Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Oxford Union and Lessons Learnt

by V. Gunaratnam, January 19,2011

There is no alternative to a dialogue with the Tamils to solve a national problem that has defied all attempts at a resolution for so long. A good solution, a durable one, negotiated in good faith, to arrive at agreement acceptable to both sides is all that is needed. As they say, it takes two to tango. Both sides must talk to each other even if one side holds all the aces.

It seemed so simple. Devolving power to the Tamils, especially after May 2009, looked so uncomplicated, and elementary in fact.

The war was clearly over. The 13th Amendment, with its several transmutations, and deficiencies was available, if only a piece of paper was all that was needed for it to be implemented. India was pressing for a solution, perhaps to keep up appearances. But somehow settling the Tamils' question, in some measure, has again proven to be an elusive goal, as it has for more than six decades.

The war might be over, but President Mahinda Rajapaksa is left with a very troubling legacy of the war hanging over his head, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Until properly investigated, brought to trial, and settled in some way now, they could dog him for years and years into his old age.

President Augusto Pinochet and President Slobodan Milosevic are two contemporary examples of leaders who knew of nothing but force to solve the problems of their peoples and nations. In the end they fell to the wrath of their own people. Pinochet died in retirement, a very troubled man, before he could be brought to trial on any charges. Milosevic died in a UN prison cell in Geneva while on trial for war crimes.

With mounting exposes Rajapaksa had to act to check the war crimes charges spreading like a virus. What better than appoint another toothless presidential commission for the government to investigate itself. And so we now have the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation to legitimize impunity as an acceptable part of life in the country.

We already had some “Lessons Learnt” handed down by the president himself when he said his soldiers had gone into war with a gun in one hand and a copy of the Geneva Conventions in the other. Coming on the heels of a government communique which said not a single civilian was killed in the war, it must all have been like a walk in the park!

It was one thing digesting the Lessons Learnt at home, but the international appetite for answers to the war crimes charges needed to be satiated. As a result Rajapaksa keeps roaming the world with a plane-load of his entourage, looking for opportunities to tell his side of the war story.

He badly wanted an international stage to debunk the war crimes charges, but when he had to deliver his address to a near empty UN General Assembly, with only the Daily News as the media presence, he was a bitterly disappointed and angry man.

It was a delighted Rajapaksa then, when the world famous Oxford Union offered him the opportunity to address them. He had reckoned on trumpeting the crushing victory over 'terrorism,' hoping the “we were fighting the scourge of terrorism” would be the magic words to make the world understand that the crimes committed in the war as nothing but co-lateral damage. And to really make it all go away, he probably had reckoned on eliciting the co-operation of the Tamils, in a sort of quid pro quo, by spelling out the terms of a settlement, which probably bordered on a more generous devolution package than expectations.

But he never got to Oxford from Dorchester Hotel to do so, when the Oxford Union abruptly and unilaterally canceled its invitation under an avalanche of adverse media exposure of alleged war crimes, led by Channel 4, WikiLeaks, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, international human rights organizations, and a sea of protesters with the Tamils in the forefront, who had besieged the venue for days leading up to the event.

It was an ill advised adventure for Rajapaksa to have gone to London. The message after Oxford was clear: there was not going to be any quid pro quo on war crimes. It was too simplistic to assume that a war in which tens of thousands of Tamils perished, annihilated by the armed forces for no reason other than that they were Tamils, could be bartered away by anyone.

Rajapaksa returned home with wounded pride, severely piqued by what had happened in London. Perhaps the flurry about the national anthem was a way of showing his displeasure at all what had happened in London and Oxford to scuttle his plans. Perhaps it was nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction after the fiasco, but it now seems to have abated.

He must know by now that the Tamil question is not going to go away on its own, and deep down he must also know that though he holds all the cards in his hands, he should not fall victim to temptation and impose his will on them, if he is looking for a stable long term solution.

There is no alternative to a dialogue with the Tamils to solve a national problem that has defied all attempts at a resolution for so long. A good solution, a durable one, negotiated in good faith, to arrive at agreement acceptable to both sides is all that is needed. As they say, it takes two to tango. Both sides must talk to each other even if one side holds all the aces.

So many good things can come out of it.

India and others are there to help, to end the stalemate, and free the nation to grow and prosper together!

Mr. President, it's your move!