A recent post in the Colombo Telegraph by the ‘PM of the TGTE’ expressed solidarity with the Muslim community whilst “extending our fullest support to the Muslim people, we also extend our solidarity to the Muslim community, as a community whose mother tongue is also Tamil, asking them to join the Tamils in their struggle to build a secure future for all in the Tamil state”. The article was written on the back of rising incidents of attack against the Muslim community by extreme Buddhist groups.
I not only found this article laughable but highly delusional in the assumptions that the Muslim community would entertain any notion of an alliance with the TGTE, whose singular premise has been to extend the LTTE mantra and campaign on a separate Tamil state. Making this statement, the TGTE was not necessarily ‘concerned’ about the Muslim community per se, but it was aimed at showing the ‘intolerance’ of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. At quite a crucial time for Sri Lanka, during the anniversaries of the Black July pogroms 30 years ago, the article aims to draw parallels with then and now and to show that nothing has changed. Yet interestingly it seems to have taken the TGTE 4 years since the end of the conflict (and the occasions of these incidents) to publicly reach out to the Muslim community
At one level, it is rather presumptuous and hypocritical of the PM of the TGTE to call for solidarity with Muslims and to suggest that there is a secure future for them in a Tamil state. The experience of the Muslims with the Tamils has far from been the case. Without acknowledging let alone at least apologising for what took place in Jaffna and the north in 1990, with the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim community by the LTTE, the TGTE’s sincerity will be questioned and the notion of the safe presence of Muslims in a Tamil state is merely academic.
However it is not just the expulsions from the north that needs to be discussed. There are other elephants in the room that need to be acknowledged between the Tamils and the Muslims. Whilst the end of July was the anniversary of Black July, the beginning of August brought about two poignant yet painful memories for the Muslim community of the 30 year old war which apart from discussions on facebook, didn’t elicit much of a public response.
The horrific shootings at the mosques in Kathankudy, Batticaloa Province, in August 1990 by the LTTE is a painful reminder that the sanctity of religious places of worship is a stain on inter community relations in Sri Lanka and is not something that has been only violated by today’s proponents of Sinhala Buddhist extremism. Visit Kathankudy today and the physical scars of that day are just as visible as the mental scars.
Fast forward to August 2006, and the precursor to the start of hostilities between the government and the LTTE which led to the end of the conflict in 2009, triggering international protests around the world for the way it ended, the killing of civilians and treatment of displaced people. Almost 50,000 mainly Muslims were displaced once again by the LTTE from the village of Mutthur in the Trincomalee district, after leaflets were sent around the town by the LTTE in April of 2006 warning Muslim residents to leave, in a scene almost reminiscent of what happened in Jaffna in 1990. Despite this mass exodus of people from the town and being kept in refugee camps, the international outcry and remembrance will be for the 17 aid workers who were killed in Mutthur during this time. What is also little talked about apart from the actual displacement and the refugee crisis that ensued are the eyewitness accounts that talk about how LTTE cadres intercepted evacuees from Mutthur and separated youth from the group, executing them, with some dying as a result of government shelling.
Without such acknowledgements and recognition of such incidents, the rhetoric of TGTE and many other Tamil representatives (both outside and within Sri Lanka) ring hollow as they opportunistically ‘reach out’.
Of course the opportunistic hypocrisy is not just one sided. There are those in the reconciliation movement who will have to ask themselves some serious questions as they fail to address the trajectory of Sri Lanka currently. 30 years ago when the mobs came hunting for the Tamils, many Muslims were warned that their time would come. It seems recent incidents involving the Muslim community seem to be proving this statement to be true. In the week of the commemoration of the Black July anniversary, there was a lot of naval gazing and hand wringing as people not only openly apologised for the sins of their community but also spoke eloquently about the need for lessons to be learnt.
Yet a few weeks afterwards in the wake of an attack on a mosque in Colombo, seeming to put into action the threats from 30 years ago, it was evident that those laments were nothing more than just rhetoric. The deafening silence of many prominent Sinhalese activists (a large number of them Buddhist), especially those involved in reconciliation work, a large number of them friends (from the UK), has not only been disappointing, but frustrating and disheartening. In the height of the real challenge for reconciliation for the country, it was met with silence and inaction.
Thus in that light, the premise of the article the PM of the TGTE could be interpreted as right: The actions of the minority extreme Sinhala Buddhist elements actually reflect the sentiment of the majority. If that is the case, then there is no hope for any united Sri Lanka where anyone who is non Sinhala Buddhist can hope to live peacefully. One can argue whether that would also exist for non Tamils in the TGTE, but again that is academic.
There are many who argue that had they been able to, they would have spoken out or tried to help during Black July as lessons were learnt The opportunity that they missed then presents itself now. In the absence of any real effort to tackle ethnic and faith problems now, all the rhetoric of reconciliation (by all stakeholders) smells just of opportunistic hypocrisy.
If we truly want reconciliation, then we have to be consistent and at least speak out against any injustice perpetrated in our name.
*Amjad Saleem is the Head of Communications for The Cordoba Foundation, a Muslim-inspired ‘think and do’ tank which provides an alternative communication channel for thought leaders and policy makers on intercultural and religious dialogue, social justice issues and peacebuilding between communities. He is their lead on the Conflicts, Development and Faith Programme and on subjects including South Asia, conflict reconciliation and interfaith dialogue. Prior to this, Amjad was Country Director for British NGO Muslim Aid in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. He has an M.Eng from Imperial College, London, an MBA from U21Global, and is currently pursuing a part-time PhD at Exeter University on faith in post conflict reconciliation. He has lectured part time at the University of East London and Lawrence Tech University in Michigan, and regularly contributes to online journals, websites as well as other media
Review of Narrative of Justice: told through stories of torture victims, 400 cases of torture from Sri Lanka, By Basil Fernando, published in 2013 by the Asian Human Rights Commission.
My first impression was that I was overwhelmed because of the sheer number of cases and the diversity of the ways in which people were tortured. What started sinking into me was the question, “What has happened as a result of all this? Has society taken notice of it?” How can people possibly stay indifferent after reading this?
Let this book sink into the consciousness of the people. Let people start talking about it. And as they start talking about it, they will find difficulty accepting that this happened in their midst. This is not something they can erase by saying it happened in the past. It is something which is very much there and will continue as a transgenerational trauma for the people.
These narratives of trauma will seriously affect the fabric of society even 50 years from now and affect how people become immune to happenings around them; until and unless there is accountability and people decide to act.
It has been seen that until and unless we start accounting for trauma happening in our midst, it starts affecting every trade, every core, every part of society in different ways, and becomes a part of society like a cancer or virus and grow and grow. And until and unless people are made accountable – and I don’t mean accountable in the legal sense, I mean accountable in the moral sense, accountable in the sense of accepting it – it would be very difficult to call Sri Lanka a mature society at any time in the near future. If we see societies, in their growth and their evolution, they come to a point when they have to take accountability for their wrongs before they can become mature. We see that for any society to call itself a developed or mature society, at some point they have to account for the wrongs they have closed their eyes to. For example, America had to deal with the issues of slavery and the Vietnam War before they could cross over to the next phase.
To me, what I am reading in this book is appalling, it is abhorrent. I am an Indian, but when I see that this has happened right across from me, it makes me feel, ‘My God, how can we stay indifferent to it?’
The maturity of a society is a very important issue. What you find when you read through these cases is that the events relating to which such serious acts of torture have been done are trivialities. Somebody loses some small thing and then a person is brought to the police station. Without even asking them a single question, that person is tortured. Sometimes they are beaten, hung on a beam and, in recent cases, chili is put on their private parts and eyes. These acts are done by average law enforcement officers. Looking at this treatment from the point of view of a human being, we understand that there is something radically wrong. They do not seem to feel critical, they do not ask, ‘Should I do this kind of thing?’ Nobody seems to be asking that question.
We are not seeing something new. The only thing about this book is that it has recorded something that has been going on for a long time, virtually since a policing system was established. In the modern sense, a policing system comes into being in Sri Lanka only with the British. They celebrated their 146thth anniversary for the formal start of the policing system recently. Ever since that time, there has been a big contradiction involved. On the one hand, this is the way through which you introduce the idea of justice; if a murder takes place, there should be justice in court. Justice meaning justice for the victim, and also justice for the accused. On the other hand, at that very same point, law enforcement agencies began to do very stupid things and seriously affected the legal process. This has gone on for so long.
The fact is that, at the moment, people are immune, and not necessarily due to fear. Fear may play a part due to insurgencies in recent times, but police torture did not begin with insurgencies. Endemic police torture began much earlier.
When the book was published, we were not revealing anything that anybody didn’t know. The book puts in print form what many people haven noted. They may not have noted it in detail because people tend not to look at some issues, so the book gives an enormous amount of details.
The book is, first of all, a collective. When you read an individual torture case, the human mind brushes it aside. It is very difficult to stay with it. The next thing we do is deny its significance. We say, ‘Oh, it was an individual case,’ or we somehow rationalize that the person deserved it. This book puts cases together, which makes many people say, ‘All these people who were tortured, they did not deserve it.’ There are so many cases, so many – I was trying to see why they were tortured; it seemed to be for trivial reasons, it didn’t make sense. They could have used simple questions. ‘Did you do this?’ ‘Did this happen?’ People are tortured about the most trivial, most inane things.
A book like this makes it very difficult for people to discount and dismiss torture. Torture rests on the denial of society. I would say that the more we have thicker, fatter book, the more we have collectives, the more it will shake the conscience of people because you sometimes need a big impact in order to shake people up. Individual cases, five cases or ten cases do not do that; but if you have five hundred cases, one thousand cases, then it shakes you up. Simply speaking, it makes you ask, ‘What is happening in our society?’
Even the most pessimistic person would say that at least 90% of the people in these cases did not do anything close to deserving this treatment. The most common reason I have seen for the acceptance of torture is the belief that the tortured person was probably a thief or a terrorist, or in some other way somehow deserved it.
This kind of a book cuts across that whole argument without explicitly saying so.
Another issue is the overall effect on society from the behaviour of the police. Here you have a seriously disturbed police/society relationship. To my understanding, it is not something that is going to go away, because it has been established on a mass level.
In societies that have such a mass level of torture by the police, there is a serious rupture in the law enforcement and in the concepts of justice and society, because most people only see justice through the prism of the police.
If I look at police torture behaviorally, one of the things I notice is that when policemen torture regularly it becomes a part of them and even when they are just talking, even in inane conversations, there is some aspect of torture coming through.
When I was asked by the courts in India to do interviews in prisons and detention centers, I would often have the following experience: I would be interviewing and making some progress. A police officer would enter the room just to find out what was happening and I would say we were talking. (Whether it was a suspect or a witness, it was immaterial.) He would say something to the effect of, “Oh, they haven’t told you everything yet?” and he would go and slap them hard. It would happen right in front of me and I became quite particular about sitting in such a way that I was blocking the door so that they wouldn’t be able to go to the person straight away. They would move so fast after asking whether the witness or suspect had told me everything.
This interaction would be about several things: the person has wasted my time, police time, and he has no right to do so; and a slap or a hit is something that is very natural, so why shouldn’t I? This officer, not someone who has been involved in the interrogation or investigation, would think that because he has slapped the person I was interviewing, that person would tell me everything. And since I can’t and won’t slap – I was known to the police as a gentleman talker, they would laugh about it – this would somehow be the last straw that would make the person talk.
And then the officer would immediately turn back into themselves, and they would say, “Dr. Mithra, why don’t we go and have a cup of tea? I have given them something to think about.” He would turn to the person and say, “We are coming back in five minutes and I am going to show you what I can do.”
It would ruin everything. Whether the interviewed person is innocent or guilty, no person deserves to be slapped or talked to like that. It has become a part of these police officers. Slapping has become a very routine thing for them. They cannot talk without slapping.
The same thing happens to policemen who have had no formal training, who are corrupt, and where the system for the rule of law has completely fallen apart. There is no notion of what they are supposed to do with a suspect or a victim, except that they need to use brute force in order to get at whatever they want; and they seldom want the truth. People who search for the truth know that violence is divorced from truth. Violence and truth never go together. With these policemen, violence has become an integral part of them.
These people, when they are called up – if a cycle has been lost or something similar – automatically start with violence. That is a sign of a sick police force and its sick relationship with society.
Any sane society needs to look at it very seriously. The situation is comparable to India and Pakistan, where the police is also very sick.
What we see from the police is a very mechanical and reflexive reaction to suspects and how they should be dealt with.
It is possible to deduce some things from the behavior of a policeman who assaults interviewees, as mentioned above. Firstly, it is clear that he is not a thinking being. He is not observing anything. A rational person who wants to know what is happening would ask how it is going, would ask if he could talk to me privately. These officers would do none of that. They would just walk in and slap. It is a person who is not a thinking being, who has no value for truth, and who is not compassionate at all. Interestingly, when I would talk to them about compassion, they would say that a policeman should not be compassionate. I would say that you can be tough and yet compassionate.
What we are seeing is a model. A model has been inbuilt into these people with certain ideals. An ideal, for example, of not being compassionate. ‘If I am to achieve anything, I should not be compassionate. I should be tough, physically tough.’ It’s a kind of model within which thinking has no place.
Thinking has been replaced with violence. There is no place for thinking, exploring, finding out. I think that the police force should be able to think clearly. It scares me because, for police who cannot think clearly, the only recourse left to them is violence and to go about things in a tragic way.
The second issue is compassion and it is very interesting that, in many interviews with suspects, they disclose information only if someone is talking to them compassionately. It doesn’t mean condoning anything. I have to be tough and go about finding information, but I can understand why they may have done something, how they may have been brought up. Many people share more when they speak to someone who they think respects them. Police officers, particularly the ones in charge of interrogation, may do well to learn this principle. Then torture would go down significantly and they would be much better at solving their cases.
The above idea of teaching interview skills is, of course, in line with our ideals; the ideals of rationality. However, if we try to understand what has happened to create a situation like this, some other problems come to mind. Although we say that, from the point of view of proper training, there have been no interview and other skills taught, there has actually been a kind of training going on. It is a training that is based on officers from the earlier generation; when a young man comes to work, he is trained like an apprentice. On the job training.
They are brainwashed and conditioned into accepting certain ideals, which should be brought to the surface more. They believe that when they are dealing with criminals, they need to give up the idea that violence is bad. In this particular job, they tell themselves, violence is valid. There is a big contradiction in their whole philosophy. The law enforcement officer is supposed to eliminate violence in the whole of society. But they have an idea that that can be done only through violence.
What is the cultural model here? We are not dealing with abnormal people or anything like that. We are dealing conditioned people who have gone through a long period of training – a different kind of training, true – but with different kinds of ideals.
The training in the South Asian context has primarily been about law and order. It has never been about investigation. The police have neither been taught nor know that their goal is supposed to be to value truth. The younger officer always learns about torture from his senior officer. He sees that the only thing that can save his skin is a confession. It doesn’t matter whether the person confessing has done anything or not, they just want the confession.
There is a formula that is used in investigations. Fa + L = C, where Fa, ‘force of assertion’ plus L, ‘leverage’, equals a confession. In that, the more force the officer applies onto a person, the more likely that the officer will get a confession for himself. And the officer learns that this is how he can do well at his job, how he can excel, so he feels he needs that confession at any cost. Truth is actually the biggest casualty and nobody bothers about that.
Once they have the confession they have to move onto another case, but the goal is just that, the confession. The role model for that officer is the senior police officer. You can see that the senior police officer has been trained by his senior officer and, if you asked them, they would say that nowhere along the way has anybody taught them the rules of scientific investigation or about how to conduct interviews and interrogations. These things are not known to us in the South Asian context. I have observed training sessions in several police academies and when I asked the trainees and officers which model they use for investigation, they would say, ‘What models are you talking about?’ There are well established models that are used by other police forces but they are not used much in South Asia.
For example, there is a model called the Reid model. It is a seven stage process where you lead a suspect through different stages to see whether they have done it or not, and at the end the closest you can come to is ‘yes, there is a possibility that he may have done it.’ You leave it there because you know that there is a possibility that you may be wrong. This is an area that is highly subjective, emotions are very volatile, and where your bias can affect you. What you see from this book is that there is nothing remotely like this used when dealing with suspects – or rather, in dealing with any person who is called to the police station. What they actually do is completely crude and, in a way, inhuman and barbaric. What scares me is that these officers are actually bigger criminals than the criminals outside. So are people going to say that they are managing their society with these people? Because someone whose thinking is warped can’t solve problems, someone who has no compassion for people should not be doing such an important job. How can a sane society be expected to have a police force like this? That is the question.
What this book does is to provide a considerable amount of evidence on a cultural model.
It establishes how normative it is, how deeply it has gone in, and it completely ridicules the idea that torture is linked with terrorism, ethnic violence or any other serious issue from which society faces danger. I mean, does society face a danger from someone who is suspected of stealing a bicycle? It is ridiculous. If you are taking torture to that level, it completely debunks this idea that torture is essential for maintaining society, for protecting it from terror or anything like that.
This is plain inhuman violence that they are doing to their own people.
The title of this book is Narrative of Justice. It is essentially a narrative of the absence of justice in the process of investigating crime. If we take it deeper, in the cultural model, something further gets revealed. In most of the cases, people are taken in for trivial matters. But then what we find is that, when it comes to serious crimes, these very same people don’t use the same method. There is almost an indifference to dealing with crime. Taking two examples from Sri Lanka: A DIG of police has now been arrested because he took three million rupees to kill a businessman, who had taken some 30 million rupees from another businessman. That businessman hired a policeman to assassinate the other. Another example: there was another case where one politician, along with a gang of drug addicts, shot at a group of people, including a prominent politician, and five people died. He is still a Member of Parliament.
In both serious criminal cases, nobody used violence on them.
The police keep a certain façade of doing some activities, filing cases, getting some confessions, and then putting them on paper. Whether, after three or four years, someone is acquitted etc., nobody is bothered. In virtually all these 400 cases, there are no trials. They don’t go that far. They aren’t bothered. They have to pass through the moment when there is a report of a crime. Some reports have to be filed about it so they get their promotion and they can remain in their job. If they don’t, they get into trouble. Within this cultural model, justice seems to be completely absent, and that is more shocking.
Torture is most often not used in serious crimes; rather, it is used for when someone is suspected of a petty crime. For serious crimes, crimes of mass violence or political crimes, the police hold off until and unless they feel that they have sufficient backing in case things go wrong. They tread carefully in those cases. When it comes to small crimes, most police officers are much more bothered about the numbers. They always say that there should only be a small number of crimes in their area – and by crimes they mean petty crimes. That is something that they think they can reduce by creating a climate of fear.
One of the most common things they say in India is, ‘They are no longer scared of us.’ They confessed and lamented about that to me when I was working there. ‘People are no longer scared of us.’ Making people scared of them has been the most dominant tool in their hands, and the more they use that indiscriminately, the more they are successful police officers in their own eyes.
It is partly about the numbers. The more they do it to a larger number of people, the more that they are successful police officers in their own eyes. Their self-image is much better if they have done it to a larger number of people.
In a police officer’s thinking, it would go like this: today, if I have slapped 10 boys, then I have done my job. But if I say that I have slapped one person who is involved in political crimes, then that doesn’t fit very well. So how many people have I slapped, how many people have I beaten, how many people have I put fear into? This is one of the primary ways a police officer actually retains their self-esteem in our countries. The number here matters a great deal.
We are dealing with something very serious. Something very deep, culturally; even the model of how police measure themselves. However they were beforehand, once they enter this work and become integrated into the system, their own self-image undergoes a transformation.
They have to slap, beat, torture people in order to be good at their job, and this is the way they to be a successful police officer. This is what is told to the new people who join by their seniors.
It is a police force who cannot actually be part of a sane society in any way. They cannot talk without violence; they cannot talk without slapping or hitting. A police force that cannot talk properly is a very sick police force.
What we are actually confronted by in this book and other evidence is the need for a complete shift of orientation in the policing system. In other words, it is not about crime investigation that you have to first agree on. First they must ask, ‘What is this for? What are the social objectives this serves?’ When those objectives are changed, then new kinds of models develop, people are trained and people operate within that model.
But we have created a certain model years ago, maybe by accident. Maybe they couldn’t run a system – when these systems were introduced by the British, they were a colonizing power and they had limited resources, and their own thinking was limited in their own countries, where there wasn’t policing as it is today. We should approach this problem by searching for what the cultural model is here and why, rather than to find a few patches of this or that solution. What is first needed is a societal discussion.
In India, there are two kinds of police stations. Some are old police stations, and some are the new ones coming up. How do you separate the two? The old ones only have police barracks. Why? Because during the British times, colonial times, and after, it was felt that it was best to separate the police from the local people as much as possible. If they were closer to the local people, they would be more compassionate. That was not allowed. Changing that idea in India has been a very tough issue. We still have some who say, ‘No, it should be separate, they should not be allowed to meet.’ Even today, some think that police are not supposed to mix and deal with people except for the purposes of spying and collecting information. They are not really supposed to try to understand because that is supposed to make you very subjective and very weak inside. You have a situation in the whole of South Asia in which there is a very deep rooted malady, where the police force is trained to produce only fear and psychosis in the population. That is what needs to be attacked in order to create a sane society. The longer it remains, the longer society remains unable to heal.
This book goes further than the police and goes into insights into the overall society. There are things that, in the modern sense, would be called ‘insanity’ and we somehow pretend to accept them, pretend not to notice, and we carry on. There is something sick and deep, and this can be the beginnings of a discussion with this kind of evidence placed in front of people. This requires very serious thinking about the society itself.
When the police is unable to discharge its functions, the society is one step closer to cracking down again, closer to anarchy, tribalism, baying for the blood of people, like what you see happening in Dehli recently with all the mass demonstrations taking place. Nobody trusts the police; everybody sees them as corrupt.
*Dr. Rajat Mitra is an internationally reputed Indian Psychologist
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