By G K Nathan –
The fifth anniversary of Sri Lanka’s military victory against Tamil Tigers on 18 May 2009 will be celebrated by Sinhala Nation, but the Tamil Nation worldwide will commemorate the loss of loved ones and demanding equal rights between Nations, which demonstrates the country remains divided and Sinhala-Tamil conflict remains unresolved. At the end of military conflict, there was a golden opportunity to resolve the long standing conflict by establishing accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity and to bring reconciliation between the divided peoples. Sri Lanka, has failed to pay heed to the international call for accountability and reconciliation, which would have brought peoples together, but continuing to have grand plans to celebrate the military victory, at the same time, rights to others to commemorate the loss of their kith and kin during the conflict are being denied in Sri Lanka, even in places of worship. There will be worldwide commemoration of the same event by Tamil Diaspora with the support from members of the International community, demanding justice and reparation for the victims of conflict, accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, leading to reconciliation between both Sinhala and Tamil Nations.
After the Second World War ended in 1945, many countries in Asia and Africa gained independence from the occupying colonial powers; started with India in 1947, then Sri Lanka in 1948 and others followed. The USA was a dominant member of the victorious allied forces of the Second World War and its anti-colonial stance impacted on the granting of independence to Asian and African countries. Following the USA liberation, which is commemorated on July 4, 1776 and others followed; in the 19th century all South American countries and Canada became independent. The first country to become free in the 20th century was Australia which became a federation of six states on January 1, 1901, followed the path pursued by the USA and Canada; all three federations, brought unity between peoples and successful democracies. But the liberation of Asian and African countries was delayed by intervening World Wars I and II. When countries became decolonised, borders were drawn by colonial powers, without considering their past histories and/or providing suitable constitutional structure so that all Nations within, could enjoy equality. The inadequate constitutional arrangement at the time of independence of Ceylon (Sri Lanka in Sinhala and Illankai or Illam in Tamil) in 1948 from Great Britain, which is multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious, sowed the seed of dissent between the Sinhala and the Tamil Nations, with long, distinct and proud history behind each of them. Countries that were decolonised after the Second World War: some prospered, while others were engulfed in internal violent conflict between peoples, which stifled economic growth and faced severe hardship in many fronts. In few countries, political power was grabbed by authoritarian rulers and faced external intervention leading to fall of autocrats and in few cases to bifurcation of countries. India has greatly succeeded in demonstrating, how a multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious country, being free and democratic, can prosper and secure peace by sharing power with all Nations within the country. Sri Lanka failed to emulate the closest neighbour, but policy followed by Sinhala Buddhist majority concentrated power in the hands of the majority, which led to long standing ethnic and religious conflict between Nations in Sri Lanka. In the recent time Sinhala Buddhists attention is directed at other religious groups, Christians and Moslems with religious intolerance in on the increase in Sri Lanka, the government failed to take action.
Post Independence Era – International Intervention in Sri Lanka
Prime Minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, as the nearest neighbouring state with Tamil population in India of about 80 million, which is four times the size of total population of Sri Lanka, other than that the main reason is about three hundred thousand men, women and children landed on the South Indian shores as refugees. A similar situation occurred in 1971, India has no option, but invaded East Pakistan and Bangladesh was born when Mrs Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. Then once again in 1983 she had a historical and compelling reason to act against Sri Lanka, the way she did. Supporting of Tamil youth militancy by providing training, subsequently, resulted in emergence of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as a strong fighting unit to challenge the Sri Lanka armed forces for three decades. This began immediately after the “Black July 1983 pogrom” in which many thousands Tamils were murdered in cold blood, many more thousands lost all their belongings and hundreds of thousands migrated to Western democracies. The callous indifference and the failure to protect Tamil people by the Government of Sri Lanka is evident from what President JR Jayewardene, said at the time of July 1983 Pogrom – “I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) people… now we cannot think of them, not about their lives or their opinion… the more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be here… Really, if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.” Daily Telegraph, July 1983. This heinous act of crime committed against innocent people was condemned worldwide; also the world came to know of what the Tamil Nation was experiencing in Sri Lanka and empathized with Tamil victims by accepting them as migrants or refugees in their own country. The views expressed by then President J R Jayawardene are held by some of the Sinhala Buddhist political leaders, to consolidate their political power base in the country; which is in full display under the current government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. To Tamils who were victims of repeated pogroms, India’s intervention and emergence of Tamil Tigers as freedom fighters became a ray of hope of Tamil aspirations to achieve equality between the Sinhala and the Tamil Nations; similar views are held by Tamil Diaspora of about a million who abandoned their homeland and became new migrants in Western countries; and earned their place by making economic contributions in the country of residence. Sinhala and Tamil Nations lived in the Island occupying different areas or at times as separate countries, for more than a millennium; prior to colonial rule of Sri Lanka. Three years after the first intervention in 1983 by Mrs Indira Gandhi, once again India intervened in 1987; then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent India’s air force to drop food parcels to Tamil population in Jaffna, under seize by Sri Lanka armed forces with indiscriminate shelling and bombing by the Sri Lanka air force; India’s military intervention, ended Sri Lanka’s military confrontation. Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi and President of Sri Lanka J R Jayewardene signed the Indo-Lanka accord to share power between the two Nations in Sri Lanka, to date the agreement failed to produce the desired outcome, like sharing power. Subsequent to the signing of the accord, some of the tactics used by the LTTE on their own initiative or as a reaction to Sri Lanka’s military operation against Tamils were categorised as “acts of terrorism”. The world perception of “acts of violence” as a method of liberation against a state oppressive military power changed after the September 11, 2001 twin tower suicide attack in New York by Al Qaeda. After the failed intervention by India to peacefully resolve the Sinhala-Tamil conflict, the LTTE militarily liberated most of Tamil homeland (Tamil Eelam) in the North East Sri Lanka and set up a pseudo-state, under the military control of LTTE.
In recognition of facts on the ground, world’s changed perception of military conflict for liberation and to bring an end to the prolonged military conflict, a Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) was negotiated and signed in January 2002 by then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the leader of the LTTE. The CFA was an outcome of international intervention and endorsed by the USA, EU and Japan. Norway was accepted by both warring parties, as a facilitator of the CFA to advance the peace process. The CFA led to a number of follow up negotiations between warring parties, but failed to make any progress, because there was no unity among Sinhala majority to share power with the Tamil minority. International community’s passive persuasion of both parties did not bring about desired peace between the two Nations. This initiative was the third international intervention, preceded by two intervention one by Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1983, the second one by Mr Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the President of Sri Lanka on May 19, 2005, as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the Defence Secretary, they discarded the CFA and declared all out war against the LTTE. The LTTE was listed as an international terrorist organization in 2006 by countries which earlier supported the CFA. President Rajapaksa exploited changed perception of the LTTE and declared an all out war against the LTTE and intensified the war saying that he is fighting against “Terrorists” with “zero civilian casualties” and abrogated the CFA in January 2008. Also, avoided the 24/7 News coverage by expelling all foreigners, including United Nation observers out of the conflict zone; finally the war ended in May 2009. An independent study by “The Social Architects (TSA)” was conducted covering the period from 1987 to 2012, by a group of people in a clandestine way, inside Sri Lanka. The study concluded in the final phase of the war, from 2008 to 2009 in total, 118,036 people were killed. In the North East Sri Lanka there are 90,000 war widows and about a half million people were displaced from their own homes, denied the opportunity to return to their own place by armed forces.
Members of the President Rajapaksa government with command responsibility face serious allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity; it is time to cooperate with international community to conduct an independent commission of inquiry and prove his claim of “zero civilian casualties” during the final stages. The first inquiry was undertaken by the UN Panel of Experts appointed by United Nation Secretary General and the report was issued on 31 March 2011, which said allegations against Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE they were in breach of International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Laws (IHL) should be further investigated. Following this Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) released its report on 16 December 2011, which failed to address the breach of IHRL and IHL. The LLRC report was found to lack any support from the Human Rights Organizations: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group. The Panel of Experts commenting on LLRC report said: “In sum, the LLRC is deeply flawed, does not meet international standards and cannot satisfy the joint commitment of the President of Sri Lanka and the Secretary General to an accountability process”. The LLRC failed to mention anything about civilian casualties, but mentioned figures for the numbers killed and wounded on the side of the military and numbers killed among LTTE personnel, but no figure for injured LTTE members. In the last couple of years, many independent bodies have come out with their reports, proving beyond doubts what had happened in Sri Lanka, in the final stages of the conflict. One such work was independently conducted by Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) in Australia; referred to as International Crimes Evidence Project (ICEP) based primarily on evidence collated from independent sources including victims of conflict who were settled in Australia, as refuges. Finally, the report produced named as: “Island of impunity? Investigation into international crimes in the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war”; was presented at the Australian Parliament. Similar reports are being prepared, in other countries too.
There are evidence that both combatants have breached the International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) which need to be scrutinized by an Independent Commission of Inquiry. Diplomatic efforts taken by India, the USA, EU countries to persuade Sri Lanka to act on previous agreements, as well as on the resolutions passed at United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC): the 19th session on 22 March 2012 (A/HRC/19/L.2); 22nd session on 19 March 2013 (A/HRC/22/L.1/Rev.1) and 25th session on 27March 2014 have failed. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been in power from the beginning to the end of the “final war”; he has been evasive and has rejected the call, out rightly to avoid facing the truth, as the Commander in Chief of Armed Forces. Following, the end of conflict, President Rajapaksa has further consolidated power in his hands by introducing the 18th Amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution, contravening all democratic principles with provision to be a president for life.
The last resolution in March 2014 was sponsored by 42 countries at the UNHRC 25th session, which calls upon the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to set up an international commission of inquiry into what happened during the period of military conflict, starting from the time of signing of the Cease Fire Agreement (January 2002) to end of the military conflict in May 2009. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as in the past, has rejected the call by UNHRC and refused to cooperate. The International community has warned Sri Lanka, that Independent Commission of Inquiry will conduct its work, with or without cooperation of President Rajapaksa. High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms Navi Pillay at the end of her visit to Sri Lanka on 31 August 2013, made an observation that Sri Lanka is heading towards authoritarianism. At the same time, momentum is gathering among opposition political parties in Sri Lanka to replace the authoritarian government with parliamentary democratic system of government; but in the six and a half decades of Sinhala Buddhist dominated rule, Sri Lanka has failed to bring about political resolution to the Sinhala-Tamil conflict. Only international persuasion or direct intervention can bring about changes.
Changing of Pre-Colonial Boundaries and Emergence of New Countries
It is time to look at historical evidence of what happened to other decolonised countries which had problems similar to that are being experienced by peoples in Sri Lanka to date. The end of Second World War saw emergence of two super powers: the USA became an economically powerful, as well as a truly democratic country, under a Presidential system of government in the world; the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) emerged as a socialist, authoritarian super power. The bi-polar political power centres one pursued democracy and other autocracy, which led to cold war between the two; putting all other countries to choose between the two super powers and system of government.
The first time super power rivalry played a role was in bifurcation of Pakistan into two countries: Pakistan in the West and Bangladesh in the East, either side of India, separated by about thousand kilometres of Indian territories. The clamour for freedom by Bangladesh west met by unleashing of military onslaught in March 1971 on East Pakistan (Bangladesh) by West Pakistan supported with military supply from the USA, while India provided military supply to East Pakistan, which occurred in the midst of cold war. Pakistan launched pre-emptive air strikes on northern India which resulted in India intervening militarily on the side of Bangladesh on 3 December 1971, by that time India has signed an alliance with the USSR in August 1971. Following India’s intervention, Pakistan forces surrendered to forces of India and Bangladesh on 16 December 1971, the shortest liberation war in history. The first country to be bifurcated into two countries: Pakistan in the West and Bangladesh in the East of India was initially set up as one, by Great Britain in 1947.
The other country to follow was the USSR, which could not keep all ethnic groups together and broke up into many independent countries; following that USSR was dissolved in 1991. Russian federation emerged and lost it super power status and became much smaller in size, with little influence and power over other countries. Emergence of the USA as the only superpower and a democratic country made it possible to intervene directly and played a key role in promoting liberation of many countries. Since then the first country impacted, was Yugoslavia in 1991, it broke up into six different countries caused by mass uprising, military conflict within and external military intervention of NATO countries and/ or through UN Security Council process. Later Kosovo too broke away from Serbia in 1999, with military intervention by NATO and Kosovo became a partially recognized state because of veto at the UN Security Council. Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, three other countries were bifurcated after holding UN sponsored referendum among all people of that country: Eretria from Ethiopia in 1993, Timor L’ Este from Indonesia in 2002 and South Sudan from The Sudan in 2012. The four countries identified above were under “authoritarian rulers”, each country went through military conflict, intervening peace agreement between the combatants, but led to bifurcation with external intervention. The authoritarian rulers could not hold the country together and subsequently they were over thrown too. The bifurcation of countries occurred as the result of colonial powers, forming countries with Nations brought together for only the purpose of administrative convenience exercising their power. Ignoring the historical facts of different Nations and failure to provide constitutional structure to safeguard the rights of every Nation within “newly defined” country borders sowed the seed of dissent between the Nations, eventually leading to break up. At the end of colonial era, almost all countries, gained independence, but problems within “artificial countries” still remain unresolved. Another one to take note is the “Arab Spring” supported by the USA and its allies’ saw many authoritarian rulers were over thrown by people power and other cases by direct or indirect military intervention.
What is Awaiting Sri Lanka?
A new government comes to power in India, as expected in the coming weeks and if statements made during the election campaign are taken seriously or come true; Sri Lanka may have to face new challenges from the new government. The challenges from the new government will be very much different to what was shown by outgoing Indian government; the actions taken by the new government will be more of a challenge than what was faced during the regime of Mrs Indira Gandhi and Mr Rajiv Gandhi. At the same time, the position taken by the USA and its allies is that they want President Mahinda Rajapaksa to positively respond to call to set up an Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the allegations of breach of IHRL and IHL by both combatants in Sri Lanka, but President Rajapaksa has thrown the gauntlet to the International community.
Invasion of Crimea by Russian federation, which was an integral part of Ukraine with a high percentage of Russian speaking population, sets new precedence. In the past, countries that were liberated by intervention became an independent country; whereas Crimea part of Ukraine is annexed by a large and powerful neighbouring country. The USA and the Western allies by imposing economic sanctions against senior members in the Russian federation have shown their disapproval; willing to progressively increase to persuade Russia to change its strategy of occupying Crimea. Currently, Russia stands isolated and alone in the UN Security Council, but with the veto power to frustrate other countries. Where will this lead to is the unknown?
The first three countries that gained freedom from Great Britain: the USA in 1776, Canada in 1867 and Australia in 1901, all established federal structure with each unit within, having freedom to leave the federation by choice. For reasons unknown, Great Britain the colonial power during decolonization set-up countries with centralized power leading to conflict between Nations in “artificially defined countries”. The USA as the only super power with Western allies played a key role in liberation of subjugated nations and India too played such a role in bifurcation to resolve the conflict between Nations in a country. Sri Lanka is at a brink; which way will it move forward? At an opportune moment Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne under the title “The National Question: All about State Power”, delivered the S.J.V. Chelvanayakam Memorial Oration on 26 April 2014, in which he has outlined in detail, how the call for sharing of power between the Sinhala and Tamil people evolved. It should be noted that in July 1926, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike said “Federal government is the only solution”; similar calls have been made by other Sinhala socialist leaders, in the past. Unfortunately, from pre to post Independence period in Sri Lanka, the communal politics has taken precedence over finding a resolution to sharing of power; where many countries have succeeded. President Rajapaksa’s cooperation will lead to a peaceful resolution to establish accountability leading to reconciliation which would avoid military confrontation that occurred in other countries. Will history repeat itself or not?