It would not be an exaggeration to say that the recent Northern Provincial Council polls in Sri Lanka would not have been held had it not been for the immense pressure that Colombo faced from New Delhi. But for international pressure, Colombo was not going to hold these elections. Despite numerous incidents of voter intimidation, the polls must have been free and fair if 60 per cent voters cast their votes, making the opposition, Tamil National Alliance, win 30 out of 38 seats.
Up to 100,000 people have died in the Sri Lankan conflict that resulted in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. But the war is not over. If the war is over, then why are the north and the east so heavily militarised? Why, according to a study by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees some months ago, are 71 per cent of the residents of these areas visited by the army or the CID for interrogation? Why do 57 per cent of the people say that the nearest military camp or checkpoint is less than a mile from their houses?
Colombo’s excuse is that it fears terrorism might re-emerge. In other words, the ethnic Tamil population has been permanently marked as ‘terrorist’. This comes after what the Sri Lankan army did to some of them in the war: it asked civilians to move to refugee camps in a no-fire zone and then bombed them there. It was an act of genocidal intent.
Colombo, of course, says this is all a lie, in the face of a number of reports and investigations that show war crimes as having been committed. If you are making such noises, then, for Colombo, you have been influenced by the Tamil diaspora. Why can’t Sri Lanka have an independent investigation into the allegations of war crimes if it has nothing to hide? And who is stopping it from investigating the war crimes’ allegations of both the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam and the Sri Lankan military?
Given that a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission has already given a clean chit to the Sri Lankan military, it is time for an international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka. There is also a need for greater international pressure to make Colombo stop harassing journalists and scaring them into submission, to account for the disappeared and to make the military vacate thousands of acres of land it has illegally occupied — on some of which it is making tourist hotels.
That’s right. You could, for instance, enjoy a holiday at The Lagoon’s Edge, a luxury hotel on the shores of the Nanthikadal Lagoon. The hotel is built on the very site where an intense battle took place. Amongst the dead were not just the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan soldiers but also civilians, killed deliberately.
Now that the people of the north have rejected Mahinda Rajapakse’s Modi-like development spiel, we need to rest and think it’s all fine. Rajapakse has an opportunity at reconciliation but it is unlikely that he will use it. He is taking it easy until November, when a Commonwealth Heads of Government summit is to be held in Sri Lanka. In the face of boycott calls from rights groups to Commonwealth countries, Rajapakse is doing all he can to look like a nice guy. Once the Commonwealth summit is over, he will go back to his old ways. One fear is that the governor of the Tamil Northern Province will not let the Tamil National Alliance government be. Some Sinhalese politicians say that allowing a local police would create a parallel military!
The Commonwealth heads of government should not boycott the meeting. They should all go there and read the riot act to Rajapakse, just as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently did in Colombo.
After Pillay’s visit, an Amnesty International statement said that the victims she had met were facing the brunt of the military for speaking the truth. “The Sri Lankan conflict may have ended in 2009, but the level of human rights violations in the country remains critically high. The Sri Lankan government still shows no real will to account for past crimes, combined with new attacks on those calling for accountability,” the Amnesty statement said.
The writer is a journalist in Delhi whose work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times. He tweets @DilliDurAst
Published in The Express Tribune, September 30th, 2013.