Solving the Ethnic Problem: Foreigners Have the Answer

by Brian Senewiratne

I have been going through my analysis "Sri Lanka: The Peace Cannot be Abandoned" written after the January 2002 Ceasefire and still on the internet, looking at the current impasse and where we are heading.  I was about to put pen to paper to analyse the events that have occurred in the past three years, with the Ranil Wickremasinghe Government dragging its feet, the failure of the Kumaratunga Government to even move its feet, and the JVP threat to derail the Government if it did, and finally the post-tsumani reconstruction effort which treated the devastated Tamil area in a step-motherly fashion, if that.

Where do the Tamils stand?  What are their options?  Is it to wait in hopeful anticipation, something they have done for years?  Is it to watch the Sri Lankan Armed Forces go on yet another military hardware buying spree, tsunami or no tsunami?  To watch and wait while their people starve?  What are their options?

Trying to get an article together, I had a sudden wind-fall.  It had all been done, far better than anything I could have produced.  By whom?  A foreigner, Ms Verena Graf, Secretary General of the International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples.  This is a Geneva-based NGO with Special Consultative Status at the United Nations.  Here is what she said at the 61st Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights on Friday 19 March 2005.

The Tamils in Sri Lanka

"The hopes for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Sri Lanka in the wake of the ceasefire agreement of February 2002 between the then government and the LTTE as sole authentic representative of the Sri Lankan Tamils have largely proved illusory.

"Long before disaster struck the island on December 26, 2004, negotiations had been suspended, cooperation largely ceased in the face of the continued occupation of huge tracts of land in the NorthEast by the Sri Lankan army in the name of 'high security zones,' of hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons waiting in vain to be able to return to their homes, of lack of investment for the reconstruction of the destroyed countryside.

"The new government that came to power in 2004 has not advanced the peace process, on the contrary it contains parties totally opposed to any negotiated settlement.  If anything, the tsunami that has particularly affected the coastal areas in the NorthEast, already suffering from war-related destruction and very poor in comparison to the rest of country, has worsened the situation.

"While it galvanised the common people of all communities to come to each others‘ help, the government did not follow suit.  Instead of a joined effort at reconstruction and national integration, the international aid has been instrumentalised for political purposes.  In the name of relief measures, the distribution of aid and the planning for reconstruction have been highly centralised in the president’s office and handpicked committees at the expense of the immediate victims, including local NGOs or the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation working in the LTTE-controlled areas.

"International media accounts, as well as local parliamentarians, have complained of government inefficiency, if not outright discrimination against the people in the NorthEast, that includes Tamils and Muslims.  Moreover, emergency regulations have been reintroduced, and the army put in charge of the welfare centres.  Following the most recent official arms‘ purchases or the government‘s refusal to allow the UN Secretary General in early January to visit LTTE-controlled areas devastated by the tsunami, have further raised suspicion that the government‘s true intentions aim not just at isolating the Tamils and their leaders, but to use the catastrophe to change the balance of forces on the ground and to effectively renounce any negotiations.

"In the Norwegian-facilitated peace talks, the LTTE had agreed to renounce - for the time being - the Sri Lankan Tamils' right as a nation for an independent homeland, Tamil Eelam, and to explore the possibilities to redress decades of collective discrimination within the frame-work of large-scale internal autonomy.

"The developments during the last three years, compounded by the post-tsunami experiences, raise the spectre that time is running out; that there is no hope for the Tamils within a united Sri Lanka, that their only chance lies in fighting for external self-determination."

Ms Graf has got it right first shot!  What she said could have been said, indeed much of it has been said, by Adrian Wijemanne, Subramaniam Sivanayagam, Wakeley Paul, Satchi Sri Kantha, Kumar Ponnambalam, Brian Senewiratne, and numerous others.  But they are all "Tigers"!  Thank God the above quoted gem came from someone who could not possibly be a Tiger or a Tigress.

Two things are important

1. That we go in search of other ‘Verena Grafs.’  They sure are around.  It is only a question of contacting them and soliciting their help.  Arundhati Roy, the outstanding Indian author and human rights activist, one of the best brains in India who is not afraid to say things that have to be said, Bishop Desmond Tutu who has, for years, expressed serious concern at what is going on in Sri Lanka, Malcolm Frazer, former Prime Minister of Australia, who has increased in stature in leaps and bounds after he quit politics, the outstanding former Irish President and later the head of the UN Human Rights Commission, the incomparable Mary Robinson, are just a few who spring to mind.  I am sure there are many more.  They are the people who are in a position to generate international pressure, particularly on the crucial ‘aid givers.’  Rather than hallucinate about ‘Peace’ in Sri Lanka and then being surprised when fighting breaks out again, this is what we should be doing.

2. That we send a copy of Verena Graf’s 2005 presentation to every member of Parliament in whatever country we live.

Let us get this straight. Without sustained and massive international pressure, not a speech here and a speech there, we will get nowhere.  It is this type of pressure that enabled the outrageous apartheid policy in South Africa to be dismantled.  It is this that is needed if Sri Lanka is to be saved from total destruction, both physical and economic.

If we do nothing and wait for Eelam War 4 or 5 or whatever it is (I have lost count) to break out, we are as guilty as the JVP, the politically active Buddhist clergy, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and Arms dealers who are currently in the economic doldrums, and President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose prime interest is in manipulating the situation to continue her political career rather than doing what has to be done to achieve - not just ‘Peace’ - but ‘Peace with Justice’ in Sri Lanka. 

Let us not claim that we have no role to play.  We have a vital role, which we prefer to ignore, since it is more convenient to put the blame on someone else.  It is pathetic when we demand from politicians and political opportunists a level of integrity and responsibility which they simply do not possess.

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Posted April 1, 2005