With the annihilation of the LTTE leadership, the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhala nationalists may have thought that the 80-year-old ethnic conflict in the country has been settled, fully and finally. But now the basic issues of the conflict have been resurrected in international fora, with allegations of war crimes and violations of human rights.
The Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict ceased to be an internal affair of Sri Lanka in the 1980s — it first became a bilateral issue between India and Sri Lanka, and after 2000 it caught the attention of international communities. Although the internationalisation of the ethnic problem of Sri Lanka began with the engagement of Norway in the talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, it escalated with the release of a UN expert panel report, called the Darusman Report, which blamed both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE for war crimes during the final stages of war. Now with the Channel 4 videos and the US-proposed resolution, the Sri Lankan conflict has been entrenched as an important international issue.
Let’s take a look at the resolution and what it means for India and Sri Lanka.
The US has tabled a draft resolution on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council’s 19th session in Geneva. The resolution only asks the Sri Lankan government to commit to the international community that it would implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learned Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that was established by President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself. Hence, the resolution cannot be hurriedly described as an attempt to impose a foreign-made solution on the internal problem of Sri Lanka. The resolution does not demand the appointment of an independent international inquiry commission on the alleged “war crimes” nor does it seek the establishment of a 2002-type “international co-chairs” to ensure a political solution to the ethnic problem of Sri Lanka.
When the LLRC report was released in December 2011, leaders of many countries, including India, US, Australia and Britain, and the civil society in Sri Lanka had welcomed it. However, Sri Lanka’s Tamil parties — such as the Tamil National Alliance, which holds majority parliamentary representations of Tamils in the North-East of the country — and the civil society believe there is little chance of the LLRC’s final recommendations being implemented unless there is sustained international attention and pressure to act from the UN secretary-general, the Human Rights Council and influential governments, most importantly India, Japan, US, Canada, Britain, France and the European Union.
While Opposition leaders such as UNP’s Ranil Wickramasinghe, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, former army commander Sarath Fonseka, and parties such as the JVP do not openly support the “Geneva climax”, they see in this an opportunity for themselves and are thus actively seeking the involvement of foreign powers and international organisations in unseating the powerful Rajapaksas.
Why are the Rajapaksa brothers so intransigent in opposing a resolution that only seeks a commitment of the recommendations of a commission (LLRC) that the president himself appointed? President Rajapaksa could have easily avoided this international embarrassment by proclaiming his commitment to the LLRC. If he commits in principle to greater devolution of powers to provinces, constitutionally and institutionally guarantee the rule of law and fundamental rights, and work to apoliticise and acommunalise the armed forces, then there won’t be any mental, political or diplomatic hurdle in overcoming the present crisis in an international arena.
What probably worked against the Rajapaksas was that they did not expect their own weapon, the LLRC, to be used against them. They were initially satisfied that they could counter rising international displeasure, roused by the Darusman Report and the first Channel 4 videos, by releasing the LLRC report. But it clearly hasn’t worked their way. It’s not the LLRC report or its recommendations that the Rajapaksas are worried about; but accepting it in an international forum will make it easier for their opponents to hold them under continuous pressure.
India’s stand on the issue is being keenly watched, not only by Tamils in India but also by Sri Lankans, international human rights activists and those in diplomatic circles. Since the end of the war, India thwarted attempts in the Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council by Western countries to investigate war crimes in Sri Lanka. Besides, against all odds and pressures, India had supported the Sri Lankan state in its bid to eliminate the LTTE. But it is obvious that India is silently dissatisfied as the Sri Lankan government dilly-dallies on the accelerated militarisation of North-East, delayed devolution of powers and the snail’s pace of rehabilitation and reconstruction of war-affected Tamils and Tamil areas.
India has a difficult balancing act to do. This time, it will be tough to take a position on Sri Lanka that will be amicable to all kinds of opinion prevailing in India. Of course, India would be unhappy with Sri Lanka for its diplomatic overtures to China and Pakistan. At the same time, India would be naturally worried about Sri Lanka becoming the cockpit of regional or international conflicts. This time, however, the government of India has to listen and carefully consider the request of its Tamil leaders.
India’s Tamil leaders are united in their determination to get the government of India to back the resolution against Sri Lanka. Keeping its domestic pressures in mind, it will be tough for the Indian government to go all out in support of the Sri Lankan state, which derives its political power from the euphoria of a “Sinhala victory” over the LTTE.
However, it will also be difficult for India to take a position against Sri Lanka since it has worked on establishing good relations in many areas over the last 20 years. India, therefore, wouldn’t want any of its actions in international fora to push Sri Lanka away from it. India also wouldn’t want to put the Sinhala and Tamil population in a complete dichotomous position and thereby risk its ongoing rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes in the North-East of Sri Lanka. So when the government of India makes a choice, it has to think of the implications — internally, regionally and internationally.
Hence, India’s best and simple option at present would have been to abstain from voting on the resolution. Such a step would have gone down well with Sri Lankan leaders and also with the countries supporting the US resolution. But that doesn’t look like an option anymore after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s announcement in Parliament. Though the announcement is conditional, the government would not risk withdrawing its promise. Hence, India may opt for voting in support of the resolution after holding bilateral talks with US and Sri Lanka representatives, so that the existing good relations with both parties are maintained, despite the inevitable strains.
The writer is former chief minister of Sri Lanka’s North-Eastern province