka”) to vote for the UNHRC resolution calling for Sri Lanka’s accountability for its conduct during the war.
The political scene in India is undergoing change and Sri Lanka will increasingly find its manoeuvring space getting more and more constricted even if the Congress-led alliance comes back to power in 2014. As Hardeep Puri wrote, “To dismiss popular sentiment in Tamil Nadu as the machinations of politicians is both a misreading of the situation and a recipe for disaster. Why should Sri Lanka not be held to account for not respecting understandings given bilaterally to India, such as those of April-May 2009?”
Unless Rajapaksa finds an answer to this vexing question, any government in India will find it difficult to wish away the issue because Sri Lanka’s “accountability” is as much applicable to its promises on implementing 13A and devolution of powers to Tamil minority, as investigating allegations of war crimes.
The simple truth is devolution and 13A issues have come to haunt President Rajapaksa because he squandered four years of peace in strengthening his political base rather than bringing back Tamils to political mainstream. This has compounded his accountability problem with the international community. Even now many are not convinced that he would go through the NPC election as planned because he has given sufficient indications that he would like to do what he and the Sinhala right want, rather than accept the inevitability of the TNA gaining control of the NPC.
Surprisingly, the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa while rightly recognizing the rise of Eelam protagonists abroad as a threat to Sri Lanka’s national security, has failed to recognize the hot house conditions Sri Lanka is providing for them to propagate their cause. Acts of Sri Lanka Buddhist extremism increasing everyday against Hindu, Muslim, and Christian minorities, allowed with studied indifference of the state reinforces the growing belief that the Rajapaksa regime is becoming an inward looking, and intolerant. Political speeches on tolerance and brotherhood sound no more credible.These add to the climate of suspicion.
The present mess has given hope for revival of the Eelam Cause among Tamil Diaspora, though there is little enthusiasm among Sri Lankan Tamils. Thanks to Sri Lanka’s indifference to war crimes allegations and implementation of LLRC recommendations, anti-Sri Lanka sentiment is lodged in Tamil Nadu’s local politics. This poses a serious threat to not only India-Sri Lanka relations but also the interest of Tamil Nadu as has living links with Sri Lanka Tamils.
Like all half cooked and warmed up food, 13A seems to have finished its shelf life. It has neither met the aspirations of yesterday’s Eelam secessionists nor satisfied Sinhala triumphalists. However, in the absence of a suitable substitute it stands as a sop, if not a symbol of hope, for Tamils. It also apparently satisfies President Rajapaksa’s “liberal sentiments” to leave it for the time being while his coalition members are pandering to Sinhala right wing elements. And it keeps India at bay. Given this curious setting I expect the 13A, truncated or otherwise, to survive its nine lives.
I am one of those who had believed that Sri Lanka at the end of the Eelam War had a wonderful opportunity to open a new chapter in equitable ethnic relations. But what is happening in Sri Lanka mocks at my simplistic belief. I realise Sumanthiran’s words “The Sri Lankan government from the word go was never interested (in devolution of power). The victory in the war meant, take it all….” are probably more than political rhetoric. And that is sad.
*Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: [email protected] Blog: www.colhariharan.org