By G K Nathan –
Looking back at key events of post 1948 independence of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the internal efforts to bring reconciliation between the Sinhala and Tamil Nations have failed to date; new approaches are needed to bring peace in the Island. Presently, remedial actions are being pursued in two fronts: one by India and the other International community led by the USA through United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC) process. India the closest neighbour intervened in Sinhala – Tamil conflict in 1987, which resulted in signing of the Indo-Lanka accord; since then, different Heads of Government of Sri Lanka have come and gone, but promises to implement the accord have remained unfulfilled. Failure to make progress, led to outbreak of all out military conflict between the Sri Lanka armed forces and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The military conflict ended with defeat of LTTE and allegations against both combatants for war crimes and crimes against humanity; covering a seven year period from signing of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002 to end of conflict in May 2009. The Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has been entrusted with conducting a detailed inquiry into all allegations, which was initiated by the USA, Western democracies and their allies; after passing a resolution at UNHRC 25th session in March 2014. Emergence of the USA as the only super power in the world after 1991 and as a country that respects human rights of all Nations in the world, is in the forefront to uphold human rights of other Nations, if needed by direct intervention. Since then, the USA has successfully worked to free many Nations from oppressive and authoritarian rulers; in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia which broke up into six Independent countries and in the Middle East. Authoritarian regime of Myanmar, a friend of Sri Lanka, has been persuaded to adopt democratic practices and to recognize the rights of minorities by enforcing economic sanction and now it is being lifted. There is no reason to believe that Sri Lanka will be an exception to what had happened to date to other countries. The question is will true democracy be achieved, where rights of both Nations in Sri Lanka are recognized?
Rise of Communal Politics in Sri Lanka
Prior to independence in 1948, Sinhala and Tamil political leaders had better understanding because of common colonial heritage and respect for democratic values; most of the leaders agreed that both Sinhala and Tamil will be the official languages of the country, as well as to share power and establish equality among all peoples, which resulted in Sri Lanka becoming independent, peacefully.
The United Kingdom and the Tamil leadership were equally blinded by the friendship and camaraderie of Sinhala and Tamil political leaders, which resulted in the promulgation of a constitutional structure totally unsuitable for a multiethnic, multireligious and multilingual country; the Sri Lankan experience has proved the unsuitability of current constitution. On the contrary, the United Kingdom when decolonising both Canada and Australia, approved fully fledged federations recognizing the needs of Provinces or States on 1st July 1867 and 1st January 1901 respectively; but with provision for each unit to decide its future with right to “self determination”, which has proved a success story. If the UK has adopted previous practice when Sri Lanka was decolonised, as well as considered the past history of Sri Lanka: where both Nations have fought each other; also the Tamil Nation was an independent state for about half a millennium, prior to colonial invasion of Jaffna Tamil Kingdom in 1619; Sri Lanka would have been a different country, today. Inevitably, the power to rule the country fell on the laps of Sinhala Buddhist majority which exploited to the maximum to undermine the status of minority ethnic Tamils and other religious minorities in independent Sri Lanka. Instead of sharing power, the focus was only on Sinhala language and Buddhism, but ignoring other religions and Tamil language, destroyed any amity between the Sinhala and Tamil Nations and differences remain unresolved. Some of the acts of Sinhala majority governments that aggravated the differences between the Sinhala and Tamil peoples are: in 1948, disenfranchisement of about one million upcountry Tamils of Indian origin which reduced the percentage representation of Tamils in the Parliament of Sri Lanka; in 1949, unilaterally introduced state aided Sinhala colonisation, which changed the demography of Eastern Province and parliamentary representation; in 1956, “Sinhala only bill” was introduced in the Sri Lanka Parliament, contravening the past undertaking. Tamils’ pursuit of Gandhian principle of peaceful resistance (Satyagragha) demanding equality and justice against discriminatory policy was met with Sinhala mob violence against Tamils. Thinking of Sinhala Buddhist leaders is encapsulated in what J R Jayawardene, then opposition leader, said: “… The time has come for the Sinhala race which has existed for 2500 years, safeguarding their language (Sinhala) and religion (Buddhism) to fight without giving any quarter to save their birthright….I will lead the campaign…”; as reported in Lanka Tribune August 1957. What is said challenges the history of Tamils in Sri Lanka and gave rise to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, influencing the thinking of almost all Sinhala political parties for survival and popularity among Sinhala majority; the majority community ignoring the composition of the country and sharing of power did not augur well for peace and harmony in Sri Lanka. This was demonstrated in 1958, a Buddhist monk shot dead the then Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike for granting of “limited self-rule and reasonable use of Tamil Language”. This was followed by first pogrom against Tamils.
In 1972, Prime Minister Mrs Srimavo Bandaranaike, widow of the assassinated Prime Minister, introduced a republican constitution and further marginalized the minorities rights by removing the section 29(2) from the 1948 constitution which guaranteed equality between peoples in Sri Lanka, but provided a foremost place to Buddhism at the expense of other religions: Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, practiced in the country. The adoption of 1972 constitution strengthened the influence of Buddhist hierarchy and provided a platform to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism in influencing the rights of Tamils in the country. In 1978, J R Jayawardene after being in the sideline of politics for about three decades, had a landslide victory in the general election and promulgated a Presidential system of government which vested absolute power in the hands of President, and parliament became a rubber stamp. In 1983 “Black July” pogrom occurred against Tamils, under the Presidency of J R Jayawardene and he said: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) people…now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion…. the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here…Really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.” Daily Telegraph July 1983. What is said by J R Jayawardene in 1957 and in 1983 reflects the view of a large section of Sinhala Buddhist people; Tamils’ peaceful struggle for equal rights met with repeated pogroms resulting in death, destruction of properties and places of worship such as Hindu temples and Christian churches, which led to rise of Tamil youth militancy demanding recognition of Tamil homeland. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his sibling Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the Defence Secretary, both emulated dictum of the first President J R Jayewardene; fought a war against the LTTE from 2005 to 2009 and Tamil victims perished.
The first post-independence intervention in Sri Lanka was by India, under the leadership of Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi, following the “Black July 1983” pogrom against Tamils which attracted worldwide condemnation. Mrs Indira Gandhi’s intervention further consolidated the rise of Tamil youth militancy, which was in the offing as Tamil youth had no other choice left to them, after educational and employment opportunities were denied to them. In 1987, once again India intervened to bring an end to Sinhala-Tamil military conflict, which led to signing of Indo-Lanka accord, between Prime Minister of India Mr Rajiv Gandhi and President of Sri Lanka Mr J R Jayawardene, to resolve the Sinhala -Tamil conflict. The same year a part of Indo-Lanka act was incorporated as the 13th Amendment (referred to as 13-A) to the 1978 constitution, even though 13-A failed to meet all the demands of Tamils, for almost three decades it remains unimplemented by successive Sri Lankan governments under different Sinhala heads of government. India’s military intervention in Sri Lanka to impose a solution is nothing new in the region, which is preceded in 1971 when India intervened in the liberation of Bangladesh. Long before the colonial era in Sri Lanka, which started in 1505 with occupation of one of the three kingdoms at that time, South Indian (Tamil) Kings have intervened in or invaded Sri Lanka and ruled for hundreds of years, also there were friendly associations between rulers from both countries; so much so the last few kings of Kandyan Kingdom were Tamil Kings of South Indian lineage, reigning over Sinhala people in the Central highland of Sri Lanka. Mr Narendra Modi, who was sworn-in as the Prime Minister of India, which was attended by Heads of Government of South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), it was a fresh initiative to jointly bring prosperity to South Asian region. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as member of SAARC, attended the swearing in ceremony; following the ceremony, Prime Minister Modi reminded President Rajapaksa of the promises he has made to previous leaders of India to implement the 13- A plus and was called to implement without any delay. Media has reported different versions of the meeting between the two, but will President Rajapaksa be a supporter of the good initiative and reciprocates by implementing the 13- A plus to bring prosperity to united Sri Lanka or lead the country to division, as happened in Pakistan?
A number of countries condemned pogroms in Sri Lanka and hundreds of thousands of victims were accepted as refugees and offered a new beginning in number of countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, UK and USA. Hard working, Tamils willingly contributed to social, cultural and economic activities in number of countries, the presence of sizable Tamil Diaspora of almost a million has become a force to be reckoned with by International community, in deciding the final outcome in Sri Lanka. President and defence secretary of Sri Lanka, name calling of active members of Tamil Diaspora as “LTTE rump” and “Tamil terrorist” and even calling Ms Navi Pillay, a distinguished South African, High Commissioner of Human Rights Council, as a “Tamil tiger” does not give any hope in finding an equitable solution between Sinhala and Tamil Nations. President Rajapaksa and the cohorts who support his communal policy has become rejectionist of all proposals put forward by the International community. A “Panel of Experts” looked at the of military conflict, how it was conducted and later an “Internal Review panel” studied the UN operation within Sri Lanka during the conflict; both were appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr Ban Ki-Moon. The “Panel of Experts” concluded that breach of International Human Rights Law and Humanitarian Law has occurred; both combatants have to be investigated for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. The “Review Panel” was very critical; the way UN operated in Sri Lanka, the review gives direction as to how it should be managed well in the future. Three years, since these reports were released, the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has not taken necessary and appropriate actions to establish accountability for what happened during the conflict. The USA, Western countries and few other allies introduced resolutions at the UNHRC, the first one was introduced at the 19th session in March 2012 and the second one at 22nd session in March 2013; both resolutions called upon GoSL to implement the report of their own Lesson Learnt Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). More incriminating evidence on GoSL has been presented by: Human Rights Organizations; human right bodies based in different countries collated data from refugees; International media, in particular Chanel 4. Evidence so far in the open, makes one to believe acts of violence tantamount to genocide has occurred, during the military conflict in Sri Lanka. After the end of military conflict in May 2009, there are evidence to believe that structural genocide is taking place, in the North and East, the homeland of Tamils in Sri Lanka; with involvement of the Sri Lanka armed forces. Ignoring of UNHRC resolutions by GoSL, left the International community very little choice; the USA and the UK joined by forty other UN member countries moved a resolution at the UNHRC 25th session in March 2014, the resolution called upon the OHCHR to set up an International Commission of Inquiry (ICoI) to investigate the alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both combatants during the conflict. The composition of members who will make up the ICoI are being revealed since the UNHRC 26th session began in June 2014 and their report will be submitted at the UNHRC 28th session in March 2015 or thereabout.
Sri Lanka’s Military Victory and move towards Authoritarianism
Three decades long military conflict between the Sri Lanka armed forces and the LTTE intensified and ended during the reign of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, after he was sworn in as the 6th President of Sri Lanka on 19th November 2005. President Rajapaksa was elected with the smallest of margin in the first Presidential election, because the LTTE which controlled large area of North East Sri Lanka called the Tamils to boycott the Presidential election. The military victory almost eliminated the entire LTTE leadership, except the few who defected from the LTTE and joined the Rajapaksa regime. President’s war cry that he is fighting a war against “Tamil terrorists” with “zero casualties” received silent endorsement or met with indifference from International community, which helped President Rajapaksa to achieve military victory with high level of casualty and destruction of structures and properties. Towards the end of the conflict, with casualties rising, the world became aware of the humanitarian disaster. Two bodies appointed by the United Nation Secretary General, the first one the Panel of Experts determined about 40,000 were killed, the other one, the Review Panel, later determined about 70,000 were killed, in the last stage of the conflict. The Social Architects, conducted an academic survey among the people of North and Eastern provinces, and concluded in 2012 that during the last two years of the war, 118,036 were killed, provided information on level of military intervention in North East Sri Lanka. A year after the end of military, in 2010 Sri Lanka held the Presidential election ahead of time in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa was victorious with increased majority and in the Parliamentary election United Peoples Front Alliance led by President won, almost a two-third majority; but offered cabinet positions to parliamentarians who contested with the opposition and easily gained more than the two-third majority in the parliament, required to amend the constitution. President Mahinda Rajapaksa used the two-third majority in the parliament to extend two six year term limit of presidency to unlimited, which gives the option to be President for life. President Rajapaksa is also grooming other members of the Rajapaksa clan to lead the country, after him, life-time presidency and grooming of other members remind of practices of North Korean authoritarian regime which does not respect International law and order. Since, the election for the second time the country edging towards authoritarian rule, wanting to set up a dynastic rule in Sri Lanka dominated by the Rajapaksa family: taking control of parliament by inducement; removal and appointment of the Chief Justice without following procedures; military involvement in civilian life, especially in the North and East Sri Lanka; independent media has been brought under the control of government by murder of journalists and threat to them. Ms Navi Pillay after one week visit to Sri Lanka, in August 2013, declared on the shores of Sri Lanka that country is heading towards authoritarianism.
A free press is very critical to stop the country drifting towards authoritarian regime, which was recognized in the Sri Lanka’s constitution and freedom of the press is defined by Article 14(1) (a) of the constitution of Sri Lanka, which guarantees “the freedom of speech and expression including publication”. Large size of media in Sri Lanka is state-owned and there is no regulations in place to guarantee editorial independence, instead the state-owned media, as a practice, takes a pro-government stance which is so for more than four decades. There is also a large size of independently owned media in Sri Lanka of which “The Sunday Leader” newspaper edited by Lasantha Wickrematunge had an independent voice and often critical of President Rajapaksa’s policies. Mr Wickrematunge was murdered on the way to work on broad daylight on 8 January 2009, like him in all 19 journalists have been murdered in Sri Lanka during President Rajapaksa’s regime. Following the death of Mr Wickrematunge, Ms Frederica Jansz became the editor of the Sunday Leader and she was threatened and insulted by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a phone call on 6 July 2012, which forced her to join the exodus Sri Lankan journalist and live in exile; Sri Lankan journalists protest against state media suppression was of no avail. After, President Rajapaksa’s second victory, most of the press is less critical of the government; including the “Sunday Leader”; the government has made the media subservient. According to Reporters Without Borders, “even after the end of military conflict, murders, physical attacks, kidnappings, threats and censorship continues and that senior government officials, including the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, are directly implicated.” The table below gives the number of journalists killed in breach of the constitution, since President Rajapaksa coming to power.
The data given above on Press Freedom Index was extracted from Reporters without borders website and number of journalist killed and other key events that occurred in every year are given; during the regime of Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, first as the Prime Minister sworn in on 6 April 2004 and later as President of Sri Lanka sworn in on 19 November 2005. During his regime the index has deteriorated and Sri Lanka occupies the bottom ten percent.
President Rajapaksa having consolidated political power through subservient parliamentarians, by giving power and position to them, also taken full control of the media; he is in a position to take a decision to agree or reject the call from the Prime Minister Modi to implement 13-A plus and/or to the request from committee appointed by OHCHR to visit Sri Lanka to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. Reflection on President Rajapaksa’s efforts to resolve the long standing Sinhala-Tamil conflict, since coming to power, does not give much hope for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. On the contrary he is attempting to give a facade of democracy, by presenting the proposals to the parliament, which will out rightly reject the proposals: from Prime Minister Modi of India and Commission of Inquiry led by OHCHR.
What should the International Community do?
Pressure on Sri Lanka comes from two fronts, one from India to implement the 13-A plus and the other from the OHCHR led International Inquiry, advocated by the USA and the Western allies. Taking into account what happened in the past with respect to India’s intervention in the region and the USA led liberation to freedom of a number Nations, President Rajapaksa has very little choice, but to concede and implement a plan to bring peace. History is any evidence; authoritarian rulers do not give in easily; President Rajapaksa through his minsters has made announcement, that India’s proposal, neither 13-A plus nor 13-A is acceptable, but 13-A minus may be considered; considering the past records, whatever agreed is only a delaying tactics and the Rajapaksa regime will continue with alleged genocide of Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka, unless proven otherwise by the independent commission of inquiry. Failure of President Rajapaksa to respect India’s call, at the same time the call from Tamil Nadu government: stop calling Sri Lanka a friendly country, stop all trade with Sri Lanka and impose economic sanction and demand for a referendum for Eelam in Sri Lanka remains. How will Prime Minister Modi handle President Rajapaksa’s rejectionist stand and call from Tamil Nadu?
The International Commission of Inquiry led by OHCHR will produce their report and present evidence whether Sri Lanka cooperates or not, as there are plenty of evidence from refugees who escaped from Sri Lanka, as well as from Sri Lankan soldiers who have volunteered with information. The reaction from the International community to some extend will depend on how much cooperation was forthcoming from Sri Lanka, going from the past record cooperation will not be extended; to date Sri Lanka has depended on China and to lesser extend from Russia to escape scrutiny at UN Security Council, Sri Lanka may get the support of these two countries. China has its own dispute in South China with Japan, Philippines and Vietnam; Russia has occupied Crimea a part of Ukraine territory and Western allies have imposed sanction on selected Russians with the possibility of further economic sanction. There is doubt whether China and Russia will be willing to get entangled with Sri Lanka at this point with India and the USA on the other side. Will Sri Lanka’s unwillingness to cooperate lead to economic sanction on Sri Lanka by the USA, Western Allies and perhaps joined by India for non-cooperation; this is to persuade Sri Lanka to change ways. It may be possible, if there is a new government in Sri Lanka, after the forthcoming general election, which agrees to implement the findings or Commission of Inquiry led by OHCHR or agree to India’s proposal to implement the 13-A plus; a disaster can be avoided.