The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) controlled Northern Provincial Council (NPC), which was reconstituted in September 2013, set in motion its political machination with what seemed like an honest intention to experiment politics of collaboration and cooperation with the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Chief Minister elect, C.V.Wigneswaran went all the way to Colombo to take oaths before the President in his official residence, Temple Trees. The TNA also acknowledged the need to work with the government to better serve the people of the North. Given the problematic nature of relations and the history between the two groups, the TNA should have known that politics of collaboration was not going to be easy.
Obviously, the TNA made series of demands, which it argued were necessary to carry forward the provincial administration. The Government which has several on-going projects in the North to ensure national security from Colombo’s point of view, refused. For example, the TNA wanted the Governor and the Chief Secretary of the Province replaced. The Government ignored them.
Disappointed, the Council turned hostile and is currently making radical decisions. One of these radical actions is the recent resolution adopted in the NPC calling for an “international investigation” into the alleged human rights violations committed or what the council calls “ethnic cleansing” by the Sri Lankan armed forces. The call was made in view of the upcoming UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva where Sri Lanka’s human rights record will come under scrutiny.
The NPC resolution is highly problematic for several reasons. First of all, it seems that the Council is suggesting that it is the decision of the Tamil people and the resolution reflects their feelings. This assertion is unsubstantiated. There is no evidence to suggest that the TNA or the provincial administration consulted the people of the North before moving the resolution and getting it ratified. What is imperative to note here is that the whole idea of an international investigation did not emanate from the Tamil groups in Sri Lanka and indeed it was mooted by the some of the vocal Tamil diaspora groups and Western states. Then the TNA adopted the idea and went to Geneva to prop up the call for an international investigation.
The Tamil people on the other hand remained ignorant of these projects including the call for greater ethnic harmony and reconciliation as they had several immediate and burning issues to resolve. They are concerned about and they actively seek resolution to the problems such as disappeared kith and kin, resettlement and normalization. They do not believe that an international investigation will resolve these problems. Therefore, as of today, the resolution remains the action of some of the radical members of the NPC and the TNA.
Second, currently it is the United States which leads the campaign against Sri Lanka on accountability issues in the UN Human Rights Council and promotes what it calls a credible international investigation. So far the US has successfully introduced two resolutions and it is highly possible that yet another resolution will be presented in March this year. However, one cannot easily believe that the US is carrying forward this campaign purely on human rights and humanitarian concerns and spending substantial time and energy with the wellbeing of minority communities in mind. After all the US was an ally who propped up the Sri Lankan government’s military campaign against the LTTE.
One of the plausible hypotheses which could make sense is that the US is trying to remain relevant in Sri Lanka through the UNHRC process. The US was a traditional ally of Sri Lanka and carried considerable clout. This position was lost to China in the recent past as the Asia giant has made serious inroads into Sri Lanka and emerged as the most powerful external actor. The UNHRC process however offers the US an opportunity to have a say in the affairs of Sri Lanka.
Currently, all sorts of American officials are visiting Sri Lanka on fact finding missions or to offer assistance. The point is that the American actions are motivated by strategic designs and interest. The Northern Provincial Council, which is trying to buttress the American projects with its own resolution, could become a casualty if and when the US strategic interests are achieved. Therefore, the NPC has a responsibility to tread carefully on this issue rather than acting on erroneous assumptions.
Third, the NPC resolution assumes that an independent international investigation against Sri Lanka is possible as it is the primary cry of the Western states. The NPC resolution was passed with the aim of strengthening this possibility. This could also be a flawed assumption. For example, every time the United States commences the UNHRC process with the “talk” of independent international investigation, but ends up passing resolutions which extend assistance to promote reconciliation etc. for two reasons. One, the US is not really serious about an international investigation and two, Sri Lanka has powerful friends within the UNHRC which could water down hardline provisions in any resolutions against the country.
China has already declared that Sri Lankans are capable of handling their internal issues and it will do everything within its capacity to prevent an international investigation. Of significance is the fact that Sri Lanka has two close allies in the Security Council; China and Russia. Therefore, any action undertaken by the NPC or Tamil groups on the premise that an international investigation is feasible could backfire as they would create unnecessary hostilities and even backlash.
Finally, the current NPC resolution ignited memories of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) by the first North-East Provincial Administration in 1990. Chief Minister Varadaraja Perumal passed a resolution declaring independence before escaping to India when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) withdrew from Sri Lanka in March 1990. Perumal’s resolution lacked thoughtful deliberation or an action plan, but had serious political consequences. Treating the resolution as treachery President Premadasa dissolved the North-East Provincial Council.
Similarly, the current resolution of the NPC also lacks clear comprehension of political reality. What the Tamil nationalists in Sri Lanka failed to understand is that a separate state of or for the Tamils is not feasible. It will not happen. This reality forces the Tamil political parties to work towards greater devolution of power. The resolution on the other hand diminishes the possibility of power sharing as Sinhala conception that any devolved powers will be used to promote separatism and against the Sri Lankan state is now reinforced. Like Perumal’s resolution, the present NPC resolution will also be seen by the Sinhala people as treacherous. In other words, instead of promoting power sharing, the resolution undermines it.
Also, what the radical Tamil nationalists need to understand is, like Perumal’s resolution, the present one could also be used to justify action against or even dissolve the NPC. The NPC did not come about as a natural consequence of the end of the war. It took four years to conduct the NPC election and it became a reality largely due to the pressure from India. Even now, the Northern Provincial administration does not possess powers to execute its responsibilities as the Center appointed Governor remains a powerful force. Therefore, if and when the government decides to challenge the NPC, the present resolution and similar actions could be used as justifications.
Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland. Email: [email protected]
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