Colombo Telegraph

Headless Chicken

By Kumar David –

Prof. Kumar David

It is quite usual to employ the name of a country when referring to its government; for example, “China criticised India at such and such a forum.” However sometimes, as in this piece, it is important to avoid this usage to forestall confusion. Hence I will use ‘government’ or more precisely ‘regime’ (meaning the Rajapakse sibling cabal which is the quintessential locus of state power) in my analysis today. The resolution adopted at the UNHCR in Geneva on 22 March does not condemn the nation or people of Sri Lanka; no, it is clearly targeted at the Sri Lankan regime; the wording, the last paragraph which implies distrust, and the hammering that the government got in the conference hall and in the lobbies make that plain.

The regime finds itself in a very tight corner after the Geneva resolution was carried by an absolute majority. It lost India, the US, Western Europe and the majority of African and Latin American votes; the Middle Eastern Muslim votes are fair-weather friends. The Lankan regime is suddenly very isolated, adrift from the international community. The situation inside the country has also become desperate, and I am choosing my words carefully. Whichever way it turns, and there are three to choose from, it encounters a yawning abyss; there is a fourth ‘make the best of it’ option that it is unlikely to favour and I will come to that at the end.

Option 1 or option 2?

The two more obvious ways to go are either, comply with the resolution and work to mend fences with the international community, or defy it and march in step with the Sinhala extremists in and outside government. Of course even under option 1 the government can and will say ‘No we are not bowing down to the dirty imperialist dogs’, but it can execute a large number of LLRC’s recommendations, hold provincial elections in the Northern Province, have a go at implementing the 13-th Amendment, and get serious about accountability and start prosecutions. To go before the UNHRC in six months, having defied the Human Rights Commissioner and with an F on its report card, will be to court dire consequences. The UNHRC is likely to report the intransigence to other UN bodies with more teeth. Thus option 1 seeks to avoid this outcome.

But this entails defying the military and chauvinist ministers (Weerawansa and Champika), the likelihood of the JHU quitting government, and enraging the extremists. Sinhala chauvinism was nurtured by this regime which pandered to it for long; it has become strong. Mahinda Rajapakse, if he has the guts can still force the chauvinists out of government and lean on others to form a national government, but he does not have the backbone (Manmohan Singh is not the only invertebrate leader in South Asia!). Having been a mild racist all his life and a fellow traveller of chauvinists in his ruling alliance, President Rajapakse will see option 1 as enormously risky. If I was a betting man I would offer two to one odds that he won’t take it now, though what he may be forced to do when on the brink of the other abyss one can’t tell.

The second option is what the government seems to be doing now, though how far down this perilous road it can travel is moot. Foreign Minister GL Peries has been instructed to declare that the government of Sri Lanka rejects the UNHRC resolution and defies its injunctions. To supplement this, the regime is allowing extremists to scream and rant on the streets of Colombo, surround embassies and heighten xenophobic tensions. Indian readers know from the experiences of Gujarat, Babri Masjid and many others how dangerous it is to let the sorcerer’s apprentices run lose. Havoc can turn into communal pogroms and the regime will be unable to reign in the pandemonium. I grant this is a worst case scenario, but even short of that, President Rajapakse and his regime will thereafter become prisoners of the chauvinist camp. If this is the chosen path, it is not possible to foresee just what the precise state of affairs will be in a few months, but one can say with some certainty that this abyss is deeper, darker and more frightening than the previous one.

Sri Lanka versus India

If it were cricket, I would say we can whip the Indians any day! But this is a more deadly game. Pakistan’s Nation newspaper carried a report on 27 March to the effect (could be wishful thinking) that the Lankan government had decided to confront India and expose its crimes and human rights violations in Kashmir. Well, I am not averse to exposing Sri Lankan or Indian human rights violations, but that’s not the matter at issue. The pitch is that Colombo should set off on confrontation course against Delhi. Frankly I am inclined to say ‘serves the South Block and Prime Minister Singh right for mollycoddling and swallowing lies and insults for so long’, but that too is another matter. The point is what will happen to Sri Lanka if its regime sets off on an out-and-out confrontation course with India?

This will be attractive to the anti-Indian forces in the Sinhalese community including the JVP, and make no mistake about it, once let lose this rabble can rouse much rancour. It is one way to divert attention into another channel and the regime is surely considering it. The consequences for the country will be dire, economically, and India could start meddling and destabilising Lanka’s politics once again. I doubt if Delhi will again try the old failed route of the last three years and send plane loads of diplomatic supplicants bearing gifts of gold and myrrh and frankincense!

CWC leader Thondaman’s resignation from Cabinet at this moment is intriguing; maybe it’s pique in a low level tiff with the president over the appointment of an official, or it may be political. If Thondaman reverses his decision soon it would point to the former, or if the latter it would signal that the president has promised to tone down anti-Indian rhetoric. Anti-Indian rhetoric, if it runs out of control, can turn to violence against plantation worker Tamils and Tamils of upcountry origin in cities.

What about the China card? There is not the slightest doubt that irrespective of all else the regime will do its best to woo additional Chinese support and thumb its nose at India. The Chinese will provide more economic assistance, but they are too astute to get involved strategically beyond what is in their own interests. Knowing Sri Lanka falls in a sensitive zone of Indian strategic concern I doubt if China will let itself be drawn into a situation where it will have to back-off in humiliation. The world has learnt the lessons of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis well. What I am not so sure of is whether Delhi has spelt out the strategic bottom line clearly to Colombo. Knowing the woolly headedness of the current Indian Administration, probably not.

My fear is that if a mad regime in Colombo sets off on a ‘Confront India’ path it could drive public opinion in greater India into a Tamil Nadu syndrome. If irritation with this country becomes widespread in India it will not be at all good for this small island. No rational and intelligent regime in Colombo should provoke that, but is the current regime rational or intelligent? I ask in all seriousness; was it not foreseeable from January what the consequences of a knock-out blow in Geneva would be? Was it not obvious from early March that the regime was heading for a big setback? Why on earth not deal with the Americans (and the Indians) and work on a compromise resolution that Colombo could live with and sell to the extremists at home? A leadership that gets itself into such a clearly foreseeable snarl can’t be very smart; the much touted cunning of the sibling cabal seems to have deserted it.

I have kept watch on the Indian media, this website included, and am astonished by the naiveté of commentators over there, oblivious to the seriousness of the crisis on this side of the Palk Straits. It is quaint that Indian writers are drooling over rationalisations that the resolution is really not so bad, it is warm and friendly, it does not intend to target the government of Sri Lanka, and so on. Honestly, when were these analysts and professors born-yesterday? Why bother to move a controversial and stern resolution at an important international forum if it is all milk and honey?

The least worst option

It is no part of my brief to provide advice to the regime in Colombo, and if it is in hot water my inclination is to say: “You asked for it”. That however is not the way to finish an article. One has to conclude with an, if I were in their shoes what’s the best thing to do, statement. Here goes: In order to keep a lid on Sinhala extremists the regime has to broadcast the ‘We will defy the UNHRC” message while actually implementing as many of the LLRC proposals as possible. It has to hold provincial elections in the north and let the TNA from a provincial government, and it has to implement a goody part of the Thirteenth Amendment. This way it can get a C-grade on its report card.

What the regime cannot do is honour the accountability demands included in the Geneva resolution. Now this is where, if I was President Rajapakse (heaven forbid!), I would cut a deal. Look the Americans are adults; they know the Rajapakses can’t prosecute themselves and their top military brass for war crimes. So the deal is this: “Hush, hush on the accountability part, we’ll do a goodly bit of the housekeeping part”. I think this deal will sell. Still both sides will have a price to pay. The regime will still have a fight on its hands against recalcitrant Sinhala extremists, and the Americans will have their hands full pacifying human rights crusaders and vengeance seeking Tamils in the diaspora. Still, for the Rajapakse regime, this deal is now the best of all possible worlds.

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