By Col. R. Hariharan
Recently there had been a series of seemingly disconnected events in India, UK and the UN that have a common thread: Sri Lanka’s conduct in the post war period. Though these events were not unexpected sequels, surprisingly Sri Lanka’s response had been reactive than proactive. Peevishness, rather than calculated strategy, appears to be dominating its thought process. As a result Sri Lanka’s actions show lack of confidence, rather than determination, in handling the issues.
Sri Lanka appears to be looking for reprieve rather than resolution of three issues bugging it ever since the war ended: allegations of war crimes, inadequate rehabilitation of war affected population, and inadequate efforts to address political grievances of Tamil minority. These issues have gathered strength as the state chose to disregard accountability for its actions under the cloak of its war against terrorism. Sri Lanka’s credibility progressively going down, it has been reduced to finding reprieve than finding solution as each critical issue gathers mass.
In India, the newly elected chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms Jayalalithaa pushed through two resolutions in the state assembly relating to Sri Lanka. The first resolution related to three key issues that have continued to haunt Tamils in the aftermath of Sri Lanka war: alleged war crimes Sri Lanka army, rehabilitation of war displaced, and meeting Sri Lanka Tamil aspirations for equitable share of power. The chief minister wanted New Delhi to impose economic sanctions on Sri Lanka for its continued intransigence on these issues.
The second resolution called upon Tamil Nadu government to implead itself in a pending case in Supreme Court on the legitimacy of transfer of Kachchativu to Sri Lanka. Ms Jayalalithaa had filed the case in 2008 and the resolution seeks to show the state’s solidarity on the issue.
There is no doubt that Ms Jayalalithaa had timed the two resolutions to pressurise New Delhi on the eve of departure of a high power Indian delegation to Colombo. The delegation consisting of the National Security Advisor, Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs and the Defence Secretary met with President Rajapaksa and discussed India’s concerns on some of the longstanding issues relating to Sri Lanka Tamils. Unlike the bonhomie usual at these meetings, this time the atmosphere was a little frosty. Few weeks earlier India had made its concerns public in a joint communiqué issued after the Sri Lankan ministers of external affairs visited New Delhi. Sri Lanka’s pronouncements after the Indian delegation’s visit indicated that Sri Lanka was still using the old templates of its relations with India. Apparently, Sri Lanka is either not sensitive to the changing dynamics of New Delhi’s coalition politics, or it could not care less.
The Congress-DMK coalition’s showing on Sri Lanka during the Eelam War IV has been interpreted by many in Tamil Nadu as insensitive and weak-kneed. The severe drubbing in Tamil Nadu elections it received has unnerved the Congress party (while DMK has tied itself in knots other than political). As an adroit politician Ms Jayalalithaa is exploiting this situation to her advantage. At the same time her strong statements on the Sri Lanka Tamil issue also reflect the prevailing mood in Tamil Nadu on Sri Lanka’s intransigence on war crimes issue.
Many Tamils felt that Rajapaksa’s promises made to India during the war on implementing the 13th amendment (including the so called 13th plus) lacked sincerity. Probably New Delhi also knows that Sri Lanka is not serious about resolving the issue with its laid back approach while President Rajapaksa initiates new slogans that delay concrete action. Whether these summations are correct or not, Sri Lanka Tamils have been stranded in political isolation.
Ms Jayalalithaa’s strident criticism of both Indian and Sri Lankan governments on this issue is a logical sequel to this mess. So India’s recently found public articulation of its stand on Sri Lanka Tamil-related issues is as much to assuage Tamil Nadu as pressurise Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka does not appear to have fully realised the adjustments New Delhi is making in its Sri Lanka policy to smoothen its interface with the new Tamil Nadu chief minister for its own domestic reasons. So we can expect Sri Lanka to continue to face problems in its relations with India unless it changes its act. Will it change?
At the end of last month, Sri Lanka army organised an international seminar on defeating terrorism, expounding on mechanics of its successful war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Though it was scheduled well in advance, its timing on the eve of the convening of the UN Human Rights Commission is not without significance: to direct the attention to present the Sri Lanka side of the conduct of war. However, key presentations by the defence secretary and minister of external affairs were defensive, focusing on the very issue of war crimes the army wanted to avoid.
There is probably a sense of relief in Sri Lanka that UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva would pass off in the next few days without taking any concrete follow up action on the war crimes issue. But the reprieve is likely to be short lived. The war issue has come as a shot in the arm for the LTTE remnants and fellow travellers outside Sri Lanka. They can once again claim legitimacy by joining the protests organised by the mainstream Tamil Diaspora. So before the September session of UNHRC, we can see once again a scaling up of public protests in international capitals demanding concrete UN action against Sri Lanka.
The moral of the story is Sri Lanka has to positively show it is serious about handling the human rights and war crimes baggage that had been accumulating. It is not merely to satisfy the international community but for its own sake.
Even before the foreign delegates for the army seminar moved out of Sri Lanka, the President was grappling with public grievances that have been incubating for some time: strike by university teachers demanding pay rise, strident trade union opposition to the private pension scheme bill, and simmering university students’ discontent. These are legitimate political and trade union activities and it would be short sighted to dub them as “international conspiracy to malign Sri Lanka.”
Even after two years of war, Sri Lanka state continues to wield extra clout under emergency and prevention of terrorism dispensations. As a result those in power find it easier to give accountability a short shrift to produce ‘visible results’. It was probably such an emergency mindset that caused the tragic death of a youth when the police handled a protest by workers at the Katunayake FTZ .
Sri Lanka did creditability in winning the war, but will lose its peace unless it changes its mindset. Otherwise it will be brutalising the society. It has to be accountable for its actions to its own people. Then it can care a fig about international opinion because the people will be supporting it wholeheartedly.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: [email protected] Blog: www.colhariharan.org)