By Ravi Sundaralingam
The 19th UNHRC sessions in Switzerland is drawing much attention from the Lankan officials and some of the Expatriate Tamil communities. Strangely only the Tamil National alliance (TNA) seems to have a sensible view about the whole set up. We refer only to TNA’s decision not to put in a show in Geneva.
Recently, contrary to its politics, class base, and tradition TNA also took part in the working peoples’ protests about living conditions, albeit on the UNP stage as the ‘moderate’ Tamil parties the TULF, Federal Party, Tamil Congress Party have done in the past.
These two unusual steps make some think that TNA is finally accepting its responsibilities to every Tamil speaking community, and willing to address every issue that affects all the communities in the island.
If it’s past history and traditional base were considered one would conclude these as cosmetic and political ploys.
If they were due to advice received, they certainly could not have been from the Expatriate Tamils, who have been advising the LTTE in the past and with whom it associates mainly for financial support.
TNA was launched as the LTTE’s political front in the Lankan Parliament, and nowhere else, at a time when others were proposing and making good progress towards a Tamil National Council (TNC), to bring about a political unity among the various Tamil groups and factions.
The atmosphere was poisonous and dangerous due to the murders of two LTTE persons in Paris, which LTTE falsely blamed EPDP therefore, real threat existed for all when we met Douglas Devananda, then a minister in President Chandrika’s government.
Yet, we were able to come to a concrete understanding, which was based on three positions,
i. immediate end to internecine murders (Sakothara padukollaikal),
ii. acceptance that all groups have the right to be present in the North and East, and
iii. the need to seek a political settlement to end violence in Sri Lanka.
During this period we had established communication with the LTTE leadership, then based in Vavuniya, who indicated ‘serious interest’ in making further progress. Yet, while these ‘talks’ were in place LTTE made yet another attempt on Devananda’s life, this time when the he was visiting Tamil prisoners in Colombo, due to which he lost his vision slightly in one of his eyes. That was the end of TNC, followed by the birth of TNA.
Therefore, pardon our scepticism about the TNA from their time of its inception, during the time it functioned as the LTTE’s political representatives in Colombo and now having become the sole inheritors of the LTTE’s legacy.
Beside its history, TNA is neither a party nor democratic organisation, which the public debate about its Geneva non-participation showed. It is a collection of defunct Tamil militant groups with few remaining members, but totally dominated by the old/new Federal Party members.
Still, in recent times there is detectable transformation within it perhaps, due to local and regional realities.
Firstly, there is a shift in its position on the type of investigation Lankans should have on the violation of human rights. It no longer demands for international investigation and says a local independent investigation would suffice. This is a departure from its past, and also from the GTF, which still wants an international investigation, and other old LTTE outfits that are still arguing for Tamil Eelam.
Secondly, it seems to understand the need to separate the political issues arsing from Tamil grievances and the grievances arsing from the state’s excesses.
Tamil grievances/violation of international laws
The Tamil grievances against the Lankan state come in three categories:
1. The state organised/sponsored program of political and economical marginalisation.
2. The denial of their belongings and the right to their belongings.
3. The excesses and acts against humanity committed during its war against the LTTE.
The entire focus seems to be on the third, and in particular only about the final days of May 2009. We do not know what exactly convinced TNA not to be part of the UNHRC sessions in Geneva however, we list our own reservations.
Firstly the victims, the Tamils are expected to be only play the part of bystanders. We do not blame the international community entirely for this situation.
Since the events in Wanni in 2009,
- The TNA or any Tamil organisations have not made an organised effort to compile a list of those who might have died in the Mulliyavaikaal, and affidavits of any witnesses.
- The forensic evidence due the carnage was never gathered and, even with our limited knowledge on this subject we are sure, the chances of gathering, verifying the evidence to identify those died, and how they died are very slim indeed after almost three years.
- Whatever evidence there are at present, they seemed to be in the hands of powerful outsiders, who had supported the government’s war against the LTTE in every possible way.
- This information, either gathered from the “intelligence” or bought from the personnel present during the events is systematically released through the Western media. The ownership removed from the victims leaving the chance to question its authenticity.
- Even the number of people died during the final phase, and the three decades have been changed many times by international bodies. These due to the qualitative assessments of the gathered intelligence than the quantitative data collected on the ground. While it creates suspicions about the motivations it also belittles the lives of the victims.
- This situation does not empower the TNA or any Tamil organisations to present a consistent case against the state, a case the Tamils certainly have.
Secondly, it only puts the TNA and the Tamils at odds with the Lankan government, a position the TNA leader Sampanthan has tried articulate without much initial success with his colleagues it seems. Besides, it also makes the Tamils depend entirely on others, apparently working in the ‘interests’ of the victims.
Since, Tamils have no access to the evidence, process, or the institutions, and the outcome of the process and the eventual political settlement are difficult to assess or predict, the process makes them vulnerable on the ground.
This is especially so, when you note that it was the international community that supported the state during the war knowing it will diminish the Tamils’ as a people in the island. As for the major powers, logics suggest that decision must have superseded by another; ‘the Lankan Tamils are no longer needed to serve their interests in the island’.
We should have learned that, “Minorities may be used to destabilise a country or region, but when strategic stabilisation of a region is required the majority community is the key.”
Thirdly, it also alienates the Tamils in the South and South East Asian countries’ regional perspectives.
The countries in these regions are a mixture of feudal and tribal societies and, despite any leftist rhetoric the leaderships are politically and socially conservative. Thus, there is an immediate and instinctive reaction to the terminologies and ideals of Human rights, which are considered Western by the socially-conservatives, and decadence by the leftists. Even those strategically with the West oppose its ideals and practices. The fact, the West uses it as part of its foreign policy strategy or as a tool against its strategic opponents doesn’t help the cause of Human Rights either.
If these were the practical arguments that prompted the TNA not to be part of a process in Geneva, then it makes good sense.
War criminals to LLRC and local investigation
Initial “Peoples struggle” was against the state’s military advances into the ‘Wanni state’ was by the LTTE supporters realising only an outcry from outside could save their organisation.
The video clips soon revealed the condition of the Tamil hostages held by the LTTE and the impending disaster, which forced most of the Tamils to join in to make it a broader protest.
After the defeat of the LTTE, and the atrocities close to genocide became evident the campaign naturally took to the ideals of human rights.
However, the organisational capability and the control over the campaign were and still are with the old Expatriate LTTE leadership. Their strategy was to secure the support of the West to prosecute the Rajapakse brothers, and leaders of the armed forces including Sarath Fonseka as war criminals. To this effect there were some cases lodged against a few, who held posts in Lankan Mission in Western countries. And there was a sense of euphoria among the Expatriate communities and a belief that the West was with them in their quest.
By the time the debacle of Mahinda’s Oxford Lecture happened some must have realised the freedom of movement of those they are targeting were being established by such trips. Then it should have become apparent that the international community was working on a closure and reconciliation than revenge or prosecutions.
Then came the UNSG Commissioned Report on the violations, which seemed to justify continuing a sense of optimism for some, though the underlying trends suggested otherwise. A report that wasn’t put to the UNSC or general floor went through its phases via the UNHRC only as a reference point, yet it had lot of potency because it was a West initiative.
Soon it went out of focus and the international community urged the government to take genuine actions to investigate and start a process of reconciliation. Mahinda put the chief of the armed forces, Sarth Fonseka, one of the accused for the atrocities in Wanni, in prison.
Grudgingly, complying to the demands due to Darusman report the government came up with the LLRC report, which has been welcomed by the West, and now also by the TNA and the GTF as a progress, though it has very little reference to the fundamental issues that has given rise to Tamil militancy.
West and human rights
Lankan state cannot deny these atrocities any longer or justify them on the basis of the double standard by the West.
Human rights are absolute and justifications to violate them have to come from real reasoning and moral credentials. Every state violates them basing their justifications on the democratic decisions of the parliaments or on the basis of national defence.
Yet, the precedents set by another state or the double standards by the West cannot be used by a state for its actions.
The US and the West consistently violates human rights in the developing world. No one was held responsible for the 13 million perished in the Indo-China war, where the number of bombs dropped accounted thousands of times more than dropped in the WWII. The death and mayhem caused in Iraq and Afghanistan in the “collateral damages” runs into hundreds of thousands for which no one will be held accountable. The UNSG is hardly likely to appoint a commission to find the truths about these claims. But, we know all this. However, the West does not call them “our” people with equal human rights, when they drop bombs on them or commit extrajudicial killings using the drones.
It is to the West, even most of us critical of its rights records, want to escape or migrate from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, and not to Russia or China.
Therefore, to claim the ‘West’s rights’ to kill “our” people to “liberate” them from terrorism or fight against foreign designs seem a flawed argument.
But Lankans are correct on a couple of points.
Firstly, there is no doubt the government has liberated many from the LTTE whom it didn’t kill or lives of those it hasn’t accounted for yet.
Secondly, it is also correct to point out the LTTE as a major violator of human rights, for which no one is being held accountable. This is a fact that cannot be denied anymore, so we see belated apologies starting to appear from the LTTE supporters until its bitter end.
One such feat was an open letter regretting the expulsion of the Tamil Muslim communities from their homes, a decade after the LTTE had apologised. To see the names on the list, who vehemently justified LTTE’s every human right violation with their own brand of rationale and ignorance with statements such as, “LTTE would not do anything without proper reason” is real progress indeed, irrespective of their motives.
Lankan authorities’ woes
Is it true the Lankan authorities are so worked up simply because of a call for the implementation of their own findings? Are the resolutions forwarded by the US meaning only that?
The resolutions the US about to propose in the UNHRC sessions according to media releases will,
- Call on the government to implement the constructive recommendations in the LLRC report and additionally to take immediate steps to fulfil its relevant legal obligations and stated commitment to address its serious allegations of violations of international law by initiating credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible.
- Request that the government of Sri Lanka present a comprehensive action plan before the 20th session of the UNHRC detailing the steps the government has taken and will take to implement the LLRC recommendations and also to address alleged violations of international laws.
- Encourage the office of High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant special mandate holders to provide, and the government of SL to accept, advice and technical assistance on implementing those steps.
Lankan reservations about these can be due to the following.
1. The involvement of the UNHRC or “special mandate holders” in the implementation of the LLRC.
(a) This will institutionalise the involvement of such agencies for the foreseeable future.
How the region, let alone a country would sit comfortably with this condition is an interesting question, which may become clearer if there were a vote on this motion.
In the regions where the judges and judgements can be bought, political parties compete to enlist murderers to become MPs and ministers how this Western inspired institutional process would deliver is another serious question.
How in any feudal society, where the believe in the maxim that the victors have to be more cruel and brutal than their enemies is strong, when the war ends in a military victory after four decades, such a process can truly take place is another question.
These also make us, genuinely interested in a process of reconciliation, to question the motives in these calls.
(b) ‘Special mandate holders’
Firstly, the international community can arbitrarily create such persons or a body anytime could be a worry, as the UNSG’s appointment of the Special Commission proved.
Secondly, those involvement in practical terms means pressure towards better governance, civil society, military returning to barracks and disarming of the armed gangs particularly in the North and East.
Thirdly, they may also involve in the demands for justice for the victims.
(c) Actions against those committed any violations.
Lankan authorities we can presume are angry for placing the entire blame for the excesses when bringing an end to the LTTE, a task encouraged and assisted by the West, Russia, China, India and all the important developing nations. Even the ordinary public watching the military attachés from the West and India in the frontlines inspecting and advising the Lankan military, on every occasion after a Lankan victory in Wanni, understood the close military association between Lanka and the international community.
Further, the Western nations have a long association with Sri Lanka, and during the last thirty years given political asylum or residency in their countries to more than half a million Tamils, based on their accounts about Lankan state repressions.
As former colonial powers they are also aware of the historical issues between peoples within countries, and the ferocity with which people regard and promote their identities. These contextual realities were also, perhaps the reasons for India and the West to have consistently maintained that “there should not be a military solution to the problem” until they decided to move away from it.
Therefore, if the West and India only expected a clean clinical end to a military conflict that had lasted more than thirty years, with its roots in more than one millennium history, it would be fanciful to say the least. Add to this the hatred the Lankan security forces had for the losses suffered at the hands of the LTTE, and the fear it had created among the Sinhala communities, expecting anything other than a blood bath is pretentious. Now add to this the scenario where LTTE surrounding itself with civilian hostages what can one expect?
Therefore, could the Lankan authorities have convinced themselves of some ‘allowances for excesses’, though unacceptable under any circumstances, especially noting the Indian silence throughout?
Then there was also the question of the LTTE’s leadership, and the stories of US ships coming ashore to accept its surrender.
With India demanding Prabakaran and Pottu Ammans’s arrests for the murder of Rajiv Ghandi what was the possibility for this is anyone’s guess? Where could have the West taken them and the rest of the leadership with the Tamil Diaspora following their movements with protests and court cases?
Alternatively, could India have accepted the LTTE’s surrender and handled a situation with them in their prisons with enraged Tamil Expatriate communities in the West, and agitated Tamil Nadu?
Then taking all the historical and socio-psychological contexts and the ground realities at the time Lankan authorities may feel they are right to protest about the morality in the division of labour and the disproportionate share of the blame.
For any sensible person, the Lankan authorities and the armed forces did exactly what any Tamil would have expected them to do.
Therefore, more than the violations it was the decision that set of the course of destruction of the Tamils as a people, and opened up the opportunities for atrocities is to blame.
We believe the individuals are product of their genetics and the circumstances, and it is the circumstances that shape the history. We would question the nature and the nurturing of the German people, which lead to the genocide of the Gypsies, Russians and Jews than simply blaming the entire history on one man, Aldof Hitler.
Sri Lanka is a feudal society, despite its peoples’ exposure to the outside world and Western education. Thus, barring all false niceties, the state’s defeat of the LTTE is celebrated by the Sinhala people as their victory in the battles they had fought in their minds over many centuries.
Though the war against the LTTE, and the wars LTTE fought were given elevated arguments such as a fight against terrorism or liberation struggle, they were in real terms was the continuation of the feudal battles of the past, interrupted by the colonials.
Therefore, during and in their ends they only stood for cruelties and bigotry and could have never delivered either of the people from their own pasts.
It is in these historical contexts and realities we seek justice for the victims and a political settlement for Tamil grievances.
It is why we ask for a truth and reconciliation process, similar to that were in South Africa but certainly not modelled on it, than a process of the threats blackmails against individuals.
Conclusion: Regional reorganisation and sovereignty
While the drama in the UNHRC sessions is a worry, big changes in the region may be also adding to it for the Lankan leadership. The harbours in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan were said to become the Chinese strangulation of India. Now the speed of changes in Myanmar and Pakistan are so fast, even keen observers can’t keep abreast. Then there was also the unexpected leadership change in Maldives.
If the region appears to be turning into a West orientated zone, then leadership perhaps never expected it.
Even during the independence struggle the Lankans were keen to win the island an independence status without any outside interference. An idea, though didn’t have any practical meaning, it had enormous sentimental values.
Sovereignty is an idealised concept, which the smaller countries make it their sole purpose of existence, without questioning its actual meaningful experiences. Now after another phase of globalisation it is proving to be a futile idea yet, they still persist in establishing by bringing others into their domain and the region to get a “balance of forces”.
This strategy belong to the cold war era and leaderships in the most enlighten regions have understood this. They have also realised by broadening the concept to cover the entire region they may add more substance to the mere sentiments and rhetoric.
However, an enlightened region must have a regional leader with the full knowledge of all the peoples in its region and the responsibilities of its position.
Therefore, in South Asia, India must understand the basic concerns of the Lankans because of its past history, including the effects of its old Tamil kingdoms, and its present dominated by powerful commercial interests.
India made the mistake of integrating its security concerns and Tamil grievances in the past on two counts: first, by assisting the Tamil militancy, particularly the LTTE and later, by signing a bilateral accord without fully dismantling the link between the two, and without the Tamils and Muslims.
India used the opportunity to bring down the LTTE to redeem itself, at the expense of the Tamils, and now conducts its diplomacy through its High Commission and by exchanges of ministerial visits.
However, to many Lankans it appears that India may be making another mistake by integrating its security concerns, now with commercial interests.
While we introduced the idea, and argued for a “region of shared sovereignty”, particularly for developing regions, we have been also stressing the need to establish the principles and functioning institutions.
Pressures and enticements may work well for a period, and with particular group or class of leaders, but cannot guarantee long-term relationships and security for all. The turn around in its aims from the time of its support for Tamil militancy against Western influence, and now against the Chinese interests alongside the West alone vouch for our arguments.
Moreover, any deals gained by coercions on behalf of the Tamils would only affect them adversely in the long run.
India with the changes in the region may have gained an opportunity, perhaps some will argue it does not deserve.
However, it can make a quantum leap to detach itself from its past by institutionalising few processes to build confidence among all the peoples in the region that it is interested in the welfare of everyone in the region.
In the interim, it must constitute a body of “World Elders”, majority coming from the region counselling a process of reconciliation in Sri Lanka, based in the following premises.
Reconciliation based on truths, acceptance of truths and genuine process of accountability serves justice to the victims rather than prosecution of anyone, Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim person.
Prosecution of anyone, particularly those carried out orders cannot help anyone or serve as justice for victims or conducive for the inter-communal relationships in the island.
Political settlements between the state and its various minority communities have to come from a genuine process of acceptance of truths and responsibilities by all the communities and, particularly the majority Sinhala communities.
Such political settlements cannot be railroaded on the back of the issues surrounding the violation of international laws on human rights.
Any process must have a regional basis in terms of philosophy and organisation to make it effective.
On a long-term basis, they must contribute to a process to investigate and collect ideas and information how the ideals of Human rights, and the rights to the belonging of peoples and communities are formulated into a Framework of South Asian People and Rights.
We hope these ideas would be considered and improved upon by those responsible for more than one sixth of the world population of our region.
In the meantime we hope the Tamils will continue with their protests demanding justice for the victims and a political settlement that respects the interests of all the communities in the island and the regional security. This we hope they will do for their own sake without aligning themselves to any block or country.
(The author is the Academic Secretary of ASATiC- E-Address: [email protected] The views expressed are the author’s own)