By Graham Cooke –
It is time the Sri Lankan Government came clean over what exactly is happening in the country in the aftermath of the brutal civil war that ended in May 2009.
To the victor the spoils – that is inevitable – and for the Tamils, being on the losing side means a need to recognise their dream of a separate state on Sri Lankan soil will now never be realised, and that their best hope is to engage in reconciliation and partnership with the majority Sinhalese. That is what the Government in Colombo would have us believe is the course being taken, but so much evidence points to the contrary.
It is difficult to get a good handle on exactly what is happening in the areas of the country once under the control of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) because unrestricted access is routinely denied to international journalists and other fact-finders on the grounds of security and safety. The official line is that the process to reintegrate refugees and former low-level Tiger fighters back into the mainstream of civil and political life is proceeding apace and any suggestions to the contrary are simply mischief-making by LTTE elements still active outside the country.
The Sinhalese-dominated Government points to the fact the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) holds seats in Parliament and that Tamils have a place in the political life of the nation. Less publicised are the grievances regularly expressed by TNA Leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan over the treatment of Tamils generally and especially LTTE members who are still in detention.
Speaking in Parliament recently, Sampanthan described the detainees as political prisoners and called for their immediate release. He claimed many had been detained for years without trial and there were cases of prisoners dying in unexplained circumstances.
“If legal proceedings cannot be initiated against those who are kept in detention why not release them under amnesty? Tamil political prisoners are being tortured and this raises serious human rights concerns,” Sampanthan told Parliament.
These and other allegations are alarming Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour, India, to the point where it recently sent its National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, to Colombo on a fact-finding mission.
Menon’s main tasks were to discuss the rehabilitation of Tamils displaced by the war and express concern that their problems were not being sufficiently addressed by the central government. With a large and restive Tamil population within its own borders, what happens in Sri Lanka matters to New Delhi.
During his short visit Menon held talks with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the three brothers who between them dominate Sri Lankan politics. A meeting with Sampanthan was also squeezed in.
The official communiqué issued later was suitably bland noting that the resettlement of displaced persons, infrastructure development projects in which India has a hand and “areas of common concern” were discussed. What was not mentioned was Menon’s insistence the former LTTE areas still effectively under martial law be demilitarized and that free provincial elections be held there.
A more strident version of the talks appeared a few days later in the Sunday Leader. Under the headline ‘Indians get tough with Sri Lanka’ the newspaper’s political correspondent, Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, said President Rajapaksa could no longer take India’s support for granted.
“President Rajapaksa has lost credibility with the Indian Government,” Abeywickrema reported, putting this down to “bald-faced lies uttered by Colombo” over supposed progress towards reconciliation.
The correspondent reported India was no longer prepared to accept the Sri Lankan Government’s oft-repeated excuse that while it was committed to finding a political settlement it had to be one suited to Sri Lanka as a whole and could not be realised within any set time frame.
After a lengthy period of ‘wait and see’ following the end of the civil war, the international community is also beginning to run out of patience. India decided to support a United States-sponsored resolution that called for Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. More importantly, the resolution raised the possibility of international intervention in the country, although only with the consent of the Government.
The Rajapaksa brothers reportedly reacted with fury at India’s move, but in the long run there is very little they can do. India is a member of the troika, along with Spain and Benin, selected by the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) to undertake universal periodic reviews (UPRs) of Sri Lanka’s human rights progress since 2009. Inevitably India sees Sri Lanka as a troublesome irritation within its own sphere of influence and has a special interest in pushing the country to satisfy the international community that it is setting its house in order.
There is a considerable amount needing to be done to achieve this. Nepotism, personified by the Rajapaksa fraternal trio at the top of the ruling pyramid, is rife in the country with Ministers sponsoring the election of sons, daughters and other relatives right through the political system down to provincial assembly level.
There are also periodic crackdowns on dissenting media. Just before Menon’s visit security forces raided the offices of the online Sri Lanka Mirror and arrested nine journalists and the tea lady (she was quickly released) on the grounds its website was “continuously publishing false and unethical news about celebrities and popular personalities, misleading international and local communities”.
One wonders how many magazine and tabloid journalists would be behind bars in Australia if that law was enforced here, but this bizarre and almost comical incident reveals a growing authoritarian trend within Sri Lanka that no longer automatically tolerates critical debate, whatever its nature.
In more recent times representatives of the Sri Lankan Government around the world have begun to warn of attempts to revive the LTTE among the Tamil diaspora, including in Australia. The prospect is horrifying. The Tigers were, after all, a brutal and ruthless organisation that in their final days herded old men, women and children into the firing line in the cynical hope the resulting massacres would prompt the international community to intervene. A return to that kind of fighting is unthinkable.
The Sri Lankan Government won the war; it would be rightly sentenced to universal condemnation if it allowed the peace to slip away.
*Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times. He believes an interest in world affairs grew out of his early years playing soccer – “the truly international game”. Courtesy www.onlineopinion.com.au