By Uditha Devapriya –
“If you find yourself standing on a landmine, you don’t just jump off – experienced experts have to painstakingly deactivate the pressure-sensitive mine.” (Dayan Jayatilleka)
The United States that exited the Human Rights Council after calling it a cesspool has been a little slow to respond to Sri Lanka’s official exit from Resolutions 30/1 and 40/1. Canada has, as expected, called out on the delegation, expressing their disappointment and hoping that Sri Lanka will get back on track resorting to domestic mechanisms. The move may or may not be a diplomatic pincer – let history judge that – but it certainly spells out an end of an era. In the same vein with which he criticised the Mangala-Chandrika-Ranil troika which effectively led to a capitulation for Sri Lanka in Geneva from 2015 to 2018, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka has come out and criticised the new government’s new strategy. With the critique Dr Jayatilleka returns to the public sphere after a long interregnum. Times are changing, the waters have grown, but we don’t know what to do; should we start swimming, or sink like a stone?
Resolution 30/1, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena went on to observe, was sanctioned by neither the parliament nor the president who headed the party that led the parliament at the time. Without quoting the Minister verbatim, let us say here that the best summing up of the new government’s attitude to the resolution comes out by contrasting the responses of the two regimes to the subject of reconciliation on which the resolution centred. The one viewed it as an altar on which the ideal of sovereignty could be sacrificed, while the other views it as a contest between the imperatives of sovereignty and the exigencies of interethnic amity which shouldn’t, at least theoretically, be resolved in favour of an enrichment of the latter at the expense of the former. A smarter response would have been to embed or enshrine the one in the other: to hold that reconciliation is actually linked to sovereignty. But in capitulating, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime pre-empted even that. Only a reversal was possible, and by calling for it, the Gotabaya-Mahinda regime has done the inevitable.
It probably wasn’t the main reason or one of the main reasons why they lost power in 2019, but the former government’s attitude to the question of reconciliation didn’t go as expected with any of the concerned communities. The TNA reluctantly bought it, the SLFP and the Sinhala Buddhist petty bourgeoisie were split on it. If in 2015 the moderate Tamil and petty bourgeois Sinhala vote led to Mahinda’s defeat, in unison, in 2020 the two had separated to a degree unparalleled in this country’s history. Reconciliation had in many ways failed, and no amount of rhetoric brandishing or linguistic theatrics was going to win us in this country what the government had thought it had won abroad. Statements by ambassadors and diplomats at cocktail circuits and press conferences were never going to be a wholesome substitute. The centre couldn’t hold, and in 2018 when the Sirisena administration sent Tilak Marapana to refute misrepresentations made by those at the top in Geneva, it wasn’t a volte-face. It wasn’t even a paradigm shift. It was a restoration. A reversal.
Mr Marapana’s statement was a turnaround that was expected, conceding ground to the need for transparency and accountability while defending the government’s track record on both. It was certainly different to the picture of the country drawn by his predecessor, so much so that it surprised no one when the predecessor, in a defensive and lengthy riposte, contended that Marapana’s entourage had “made a spectacle of ourselves.”
If anyone wanted a confirmation of the previous government’s appeasement of international interests, this was it: not only did Samaraweera critique the widely held, and also somewhat accurate, belief that by cosponsoring the resolution Sri Lanka produced an accusation against itself, he went as far as to tender an apology to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, “on behalf of all sane, rational, decent, sincere, compassionate, serious-minded and honest Sri Lankans” – an irony, considering that Bachelet had misrepresented the proportion of military lands returned to civilians in the north as well as excavation of mass graves in Mannar, alleged to have contained bodies of Tamil war victims and proven later to have been graves from the 15th to the 18th centuries.
It would have taken no less a person than Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister, to reverse the process. But here a distinction must be made between the Geneva encounters of 2012, 2013, and 2014 – years of defeat, as Dayan Jayatilleka calls them – and the steps taken and underlined in his speech by Dinesh Gunawardena.
If the defeats of the second Mahinda regime led to Mangala’s capitulation in 2015, the anger against the Mangala-Chandrika-Ranil troika led to a restoration to how things had been prior to the quick succession of diplomatic defeats in the second Mahinda regime. In other words, what we’re seeing here is the situation that existed immediately preceding those defeats; that was a time when we actually won in Geneva, with Dr Jayatilleka at the helm. What we need is that kind of victory: the kind which comes out not from brandishing sovereignty with mad abandon, but from playing the game well internationally while preserving the self-respect of the nation. So the moment is ours, and depending on how we handle it we can play the ball or lose it forever. If we lose, it will come back full circle and we’ll be forced to kowtow. And if we kowtow, popular resentment will again fuel a reversal.
A never ending cycle like this has to be stopped, if at all in the interests of the country. To do so necessitates a delicate balancing act in which the exigencies of national reconciliation and the imperatives of national sovereignty are reconciled. Personally, I don’t think that with a Foreign Minister like Dinesh Gunawardena – a person praised again and again by the likes of Dr Dayan – this is going to be mission impossible. All it takes for foreign affairs to prosper is a person like Dinesh or Lakshman Kadirgamar at the top, and all it takes for them to sour is a guy who either rails against the international community or subscribes unconditionally to the terms and conditions set down by that community. As of now Mr Gunawardena has implied that he’s neither of these, as witness the Ministry’s response to the Swiss Embassy fiasco, and it would do well if his office toes that line as a matter of policy. This is a victory we’ve won, and a victory we can lose. We can’t afford defeat. Not now.
So how do we keep the victory? Mr Gunawardena not unjustifiably referred to the vast strides the Rajapaksa government made after the war, while soberly observing that Sri Lanka never entertained illusions of the end of war converting to a lasting peace. The speech was in itself a deft balancing act: since May 2009 “not a bullet has been fired in the name of separatist terrorism”, yet the country urgently requires “certain reviews and strengthening of existing structures.” The thrust is both rational and firm: we need to consolidate what we have, but not at the cost of sovereignty or territorial integrity. We have the resources to do what it takes to restore reconciliation, and we are not going to cede space for non-local actors to do what the legislature and judiciary should do. By violating certain norms, the previous regime made commitments which were “impractical, unconstitutional, and undeliverable.” Thus the task of this government is to regain the country’s trust in the international system, and its credibility in the eyes of the world. A hard day’s work, certainly.
In other words, the task devolved on the new government is not one of satisfying a need for gung-ho jingoistic euphoria. In the years following the war victory such a battle cry could be, if not justified, at least validated by the popular mood. In 2020, the new decade, people are not as ruffled by such a mood and as such the government has the perfect opportunity to do what Mangala, Chandrika, and Ranil couldn’t do. If reconciliation in post-war Sri Lanka has always been about wrong tactics and right intentions, the previous government, at least in the eyes of commentators like Dr Jayatilleka, caved into wrong tactics and wrong intentions. It was a blunder from which we had to recover, and the only way to recover was by discarding it. The manner of discarding it may be open to debate – what, at the end of the day, isn’t open to debate? – but the crux of the matter is that by abandoning it, we have opened ourselves to new strategies, tactics, and intentions. The moment is thus all ours.