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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 11, March 2, 2013

The Amazing Brazenness of Mahinda Rajapaksa

Wednesday 6 March 2013, by Apratim Mukarji


The Sri Lankan Government and the inter-national community are gearing up for a major confrontation in Geneva in March over the alleged human rights violations that had occurred in the final stage of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

March 15 and 20 are expected to be two vital dates for the future of Sri Lanka. On March 15, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will consider and adopt the final outcome of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Sri Lanka.

On March 20, the UNHRC will consider the report of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) on the advice and technical assistance to the Sri Lankan Government on promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka. Seven days later, on March 27, the leader of the Sri Lankan delegation, Industries Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, will present his government’s response.

The international community’s tough deter-mination on Sri Lanka, which was reflected in the UNHRC resolution adopted last year, is being led by the United States Government and its “partners” among which a rather reluctant and hesitant India is counted.

Throughout the early part of 2009 till May 18-19 of that year, as the LTTE was being annihilated in the fiercest phase of the prolonged civil war, news percolated through the inter-national aid agencies and diplomatic sources that Tamil civilians were dying in hordes having been caught between the devil and deep sea.

Allegations that neither the Sri Lankan Army nor the LTTE was paying any attention to the horrendous sufferings of civilians intensified with further intelligence that at least 40,000 civilians had been deliberately shelled by the Army caught as they were in the so-called no-fire zones declared at the time.

The allegations never went away and have, on the contrary, gained in substance as human rights organisations and the UNHRC continued their inquiries. On its part, the Sri Lankan Government adopted an attitude of complete denial right from the beginning coupled with a show of unrestrained defiance.

As in all other state matters, it is President Mahinda Rajapaksa who has been determining his government’s response to the growing international criticism and concern over the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. The Obama Administration’s determined push in the matter, however, appears to have influenced his thinking to a minor extent. While last year the Sri Lankan case, which apparently failed to prove to be persuasive, was presented by the country’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, the President has brought back his special human rights envoy, Mahinda Samarasinghe, to obviously handle the UN body more effectively.

Otherwise, however, Sri Lanka is expected to present a determinedly brazen defence of its conduct in March. An ample illustration of this strategy was available in mid-February when an Army Court of Inquiry held that “The instances of shelling referred to in the LLRC report were not caused by the Sri Lankan Army and civilian casualties might have occurred due to unlawful acts by the LTTE”.

Somewhat to the surprise of the international community, the Army Court of Inquiry stuck to the already discredited claims of the military campaign having been a “Humanitarian Operation” with its objective having been “Zero Civilian Casualty”. The commanders, the Court claimed, at all times “obeyed...the directives from the higher headquarters with regard to No Fire Zones (NFZs) and even when the LTTE terrorists had fired from NFZs, commanders refrained from firing at such NFZs.”

According to this Army report, the comm-anders were so much mindful of the probable impact of the fighting on civilians that going beyond the official requirement they actually extended the boundaries of the NFZs by as much as 500 metres.

The Army Court further said evidence revealed that “at all stages of the Humanitarian Operation, the Sri Lankan Army behaved as a well-disciplined military force observing the IHL (International Humanitarian Law) and the law of war and they took all the precautions to avoid civilians and all those who came under the control of the Sri Lankan Army, including surrendered/ captured LTTE cadre, were treated humanely observing the IHL to the letter”. The Court will hold another inquiry into the second part of its mandate, the allegation of summary executions of the captured LTTE cadre.

The significance of the forthcoming UNHCR session has been vastly enhanced with the reve-lation of the immeasurably cruel cold-blooded execution of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old younger son Balachandran. Three photographs apparently taken by the Sri Lankan Army and revealed to the world in a Channel 4 TV documentary showing the boy alive but in apparent captivity and then lying dead with bullet holes in his chest have shocked the world with the enormity of the crime.

In line with its familiar brazenness, however, the Sri Lankan Government has sought to belittle the expose’, dismissing the photographs as “concocted lies, half-truths and speculations” designed to embarrass the country at the forthcoming UNHRC session.

Throughout his first and current terms in office, President Rajpaksa has consciously sought to take the majority Sinhala community’s traditional chauvinism to an unprecedented height. His obvious purpose is to secure his hold over the country and its people, and he has strewn his path to power and its perpetuation with ample encouragement.

A case in point is the official display of the remnants of the LTTE found in the war zone for the benefit of Sinhala civilians. British journalist Frances Harrison, the author of Still Counting The Dead, a collection of survivors’ stories from the final phase of the war, wrote in “Row in Lanka as govt turns Tamil killing fields into tourist hot spot” (The Times of India, January 19, 2013) that “Sri Lanka’s war zone area has partially opened up so survivors can return home, but also to enable a macabre tourist trail the military have set up primarily for people from the majority Sinhala community to see where their defeated enemy lived. For decades these northern parts of the country under rebel administration were largely off limits to people in the south. Now busloads of Sri Lankan tourists are coming to see the rebel leader’s house and his underground bunker, swimming pool and shooting range. All the exhibits are neatly labelled—‘Terrorist Swimming Pool’, for example—and in the rebels’ erstwhile capital there is even a souvenir shop next to the destroyed landmark of the water tower. Next to each of these sites, there is a café’ where visitors can enjoy a cup of tea prepared by a Sri Lankan soldier.”

In late February, an unprecedented rally was held in Colombo by fringe Buddhist militants denouncing Muslims and declaring that Sri Lanka was primarily for the Sinhalas. Bodu Bala Sena, a very belligerent Sinhala Buddhist group, raised slogans like “This is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country and a Sinhala government. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race.”

What has sent shockwaves through the various ethnic minority communities is a series of anti-Muslim incidents that preceded the rally. Mosques and halal meat shops and restaurants are being targeted, and the rally set a deadline of March 31 by which the government must ensure that halal meat and food are banished from Sri Lanka.

Thus, after the Tamils have been literally put in their place, Sinhala chauvinists have turned their attention to the second largest minority community, the Muslims. Muslim political parties and organisations are wondering if they should appeal to the member-countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) where thousands of Sri Lankans live and work and whose hard currency remittances account for the largest chunk of revenue for the government.

As the UNHRC session in Geneva nears, the attention of the international community will be focused on India’s likely role. The Indian Government drew President Rajapaksa’s ire when it sided with the US Government in the adoption of the critical resolution asking Sri Lanka to prove in a better manner its good intentions regarding the Tamils.

Sri Lankan Tamils have often stated that their last hope for justice rests with the United States and India, and the Obama Administration says it is certain that India will support a country-specific resolution in March. US Deputy Assistant Secretary James Moore said in Colombo in late-January that “the resolution will be straight-forward; it will be a procedural resolution, and it will build on the 2012 resolution which called on Sri Lanka to do more to promote reconciliation and accountability. The resolution will ask the Government of Sri Lanka to follow through on its own commit-ments to its people, including the implemen-tation of the LLRC recommendations.”

During a recent visit to Sri Lanka, this writer was given an impression that apart from the usual Indian considerations whenever the question of interceding with the country comes up, a new and very important factor is the steadily growing presence of China in the country. As in the case of Pakistan, so in the case of Sri Lanka as well China is deliberately choosing to extend complete support to Colombo. Its obvious aim is to concretise its relationship with Sri Lanka.

At the same time, the Indian Government must consider the long-term interests of the Indian private sector which is doing very good business in the country. After the recent bitter experience in the Maldives where the GMR was unceremoniously booted out of the Male international airport modernisation project, New Delhi would necessarily have to weigh in Indian business interests in Sri Lanka where anti-Indian sentiments are normally hidden under pretentious gentlemanliness but are liable to resurface at the very first instance of Indian “perfidy”.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of Central and South Asian affairs.

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