President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s speech to the nation on Independence Day provided an indication of his two major concerns for the future. One concern was the persistent international pressure on his government on human rights issues during and after the end of the war.
The other concern was the efforts to destabilize the government through mass agitation that is taking the form of anti government public demonstrations and street protests.
The political instincts of the President which have given him an edge over his rivals appear to have been confirmed in the events that have unfolded in the fortnight since his speech.
The increased pressure on the government from the international community was more or less to be expected. The government had ample forewarning that the March session of the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva would not be an easy one. It was on account of this that government leaders made use of every opportunity to take wing to foreign nations to lobby their governments on behalf of the nation. The government’s trump card in appealing to the governments of fellow developing nations is that all of them have their own apprehensions about Sri Lanka being made a precedent that they might have to follow.
The government is also not leaving anything to chance. It has also started to visibly implement the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission which it put forward as being the answer to the allegations that it was not doing enough to ensure accountability and reconciliation. In his Independence Day speech the President raised expectations all round by stating that his government was working hard at implementing the LLRC’s recommendations. In the past several days there have been a flurry of announcements by government bodies with regard to such implementation. These include the setting up of a military inquiry into possible war crimes and human rights violations in the last phase of the war.
With just a week to go before the UN’s Human Rights Council sessions commence in Geneva, Sri Lanka’s army commander has appointed a court of inquiry to investigate charges that troops were responsible for killing civilians and prisoners in the final stages of their war against Tamil rebels in 2009, an army statement said. The five-member panel of officers is mandated to investigate allegations, including that it executed prisoners as claimed in a documentary by Britain’s Channel 4 television channel. In addition, the country’s Attorney General has said that the police had begun to record statements by persons who gave evidence before the LLRC. This could start the process of prosecutions of alleged wrong doers and accountability.
So far the government has managed to keep the issue of its alleged war crimes out of international forums that have collective inter-governmental mandates. So far the issue has only been taken up by individual governments or their parliaments and international NGOs in their forums. Even the panel of experts who provided a report on Sri Lanka to the UN Secretary General did so without the formal sanction of any UN body, such as the General Assembly, Security Council or Human Rights Council. The government will be hoping that its recent actions to implement the LLRC recommendations, together with the lobbying efforts of its ministers and diplomats abroad, will suffice to deflect the looming challenge in Geneva.
During their recent visit to Sri Lanka, US Under Secretary of State Maria Otero and Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake are reported to have taken the position that the United States government is supportive of a credible internal and national investigation into possible war crimes and human rights violations. While the United States government has shared the concerns of other Western governments about the accountability findings and also the larger LLRC process, they have also been in favour of giving the Sri Lankan government more time to set in motion an internal mechanism
It was most unfortunate that the visit of the high powered US delegation took place at the very same time that the dreaded “White Van” struck again in the heart of Colombo. Unlike the “Grease Devil” phenomenon that spread like wildfire in parts of the country for a few months, especially those inhabited by ethnic minorities where the security forces are more dominant, the White Van phenomenon has persisted over the course of the past several years even if not in the manner of the peak years of war. The victim on this occasion was a Tamil businessman with shops in Colombo’s elite shopping plaza, Majestic City.
According to media reports, his heavily armed abductors were so brazen that they had dragged him away from his home in the presence of his family and neigbours while his three year old daughter screamed “Daddy, Daddy” in panic. Whether this story will affect the thinking of Ms Otero and Mr Blake is only part of the problem that Sri Lanka faces.
The terrible message of impunity that such incidents of abduction continuing will send out to all Tamil victims of war who lodged complaints with the LLRC will be evident.
The question is whether the Tamil victims will avail themselves of the facilities of the Attorney General’s Department to re-make their complaints in the legally required way to the police. This can be considered most unlikely in the present circumstances. The media reported that the Tamil businessman had lodged a Fundamental Rights case in the Supreme Court against the very same police and Attorney General’s Department for false arrest and torture two years ago. This case was to be taken up in two days. He was obviously a spirited man who felt deeply about the injustice done to him when he was locked up and tortured for two years as being an LTTE member, but he and his family are now paying the supreme price.
However, it is not only the victims of war who are feeling disheartened about the present conditions in the country. There is also a growing apprehension within the government that they are at the receiving end of a possible strategy of “Regime Change” propelled by external intervention. Government members have been seeing a foreign hand not only in the issue of war crimes but also behind the economic unrest that is growing amongst the general population. Last week the police fired into a group of fishermen who were protesting against the fuel price hike, killing one of them. The approach to crowd control leaves much to be desired, and indicates practices more appropriate to times of war than of peace.
In his Independence Day speech, President Rajapaksa warned against those who aspired for an “Arab Spring” type of uprising. He affirmed his commitment that changes of government could only take place through elections. There is no doubt that the vast majority of Sri Lanka’s people will concur with the President. The country is enjoying a period of peace after three decades of war and there is no appetite amongst the general population for any sort of violence for whatever reason. They would also concur with the recommendation of the LLRC that there should be demilitarisation of the country in general and more specifically that the police should become a civilian force.
The visiting US delegation and most other foreign governments have said that the implementation of the LLRC recommendations would be viewed positively by them. Most sectors of civil society including the mainstream political opposition parties have called for the implementation of the LLRC report. The two major concerns articulated by the President in his Independence Day speech, regarding international sanctions due to the war crimes issue and mass disaffection on the lines of the Arab Spring, can be overcome and Sri Lanka can become the “Wonder of Asia” as he foretold. But this calls for appropriate and genuine actions by the government to implement the LLRC recommendations.