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Sri Lanka: UNHRC & After

by V. Gunaratnam, May 24, 2012

It is clear that the UNHRC decisions and directives will ultimately be the driving force behind everything that happens in Sri Lanka over the next few years, and bring clarity to the Sri Lanka situation...

Don’t expect miracles to happen with devolution of power under the 13th Amendment as it stands, because accepting it would be like colonial rule all over again for the Tamils. It is an utterly defective mechanism for a genuine power sharing in a democracy. In fact, it would be a travesty to call it power sharing.

Smoke and Fire

“No smoke without fire!” is a saying from our school days we can’t forget easily. Most Sri Lankans, if they had their eyes and ears open, and a receptive mind, should know by now that tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were slaughtered in the war, and disposed of behind a wall of secrecy1 imposed by the state. But it is nothing new. Innocent young Sinhalese civilian suspects were killed during the JVP insurrections, and buried in mass graves but, then as now, no one cried out for them and for accountability in Sri Lanka. space

Sri Lankans kept silent then and, predictably, they are keeping mum now, as the government commits violence against its own citizens even as it celebrates victory in the war. It is appalling to see how human life is being devalued to this depth. But the world, which had kept silent in the past, was stirred into action when they were exposed to the horrors of the war.

Channel 4 exposed ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,’ graphically showing how “over 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in a matter of three days. Scores were raped, tortured, and summarily executed by Sri Lankan armed forces.” It was not manufacture out of thin air. There was no reason for that. The videos were tested and declared authentic. The UNHRC deliberations and its conclusions bear testimony to this.

Sri Lanka always points a finger at the LTTE’s HR violations, but with the LTTE leadership all but ‘vaporized,’ there is hardly anyone left to answer to the charges, leaving the government to account for its own violations.

Betrayal by the British and West

But all this need not have come to pass if the British had included an iron-clad provision in their constitution guaranteeing the protection of the minorities. The Sinhala politicians wasted little time in exploiting this lapse.

Many years later it was compounded by the indifference of the Western powers. It was shocking, because they had always been so alive to the plight of people in such situations. It needed but a little nudge from them to have steered the Tamils to a different destination, and a safe harbor. Instead, it took six decades of conflict, a devastating war, and over one hundred and fifty thousand deaths, on both sides, before the UNHRC took action.

The West was likely preoccupied with more important global issues to have worried about the Tamils, or  recognized that they were a constituent people of Sri Lanka., equal in every way to the Sinhalese.

Language Story

Nothing tells the story of the Tamils better than the status accorded to the Tamil language. In 1956 a toothless ‘reasonable use of Tamil’ provision was enacted in the wake of Banda’s2 ‘Sinhala Only’ act, but it served no useful purpose. Then a well entrenched Sinhala majority, led by Srimavo3 as PM made Tamil an ‘Official Language’ in 1971. The world may have been fooled into thinking that, at long last, the Tamils were on their way, but nothing changed beyond a perfunctory entry in the statute books of Sri Lanka.

Indian Rope Trick Illusion

India, by not acting decisively at an early stage to aid the Tamils, probably damaged its own interests as well. But they made a lot of diplomatic noise without any tangible results. For the Tamils it was like an Indian rope trick, an illusion. But their difficulties were compounded by the Tamils not embracing any Indian proposal, because of some perceived limitations. This was a tragedy, as it would have meant India’s involvement and implementation of their proposal under a security shield, and allowed the Tamils to go forward from there. It became more difficult when the Congress Party ceased to be the dominant force in Indian politics after Indira Gandhi, and Tamil intransigence became a factor, in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s death. India also wrongly concluded that Sri Lanka would remain under its influence indefinitely, but China changed all that by helping Sri Lanka win the war, with result that India is no longer the main arbiter of events on the island.

Tamil Exodus

With no real solution in sight, Sri Lanka’s never ending armed conflict with its citizens, and the tyranny and intolerance of the majority, Tamils have been fleeing to the West, mostly after the July 1983 pogrom. Sri Lanka and suffered incalculable losses as a result but, worse still, in the end it appears to have sold its soul to the Chinese for a bag of US$, forgetting its centuries old ties with India, its Buddhism origins, and how Buddhism continues to flourish there without any restraint.

War Crimes HR Violations and LLRC

The world was stirred into action by Sri Lanka’s attempts to conceal what really had happened in the war, especially after the Channel 4 expose, which also lent credibility to reports of war crimes, and HR violations that had kept trickling out of the war zones from the very beginning. It also blew Rajapaksa’s “Geneva Convention” tale to bits, his preemptive attempt to whitewash his security forces of war crimes and HR violations.

Rajapaksa then appointed the LLRC’s to cast a benign light on the war. But the mandate had more holes in it than the ministers in his cabinet. It was deeply flawed, because the central issue of the war, accountability for war crimes, and violence, was not addressed in the mandate; there was no witness protection4 program; and the word “reconciliation” was a contrived attempt to divert attention from the crimes, by comparing it with S. Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was clear that the LLRC was an attempt to conceal, whereas the S. African commission was a genuine attempt to reconcile. But when WikiLeaks revealed that Rajapaksa’s closest advisers are reported to have said, “I am not saying we are clean, we could not abide by international law...,” no other justification was needed for UNHRC in Geneva to act.

The UNHRC’s conclusions brought Rajapaksa’s world crashing down on him. And when it was known that Sri Lanka was not acting on its own LLRC recommendations, people everywhere were shocked into disbelief. It was left to the UNHRC to identify this deficiency and call for their implementation, emphasizing the critical need for reconciliation with the Tamils. For the US, India and their allies, it may have also been a wake up call to Sri Lanka about China’s presence in the region.

All this has put President Rajapaksa under immense stress, as he is the C-in-C of the armed forces with a lot to answer to, like who gave the order to the generals to massacre the Tamil civilians caught up in the war. He knows that ignoring the UNHRC resolutions would be at his own peril, and the need to neutralize its harshest impact. Getting his secretary, Lalith Weeratunga to implement the recommendations is an attempt to buy time to do just that. At the same time the US has also urged Sri Lanka to conduct a credible investigation into alleged war crimes and HR violations during the last phase of the war against the LTTE.

If Rajapaksa had really wanted accountability and reconciliation with the Tamils, he would have initiated action without being told by the UNHRC. But he was more concerned about concealing the atrocities of the war to do this. It has now passed out of his hands and made things more difficult for him. No amount of posturing by his regime will serve to erase the war crimes and violence that ended the war.

It is clear that the UNHRC decisions and directives will ultimately be the driving force behind everything that happens in Sri Lanka over the next few years, and bring clarity to the Sri Lanka situation.

Provincial Councils and Tamils

Don’t expect miracles to happen with devolution of power under the 13th Amendment as it stands, because accepting it would be like colonial rule all over again for the Tamils. It is an utterly defective mechanism for a genuine power sharing in a democracy. In fact, it would be a travesty to call it power sharing.

There will be all sorts of roadblocks trying to extract a solution out of the equivocating President Rajapaksa.

The governor of the provincial council is appointed by the president, and vested with all the powers to run the province. Not only that, he will also wield power over the police, the allocation of land, and the civil service. The elected representatives of the people will not have the power do anything except pander to the governor to have their decisions approved by him for implementation.

Take away the elected representatives, and it won’t make any difference to running the province! When it is also known that the funds needed to run the province will be voted by the parliament in Kotte, the dependency on the centre and the president is complete.

If the Tamils are to make headway, India must act decisively to lead Sri Lanka to a more realistic power sharing arrangement with the Tamils by holding up its own power sharing arrangement with its states as an example. At the same time, the UNHRC has to exert pressure on Sri Lanka following the decisions taken in Geneva.

But before this takes place, the standing army in the North must be removed and sent home to the barracks. Only when this happens will it be a sign that that the government is ready and willing to negotiate in earnest.

The Looming Danger

What is most disturbing to Tamils, and even Sinhalese, abroad is to see how the country is being forced into a slow and systematic descent into authoritarian rule, threatened and constrained by force. It has rendered the opposition parties ineffective, subdued by fear, infighting, and corruption. It is hard to fathom what they are up to. Now that General Sarath Fonseka is a free man again, it might assist in steering a different course for Sri Lanka.

The war victory is being used to rally the Sinhalese masses to aid in their own suppression! In the end it is they who will be put under a yoke and forced into rebellion to regain their freedom by checking the descent into authoritarian rule if they can see the light.

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    1.  Local and international media, even MPs and others, without exception, were banned from entering the war zones.

   2.   Banda was SWRD Bandaranaike, PM at that time. He shredded the B-C Pact signed with SJV  (pl. see under 5 below.)

        who, seeing Bada’s  difficulties, agreed to the ‘reasonable use of Tamil,’ and waited in vain for a better day that never came.

   3.  Srimavo, Banda’s spouse, a housewife, who became PM on his demise, and was a Sinhala nationalist of the first waters.

   4.  As it happened, witnesses who appeared before the LLRC  were photographed without their consent.

   5.  SJV was SJV Chelvanayakam, the leader of the Federal Party and the Tamils at that time.