By Jehan Perera –
Within a week of former government’s second electoral defeat, this time at the general election, two senior representatives of the United States paid a rare joint visit to Sri Lanka. They were the first representatives of foreign powers to visit the country after the elections. They came even before parliament has met and the new government has been formed. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was one of only three ministers to be appointed at the time of their visit. The speed of his appointment may have been due to the rapport he has demonstrated with the hitherto alienated sections of the international community. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Sri Lanka after the presidential election and referred to him publicly as a friend. It can only help that Sri Lanka is viewed by the US positively at this time and not negatively.
The visit of US Assistant Secretaries Nisha Biswal and Tom Malinowski was a reconfirmation of the importance that the world’s dominant power places in Sri Lanka. At the height of the Rajapaksa presidency in 2009 when the confrontation between the former government and the US-led international community was building up, a visiting US Senate delegation recommended that Sri Lanka was too important a country for the US to lose. This was when the United States was leading the campaign to compel the Sri Lankan government to accept an international investigation into human rights violations in the last phase of the country’s internal war. The Rajapaksa government responded by mobilising anti-West sentiment both within the country and internationally to protect the Sri Lanka’s sovereign right to conduct investigations into itself.
The basic problem for Sri Lanka during the Rajapaksa government was that it did not wish to deal with the past. This proved to be a fatal mistake and led that government on a course of confrontation not only with the international community but also with the Tamil and Muslim ethnic minorities that ultimately led to its political downfall. The last phase of the war was brutal, and it was not only the government that was to blame but also the LTTE and all who supported it. The gross human rights and terrorist record of the LTTE meant that most governments worldwide were willing to be understanding of the Sri Lankan government’s predicament in waging war against the LTTE. But instead of accepting that human rights violations had occurred during the war and that it would do its utmost to repair the damage, the government denied it all and behaved as if there was no problematic past to be dealt with or for which it bore responsibility.
During their brief visit to Sri Lanka the visiting US officials met with a range of parties in the country. Prior to their departure they announced that the United States would be advocating for a domestic investigation into the past as against the international one they had been pressing for with the Rajapaksa government. This provides a second chance to the Sri Lankan government. The first chance that Sri Lanka had was in 2009 shortly after the war ended. In that year the UN Human Rights Council discussed the end of the war in Sri Lanka and after a debate and vote, it agreed that Sri Lanka should investigate the past through its national processes. But apart from setting up the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, the Rajapaksa government did not meet the concerns of the international community.
Instead of establishing a domestic inquiry into human rights violations that occurred during the war, and also instituting political reforms that would address the roots of the conflict, the Rajapaksa government adopted a belligerent posture towards the Western countries and human rights organisations. It pointed out the double standards that were being employed by them and accused them of hypocrisy. It also took a decision to engage with other sections of the international community and looked towards Asia and Africa for new friends to support it in the diplomatic contest with the West. It found a champion in China with Russia playing a supportive role. It took reassurance in their support to ensure that its political and military leadership would not be taken before international tribunals. Within the country the former government leaders pledged to even go to the electric chair to defend the military that won the war and sought to gain political support from the people.
Sri Lanka’s dependence on the anti-West coalition had negative diplomatic consequences for the country that the Rajapaksa government failed to foresee. It put the country in the shameful company of countries such as Syria, Libya and North Korea which became its allies. It also meant a burdensome dependence on China from which the present government will need to carefully extricate itself. The massive loans the former government took from China for white elephant projects such as the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport at Mattala and the Mahinda Rajapaksa Port in Hambantota cannot be paid back as those projects have become disasters. No responsible lender ought to have made such loans. The Mattala airport has only one passenger flight per day, which is operated by a budget airline Fly Dubai, and with very few passengers. The port is empty of ships with the one moving around being a sand ship. Most of those who visit the airport and port are local tourists who come in three wheelers and in buses.
If the new government can obtain economic support from the international community to correct the mistakes of the past it will be a great boon. The willingness of the United States to revise its previous insistence on an international mechanism to investigate the past, and to express its willingness for a national mechanism, is a sign of trust in the new government. It is not only the United States that is placing its trust in the new government, but also the majority of voters, which includes a high proportion of the Tamil and Muslim minorities in the country. At the presidential elections President Maithripala Sirisena obtained an overwhelming majority of votes of the Tamils and Muslims. This is a trust that he and the new government will need to nurture by actions that are fair by the ethnic minorities who have placed their trust in him. At the general elections Tamil parties that contested on hard line nationalist sentiment were badly defeated.
It was reported in the media that the government has shared its draft of the mechanism that would deal with the past with the visiting US officials. It is also important that the government should open the discussion on its draft proposals with the Tamil parties and civil society and obtain their feedback. Sri Lanka is at a fortuitous place where the international community stands ready to assist the positive initiatives of its government and the government is willing to accept such assistance. However, the purpose of the national mechanism must be to ensure healing and reconciliation within the country, and this will not come from only satisfying the international community, but also must satisfy the people of all ethnicities and all communities that justice is being done, and in particular to those who require their lives to be rebuilt.
The decision of the US to support a domestic mechanism rather than an international one will be disappointing to those sections of the Tamil polity and civil society who are acutely conscious of the repeated failures of Sri Lankan commissions of inquiry and committees to deliver justice to them. They have witnessed these efforts come to naught so that their feeling of being let down is understandable. They were expecting an international investigation which they felt would be the best way to compel the Sri Lankan government to implement whatever findings were made or possibly face sanctions imposed by the international community. However, whether this would have been a viable option is open to question. An international investigation would have generated a backlash of Sinhalese nationalism which would have been beneficial to the electorally defeated nationalists who have now been relegated to the opposition and give them the opportunity to stage a political comeback. Even in the case of the domestic mechanism, it is necessary that the agreement of the Sinhalese majority should be obtained for the reforms and reparations that are needed. It needs to have everyone’s buy in, and must be seen benefiting the future generations who will live in the country.