Talking is one thing, but internationalising such talks is something that a country with even a modicum of self-respect cannot agree to. A Tamil National Alliance delegation is holding talks with top United States administration officials in Washington and its travel itinerary includes visits to Canada and Britain.
To any political novice it is evident that the visit, is an attempt by the TNA to add pressure on the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration on the premise that it is deliberately delaying moves to find a solution to the grievances and aspirations of the Tamil people. The visit can also be construed as a subtle attempt to further internationalise Sri Lanka's national question at a time when the country's political and military leaders and diplomats are confronting multiple moves at international level to slap war crimes charges on them.
The TNA's argument that the government has not done enough to generate confidence in the sometimes-on-and-sometimes stalled talks is perhaps warranted, given the Rajapaksa administration's capriciousness or lack of clear direction on the issue. The government first convened an all-party representative committee and when this committee presented its proposals, the President announced a solution based on the 13th Amendment and much more. Then that was ditched for a Parliamentary Select Committee. Now a Rajapaksa cabinet minister, who is seen more as a Rajapaksa mouthpiece, wants the government to implement the 13th Amendment without police and land powers. The government's changing stance gives credence to the claims doubting its honesty and commitment.
Yet the Rajapaksa administration, to its credit, had exercised patience and tried its utmost to uphold the much criticized 2001 ceasefire agreement and the so-called peace talks even when the terrorists were mounting suicide attacks and assassination attempts on the country's political and military leadership. So one cannot totally discredit the government's commitment to moves aimed at national unity. Having successfully dealt with the 30-year terrorist scourge, the government has made a series of efforts on several fronts to solve the Tamil problem.
Besides talks with the TNA, it is taking steps to bring in economic development to the Northern and Eastern Provinces and facilitate people-to-people contacts between the North and the South. These efforts are likely to bear fruit in the long term. Need we say that economic deprivation, apart from social and ethnic grievances, was one of the factors that spawned the separatist struggle? Successive governments understood the importance of talks and shed protocol and sacrificed self-respect to negotiate even though they knew the enemy wished nothing but the destruction of the nation and used the talks to regroup and relaunch the war with renewed vigour.
But the government, we believe, has reason to be wary about the TNA's visit to Washington because it comes weeks before the much looked forward to report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is released. The tone and the content of the report are likely to influence or defuse international moves to initiate a probe into war crimes alleged to have taken place in Sri Lanka during the last stages of the war in 2009 -- and the US and other international actors are not ambiguous in their warning that their next move depends on the LLRC report.
The talks also coincide with moves by some interested parties or agents of the Diaspora in Australia to pin the war criminal label on President Rajapaksa, high commissioner and former Navy Commander Thisara Samarasinghe and Sri Lanka's UN envoy Palitha Kohona, who also holds Australian citizenship.
The US government’s involvement in talks with the TNA in Washington may border on interference in Sri Lanka's internal affairs. The State Department in its country profile report says the United States and Sri Lanka enjoy cordial relations that are based, in large part, on shared democratic traditions. An essential part of the democratic tradition is respecting a country's sovereignty even if that country is aid-dependent. We recognize that knowing all sides of an issue is part of diplomacy as it helps a country to take informed decisions, but we hope that the talks with the TNA in Washington stop there.
The US has time and again said that Sri Lanka's Tamil problem is for the Sri Lankans to solve. The TNA members should remember that and also that when US Congress members go abroad there is an unwritten code that they do not badmouth their government especially if they are from the opposition. We hope the US government will not do with these Sri Lankan MPs what it does not allow its own politicians to do when they are abroad. It's the same with British MPs who are briefed by the Foreign Offices on what they should say and not say when abroad. But it seems that for the TNA, going abroad and complaining about the government has become a habit, as during the recent visit by some TNA MPs to New Delhi.
The health of the Commonwealth
Upon receiving independence, Sri Lanka valued its membership in the Commonwealth of Nations for three reasons: To affirm its independence among other sovereign states, to seek refuge in case post-independence India decided it would act as the famous Panikkar doctrine had advocated; and to obtain economic assistance. A threat from foreign Communist predators was also a reason to embrace the Commonwealth.
Six decades later, as the Commonwealth heads of government met in the Western Australian capital of Perth amidst calls by human rights NGOs and Tamil Diaspora members for punitive measures against Sri Lanka and its leaders for alleged war crimes, the value of the 54-member body to our economic, strategic or political objectives is debatable.
Has the Commonwealth today become like the Non-Aligned Movement, the once powerful Third World bloc? Not many will remember when the last Commonwealth summit was held and where and what decisions the summit made. Perhaps, apart from some security ripples concerning the personal safety of the visiting leaders from the menace of the so-called war-crime lobbyists or rotten tomatoes or eggs from the Australian counterparts of Occupy Wall Street activists, the summit made hardly any impact on international affairs, though its chequered early history speaks of its tough stand against apartheid in South Africa, white rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and military coups in Pakistan and Fiji.
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave the summit a miss but India succeeded in sending a strong stricture to Australia over the latter's decision not to sell nuclear raw material. Even Britain has shifted emphasis to its relationship with Europe and cast the Commonwealth to the backburner. President Mahinda Rajapaksa though made the visit perhaps for two reasons: To show the war-crime mongers that he has nothing to fear and to take over the baton from Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to host the 2013 summit, which is already making big news because of Canada's boycott threat. There is one more reason but it has nothing to do with the summit but everything to do with the commonwealth of his acolytes -foreign jaunts at public expense.
That apart, one wonders whether Sri Lanka is concerned about the Commonwealth Eminent Persons' report aimed at making the grouping relevant to the 21st century's needs or moves aimed at changing the succession rules to the British throne. In fact, we have rejected outright the most important part of the Eminent Persons' report - that of setting up an office for the Commonwealth Human Rights Commissioner who would uphold Commonwealth values and monitor violations in member states.