Kath Noble

Playing politics with Sri Lankan lives

Posted in Tehelka by kathnoble on June 11, 2011

Reflections on the second anniversary of the end of the war in Sri Lanka.

Last month marked two years since the end of the war in Sri Lanka, yet the country is still struggling to move on. Allegations of war crimes have not gone away. Neither have calls for a ‘political solution’ – a package of measures to address the grievances of minority communities.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha reminded us of her uncompromising position on the issue in her first televised speech after the election results were announced, calling for Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa to be handed over to the International Criminal Court. She had used the fate of Sri Lankan Tamils to good effect during her campaign, accusing Karunanidhi’s DMK of complicity in genocide.

Listening to Jayalalitha talk, it would be easy to make the mistake of thinking that Sri Lankan Tamils are as badly off as they were two years ago. That is clearly not the case. Two years ago, 300,000 of them were being held hostage by the LTTE. They were living in tents, having been displaced multiple times. They had lost everything. Their children were being taken from them and sent to the frontlines with less training than a security guard at a mall. And they were dying in large numbers. The Sri Lankan army’s shells were landing on them day and night.

Today, there are no bombs. More than 280,000 IDPs have returned to their homes. And children are in schools. This is an achievement for which the Sri Lankan government deserves some credit.

But it could have done so much more.

President Rajapaksa enjoyed unprecedented support within his country in the aftermath of the victory over the LTTE and a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude on the part of foreign governments. Reconciliation was his for the taking.

Instead, he focused on consolidating his own position.

One of his key priorities should have been to put an end to the generation-long ’emergency’. This would have given Tamils some much needed confidence in his intention to restore normal governance in the country. Yet he has not done it.

Neither has President Rajapaksa reviewed the Prevention of Terrorism Act, under which an unknown number of people are being detained. A major concern of Sri Lankan Tamils – mentioned again and again in hearings of the Sri Lankan government’s much-criticised Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission – is to locate family members from whom they were separated during the war. A list of those in custody should have been published two years ago.

Meanwhile, instead of gradually reducing the role of the military – whose functioning costs some 3.5% of GDP – the government has allowed it to expand its reach. President Rajapaksa rightly dismissed a mad proposal by the then Chief of Staff Sarath Fonseka to boost its numbers by a further 100,000 men, but he has not come up with a plan for dealing with the personnel already in place. They are at a loose end now that the fighting is over, and they have been coopted for everything from building roads to transporting tourists, eradicating mosquitoes and even selling vegetables. Military men have also been appointed as governors of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Given that Tamils have come to fear the security forces, this is hardly desirable.

President Rajapaksa should also have prioritised the restoration of democracy in the north of the country.

The LTTE made sure that elections were not free or fair in areas under its influence. Politicians had to follow its line or die. Many activists who opposed the LTTE were killed, leaving Tamil society very much in need of strong leaders.

With the end of the armed struggle, Tamils needed to be reassured that their rights could be won in the mainstream. The Northern Provincial Council – the level of regional government agreed to in the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord and implemented everywhere else in the country – should have been established. President Rajapaksa claimed to want to hold elections as soon as possible, but his words are sounding rather hollow after two years. Instead, he advanced the presidential poll by a year to January 2010.

Then in April 2010 when the results of a parliamentary poll showed that the Tamil National Alliance was a force to be reckoned with, winning the support of more people in the north and east of the country than any other party, President Rajapaksa should have invited them for talks on the ‘political solution’. He did so only in January 2011 and has since allowed the process to drag.

Meanwhile, he has sidelined the main Tamil party in his own coalition – the Eelam People’s Democratic Party – whose leader Douglas Devananda barely escaped death at the hands of the LTTE on many occasions.

This is not so much about suppressing Tamils as it is about promoting the president.

Indeed, it is clear that this is what President Rajapaksa has had uppermost in his mind ever since the end of the war. Although he claimed to want to change the constitution to address minority aspirations, the only amendment that has been passed vested more power in the president while making it possible for him to stand for election as many times as he sees fit. What’s more, it was rushed through parliament as an ‘urgent’ bill.

This is all very disappointing, but we need to ask whether the current course being set by the international community is going to make things any better.

Chief Minister Jayalalitha is not the only one to want to see Sri Lankan leaders in the dock. There were protests in many countries on LTTE chief Prabhakaran’s death anniversary last month, spurred on by the publication by the UN Secretary General of a report suggesting that there are credible allegations of war crimes to be investigated. Western governments are moving slowly in that direction. Here in India, Jayalalitha called on Manmohan Singh to impose economic sanctions on Sri Lanka until it sends President Rajapaksa to The Hague.

This is somewhat ridiculous when even the Opposition in Sri Lanka does not support action on war crimes.

At best, it will prompt the Sri Lankan government to get to work on some ‘sweeteners’ for India – a deal for Indian companies to redevelop the port in Jaffna and to build a new power plant in Trincomalee, plus the long awaited Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

The question is – what use is that to Sri Lankan Tamils?

President Rajapaksa is an expert in turning foreign pressure into support for his government domestically. And he has proven his mastery of the Sri Lankan electorate on numerous occasions since the end of the war.

Attempting to drag him before the International Criminal Court will serve to further polarise a society that is already divided by so many years of war. Sinhalese are already starting to ask why they should forgive and forget the excesses of the LTTE when Tamils are not willing to put their suffering at the hands of the government forces behind them, even after two years. Whether this is a reasonable reaction is another matter. They point to the fact that LTTE chief K Pathmanathan has been allowed to settle in Colombo and even establish an NGO since his ‘rendition’ from Malaysia, while V Muralitharan alias Karuna – a former LTTE military commander – is a government minister.

It will also undermine support for what little efforts President Rajapaksa has been making at reconciliation – small steps to implement the language policy, to recruit more Tamils to the civil service, police and armed forces, and to provide training and jobs for former cadres.

What Sri Lankans need now is to be left alone. People in other countries playing politics with their lives is not the path to lasting peace but to further bloody conflict. And surely the country has had enough of that.

This article was published in Tehelka on June 11th, 2011. The internet version can be accessed here.

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