Ten years after the end of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka still struggles to cope with the fallout of the protracted war that caused mayhem for over three decades, and impacted, virtually every citizen, in more ways than one. When the country should have been well on the way to putting aside the disagreeable past [...]


The fault lies with Colombo, not Geneva


Ten years after the end of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka still struggles to cope with the fallout of the protracted war that caused mayhem for over three decades, and impacted, virtually every citizen, in more ways than one.

When the country should have been well on the way to putting aside the disagreeable past of divisions between communities, Sri Lanka is facing intense international pressure over redressing wrongs that may have occurred as a result of the conflict between the LTTE and the State.

Much of this is due to the actions and inaction of the State at different levels, and at different times. In the early ’80s, Sri Lanka was in the international spotlight with allegations of Human Rights (HR) violations by the armed forces. In the 1990s, with the assistance of the ICRC, the Armed Forces were given intense HR training, and their image was improved.

The LTTE, which presented itself as fighting for the aspirations of the Tamil people, hijacked the movement and turned its guns on other Tamil groups, in the pursuit of its desire to be the sole representative of the Tamil people. It also upped the ante by launching attacks on civilian targets, both in and outside the conflict areas.

Tamil intellectuals such as Rajini Tiranagama, who attempted to resist the anti democratic campaign of the LTTE, were brutally murdered. Tamil political leaders such as A. Amirthalingam, M. Sivasithamparam and Sam Tambimuttu, to name a few, were all assassinated by the LTTE, while the rest of the political leadership took a back seat and allowed the LTTE to play the lead role in its attempts to resolve the conflict.

Despite the ruthlessness of the LTTE, political leaders in the South, continuously made overtures and, in fact, engaged in talks with the Tigers, to arrive at a solution to the conflict through negotiations. The attempt to do so was not intended to legitimise or validate the LTTEs demands, but merely premised on the basis that the saving of lives through peace talks was way better than an armed conflict, which would result in large loss of human life, be they be from the Armed Forces, the LTTE or innocent civilians.

Starting from J.R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa, all Governments engaged in negotiations in one form or the other. But the LTTE had other plans and continuously backed out or withdrew on some pretext or the other, rather than adopt a problem solving approach.

The final straw came when they withdrew from the talks after the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government delegation headed by Nimal Siripala de Silva arrived in Oslo, and the LTTE’s fateful decision to close the Mavil Aru sluice gates, depriving water to hundreds of farmers. This was a classic case of “Illang Kewa”, resulting in the Armed Forces activating the military campaign which finally ended in the defeat of the LTTE at Nandikadal in May 2009.

The fatal mistake by the LTTE was reminiscent of the blunder made by the JVP during its insurrection in the late 1980s, when it turned its attacks on the families of Police Officers. This was virtually the final straw that broke the camel’s back, and the Police launched a no holds barred campaign, which resulted in the end of the JVP-led insurrection.

Sri Lanka being in the spotlight in Geneva, year in year out, is due to multiple reasons. First is the manner in which the war was conducted, particularly, during its latter stages. Second was the active role played by the pro LTTE elements of the Diaspora. Yet another factor was the manner in which the Sri Lankan State engaged with the diaspora and the international community, with regard to the allegations against the State. The Geneva process being made a political issue in the country further contributed to the situation, while the slow pace of addressing the issues internally, also played a part in keeping Sri Lanka on the UNHRC agenda.

In the final days of the ‘war’, the Government took steps to make the fighting, a war without witnesses. The UN Agencies, international and local NGOs were ordered to leave the area, in preparation for the final assault by the Armed Forces.

This shortsighted policy provided the opportunity for those who wanted to give a slant to figures of civilian casualties and Armed Forces’ atrocities, the platform to do so. The absence of independent observers like the UN agencies, NGOs and the media, prevented accurate and truthful narratives to filter through, of what was happening on the battlefields.

In many wars fought in different parts of the world, the media and other independent observers provide accounts of the fighting and suffering of the people in the battlefield, enabling the public to form a balanced opinion of what was going on. By removing all third parties from the scene of action, the story of civilian casualties could be falsified or exaggerated.

Such a scenario has also helped the pro LTTE sections of the diaspora keep the issue alive, by feeding the international community with figures of civilian casualties that may not reflect the actual ground situation. Information from independent observers and media would have helped counter the situation in no small measure. It is now of no use to regret after the event, and what has to be done is to engage in a sustained campaign to put the record straight.

But even here, the Sri Lankan State has been found wanting. Understanding the thinking of the people in the key countries is useful in deciding strategies to counter misinformation. The saying, ‘all the world loves a hero’ can be tweeked to read ‘all the world loves an oppressed people’. The picture being painted of a majoritarian State discriminating or marginalizing a minority, readily touches a sympathetic chord among the public of these countries, who have a strong sense of justice.

The governments of these countries may have strategic or geopolitical reasons that influence the stand they take in Geneva. Yet the public in those countries are not swayed by such thinking. It is an over simplification to believe that the votes of the diaspora determine positions taken up by these Governments, as such votes are insignificant in the larger voting patterns of the country. However, it would be true to say that such votes influence the Parliamentarians who regularly raise questions on Sri Lanka in the House of Commons.

What is unfortunate is that the allegations against the Sri Lankan State are allowed to go almost unchallenged, leaving the public in these countries with only one side of the story. Even in dealing with international bodies, the response of the Sri Lankan State has been rather weak.

Take the case of the Darusman report. It is clearly an internal report meant to advise the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who did not adopt it as a UN report, for reasons best known to him. In any researched report, one of the important criteria in determining its reliability is the research methodology adopted. One is not aware whether the research methodology has been set out in the report itself. However, for whatever reason, Ban Ki Moon did not give it the status of a UN report, and needs to be taken out of the equation.

Similarly, the case of the figure of 5,000 civilian deaths stated by Lord Naseby. There is nothing for Sri Lanka to crow about with regard to the figure of 5,000, as against the figure of 40,000 in the Darusman report. Five thousand is a large enough figure to be concerned about. But the more important point is to determine what happened to each and every civilian unaccounted for, however big or small the numbers are. This can be done only after a proper inquiry.

There is no point arguing there were no civilian casualties, without a proper inquiry, which may even determine that the figure is less than 5,000. Or it may reveal the number is more.

Internally too, the political arguments have to be countered, in order to take the Reconciliation process forward. It is very likely that the previous Government did follow a policy of zero civilian casualties, but this does not necessarily mean there were, in fact, no civilian casualties. It is in the nature of war that, there are many happenings that are not manifest and can only be ascertained after investigations.

While the Government may have followed a zero civilian casualty policy, there may have been individuals or groups of soldiers who did not conform to such policies. These allegations have to be put to rest once and for all, in order to clear the name of the Armed Forces.

Much of the steps that have to be taken to advance the Reconciliation process and heal the wounds caused by the war can be dealt with internally. Indeed, much has already happened, with the minorities breathing more easily, as a result of the opening up of democratic space in the country, returning of land owned by the people, the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons, the Office for Reparations and so one.

Such resolute action has to be taken not because of any pressure from Geneva, but because of the duty the State owes to its citizenry to address its issues. If this is done, Sri Lanka will be a forgotten name in Geneva, by the time the two years given to the country by the UNHRC is over. (javidyusuf@gmail.com)   

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