Three years on, Sri Lanka still bleeds

A MONTH and two weeks from now, it will be three years since Sri Lanka won its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, effectively ending the campaign for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka.

But there has been no movement on achieving a political solution to put the minority Tamils at ease. Instead, the triumphalism that has pervaded the country has seen the government act in a manner that can only serve to remind the Tamils that during the days when the Tigers were in the ascendant they were at least not marginalised in the way they are right now.

The Tigers had ensured that the north of the country was more or less completely occupied by Tamils. Now, the army is everywhere in the north and Sinhalese people are being resettled in large numbers to change the population mix. And, to rub it in, there are signs in many places that are only in Sinhala, a language that Tamils, cut off from the rest of the country for decades, cannot even speak.

The government was under pressure to institute an inquiry when allegations of war crimes by both sides began to surface after the conflict ended. It launched its own inquiry, called Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, with hearings held all over the country. An eminent panel of jurists and academics was chosen to head the body.

The LLRC’s report was released in December last year. While it fell short of being comprehensive in many respects, it did make some recommendations that were sensible – the launching of an independent inquiry to find out how many civilians lost their lives, making restitution to those who suffered, and healing the wounds that have been created over the decades of ethnic strife.

The Sri Lanka government’s reaction has been surprising. It has asked the army to find out about civilians who fell victim during the conflict; the perpetrator of many of the deaths is thus investigating itself. Many of the top army brass have been promoted as ambassadors and now enjoy immunity from prosecution so that makes it very difficult to hold any of them responsible.

In the meantime, the Sri Lanka government has not eased up in any way on the restrictions on the media in the country. It has tightened things considerably by passing a law that all reporting on security matters should be passed through an official censor. And the abduction of people who are known to be opposed to government policies continues apace.

As one commentator put it, it is inconceivable that security forces which could bring an end to a highly organised and motivated group like the Tigers cannot track down any of those who have been abducted or find out who is behind the continuing episodes where white vans turn up and take people away.

Last month the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution asking Sri Lanka to conduct an independent inquiry into the war. Pushed by the US, Britain and Canada — each for its own reasons which I will explain — and backed by India — again for its own separate reason, on which I will elaborate — the resolution embarrassed the Sri Lankans no end as they had put in considerable diplomatic efforts to scuttle the resolution. It is doubtful, however, whether it will serve to push Sri Lanka any more than it has done.

The US is interested in Sri Lanka because China has a big foot planted in the tiny island. The US tried for many years to get a base in Trincomalee but failed; it would have been ideal as a spying post for the entire south Asian region. The Americans are now worried about the extent to which China has made inroads into Sri Lanka and the little island is just one more spot where the fading super power and China match wits.

Britain and Canada have big Tamil populations in certain areas and this issue plays directly into local politics. Else, neither country would give a stuff. Additionally, in Britain, there have been two excellent investigative programs from Channel 4 which provided stark proof of the extent of war crimes by the Sri Lanka government. The media pressure on the British government to do something has been intense.

India is the big power in the south Asian region. But in the case of Sri Lanka, it voted for the resolution against its neighbour because Colombo had broken a promise. During the dying days of the war, the main Tamil leaders had managed to contact US and other Western diplomats and there was considerable pressure on Colombo to allow them to escape. Sri Lanka was wavering when a boat was even sent to the northern area to evacuate them. But India was not about to forget that the Tiger leader Velupillai Pirabhakaran was responsible for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi back in 1991; the Indian naval vessel monitoring the situation from international waters moved a little closer to the area when news of the proposal for the evacuation came through. In effect, India challenged the US to act. The US did not dare to do anything.

The Sri Lanka government was happy about India’s reaction and as a quid pro quo agreed to get serious on devolving power after the conflict was over. It then went ahead with plans to kill all the Tiger leaders. But it never bothered about keeping its word. Having seen no sign of a move in this direction and, increasingly facing calls from its own Tamils for intervention, India had no option but to act against Sri Lanka when it came to voting on the resolution.

The Sri Lanka imbroglio will not sort itself out. The president needs to make some meaningful moves to resolve things politically. Else, to use a cliché, while he did manage to win the war, he will end up losing the peace.


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