by Col R Hariharan
Though Sri Lanka finished the Eelam War in triumph a year back, its battle with the international community does not appear to be over.
It was joined in right earnest last week when the maverick Sri Lankan minister and ‘revolutionary’ turned politician Wimal Weerawansa spearheaded a siege of the UN office in Colombo. He was demanding the withdrawal of the UN expert panel appointed to advise the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sri Lanka’s human rights and humanitarian record during the war.
But Weerawansa added more spice to the protest when he went on “fast unto death.” The National Freedom Front leader being no Mahatma Gandhi nobody expected him to die a martyr. Though theatricals of the protest were overdone, it was more than a publicity gimmick or a photo opportunity for Weerawansa because it had official blessing. President Mahinda Rajapaksa showed his solidarity with the minister’s action by visiting the fasting minister and ‘persuaded’ him to break his fast on the second day.
If paralysing work at the UN office was the objective of the protest, the minister’s mission was eminently successful. Work at the UN office was paralysed and the UN asked its staffers not to come out. The UNDP Regional Centre in Colombo was shut down. The UN Resident Coordinator in Colombo, Neil Buhne was called back to New York.
Buhne is going back now after the UN clearly articulated its expectations from Colombo: better treatment of the U.N. family in Sri Lanka, progress of commitments covered in the Joint Statement of May 2009 including resettlement of internally displaced persons, political reconciliation and accountability. So the minister’s protest has not only failed, but also appears to have firmed up the UN Secretary General’s resolve to go ahead with the work of UN experts’ panel.
As Sri Lanka considers the action of the UN Secretary General an infringement of national sovereignty, its ire is understandable. But the way it is being handled as a populist ploy than through diplomatic moves makes one suspect the intentions. Is it part of President’s strategy to milk the issue for internal political gains? Although, his overwhelming public support was confirmed in the recent presidential and parliamentary polls, the protests focusing on outsider interference does put opposition on the defensive to temper their criticism of the government.
Ban Ki-moon was well within his powers to appoint a panel of experts to advise him on the issue. The Secretary General’s action would have provided a safe option to Sri Lanka to defer the issue from adverse limelight. It would also have given inkling on the follow up action likely at the UN Security Council or the UN Human Rights Commission.
But why Sri Lanka has chosen to do have a confrontation with the UN? Obviously it does not want any external body to investigate allegations of human rights violations. The second explanation is the fear that allowing experts’ panel would lead to probe into war crimes allegations against Sri Lanka army during the last phase of war. Sri Lanka’s prickly reaction only strengthens suspicions of its conduct. The relentless efforts of influential international NGOs and diehard Tamil Diaspora Eelam lobby to bring Sri Lanka to the dock on this count are likely to continue regardless of Sri Lanka stand on UN panel.
Sri Lanka’s objection should be viewed in the backdrop of its long term skirmish with “foreign interference.” It
started with its bitter experience of the way the Monitoring Mission of the peace process 2002 functioned. And international role in Sri Lanka’s conflict became a contentious issue in the presidential poll 2005. Its attitude hardened in 2006 after a disastrous experience with an international panel of eminent persons’ inquiry into alleged killings carried out by security men which was given up midway due to lack of cooperation from Sri Lankan side.
And its international reputation had been on the down slide even before the war started when scores of people ‘disappeared' and media men were hounded.
The common thread running in the UN action as well as the European Union’s suspension of the GSP+ export tariff concessions is the trust deficit in Sri Lanka’s words. And to dismiss as international prejudice or conspiracy to belittle Sri Lanka’s triumph against terrorism would be foolhardy. More situations of a similar kind are in the making.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has suggested to the Indian government to assess the situation in the affected areas in Sri Lanka and the progress of rehabilitation measures undertaken by the Sri Lankan government for internally displaced Tamils. Though he has left the option of who will carry out this task to Dr Manmohan Singh, unless a special envoy is sent the issue would hang fire in Tamil Nadu. And both the leaders cannot afford it as the state is getting ready for assembly poll. The chief minister was only reflecting public opinion and what the Indian government had been asking Colombo in private. How Sri Lanka is going to handle this ‘foreign interference’ is the moot question?
This time around nobody can accuse the TN chief minister of being anti-Sinhalese. Around the same time, he had arrested Seeman, the Kollywood director turned leader of the pro-LTTE Naam Tamilar party, under the National Security Act for ‘inciting the public’ against Sinhalese in Chennai.
Whatever be the President’s internal agenda, he urgently needs to repair fractured international credibility. And regardless of Sri Lanka’s own opinion, its waning credibility will expose it to more and more international criticism. The NAM (non aligned movement) lobby at the UN has already shown to be an unreliable forum to plead for Sri Lanka. China, Russia and India – considered as friends of Sri Lanka – cannot be expected repeatedly to bale out Sri Lanka in the face of strong international line up.
The reason is not merely the demand for greater international accountability of nations, but also greater global awareness of rights of people and citizens. So the issue cannot be wished away; the President is bound to be questioned locally and internationally till their credibility gap is bridged with reasoning.
Sri Lanka’s credibility is directly related to three issues: its human rights record and accountability, rehabilitation issues of displaced Tamils, and vintage grievances of Tamil population. Actions like holding the cabinet meeting in Kilinochi, or providing better connectivity from North do not convince the public when people in villages around are destitute and there is lack of security and trust in government.
For its own good Sri Lanka should seriously look at human rights record and improve it. It is not India or the international community, but almost all opposition parties, media, and President Rajapaksa’s erstwhile chief of defence staff have complained of serious human rights violations. And many of them continue to do so. The emergency regulations are still haunting the public; even now Tamils in Wellawatte are asked to register with the police as pointed out by the National Peace Council.
The strategy to ward off international intrusion in what governments do is simple: be proactive and develop systems to be so. This helps the nation to look beyond playing sleight of hand competition in international forums as Sri Lanka is doing now. And it also enables the nation build its value systems, a great asset in forging ethnic amity. But this is more easily said than done, particularly if those in power want to make political capital out of problems.
Even in such an agenda improving leader’s credibility is never a liability.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: www.colhariharan.org)