By Jehan Perera –
The opportunity that President Mahinda Rajapaksa may have had last week to visit New Delhi and canvas Indian government support for the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva had to be abandoned due to protests that erupted from Tamil Nadu state in South India. The President’s brief trip triggered protests in Tamil Nadu as well as in New Delhi and Tirupati over allegations that he was denying Tamils in his country equal rights. The President’s declared purpose in visiting India was to go on a religious pilgrimage to the place of Enlightenment of the Buddha in the north of India and to a Hindu temple in the south of India.
It was the timing of the visit that gave rise to speculation that the primary purpose was otherwise. The Sri Lankan government would be keen on ensuring Indian support for itself this time in Geneva. On the last occasion in March 2012, the Indian vote went in favour of the US-sponsored resolution, much to the dismay of the Sri Lankan government. The Indian vote was seen as a breach of trust by Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor. But of more consequence was the moral support that India provided to the United States. There is no doubt that undecided third world countries were more prepared to yield to US pressure after the Indian decision to vote in favour of the resolution became known to them.
This time around the government’s hope will be that India breaks ranks and does not support the resolution that the US is preparing. A face-to-face meeting between President Rajapaksa and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have provided the Sri Lankan government with the opportunity to exercise pressure for such an Indian concession. However, the manifestation of public opposition in India to the President’s visit was dramatic. Despite the security arrangements and prohibitory orders, protestors managed to reach close to the road route before the Sri Lankan president’s convoy passed and raised slogans. In both New Delhi and Tirupati, police arrested over 100 protesters.
In Chennai, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha blamed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the watered down US resolution at the UN Human Rights Council meet last year. The chief minister urged the Indian government to table a resolution on violation of human rights in Sri Lanka at the UN. This is similar to what happened in March 2012 also where the Indian government cited domestic compulsions in justifying its act of voting against Sri Lanka on the issue of the US sponsored resolution. The furor over the President’s visit to India provides the Sri Lankan government with a useful early warning as to the pressures on the Indian government and how it is likely to vote on this occasion too.
On the other hand, the Sri Lankan government has also been active in fortifying its defences against the prospective US-sponsored resolution. This includes the sustained campaign to win friends and influence fellow third world countries by setting up newly forged diplomatic relations with them. Government leaders notably External Affairs Minister Prof G L Peiris have been making cogent arguments for the benefit of members of international bodies, educating them about the meaning of their charters and how they include the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
A second governmental initiative has been to provide progress reports that highlight the implementation of its action plan pertaining to the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The UN Human Rights Council resolution of March 2012 called on the Sri Lankan government to implement the constructive recommendations of the LLRC. For a still unexplained reason only about 80 of the LLRC recommendations numbering over 160 have been mentioned in the government’s action plan. Only 3 of the 18 LLRC recommendations that called for participation by civil society have been included in the government’s action plan.
The government recently invited foreign diplomats to a presentation of its implementation of its action plan. It is ironic that the government has neither discussed progress report with the general public or with civil society nor has given publicity to it. Neither has the government publicized nor distributed copies of the LLRC report and its recommendations to the general public in the Sinhala and Tamil languages, even though these are the official languages of the country in which the vast majority of people are conversant, unlike the English language which is accessible to only a relatively small minority. It is doubly ironic that a government as nationalist as the present one should be so intent on catering to the international community and not to its own people.
Those in the government charged with implementing the LLRC recommendations, or even the limited number of recommendations of the government’s action plan, ought to read and internalize what the LLRC report so earnestly states. The LLRC commissioners were handpicked from amongst the most eminent of Sri Lankan public servants and professionals. In their report they provided a methodology of implementation that involves the whole of Sri Lankan society. The government has to bear the main responsibility for implementing the recommendations, but in addition there are recommendations that are addressed to the political parties, religious leaders, civil society organizations and artistes.
At the time that President Rajapaksa was experiencing the hostility of Tamil activists in India, I was in Batticaloa in the east where I was reminded of the need to work in reconciliation with all communities. A Muslim participant at a discussion on the LLRC that I was participating in said he wanted to show me the town of Kattankudy. I thought he would show me its new developments and prosperity. But instead he took me to the Meera Grand Jumma Masjeed where in 1990 over a hundred worshippers were killed by the LTTE. He also showed me the bullet holes in the walls that had not been closed up and which serve as a reminder of wounds that have not been healed. In the mosque I met a Moulavi who had been a little boy with his father when it was attacked, and saw his father being killed. So would it be in the case of other massacres that Tamils and Sinhalese also have experienced.
It is worth noting that the LLRC report itself makes the point that reconciliation is not only implementing a series of administrative actions. It is also a process of healing to be administered with empathy, care and compassion. The report also calls for a full understanding of the grievances of the victims and the intensity and magnitude of their suffering. All parties to the conflict need to acknowledge their part in what happened and express remorse for the suffering that was inflicted on so many people. There needs to be special attention given to the personal tragedies and traumas of the victims and their families for which civil society organizations are best suited.
The government’s failure to take the people of the country into its confidence on the issue of the LLRC report is all the more perplexing as it is the outcome of a process initiated at the instance of President Rajapaksa himself. Whether in Batticaloa in the east or Matara in the south, the participants at discussions on the LLRC report are impressed by its wisdom and ask why the government is not implementing it in full. This is testimony to the spirit of moderation and justice that continues to inhabit society at all levels but which has been suppressed by the aggressive nationalism brought about by the war and its triumphal aftermath.
In this context the national interest will be better served if instead of being preoccupied with justifying itself to the international community, the government focuses its attention on creating awareness about the LLRC report and the reasons for implementing its recommendations amongst the Sri Lankan public. Sri Lankans of all ethnicities want a new future that overcomes and transcends the past. The moral power and achievements that flow out of implementing the LLRC recommendations with people’s participation will speak for themselves in a manner that the international community will have to recognize and respect. Deeds always speak louder than words.