A stubby man in an open-necked shirt stands against the backdrop of a Buddhist temple in Kelaniya, on the outskirts of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, waving a thick forefinger threateningly in the air. Mervyn Silva, the minister of public relations, growls that traitors should be executed as in the times of ancient kings.
Only days before, Silva also volunteered to break the limbs of Sri Lankan journalists living in exile. He claimed they had campaigned for the US-led resolution initiative in the UN Human Rights Council urging the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to take steps for reconciliation and accountability for war crimes. This time the ‘traitors’ were members of civil society who help to sustain international focus on human rights issues.
Other ministers distanced themselves and the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa from Silva’s murderous rhetoric. But tellingly, neither his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (of which President Rajapaksa is leader) nor the government has disciplined him. They well know that this ‘traitor talk’ sells among the public.
Thousands of civilians died in a bloody climax that ended 30 years of brutal war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and human rights activists have been demanding accountability for war crimes alleged to have been committed by government forces. But the Sri Lankan government insists that such demands are lopsided – given that there is not equal censure of the murderous Tigers – and asks the international community to help rebuild the country instead.
A dramatic recreation of anti-Tamil violence acted out by demonstrators at a 2009 protest in London. Image: CC license, flickr user lewishamdreamer.
Eager to deflect attention from thorny bread-and-butter issues, the government has whipped up patriotic fervour among the public. For weeks preceding the resolution, ministers implied that their heroic president would be hauled up before an international war crimes tribunal. In fact, that was never on the cards.
They also accused the US and its allies of trying to topple the regime. As crowds continually gathered outside Western diplomatic missions, shouting slogans and brandishing angry placards, the government egged them on.
One minister called for a boycott of all US products including Google, Coca Cola and McDonalds. Another from a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist party even warned there would be communal unrest if the resolution went through. It didn’t happen. The protests fizzled out. But the nationalistic rhetoric, though less savage than Silva’s, continues. It appears now that Colombo’s mutinous response to international “meddling” will also remain constant.
The most telling sign of this is Sri Lanka’s belligerent response to the resolution. Among other things, the initiative urges the government to implement the recommendations of a presidential commission of inquiry that tried, albeit ineffectually, to unravel the confusion of the war’s final stages.
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) also offered other proposals to solve longstanding ethnic grievances. For instance, it called for devolution of power, rapid demilitarisation of the North and East where large numbers of minority Tamils live, restoration of law and order, introduction of legislation guaranteeing right to information, payment of reparations to those affected by war, protection of language rights and so on.
Instead of conceding that carrying out such measures would benefit all Sri Lankans, the government is arguing that the UN resolution is non-binding. Worryingly, it has also strongly hinted that the recommendations of its own commission will now fall by the wayside. Nimal Siripala de Silva, a senior minister, said on 26 March that the commission had gone beyond its mandate.
“The government will not treat it as the Dhammapada (Buddhist scripture) or the Bible,” he asserted, at a press conference. “The government will take the final decision on it only after considering the best interest of the future of the people and the country.”
‘Element of balance’
Given that Sri Lanka narrowly defines the resolution as a hostile move, India, which voted in favour of the resolution after initially saying it would oppose the initiative, is now pushing a conciliatory tone with her Southern neighbour.
G L Peiris, Sri Lanka’s external affairs minister, called the Indian decision “a shock”. What’s worse, he said, was that the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced two-and-a-half days before the crucial session that his country was “inclined to vote” for the resolution. Singh’s statement was distributed among members of the council.
Peiris insisted that this drastically altered the arithmetic. (The resolution was passed on 22 March with 24 countries voting in favour and 15 against). Many countries (he didn’t say which) that would have voted against the resolution then either supported it or abstained. Basil Rajapaksa, the powerful economic affairs minister and the president’s brother, expressed disappointment in India. “We had a lot of hope in them because we genuinely thought they will support us,” he said, in a telephone conversation.
Rajapaksa admitted, however, that the decision may have been forced on India by its coalition partners from Tamil Nadu. A senior member of Colombo’s own delegation had revealed early on that the Indians would back his government’s position. Major political parties in Tamil Nadu then furiously lobbied the Manmohan Singh government to change its decision, which it did after weeks of dogged pressure.
Singh’s government, however, knows that while the US can afford to crack the whip, India must maintain the peace in its backyard. So Singh wrote to President Rajapaksa on 24 March, reminding him of how India and its people had supported Sri Lanka during the latter’s struggle against terrorism.
But Singh also emphasised the need for genuine post-war reconciliation and for a political solution that would address, in particular, the grievances of minority Tamils. These are issues Sri Lanka does not like being reminded about by international actors.
Referring to the resolution, Singh pointed out that “we spared no effort and were successful in introducing an element of balance in the language of the resolution”. Indeed, it was India that negotiated with the US to dilute an initiative which many critics said was already too weak.
The original draft called on the Sri Lankan government to accept advice and technical assistance from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in dealing with, among other things, accountability. The amended version encourages that office to provide such cooperation “in consultation with, and with the concurrence of, the Government of Sri Lanka”. It also no longer requires Sri Lanka to “accept” such assistance.
Despite this nth minute intervention – which India said made the resolution less intrusive – Sri Lanka is reticent with gratitude. Peiris is sending around thank-you notes to countries that abstained or voted against the resolution, including China, Russia and Cuba. News reports say India is not a recipient.
Nevertheless, ties between India and Sri Lanka run too long and too deep to be irreparably damaged by this setback. Peiris called it a “rich and radiant relationship” that had survived “stronger and greater shocks in the past than this”. It was time to move on, he stressed. On the contrary, Sri Lanka’s shaky political relationship with the West is likely to worsen.
Several Western diplomats have recently admitted in press interviews that their governments have differences of opinion with the Sri Lankan regime, particularly on the need for accountability. Diplomatic sources warn that continuing to delay on reconciliation and accountability issues will mean harsher action on Sri Lanka in future. If domestic mechanisms are not functioning – or if the government is incapable of or unwilling to execute these functions – that is a basis for international mechanisms to take over, explained one official, requesting anonymity. More resolutions, he warned, may be in the offing.
Perhaps this is why Sri Lanka is undertaking a major redeployment of its diplomatic missions abroad. The ministry of external affairs has confirmed that they will phase out several offices in Europe and open new ones in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Sri Lanka, it appears, is going where the votes are. While Europe and the US remain its largest trading partners, countries in other geopolitical blocs are easier to win over in international fora.
After winning a difficult battle at home, it would seem that Sri Lanka is gearing up for a war of another kind.
~ Namini Wijedasa is a senior freelance journalist based in Colombo. (Himal South Asian)