By G K Nathan –
Subjugation of Tamils is followed by Attacks on Muslims and Christians, What are the available Options to International Community?
Current Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) will be under intense scrutiny at the 25th session of the United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at Geneva in March 2014 for alleged violations of International Humanitarian and Human Right Laws during the last stages of military conflict which ended on 18 May 2009. Battle line has been drawn between GSL supported by their friendly countries on one side, most of them have dubious human right records in their own country, against others in the forefront calling for human rights in Sri Lanka and they are: International community led by the USA, former colonial power the UK, EU etc; a number of International Non-Government Organizations (INGO) which are on record challenging the human rights record of President Rajapaksa and about a million Tamil Diaspora in democratic countries of which a sizable number unwillingly abandoned their former home land caused by repeated pogroms and sought refuge. From the first GSL at the time of independence in 1948, to date we have had 15 Prime Ministers and Presidents, became the head of government after becoming a Republic, all are Sinhala Buddhists and all them have failed to find unity in diversity in a country with multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious population, instead the gap between the two major communities Sinhala and Tamil has continued to widen, even after the end of military conflict. During that period the constitution of Sri Lanka was revised twice, both times the rights of minorities were further eroded and the power was consolidated in the hands of Sinhala Buddhist majority; only Sinhala Buddhists either born or converted from Christianity have been the head of government, contrary to practices in other countries, current head of government of India is a Sikh, many others have been head of Indian government in the past. In Sri Lanka the three major ethnic groups are: Sinhala, Tamil and Muslims (Arab descendents); speak two different languages: Sinhala and Tamil. Sri Lankan follow all four major religions: Buddhism (69.3%) mostly Sinhalese, Hinduism (15.5%) mostly Tamils, Islam (9.7%) – the Arab descendents most of them are fluent in Tamil language and the last group Christians (7.4%) is made up from both Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups. Military subjugation of Tamils followed by euphoria of military victory and ensuing celebrations led by the GSL, as Tamils silently watched, turned the attention of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists, who were responsible for the genesis of Sinhala – Tamil conflict in the post Independence era, to other religious groups. In addition, failure of GSL to address the resolutions passed at the UNHRC and the soft approach pursued by the International community made the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists who propagate that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country to act against other religious minorities with impunity. Failure of GSL to stop the attack on places of worships aggravated the religious harmony in the country. This dark truth was documented in ‘Restrictions on Religion 2012,’ in the January 2014 report by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre which records a 40% global increase in religious hostilities. While the countries with ‘very high religious hostilities’ rose from 14 to 20%, six countries including Sri Lanka recorded very high social hostilities in 2012. The other countries that shared this dubious honour with Sri Lanka were Syria, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar, countries that cannot boast of political stability or civil liberties. The International community while pursuing the recent human rights record in the country must also take into consideration what has happened in the past and the constitutional structure promulgated by the UK at the time of independence, both need to be examined closely to avoid the recurrence of six decades long human rights violations, Sri Lanka is a signatory in June 11, 1980 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Current Situation in Sri Lanka
President Rajapaksa enjoys autocratic power in the country, he and his clan have almost total power and if he wanted to bring about reconciliation he could have done it; probably he fears the fate of former Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranayake, who introduced “Sinhala only Bill of 1956”, later was murdered by a Buddhist monk for conceding very limited rights to Tamils in 1958. This quagmire, into which Sri Lanka has buried itself, makes it difficult to find an internal resolution to six decades long conflict. He, instead of bringing reconciliation between major ethnic groups, he silently witnessing a religious war that has been unleashed, spearheaded by chauvinist Sinhala Buddhist organizations such as: Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Sihala Ravaya (SR) and Ravana Balaya (RB) against the minority groups, to be on the same side of oppressors of minority groups. These events without any doubt justify the immediate international intervention to establish peace in the country and to prevent the repetition of the past horror events, such as pogroms. The minority religious groups: Christians and Moslems became the new target. Increased attacks on other religions may have been given succour because of failure of the International community to bring to justice those who allegedly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka, during the military conflict. The current government is neither preventing nor prosecuting chauvinists in courts of law, which gives the impression of tacit approval for such acts. Unfortunately, Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists supported by hardliners at all levels of the current government propagate that “Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist Country”, contrary to historical facts, which cast doubts whether current slow and delayed approach by the International community will ever promote an outcome to establish a constitutional structure where all citizens enjoy equal rights. Because from the past record one can conclude that the current GSL uses their tacit support led by defence secretary to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists to gain electoral advantages at the expense of unity between communities; this is what happened in the past. The GSL used a strategy to exploit the war victory in 2009, to gain electoral advantage in 2010; before due date, conducted Parliamentary followed by Presidential elections to consolidated power at the helm. A similar strategy is being pursued now, to use the attack on religious minorities and the outcome at the forthcoming UNHRC meeting to turn it to their favour and conduct Parliamentary and Presidential elections later this year. President Rajapaksa to send a message to the International community that democracy and Tamils rights are being recognized; he held the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election late last year. To the President’s disappointment, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had a landslide victory confirming the division in the country between Tamils and Sinhala Buddhists and Tamils totally rejecting President Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. The NPC has no real power; even passing a resolution in support of the International Inquiry into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity was condemned by key people in the government and called for sacking of the NPC for such an act. The GSL is holding two provincial council elections in the Western (populated with all three ethnic groups) and Southern (mostly Sinhala Buddhists) provinces, in the same period UNHRC March 2014 session is being held, to assess the political support for the regime, also to exploit any adverse resolution to gain the sympathy of the Sinhala masses. Sri Lanka has, to its credit, conducted regular election, but at the same time elections outcome are used to suppress the minority groups, as well as to consolidate power in the hands of the Sinhala people in this instance in the hands of Rajapaksa regime. The 18th amendment to constitution was passed after 2010 election, removing the two term limitation to the seat of presidency. Under the current amended constitution, President and his family can be in power emulating former North Korean leaders, father, son, grandson lineage.
There are more evidence of fresh attacks on Christians and Muslims places of worship, since the military victory; but on Hindu places of worship continues that started many decades earlier. After the end of military conflict structural genocide of Tamils’ homeland is taking place, currently. The current regime of Sri Lanka uses these attacks to gain support of Sinhala Buddhists and there are number of media reports, a typical few are given here:
- Attack on Christians and Moslems in Sri Lanka in videos
- In Sri Lanka, Muslims replacing Tamils as perceived enemy
- The Voice of Martyrs – Sri Lanka Country Report
- SRI LANKA: Christians Targeted in Several Attacks
The Rajapaksa regime, neither conceding any responsibility for what happened in the country during the conflict nor willing to examine the reasons for the start of Sinhala-Tamil conflict which eventually pushed the youth to take up arms with support of India; the regime charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity is not in a position to advanced the path to reconciliation between different minority groups in Sri Lanka. The two factors: truth of what happened during the military conflict and the cause for Sinhala – Tamil conflict have to be scrutinized in pursuit of justice and reconciliation between ethnic communities in Sri Lanka. The GSL claims that the war was won without the breach of International humanitarian and human rights laws, then, why is the reluctance to support independent investigation? President Rajapaksa’s claim that the GSL won the war against “terrorists” contrary to a well quoted statement that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” which has been quoted by well known Internationally renowned personalities, as well as there are Nobel laureates among so called “terrorists”. Rather than bring about reconciliation between victors and losers in the conflict, the religious minorities’ have come under attack. The initial support lent by some countries to conduct the war neither knowing the “reason for the conflict” nor the “atrocities committed by the combatants” and subsequent indifferent initiatives by the International community is helping the regime to continue to carry on its agenda to establish autocracy of Rajapaksa family. The regime gives a freehand to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists to attack religious minorities and add spice to their propaganda by calling active Tamil Diaspora as “remnants of LTTE” or as “terrorists” to hide their own agenda. The current regime’s preconceived positions on the conflict influenced by their own propaganda advocated by President Rajapaksa, makes it impossible for the current regime neither to find the truth nor to advance a solution to the conflict. The only option is external intervention and establishment of an Independent International Inquiry (III) under the auspice of UN Secretary General or UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; which will lead to the truth about war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taking note of the failure of current regime, to respond to a call for accountability from world leaders and their tacit support for religious intolerance from extremists put the onus on the International community to determine a path to reconciliation to protect the rights of helpless minority groups that suffers since Independence in 1948.
International Intervention and the Military Conflict
First international intervention took place with the visit of United Nation Secretary General (UNSG) Ban Ki-Moon to Sri Lanka on 23rd march 2009 and issued a joint statement with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a couple of months before the end of military conflict. The joint statement “underlined the importance of an accountability process” and President Rajapaksa agreed that he “will take measures to address those grievances” of Tamils by setting up an inquiry; subsequently, two reports were released one from UN Panel of Experts (31 March 2011) appointed by UNSG and the other LLRC (16 December 2011) appointed by the President. UN reports from Panel of Experts emphasized the need for independent inquiry into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. On the contrary, the LLRC report failed to mention anything about civilians’ death, but the report omitting the number of civilian death supported President Rajapaksa’s claim that war was fought with “zero civilian casualties”. The G8 Foreign Ministers issued a joint statement on 25 April 2009 said: “We, the Foreign Ministers of the G8, express our deep concern about the mass civilian casualties and deteriorating humanitarian situation in Northern Sri Lanka ….. It is time for the conflict to end now. The G8 Foreign Ministers support all relevant international efforts to bring about such an end and will keep on monitoring closely the situation in Sri Lanka.” Prior to issuing of this by G8 foreign ministers, the UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Foreign Minister of France, Bernard Kouchner visited Sri Lanka and tried to impress upon Sri Lanka President, the need for a cease fire; after that both said their mission failed, as GSL turned it down saying it will not serve any purpose. This conclusion again poses the question whether the GSL will sway from their own agenda, which is to establish a Sinhala Buddhist State, opptrssing all minority groups and their rights. Looking back now at events that occurred during the conflict and the number of people killed as determined in an academic type of survey by The Social Architects, which gave the figure of 118,036 as the number of people perished during the period between September 2008 and May 2009. The UNSG appointed two panels, the first one panel of experts and the second one was a review panel, which said about 40,000 and 70,000 people respectively, may have been killed in the last few months of the military conflict. Unless an independent study is conducted to prove otherwise, the above estimated number of people killed looks closer to the truth. Based on circumstantial evidences, submitted by the Bishop of Mannar to LLRC, in which the number of missing people is given as 146,679 which was determined from the number at the beginning of the last phase of conflict based on data from regional secretariat and number of people who were incarcerated at the camps run by GSL.
The first public pronouncement of III was made on the shores of Sri Lanka by the Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, at the eve of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka in November 2013; the UK will take the initiative at UNHRC, if Sri Lanka failed to act before March 2014. This was reiterated last week by the call from the Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband at the meeting he had with Tamil representatives of British Tamil Forum. He would use his position in the UK Parliament to request the British government to take the initiative to set-up the III at the 25th session of UNHRC. The UK parliament which passed the Ceylon Independence Act of 1947 with a Unitary Constitution in a multiethnic, multilingual and multilingual population sowed the seed of conflict, the UK government has the moral responsibility for the current situation in Sri Lanka. The UK Prime Minister and the Leader of the opposition should be commended for their act for calling for III. The same parliament approved of a referendum to the people of Scotland to decide whether they wanted to be part of the British Union or not? Having noted the oppression of the successive governments of Sri Lanka, the Britain has moral responsibility to pursue the path of self-determination for the people of Tamil homeland with the help of International community through UN Security Council. This looks the only option, based on the past records of Sinhala dominated Governments of Sri Lanka. The leader of the Opposition in the New Zealand has also endorsed the support for the III on alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, there are more countries which support this call.
The US Ambassador at Large at the Office of Global Criminal Justice, Stephen J Rapp, made a weeklong visit to Sri Lanka last January, to hold talks with officials and leaders from the South and the North. His second visit to the island and comes ahead of another US sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in March 2014. He met with government officials, political and civil society leaders to discuss issues focusing on Sri Lanka’s justice, accountability and reconciliation. He received specific evidence of events that occurred during the conflict from the victims in the present of political and religious leaders. What appears to have hit the UPFA Government most during Rapp’s visit to Colombo is the tweet posted on the US Embassy’s official site. It read: “St Anthony’s Ground – site of Jan 2009 killings of hundreds of families by army shelling.” The post was accompanied by a photograph of both Stephen Rapp and Ambassador Sison standing on the same grounds, which angered Sri Lanka military, Reuter reported. Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal visited Sri Lanka and met with leaders from the South and the North, told reporters in Colombo that U.S. to propose new UN rights resolution against Sri Lanka at the forthcoming UNHRC meeting because of “Lack of progress in Sri Lanka has led to great deal of frustration and scepticism in my government and in the international community” and added: Rights, Democracy ‘under Threat’ in Sri Lanka. Ms Nisha Biswal, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, on conclusion of her visit to Sri Lanka said that “Colombo had failed to ensure reconciliation, justice and accountability, and pressure was building for a foreign probe.”
Immediate Action is Needed to Protect the Peoples in Sri Lanka
Minority groups, in particular, Tamils, Moslems and Christians have been deprived of their fundamental rights because government actions and lack of protections against the attacks by Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists who have taken law and order into their hands. Members of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) a number of them either experienced or witnessed atrocities that occurred in the country have supported the call by the International community for an III. It is a universally recognized democratic right of the members elected body in this case, NPC to convey their opinion which was denied to Northern Tamils for almost a quarter of a century, because the election was delayed until last year. The Members of Sri Lanka parliament of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which represents the people of Tamil Homeland, the North East Sri Lanka, have joined the NPC members to support the call for III at the forth coming UNHRC 25th session in March 2014. Tamil people exercise of their democratic rights for justice and reconciliation was not welcome by the GSL, as their focus is only on denial of what happened during the last phase of the military conflict. The first pogrom against Muslims by Sinhala people occurred in 1915. After independence, demand for equal rights by Tamils was met by repeated pogroms in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1977, 1981 and 1983, but the military confrontation started between Tamil militants and the Sri Lanka military which stopped the pogroms for 26 years. The future looks bleak, only International intervention can guarantee democratic rights of all peoples and prevent future pogroms in Sri Lanka. International community has to act prior to pogrom, not after.
Allegations against both combatants, Sri Lanka Armed Forces (SLAF) under the command of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and call for inquiry are based on two independent reports from panels appointed by UNSG; photographic evidence of war presented by International media, in particular, videos from Channel 4; reports from INGOs and statements from foreign departments of Western governments; persuaded the International community led by the USA to take action at the UNHRC. The first one was at the 19th session in March 2012 and the second one at 22nd session in March 2013. The UNHRC resolutions passed called upon the GSL to implement recommendations of their own LLRC final report, but GSL has failed to respond positively, instead the GSL has chosen the path of procrastination to avoid facing the unbiased scrutiny, independently. At the same time Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists and minor parties in GSL are calling for action against those calling for III, within the country. The GSL is only focussed on infrastructure developments, foreign dignitaries who visits Sri Lanka, positively comment on GSL’s development efforts. But, failing to take note of victims of the conflict, either missing or dead, to the family members what happened to their loved ones are important than exhibition of bricks and mortar; justice to the victims is paramount for reconciliation to begin, which GSL has failed to recognize. To date the internal probe has not worked, but continuation of efforts along that path will assist the GSL agenda to procrastinate and continue the slow death of minority groups rights. Tamil political leaders and many International Community leaders have called for an Independent International Inquiry so that truth will be known, before healing of decades long conflict can begin.
The unitary constitution promulgated by the colonial power the UK, at the time of independence in 1948 handed power to the majority Sinhala Buddhist ethnic group; powerful chauvinists’ groups, propagated that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country, contrary to history of the Island. The governments since Independence in 1948 have used chauvinists’ propaganda for electoral advantages, including the current regime which exploited more than others. Unfortunately ethnicity, language and religion of both major Sinhala and Tamils groups are distinctly different, also there is no common bond between the two groups. In contrast during the colonial rule, there was a common link which was English language, brought people together on a common platform. Introduction of National languages without amenable constitutional structure led to alienation of the two language groups, from each other. The disagreement on finding a constitutional structure which began prior to independence in 1948 between Sinhala and Tamil nations led to failed political negotiations, peaceful non-violent agitations and to Tamil youth militancy which finally ended with subjugation of minority Tamil Nation by majority Sinhala Nation preceded by military victory. Future calamity can only be avoided by taking decisive actions against the regime heading towards authoritarianism, which is also opposed by many Sinhala people. International community seeking peaceful resolution of the conflict should accept that in a multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious population, a new accommodative constitution is needed to build peace. The International community should take into considerations the dysfunctional relationship that exists between the Sinhala and the Tamil Nations since independence in 1948. If the Independent International Inquiry proposed by International community fails to bring about reconciliation in an amicable and meaningful way, sharing power between all groups, Tamil Nation which has lived in the Island as long as the Sinhala Nation must be allowed through the UN Security council process to exercise their Right to self determination guaranteed under ICCPR.