By Harini Amarasuriya –
The UNHRC Resolution is certainly providing political spin doctors with plenty of material. Largely, the spin has taken on predictably partisan directions. Pro-government groups are portraying this as a major foreign relations coup while anti-government groups are describing the UNHRC resolution as one of the greatest betrayals of the country. While the anti-government spin is predictable and to be expected, the pro-government spin is actually far more worrying.
Signs of the directions in which government groups were going to spin this were evident at the welcome planned for the President when he returned from New York. He was lavishly welcomed back as a ‘hero’ who had not simply rebuilt the image of the country internationally, but had also ‘saved’ the armed forces. Meanwhile, it was reported that Minister Champika Ranawaka was charged with explaining the UNHRC resolution to the armed forces. Armed forces personnel were informed that government would defend military personnel who may face charges. Last weekend’s papers also reported the Foreign Minister as stating that accused military personnel would be able to confess to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Compassionate Council (made up of eminent religious leaders) would recommend a pardon to those who confess (Sunday Times, 11th October 2015).
All this indicates that the government is bending over backwards to reassure the majority Sinhala community and the military that the post-war narrative of triumphalism, impunity and heroism would not suffer in anyway. It is extremely telling that the government has not considered it necessary that the victims of human rights abuses documented in the UNHRC report (most of whom are minority Tamils) be reassured in any way, that justice will be served to them. This then begs the question, what is this entire process about?
If we step back from the UNHRC reports and resolutions, to simply think about the challenges facing this country, few could deny that ethnic reconciliation is perhaps very high on the list of priorities. Events of the past several decades, and certainly since independence have created a huge gulf between ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Relations between ethnic groups, particularly between Sinhalese and Tamils are at worst full of bitterness, anger and mistrust and at best, simply mired in a sea of misunderstanding and strangeness. Of course, there are plenty of examples of individuals who have managed to rise above these, but if we are to speak of the relations between ethnic communities, there is certainly much to be desired. We can debate on who is to blame for this situation: the British, elite, westernised politicians, the open economy, the Mahavamsa, the Indians, the Americans, Western and Western trained anthropologists, Nalin de Silva and the Jathika Chinthanya, the Sinhala Only Act..the list goes on. Perhaps all of these are to blame. Yet, the fact remains, that even after we exhaust the blaming game, there still remains an unresolved problem. A problem that resulted in the death, disappearances, disability, loss, suffering and trauma for many thousands of people: all of whom were citizens of this country. And the UNHRC resolution was supposed to be about THEM, the victims – I repeat, all citizens of this country. It was not supposed to be about regime change, rebuild Sri Lanka’s image, establish good governance or improve foreign relations. It was about justice for victims of human rights abuses and initiating a process of acknowledging the horrors of war. And my fear is that if the spin is anything to go by – the government, the international community and the UN are losing sight of this important fact.
Beyond the sheer injustice of this, is a larger question of how ignoring the victims, or brushing aside the victims, will impact on that all important task of reconciliation in the country. The current spin has once again reiterated the fact that what is important for the powers that be is reassuring the Sinhala majority. We are once again stating quite loudly and clearly, that any attention to addressing the grievances of minority communities cannot in anyway, upset, alarm or unsettle the majority Sinhalese. In other words, we may all be citizens – but minorities will always come second.