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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 18, April 20, 2013

Sri Lanka: Behind Rajapaksa’s Defiance

Monday 22 April 2013, by Apratim Mukarji

What was widely anticipated has now been confirmed. The Sri Lankan Government reaffirmed on April 9 that it does not concur with the US-sponsored resolution adopted at the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva on March 22 and that the government, therefore, will not hold talks with anyone on the related matters.

The government has also rejected the report of the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Nina Pillai, which forms the basis of the hearings of the UNHRC session on the alleged human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces, terming it as “a catalyst for dissension and violence”.

It was on March 22, after the US-sponsored resolution supported by a circumspect India and a majority of other member-states had been adopted, that the Sri Lankan Government rejected it stating that it sought to “discredit” and “single out” the country over the allegations and that it was “biased and politicised”.

The language of the resolution was borrowed from a “flawed” report by the UNHRC Pillai, the government said at the time, adding: “Drawing disproportionate attention to Sri Lanka’s situation and introducing a resolution that seeks to discredit, single out and humiliate the country are unhelpful and counter-productive to Sri Lanka’s current reconciliation process.” “Just as the Government of Sri Lanka did not recognise the last HRC resolution, it rejects the new resolution,” it added.

The April 9 reaffirmation of the Rajapaksa regime’s stand was followed the very next day by a stinging critique of the Indian Government’s position on the issue. The real power behind President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya laid the full blame for the Sri Lankan civil war and the depredations of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during 1983-2009 at the door of India.

In an unprecedented statement, he said that if the Indian Government at the time had acted with “responsibility”, Sri Lanka would not have experienced a 30-year war. On the other hand, the people of all communities would still have been suffering the horrors of war if the Rajapaksa Government had not “eradicated” terrorism in May 2009. “India can never absolve itself of responsibility for creating terrorism here, though some of those directly involved in subverting Sri Lanka are blaming the Rajapaksa administration for the plight of the Tamil-speaking people here,” he said.

The reference was to an article the former Permanent Representative of India at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, Hardeep Singh Puri, wrote in The Hindu (April 9, 2013). “Hardeep Singh Puri had been directly involved in the Indian operation against the J.R. Jaya-wardene Government in the run-up to the July 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord,” Gotabaya said.

“Those demanding accountability on Sri Lanka’s part for the alleged atrocities committed during the last 100 days of the conflict are silent on the origin of terrorism here. Puri should realise that the Indian intervention here had caused a major regional crisis when Indian-trained terrorists raided the Maldives in early November 1988,” he said.

However, the coup de grâce he delivered signifies the Sri Lankan strategy in the making to counter the sustained international pressure to bring Colombo to accountability. He demanded that the international community should consider a comprehensive investigation into the issue beginning with the Indian intervention. “Some interested parties are reluctant to acknowledge the fact that Sri Lanka is a much better place today without the LTTE,” he said.

But what lies behind Colombo’s continuing defiance of the international community? During a recent visit to Sri Lanka this writer interacted with a cross-section of various communities there from which certain conclusions may be reasonably drawn.

The main strength on which the four Rajapaksa brothers depend to sustain their defiance of world opinion is the virtually complete hold they have over the majority Sinhala community. This unprecedented domination has been achieved in an apparently calculated manner and by efficiently exploiting the long-nurtured majoritarian grievance against the Tamils for the depredations of the LTTE. This deliberate equation of the Tamils with the LTTE facilitated the waging of the all-out war against the LTTE during the second presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. And it was not at all difficult to accomplish this since the other facilitator was the LTTE itself which was unable to defeat Colombo’s well-crafted strategy of entrapping the rebels incrementally into a trap with no exit door.

LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran’s traditional ploy of hoodwinking the government into periodic ceasefires and resumption of hostilities at his own convenience failed for the first time because Mahinda decided to finish the rebels once and for all in contrast to the previous governments’ long-nurtured policy of playing along with Jaffna to buttress their own partisan interests.

Why did the present President risk abando-ning the time-honoured government policy of humouring the LTTE while collecting benefits for himself and his party? He correctly read the Sinhalas’ deeply ingrained animosity towards the Tamils like S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike did many decades earlier and introduced the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy and his widow Sirimavo compounded the folly by bringing in the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act.

It is astonishing to observe in today’s Sri Lanka the complete apathy among the Sinhalas towards the eventual fate of the Tamils. It is for good reasons that Tamils today have reached a stage of hopelessness never witnessed before despite the fact that the national trend to isolate and force them into submission has existed since the early 1950s.

The first substantive evidence of the majority community’s and the government’s disincli-nation to attempt a genuine ethnic reconciliation was available when for several years and for the first time since the war began, the ceasefire lasted for an unprecedented period providing an excellent opportunity to do so.

But the reconciliation of the two communities never materialised because both the government and Sinhala community on the one hand and the LTTE riding roughshod over the Tamils on the other, chose not to emerge from their traditional antipathy towards each other.

This Sri Lankan tradition, however, under-went a dramatic and decisive change when, in his first presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to go for a military solution abandoning peace negotiations.

Now, secure in the knowledge that the majority Sri Lankans are overwhelmingly with him, Rajapaksa and his government have betrayed no honest intention to accommodate the Tamils’ political aspirations.

However, this does not mean that the govern-ment would never grant self-government to the Tamils in the northern province. Mahinda Rajapaksa is too shrewd a politician to step into such an undisguised act of partisanship. His entire efforts today are directed towards neutralising the independent-minded Tamil politicians and replacing them with those who would be subservient to him and his policies. The problem he has not yet solved is the apparent dearth of such obedience among Tamil politicians; he knows the Tamil Ministers in his government have little or no credibility in the north.

He is also tackling the problem from another angle, the numerical majority of Tamils in the province. It is fairly well-established that a major demographic change has been underway since the end of the war with Sinhala families settling down there. While it is improbable to reduce the Tamils to a minority in the province, something like what happened in the eastern province where the once-majority Tamils eventually became merely one-third of the population, may be attempted in the northern province.

As long as the Rajapaksa brothers (who have since been joined by the President’s first-born Namal who at the age of 27 years has grown into a dominating personality; his birthday celebrations merited the second spot in the government website on the day, April 10) continue their run over the country unchallenged, the concerns of the international community, including India, would remain largely immaterial.

It is also important to remember that the Rajapaksas draw their sustenance not only from the Sinhala community in the country but also from a host of countries which equally suffer from blemished human rights violation records of their own and do side with Sri Lanka whenever the UNHRC and other human rights organisations turn their gaze on the island nation. The Sri Lankan Government knows that it can always fall back on this substantial support it enjoys in the international community and this knowledge certainly adds muscle to its defiance of the criticisms and calls for adoption of corrective measures. The essence of President Rajapaksa’s policy is that it is strictly on his terms that Sri Lanka will be run and that the international community will interact with his government. 

The author is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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