By Dayan Jayatilleka –
In her farewell address to the UNHRC, Madam Navi Pillay drew attention to the need for healing the wounds of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which she rightly noted, had yet to be done. To this intent and purpose she commended cooperation by the Government of Sri Lanka with the comprehensive international inquiry that her office has undertaken. What is bitterly ironic is that the healing of wounds cannot take place by means of a lacerating external inquiry or even an overly extensive and premature internal one. The international inquiry will do just the opposite of assisting any process of healing. It will generate resentment and hatred among the overwhelming majority of the people of Sri Lanka.
The appointment of Dame Sylvia Cartwright, former attorney general of New Zealand as head of the international inquiry into Sri Lanka, is hardly likely to have a positive resonance on the island. Her most positive and notable achievement is the best evidence of what is wrong with the international inquiry into Sri Lanka. She was a member of the UN hearing into war crimes in Kampuchea. That inquiry stands in complete contrast to the proposed inquiry into Sri Lanka.
The Kampuchea inquiry was into war crimes committed by the militarily defeated Khmer Rouge. It was instituted decades after the episodes being inquired into (during which I was an undergraduate who published a series in the Lanka Guardian analyzing and denouncing Pol Pot). It was a joint tribunal, established with the blessings of the Kampuchean government.
Obviously if the international inquiry into Sri Lanka were about the war crimes of the defeated Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan government would have welcomed and facilitated it. If the Sri Lanka inquiry such as it is presently crafted, were to take place a few decades down the road, perhaps a different Sri Lankan administration in a different Sri Lanka would cooperate with it having significantly modified its terms of reference. Decades down the road, there could even be a joint commission of inquiry.
Those are not the contours of the international inquiry into Sri Lanka which Dame Cartwright will head. Thus the dynamics and outcome will be different, as will the response of Sri Lankan public opinion and any elected administration (or political party which is strategically serious about being elected to office).
While the Sri Lankan government cannot be faulted for refusal to cooperate with the international inquiry, it can and must be condemned on several other counts.
Firstly, the dismantling of the successful defence of Sri Lanka in Geneva from precisely such a war crimes inquiry five years ago. (In that sense, the ‘regime change’ strategy of which the international inquiry is one axis of advance was possible because of the ‘regime change’ that the Sri Lankan ruling elite implemented in our defences in Geneva after and despite our UNHRC victory of May 2009.)
Secondly, the Government missed the chances provided by the defeat of the LTTE and later by its own commendable and historic move of holding the Northern Provincial election, to strike a deal with the moderate Tamil nationalists by implementing the 13th amendment.
Thirdly the Government has just dropped a vital catch by failing to pivot to Delhi under the Modi administration, which is turn requires the implementation of the 13th amendment and negotiating improvements on the basis of renegotiating the concurrent list.
These blunders stem from three flaws or blind spots: (i) A chronic inability to calculate the balance of forces, including, most obviously, the military balance of power: how else could anyone think to resist the West propelled war crimes inquiry without India’s active support and worse still, to fight the West and India at the same time? (ii) An inability to read a world map: how else to explain the confidence that China could be or would consent to be anything more than a limited counterweight for an island on India’s doorstep? With the best will in the world, how could China and Pakistan protect Sri Lanka and how could Sri Lanka protect itself? (iii) Amnesia: the lessons unlearnt from 1987.
Thus the Sri Lankan Government has as a foreign policy posture, the stance of an ostrich: head buried in the sand.
In domestic terms of course, the President has displayed his usual tactical skill. By tossing the ball of whether or not to cooperate with the international inquiry to Parliament, he is expecting the Opposition to hang itself electorally, which it is quite likely to.
The first effects of the international pressure are already visible. Any student of history would know that it was the encirclement and isolation of Russia, the impact or perception of siege upon and in a peasant/provincial society that resulted in the rise of Stalinism at the expense of other options. A repetition of sorts has taken place with the return of President Putin. The worst decades of the blockade of Cuba hardly led to the strengthening of moderates or moderation, but rather to a greater radicalism. In Sri Lanka this would not be sustainable, but a Sinhala-Buddhist strongman is already on the rise and will be strengthened by the external pressure. From being the ‘power behind the throne’ at present, he will be ‘the power beside the throne’ in the upcoming administration and finally ‘the power upon the throne’. That will be the final turn of the screw of Sinhala Buddhist domination. That period will be short, but going by the evidence so far, it will also be nasty and brutish while it lasts.