Reconciliation need of hour in Sri Lanka
by Sandhya Jain on 22 Sep 2015 22 Comments
Sri Lanka’s national unity government comprising the United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party faces its first major challenge in the UN Human Rights Commission’s report on war crimes committed by both sides in the protracted war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. With President Maithripala Sirisena’s and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s victories enabled by ethnic minority support, duly reciprocated by making Tamil National Alliance chief Rajavarothiam Sampanthan the Leader of Opposition, the time is ripe for consensual healing of the wounds of the past three decades.


An immediate first step should be grant of amnesty to former President Mahinda Rajapaksha, former Defence Minister and armed forces’ chiefs and soldiers who fought for national unity against a murderous force, funded and equipped by external forces, due to its geo-strategic location along maritime trade routes across two oceans. As a Buddhist nation, Colombo would know the tradition of honourable exit for a deposed ruler (the last king of Magadha’s Nanda dynasty, for instance) is the Asian way.


At a function to felicitate Mr Wickremesinghe during his recent visit to India, this writer asked if Colombo would consider salvaging the honour of a war hero who decimated a murderous secessionist force, designated by the UN as a terrorist organisation. He replied that Mr Rajapaksha is a friend. Understandably, he could not say more on foreign soil, but this is an issue Prime Minister Narendra Modi may like to suggest to the island-nation in its best interests. Mr Rajapaksha is an important member of President Sirisena’s SLFP. His graceful retirement from public life would strengthen the unique political experiment being tried by the UNP, SLFP and Tamil minority.


Moreover, during the recent parliamentary election, the coalition United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), dominated by Mr Sirisena’s SLFP, won 95 seats. Mr Rajapaksha enjoys significant support in both the SLFP and UPFA; he could thwart progress on issues such as constitutional reforms requiring two-thirds majority. Already the government has erred in filing fraud cases against former ministers and top officials associated with the erstwhile regime, even escalating a probe into allegations that members of Mr Rajapaksa’s family were involved in the 2012 murder of national rugby champion, Wasim Thajudeen.


The UNP and SLFP agreed to set up a national unity government after the UNP fell seven seats short (106/225) of a majority. Mr Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister by President Sirisena after he won the January 8 election as combined opposition candidate in a stunning backroom manoeuvre aimed at defeating Mr Rajapaksha. But their accord is currently only for two years, which is too short a time to make substantial progress on any front; its longevity can be enhanced by sealing potential sources of division.


An important issue before the new regime is devolution of powers to the north and east, especially as Tamils cooperated generously to help the new political experiment. Some are now demanding new provinces carved on narrow ethnic and religious lines, but the UNP coalition had carefully avoided committing to such a solution during the election campaign. So far, the government has only said that the permanent settlement of the Tamil question would be part and parcel of the proposed Constituent Assembly that will write a new constitution for the country.


The opposition TNA is the former political proxy of the Tamil Tigers, who were routed in 2009 with the elimination or escape of their top leadership. After Rajapaksha rebuffed the Tamil request to probe alleged war crimes by the Army during the final phase of the war, forces fishing in the troubled waters of third world countries got the UN to pass a resolution in 2014, calling for an international probe into the alleged abuses.


Mr Sirisena’s electoral victory is widely perceived as a US-backed ploy to dislodge Mr Rajapaksha due to his proximity to Beijing. Certainly New Delhi shared Washington’s anxieties about Colombo’s growing economic and military ties with China, but India’s concerns have been addressed by Colombo ‘rebalancing’ ties with Beijing.


It would be a terrible mistake for Prime Minister Modi to allow a UN probe with international participation to take place in India’s backyard. The UNHRC report recommends setting up a hybrid special court with international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, to probe grave human rights violations in Sri Lanka between 2002 and 2011, by both sides to the conflict. India (UPA-II) supported the US-sponsored resolutions on Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013, but abstained in 2014, stating that it is “India’s firm belief that adopting an intrusive approach that undermines national sovereignty and institutions is counter-productive.”


It appears that the new Sri Lanka government has agreed to a domestic war crimes probe within eighteen months, and the United States, which sponsored three successive UN resolutions against Sri Lanka, has said it would support a domestic process, if credible. But other players are stirring the pot. A group called Minority Rights Group International has alleged that while atrocities against Tamils declined sharply after the war ended, human rights abuses such as “mass arrests and extrajudicial executions to the harassment of women by security forces” continue against Tamils and Muslims. This is clearly incendiary.


There is understandable outrage in Sri Lanka that the government may submit to such an unprecedented procedure when nations which repeatedly commit far graver crimes are not subjected to international jurisprudence. Analysts point out that already two international probes have been conducted into the final phase of the war; their reports, with evidence (if any) of alleged human rights violations should be presented before the UN General Assembly and Security Council. 


The pressure for a hybrid court with international judges and prosecutors violates the UN Charter that forbids interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. Should Colombo succumb to pressure, it would pave the way for Western intervention in any country, on any pretext. New Delhi must help Colombo resist this illegitimate pressure.


As Sri Lanka has already admitted that there were likely excesses on both sides, the way forward would be to extend amnesty to all former Tamil Tiger fighters (nearly 12,000 have already been rehabilitated after training in new life skills), and to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to record the real history of the events of that turbulent period, in their entirety, for history and future generations. Colombo must compensate the victims of the LTTE and/or Army, and step up the reconstruction and development of minority areas to integrate them with the national mainstream.  

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