By Jehan Perera –
The Sri Lankan government continues to be unyielding in its approach to governance and reconciliation issues. Having fought against the United States for two successive years in the diplomatic arena at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and failed to win against it, the government now appears to have changed its strategy. It has hired not one but two US companies that it believes are adept at public relations campaigning and are paying them to get the government’s message across. This action gives an indication of the government’s approach. PR firms are known to give a positive spin to their client’s activities. The hiring of PR firms for lobbying in the United States suggests that the Sri Lankan government is not thinking of changing its own policies. Instead it is thinking it can change the US government by projecting a positive image of developments in the country.
Whether the government will act differently on the ground in regard to good governance and reconciliation within Sri Lanka is doubtful. Addressing Parliament, External Affairs Minister Prof GL Peiris made it clear that the government was not going to yield on substance. He said “there is no change of government policy towards the United States. We do not concur with their resolution and our representative in Geneva distanced Sri Lanka very clearly from its contents.” The government has therefore taken a public stand with the its Sri Lankan constituency in mind to say that it does not agree with the UNHRC resolution, which it voted against. There are certain aspects of the resolution that the government would be very much opposed to, such as the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s recommendation for an independent international commission to probe alleged war crimes. The majority of the Sri Lankan population, especially those drawn from the Sinhalese ethnic majority, will be in agreement with the government.
The government’s strategy is a dual one. With regard to the international community, it is to show that it is delivering on its commitments. It seeks to project this image while retaining its credibility with the Sri Lankan population. The main international commitment at this time is to deliver on the implementation of the two Geneva resolutions that were passed over its objections. A key component of the UNHRC resolution is the implementation of the government appointed LLRC commissioners’ report. The government has said that it will implement this and has prepared its governmental action plan for LLRC implementation. The government now looks set to implement visible elements of this action plan, including the holding of Northern Provincial elections which is a follow up to the UNHRC resolution. This is how the government will attempt to balance its internal political imperatives with those of the international community.
One of the key elements of the LLRC recommendations, which was included in the government’s action plan, is the holding of the Northern Provincial Council elections. However, these are not elections that the government has wished to hold. These are elections that the government promised to hold shortly after the end of the war. This was a strategy to get the international community on its side or at least neutralized during the last war. But nearly four years have elapsed and the government has offered many excuses for not holding those elections. The reasons given have included the resettlement of voters, demining of territory and preparation of voter registers. The government is concerned that these are elections it runs the risk of losing. This will enhance the political strength of the Tamil minority and their representatives. It can also send a message to the larger Sri Lankan population that the government is not politically invincible.
There is an increasing belief that the government is contemplating early national elections, including Presidential elections although little more than half of the President’s term of office has elapsed. There is increasing international pressure on the country, which is also being reflected in the economic difficulties being experienced due to the loss of economic concessions such as GSP plus from the European Union. There is also a sense that Sinhalese nationalism is growing outside of the control of the government and may pose a challenge to it in the future. This may make the government feel that the only way out for it is to reaffirm its popular mandate with yet another election victory. If the government is indeed contemplating early national elections, then securing victory at the Northern Provincial elections scheduled for September this year becomes imperative. It now appears that the government is determined to win those elections at any cost.
The burning of the printing press of the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna shortly after an attack on its distribution point in Kilinochchi is evidence that the government is getting itself prepared for a no-holds barred election season. This is denied by the government. A government spokesperson has said the latest attack is an inside job to discredit the government. However, these targeted acts of violence perpetrated on the largest circulation newspaper in the Northern Province have taken place despite the very large presence of security forces. They also follow another violent attack on a meeting of the largest opposition Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance, in Kilinochchi where the security forces present on the scene of the attack remained inactive. The TNA, as well as the Leader of the Opposition, have alleged that these attacks are carried out by soldiers in civil clothing.
Along with the government’s plans to secure its own future, there is a danger of self-fulfilling prophecies that are detrimental to it and to the country at large. The government’s concern is that the Western dominated section of the international community is looking for reasons to intervene in the internal affairs of the country. If this is not to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is imperative that these elections be held according to internationally acceptable standards. The issue of the Northern Provincial election was referred to in the resolution on reconciliation in Sri Lanka of the UN Human Rights Council last month. There is no doubt that the democratically elected government has the responsibility to stop these types of attacks, find the culprits and bring them to justice. If not, the credibility of the government as one that follows democratic norms will collapse. In particular, the government should show to the International community that the elections are being held to give the Tamil minority an opportunity to enjoy the devolution of power already provided for in the Constitution.
The failure to conduct a free and fair election in the Northern Province will only nullify this option and strengthen the demands emanating from extremist groups in Tamil Nadu and other places in the world. There is a growing danger that the international community will begin to see that the government’s conduct of the Northern Provincial Council elections as being a deceptive exercise in which the worst unfair and undemocratic tactics are used for the purpose of winning or undermining the Tamil National Alliance’s vote base. The government needs to ensure the rule of law and provide security to all its citizens in the North. The failure of the government to protect its citizens will give rise to heightened international scrutiny and to strengthened demands for international intervention to determine the future of the Tamils within Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu state in India is already making such demands, with its legislative assembly having passed a unanimous resolution calling on the Indian government to stop considering Sri Lanka to be a friendly country and asking for the UN to conduct a referendum in the North and East of Sri Lanka on a separate state of Tamil Eelam.
At the same time, those in the international community who are genuinely concerned about the present trajectory of the Sri Lankan government, and its increasingly authoritarian actions, need to consider the thinking of the generality of the Sri Lankan population. The perception of the great majority of Sri Lankan people is that there is an unnecessary international emphasis on war crimes in Sri Lanka in a world that is full of them. To them the real issue is that the LTTE, which was a terrorist organisation that wreaked havoc in the country, is no more. Getting rid of the LTTE was due to the government’s military action. So long as the international community appears to be hounding the government for what it did in the war, there will be popular sympathy for the government leadership which is very adept at mobilizing this sentiment to its advantage.