By Ajit Jayakody –
Is the United States seeking to bully a small country as the Rajapaksa administration claims? This claim interestingly was backed recently by the authority of the inconsequential Eni Faleomavaega, Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from American Samoa. The Representative also opined the other day that Narendra Modi, the current chief minister of Gujerat, will be the next prime minister of India. It is perhaps reassuring in a weird way to know that there unsurprisingly are US politicians as humdrum as any of their counterparts in other parts of the world who are willing to sing for their supper or sing for an all expense paid junket to a distant country in political and economic peril.
If we look at countries of the world where human rights abuses abound( Saudi Arabia springs readily to mind), we will easily see that Sri Lanka certainly does not have a monopoly on this vice. For that matter, not even the United States or the United Kingdom is exempt from charges of human rights abuses. We are yet waiting to see those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for instance, that George Bush and Tony Blair noticed and spoke of! Somebody should try these two gentlemen for horrendous crimes against humanity they committed in their time. Given the immoral and imperfect world we live in, however, such perfect justice is hardly likely to materialize. Or are we to assume that only small countries that can be bullied are subject to justice in our world?
If we go by the truism that two wrongs do not make a right, then Sri Lanka needs to do what is right regardless of the horrendous wrongs committed by others. We often tell the world that we are a civilized country with a rich history in excess of 2,500 years and that we were sending ambassadors to the Court of the Caesars while the English were yet barbarians and Americans were not yet even thought of. It was rich that no less a person than our political stooge of a ‘Chief (In)Justice’ Mohan Peiris repeated this much touted boast a day or two ago. Would it not be more meaningful for Sri Lanka and its citizens to act exemplarily in keeping with those civilisational values we are justly proud of than merely brag about them?
The key charge against Sri Lanka is the killing of a significant number of unarmed civilians by Sri Lanka’s armed forces in the process of militarily vanquishing the Tamil Tigers in May 2009. That there were Tigers in civilian clothes among the non-combatants has been down played if not ignored as much as the fact that there were Tigers shooting at the armed forces from hospitals and other no fire zones. No wonder the cliché’ has it that truth is the first casualty in war. Pro-Tiger as well as anti-Tiger commentaries are marred by the absence of any kind of objectivity whatsoever. For the one, the members of the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka are all evil and for the other they are angels in uniform who risked their life and limb to save the trapped civilians in their noble endeavour to ensure ‘zero civilian casualty’.
Sri Lanka and its president Mahinda Rajapaksa had what I would term ‘ a Mandela moment’ at the end of the war. Rajapaksa had the backing of all Sri Lankans in that euphoric moment when he, with the aid of Sri Lanka’s Armed Forces that he oversees as Commander-in-Chief, saved the country from the intransigent and barbaric Tamil Tigers. In the aftermath of May 2009, Rajapaksa could easily have demonstrated humane leadership qualities a la Nelson Mandela, asked his citizens to close ranks, begin to pick up the pieces, focus on national resuscitation and live life as united Sri Lankans caring for each other as a country made up of citizens as rich in tradition and history as ours is expected to do. More than any other recent head of state, Rajapaksa could have afforded to be a peace maker as his Sinhala nationalist credentials are solid and so he could easily have carried the majority with him. He could have initiated a process of genuine national reconciliation and carried the project through. Whatever Ranil Wickremesinghe’s failings may be, he is not anti-Tamil. Hence Rajapaksa could easily have counted on the meaningful support of his political opposition to seek true reconciliation and rebuild the war-shattered island if such sincere goals were those he had in mind. By doing so and eschewing expediency, little Sri Lanka could thus have been a giant example to the rest of the world. We could have shown to the world what a country with a rich and ancient history based on time-honoured values could actually do when presented with an opportunity to do what is right and good.
The reality of the last almost four years has been that Rajapaksa has shown himself to be just another ordinary politician and not the statesman that he could have been. He put his Army General turned political opponent in jail, sought to make himself a paper lion by placing giant photographs of himself and his brothers in every nook and cranny of the island, and has played petty and pathetic politics both nationally and internationally. He has been able to coax the gullible Sinhala majority into voting him and his party into power at every election since the end of the war. The supine and unimaginative opposition led by the United National Party of Ranil Wickremesinghe has made it easier for Rajapaksa, but there is no denying the complicity of the majority of the Sinhala community in the tragedy that has unfolded and continues to unfold.
The key thing that the United States and the rest of the world have asked of us is to forge a true reconciliation. There is no denying the fact that influential members of the Tamil diaspora scattered the world over have played, and are playing, a significant role in various capitals of the world to get the US-led west to put pressure on Sri Lanka. The United States, India, and most other significant countries of the world gave beleaguered Sri Lanka military and moral support from about 2001 onwards when it became clear that the Tamil Tigers were not really interested in a politically negotiated solution. Furthermore it is not incorrect to note that this assistance was given to Sri Lanka in the expectation that in return Sri Lanka would, post-war, accommodate the Tamils and other ethnic minorities, devolve power and seek to re-build a united Sri Lanka where all of its citizens may live in harmony and dignity. It has to be attributed to the monumental folly of the Rajapaksa administration that instead of devolving power and working sincerely towards a political solution consequent to its military victory as was anticipated, it sought to ride a wave of triumphalism and supremacy. To attempt to compel Sri Lanka to move in the direction of reconciliation , Sri Lanka is now being pressurised to implement the recommendations of its very own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission(LLRC). Sri Lanka should have acted on its own instead of giving an opportunity for outsiders to seek to compel the island to act correctly. Our faulty leadership and bumbling political appointee diplomats on ego trips managed to put Sri Lanka in the dock and give these outsiders the power to dictate to us. The present state of affairs is a consequence of our failure to take the high politico- moral ground after the successful prosecution of the war. We resorted to cheap politics instead of opting for right and honourable conduct . Had we done the right thing, we could have healed wounds of war, admitted crimes we committed against each other, confessed our collective sins, sought forgiveness from each other, applied closure and sought to move on as a united country. That, sadly and tragically, is the road not taken by Sri Lanka.
A word about the role of our neighbour India now. As in 2012 this year too, India has been playing dreadful games. One appreciates the complexity of domestic political compulsions that makes it necessary for Delhi to hedge its bets up to a point. One does not have to be a Machiavelli or a Kautilya to figure out that the United States and India and other allies would have studied the final version of the 2013 US resolution months ago and agreed on the small print. But this game of draft resolutions with seemingly strong reformulations which India, in its wisdom, will introduce in an apparent bid to water down the fresh resolution is surely balderdash.
The shedding of crocodile tears by India over Sri Lanka’s sovereignty is mildly amusing. What regard, if any, did India show for this sovereignty when India decided to drop parippu (dhal) on our heads before presenting J.R. Jayewardene with a fait accompli in the form of the Indo-Lanka Agreement of 1987? The Indians should say this to the Marines or to the pig-tailed Chinese of yore ( konde’ bandapu Cheennunta), to use a pithy Sinhala saying. India wants to appear to be Big Brother and show to the region that it calls the shots in the region. And given US ties to India and the priorities in that ‘indispensable relationship’ in our post-Cold war world, it is no skin off the US to agree to string along with the Indians as the latter seeks to project its preeminence in its backyard. These are games ‘big boys’ usually play and we should not be taken in by them. We won’t, if we fall back on our heritage instead of merely paying lip service to it. We have the intelligence and the sagacity born out of an ancient history and experience of dealing with outside powers for centuries to navigate the political minefields in which big boys are wont to play their silly games. It is a great pity that we are missing the plot here.
Sri Lanka has only itself to blame. Delhi is not going to alienate Tamilnadu to please Sri Lanka, especially in these days of fragile coalition governments. It does not have to. What Sri Lanka ought to have done and do is to give Delhi, as it should Washington, enough reason to back us by following through on assurances given not renege on them. This is the best way of finessing either Tamilnadu or the influential Tamil diaspora. Sri Lanka, even at this late stage, must do what is right and good as stated above. We must deal with the outside world with an open mind and in a spirit of cooperation. We must create a domestic political consensus which enables all Sri Lankans regardless of ethnicity to live in peace and dignity. Not because the United States or the Tamil diaspora are breathing down our neck, but because it is the principled and right thing to do. To return to the central point of this essay, that is what a country worth its 2,500-year history and culture should do if we are to be truly proud of our heritage and distant culture. We may be small in size, but we surely would not be small in stature if we acted in accordance with the courage of our convictions and lived up to our true national ideals. Sri Lanka deserves better from its politicians. The country as a whole should not be made to pay for the glaring shortcomings of our weak and shallow political leadership.