By G K Nathan –
Military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was achieved in May 2009 with direct and indirect military and political support from many countries and the military victory was celebrated led by President Rajapaksa, without any remorse for many thousands innocent people killed in the conflict, which has become the point of contention in the international arena. After the end of military a golden opportunity was lost and President Mahinda Rajapaksa miserably failed to usher peace between the Sinhala and Tamil Nations, but acts such as: militarization, sinhalization and Buddhistization have widen the ethnic, religious and linguistic gaps between groups. Infrastructure bridges, roads and railways development initiated with aid and loan from China and India and use of foreign labour have failed to benefit the ordinary people, but a handful of people who made money. After five years, Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) readying to face the consequences of inaction and discarding the initial goodwill shown in the world arena. Immediately after the end of military conflict, the first UNHRC resolution critical of Sri Lanka for military omissions in the war was introduced, but was changed to a congratulatory message spearheaded by India, in the hope there will be peace in the region. Today, current Government of India stands disillusioned and facing many challenges in their own backyard, after facing the second betrayal by GSL; the first one was after the unfulfilled Indo-Lanka accord of 1987 to devolve power and to find a solution to the long standing Sinhala – Tamil conflict, started at the time of Independence in 1948. Failures met by India, clearly demonstrate successive regimes of Sri Lanka dominated by Sinhala Buddhist majority will not find a peaceful resolution based on the International Bill of Human Rights. Seventy five million Tamils most of them living in Tamil Nadu, India and their uprising in support of their brethren in the neighbouring Sri Lanka is posing many challenges, particularly to the Government of India. India as a key regional power has supported Tamil insurgency and promoted diplomatic initiatives, but failed to promote a political solution in the immediate neighbour Sri Lanka due to lack of gutsy leadership, as shown by Indira Gandhi before she was murdered in 1984. Three years after passing of the first UNHRC resolution in 2009, India joined in with other countries and passed two more UNHRC resolutions in March 2012 and in March 2013, calling on Rajapaksa regime to implement the Report of Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) which was appointed by President Rajapaksa, himself, as agreed with United Nation Secretary General in March 2009. Almost five years since the end of military conflict, expectations of many countries that there will be a political resolution has failed, but with tacit approval of members of GSL retrograde steps have been taken by attacks on Christians and Muslims religious minorities and places of worship. On the contrary to expectation of Western democratic countries, Rajapaksa regime has ignored all international calls and moving towards the establishment of an authoritarian Sinhala Buddhist regime. President Rajapaksa has gained two-third majority in the parliament by offering in all 60 cabinet positions and also political kickback to minor parties. President Rajapaksa made use of the numbers to amend the constitution from limited to two terms presidency to life time, contrary to democratic practices in almost every other country, except in North Korea. Ms Navi Pillay, United Nation High Commissioner of Human Right, on her first visit in August 2013 to Sri Lanka said that the regime is moving towards authoritarianism. Taking into account, the past failures of GSL to internally implement the previous UNHRC resolutions, a group of countries has taken an initiative to move a new resolution at the 25th session of UNHRC in March 2014, may call for an International Inquiry to examine the alleged breach of International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law by all sides in the conflict because of failure of Internal Inquiry based on past UNHRC resolutions. The call poses a serious challenge to GSL led by President Rajapaksa. There are lessons in recent history for example Yugoslavia splintered into six and the Sudan into two. The current events in Ukraine and military intervention by the immediate neighbour Russia, poses a big challenge to Rajapaksa regime, which has very few friends who will stand with them; avoiding any Chaos in Sri Lanka requires careful diplomatic skill.
Observations by International Community
Two reports issued end of February 2014, first issued by Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released by High Commissioner Ms Navi Pillay and the second one US State Department Human Rights report 2013 released by US Secretary of State John Kerry, highlight failures of GSL to advance reconciliation and establish accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. Ms Navi Pillay has supported the setting-up of an “Independent International Inquiry” (III) because the “National mechanisms have consistently failed to establish the truth and achieve justice” and “this can no longer be explained as a function of time or technical capacity, but that is a fundamentally a question of political will”, she concluded. US Secretary of State John Kerry releasing the Annual Country Report on Human Rights 2013 fired the first warning shot “We will do it in Sri Lanka, where the government still has not answered basic demands for accountability and reconciliation, where attacks on civil society activists, journalists, and religious minorities, sadly, still continue”. He said “Our concern about this ongoing situation has led the United States to support another UN Human Rights Council resolution at the March session. We will do so because we know countries that deny human rights and human dignity challenge our interests as well as human interests. But we also know countries that advance those values, those countries that embrace these rights are countries that actually create opportunities”. Statements prepared by two independent bodies corroborate and substantiates what is said by each other. President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa, as Commander in Chief of Armed Forces, will have to face the judgement day, if there is any truth on these allegations, but he has made a casual and callous decision to reject these reports without any serious scrutiny of the facts presented nor examination of the consequences to the country. The GSL has referred to UN High Commissioner’s report and called for Independent International Inquiry as an “Unwarranted Interference”; President Rajapaksa referred to US State department report as “uncomfortable” and said Sri Lanka is being used as a “punching bag” and “There should not be a resolution at all.” “We feel acutely uncomfortable by the pressure brought on us by a powerful country.” On the contrary, a number of Human Rights Organizations: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Crisis Group etc have independently made similar observations and having called for an Independent International Inquiry from the OHCHR.
The UK Foreign office minister Hugo Swire welcomed the report from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and supports her call for an international investigation into Sri Lanka; he said “The British Government attaches great importance to lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. This is a message that the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and I gave when we visited Sri Lanka last year (during CHOGM, November 2013). We welcome the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka and share her concerns about human rights situation in Sri Lanka and the lack of progress on accountability.” British Foreign Office issued report in January 2014, soon after CHOGM in Sri Lanka, where British Prime Minister David Cameron ” has put Sri Lanka on notice to address allegations of war crimes within months or else he will lead a push for a United Nations investigation”. The three reports: OHCHR released by Ms Navi Pillay, US State department released by John Kerry, British Foreign Office issued by Hugo Swire have all emphasized the need for establishment of Independent International Inquiry because GSL has so for failed to address reconciliation and accountability through internal mechanism, records show the exercise undertaken by the GSL is focussed on procrastination rather than the facing main issues raised in these documents. Five years since the end of the conflict, the current situation of all groups: ethnic, linguistic and religious have worsened and the issues identified and raised in the above three reports are summarised below:
- Ongoing serious human rights problems include lack of accountability for thousands who disappeared, widespread impunity for a broad range of human rights abuses, such as torture by police and attacks on media institutions and the judiciary.
- Continued militarization of former conflict zone and restriction on customary livelihood activities of people in their own villages who are prevented from resuming their way of life since the war ended five years ago, at the same time military engages in activities practised by villagers and deprive them of their earnings.
- Attacks on religious minorities, sexual harassment and violations with impunity threats by pro-government loyalists against critics of the government, contributed to widespread self-censorship by journalists, and diminished democratic activity due to the general failure to prosecute perpetrators.
- US State department report stated that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s family dominates the government. “Two of the president’s brothers hold key executive branch posts, as defence secretary and economic development minister, and a third brother is the speaker of Parliament. A large number of the president’s other relatives, including his son, also serve in important political and diplomatic positions. Independent observers generally characterized the presidential, parliamentary, and local elections as problematic.”
The Government led by President Rajapaksa has been in power for almost all the period, the above allegations took place. During the last 10 years period in power, he has consolidated his autocratic rule in the country with the help of his brother, the Defence secretary who has a military of about 300,000 personals. Members of all ethnic groups are challenging his actions, but so far failed to shift his power base as the people who support his position have benefitted being with him, and his strong hold on the people has resulted in successive electoral victory and he is in an unassailable position in the country. The biggest challenge, he faces in his 10 year rule, has come from the International community which knowing the current deplorable situation in Sri Lanka has called for an Independent International Inquiry (III). The implementation of III will take off the shine of the regime and will face the biggest impediment to continue his autocratic rule in the country. If the call from the USA, the UK and the High Commissioner for Human Rights is adopted at the 25th session of UNHRC, President Rajapaksa has limited choices, but to accept the III to avoid ignominious end to his regime as has happened to many others in the past.
Situation in Sri Lanka and the Regime is in Denial
Before considerations of the above observations identified in the three reports and many others, what need to be done is to examine the current situation in Sri Lanka. To external foreign observers, Sri Lanka is a functioning democracy, as demonstrated by regular presidential, parliamentary, provincial and local council elections, similar elections have been held under other autocratic rulers. The holding of the Northern Province Council Election after lapse of three decades, in September 2013, was to further demonstrate working of democracy, in which Tamil National Alliance had an overwhelming victory because Tamil people rejected the patronizing democracy of Rajapaksa regime. In the other eight Provincial Council Elections Rajapaksa regime has considerable political power because of media and political control, financial clout exercised by controlling 80% of the budget activities by “Rajapaksa clan and their cronies”. Authoritarianism has silenced the people because of fear of disappearance by “white vans”, unresolved murder cases of opponents to the regime and journalists who were critical of the regime, leadership training given to school children and teachers by the military perhaps to reorient their thinking to favour the current regime, a number of current political leaders sacrificed their principles for monetary rewards to be in the government, had made the people succumb to fear and stopped the freedom to openly oppose the current regime. President Rajapaksa has amended the constitution to facilitate the setting up of dynastic politics in Sri Lanka. Future leaders are being groomed within Rajapaksa clan; most of them advocate setting up of a Sinhala Buddhist power base, as some of them lend support to Sinhala Buddhist Chauvinists, who ignore the rights of linguistic, ethnic and religious minorities to share power. Hindu, Muslims and Christians are under attack by Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists elements, which have not been brought to Courts of Law and many opponents have been silenced. A couple of former Prime Ministers who were Christians at birth reverted to Buddhism to capture the power base of majority Sinhala Buddhists. In the six and a half decades of independence from the United Kingdom from 1948, no one other than a Buddhist has been either a President or Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. On the contrary, at the time of establishment of colonial rule in Sri Lanka from 1515 to 1815, it had three Kingdoms; two of them had Kings who were Tamils and Hindus. Efforts of International community to advance reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka and the incongruent mindset of the current Rajapaksa regime does not augur well to advance the peace process; current regime led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa are both in a combative mood to face the International community. Some of the recent statements are testimony to this conclusion.
A former Sri Lankan diplomat who was at Geneva in 2009, said: ‘Sri Lanka’s foreign policy dictated by the Defence Ministry‘ . This is further substantiated by number of newspaper reporting, a few of them are given: ‘GR lambastes foreign interference as US envoy meets Elilan’s wife’ and President Mahinda Rajapaksa’ said ‘European HR crusaders are similar to wolves in sheep clothing’. Rajapaksa brothers are continuing their attack on anyone promoting investigation into breach of International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law during the conflict to establish accountability and promote reconciliation among all peoples in Sri Lanka. There angst against foreign diplomats are quoted here: Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa outburst against Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Biswal ‘Gotabhya says Biswal ignorant’. Complimented by President Mahinda Rajapaksa address at the 66th Independence celebration and it was reported as: ‘President slams Geneva resolution’. The outright criticism of International community’s efforts and unwillingness to cooperate by the most powerful people of the regime are the President and the Secretary of Defence of the Sri Lanka. Position taken by the most powerful two personals does not give any hope that the Draft resolution on Sri Lanka introduced at the 25th session of UNHRC by a group of countries: the USA, the UK etc, though will be passed like in the previous years, will it be implemented? This imposes a new challenge to the International community requiring an alternate approach.
Warning Signals, Points to Possible Change?
Grandstanding and bravado of President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as reported in the media, rejecting the forthcoming resolution at the 25th session is foolhardy, to believe that what happened with UNHRC resolutions of 19th session in 2012 and 22nd session in 2013 can be repeated once more with resolution of 25th session in 2014. President ignores ministers’ concern, five ministers and parliamentarians from the leftist faction in the GSL, drew the attention of the President, ‘stating that a plethora of legal and economic sanctions could be imposed on the country’. Minister of Justice Rauff Hakeem, leader of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), has been allegedly taken to task by President Rajapaksa for having handed over a memorandum to Ms Navi Pillai on attack on Mosques and Christian churches. Also SLMC called on Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to support the call for an Independent International Inquiry, which has caused fissures in the alliance between the government and SLMC. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Northern Provincial Council and Church groups from the Northern and Eastern Provinces have called for International Investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka. The polarisation of minority groups supporting and Independent International Inquiry and a section of Sinhala Buddhist group led by President Rajapaksa taking an outright rejectionist position of the UNHRC resolution does not augur well for peace and sanity in the country, taking note of the past, where many pogroms have taken place under similar scenarios.
Under normal circumstances, President Rajapaksa would be getting ready to step down from power, after two terms in office which could have ushered a new era with different direction to the country. The amendment to constitution introduced in 2010 ensures that President Rajapaksa can be in power for life, if he chooses to do so? Current indications are that he will continue, and the media reports are to be believed that next Rajapaksa generation is being groomed. From the news emerging, early presidential election will be held and President Rajapaksa who is planning to contest the election will make use of the forth coming UNHRC resolutions and subsequent repercussions in the country would be used to get the sympathy votes to get over the line. This could be part of the bravado being exhibited by Rajapaksa brothers? President Rajapaksa and his regime think that the relationship that they have developed with China and the geopolitical importance of Sri Lanka in the trade route would come to their help. Many autocratic rulers who thought so are no longer in power and others in their way out; as seen in Libya, Syria, Iran etc. The Sunday Times editorial of Sri Lanka in their editorial of 2nd March send a detailed warning to the GSL saying in Geneva: Be Substantive, not Combative which need to be taken seriously, in the context of what is happening currently in Ukraine and is very relevant to a regime which has been in power for almost 10 years. In Ukraine, “people power” over threw the authoritarian President and the new government has charged the deposed president and his relatives of misappropriating billions of dollars from the treasury and steps are being taken to charge the deposed president for war crimes at International Criminal Court for killing of civilians who were engaging in peaceful protest.
Sooner President Rajapaksa agrees to the call of the International community to establish an Independent International Inquiry that would be good for the country and the peoples in Sri Lanka. Taking a combative role will go down the path of fallen regimes and put the country and the peoples to face severe consequences for years to come.