Sri Lankan bloodbath yet to yield peace dividend

Colombo risks squandering Sri Lanka’s hard-won peace

By BRAHMA CHELLANEY

The Japan
Times

If Sri
Lanka is to become a tropical paradise
again, it must build enduring peace. This will only occur through genuine
interethnic equality, and a transition from being a unitary state to being a
federation that grants provincial and local autonomy.

Yet even in victory the Sri Lankan government seems
unable to define peace or outline a political solution to the long-standing
cultural and political grievances of the Tamil minority, which makes up 12
percent of the 21.3-million population. A process of national reconciliation
anchored in federalism and multiculturalism can succeed only if human-rights
abuses by all parties are independently investigated. United Nations Secretary
General Ban Ki Moon has acknowledged that civilian casualties were
"unacceptably high," especially as the war built to a bloody
crescendo.

The continuing air of martial triumph in Sri Lanka,
though, is making it difficult to heal the wounds of war through three
essential "Rs": relief, recovery and reconciliation. In fact, the
military victory bears a distinct family imprint: President Mahinda Rajapaksa
was guided by two of his brothers, Gotabaya, the defense secretary who authored
the war plan, and Basil, the presidential special adviser who formulated the
political strategy. Yet another brother, Chamal, is the ports minister who
awarded China a contract to build the billion-dollar Hambantotta port, on Sri
Lanka’s southeast.

In return, Beijing provided Colombo not only the weapon
systems that decisively tilted the military balance in its favor, but also the
diplomatic cover to prosecute the war in defiance of international calls to
cease offensive operations to help stanch rising civilian casualties. Through
such support, China has
succeeded in extending its strategic reach to a critically located country in India’s backyard that sits astride vital
sea-lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean
region.

Sinhalese nationalists now portray Rajapaksa as a
modern-day Dutugemunu, a Sinhalese ruler who, according to legend, vanquished
an invading Tamil army led by Kind Elara more than 2,000 years ago. But four
months after the Tamil Tigers were crushed, it is clear the demands of peace
extend far beyond the battlefield. What is needed is a fundamental shift in
the government’s policies to help create greater interethnic equality, regional
autonomy and a reversal of the state-driven militarization of society.

But Rajapaksa, despite promising to address the root
causes of conflict, has declared: "Federalism is out of the
question." 

How elusive the peace dividend remains can be seen from Colombo’s decision to
press ahead with a further expansion of the military. Not content with
increasing the military’s size five-fold since the late 1980s to more than 200,000
troops today, Colombo
is raising the strength further to 300,000, in the name of "eternal
vigilance." Soon after the May victory, the government, for example,
announced a drive to recruit 50,000 new troops to help manage the northern
areas captured from the rebels.

The Sri Lankan military already has more troops than that
of Britain or Israel. The
planned further expansion would make the military in tiny Sri Lanka larger than the militaries of major
powers like France, Japan and Germany. By citing a continuing
danger of guerrilla remnants reviving the insurgency, Rajapaksa, in fact, seems
determined to keep a hyper-militarized Sri Lanka on something of a war
footing. 

Yet another issue of concern is the manner the nearly 300,000 Tamil
civilians still held by the government in camps where, in the recent words of
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, the "internally
displaced persons are effectively detained under conditions of
internment."

Such detention risks causing more resentment among the
Tamils and sowing the seeds of future unrest. The internment was intended to
help weed out rebels, many of whom already have been identified and transferred
to military sites. 

Those in the evacuee camps are the victims and survivors of
the deadly war. To confine them in the camps against their will is to further
victimize and traumatize them.

Sri
Lanka’s interests would be better served
through greater transparency. It should grant the U.N., International Red Cross
and nongovernmental organizations at home and abroad full and unhindered access
to care for and protect the civilians in these camps, allowing those who wish
to leave the camps to do so and live with relatives and friends. Otherwise, it
seriously risks breeding further resentment.

Then there is the issue of thousands of missing people,
mostly Tamils. Given that many families are still searching for missing
members, the government ought to publish a list of all those it is holding — in
evacuee camps, prisons, military sites and other security centers. Even suspected
rebels in state custody ought to be publicly identified and not denied access to legal
representation. Authorities should disclose the names of those they know
to be dead — civilians and insurgents — and the possible circumstances of their
death. 

Also, the way to fill the power vacuum in the Tamil-dominated north is
not by dispatching additional army troops in tens of thousands, but by setting
up a credible local administration to keep the peace and initiate
rehabilitation and reconstruction after more than 25 years of war. Any government move to return to the old policy of
settling Sinhalese in Tamil areas is certain to stir up fresh problems. 

More
fundamentally, such have been the costs of victory that Sri Lankan civil
society stands badly weakened and civil liberties curtailed. The wartime
suppression of a free press and curtailment of fundamental rights continues in
peacetime, undermining democratic freedoms and creating a fear psychosis.

Public meetings cannot be held without government
permission. Sweeping emergency regulations also remain in place, arming the
security forces with expansive powers of search, arrest, detention and seizure
of property. Individuals can still be held in unacknowledged detention for up
to 18 months. For the process of reconciliation to begin in earnest, it is
essential the government shed its war-gained powers and accept, as Ms. Pillay says,
"an independent and credible international investigation . . . to
ascertain the occurrence, nature and scale of violations of international
human-rights and international humanitarian law" by all parties during the
conflict.

Pillay has gone on to say: "A new future for the
country, the prospect of meaningful reconciliation and lasting peace, where
respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms can become a reality for all,
hinges upon such an in-depth and comprehensive approach."

Unfortunately, Colombo
still seeks to hold back the truth. Those who speak up are labeled
"traitors" (if they are Sinhalese) or accused of being on the payroll
of the Tamil diaspora. Last year, a Sri Lankan minister accused the U.N.
undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, of being on the
rebels’ payroll after Holmes called Sri Lanka one of the world’s most dangerous
places for aid workers.

The media remains muzzled, and a host of journalists have
been murdered or imprisoned. Lawyers who dare to take up sensitive cases face
threats. Recently, a well-known astrologer who predicted the president’s ouster
from power was arrested. And this month, the U.N. Children’s Fund
communications chief was ordered to leave Sri Lanka after he discussed the
plight of children caught up in the government’s military campaign.

Rather than begin a political dialogue on regional
autonomy and a more level-playing field for the Tamils in education and
government jobs, the government has seen its space get constricted by the
post-victory upsurge of Sinhalese chauvinism opposed to the devolution of
powers to the minorities.

The hardline constituency argues that the Tamils
shouldn’t get in defeat what they couldn’t secure through three decades of
unrest and violence. Indeed, such chauvinism seeks to tar federalism as a
potential forerunner to secession, although the Tamil insurgency sprang from
the state’s rejection of decentralization and power-sharing. The looming
parliamentary and presidential elections also make devolution difficult, even
though the opposition is splintered and Rajapaksa seems set to win a second
term.

Reversing the militarization of society, ending the
control of information as an instrument of state policy and promoting political
and ethnic reconciliation are crucial to postconflict peace-building and to
furthering the interests of all Sri Lankans — Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. So
also is the need to discard the almost mono-ethnic character of the security
forces. Colombo
has to stop dragging its feet on implementing the Constitution’s 13th
amendment, which requires the ceding of some powers at the provincial or local
level.

Sadly, there is little international pressure on Colombo, despite the
leverage offered by the Sri Lankan economy’s need for external credit. The U.S. can veto any decision of the International
Monetary Fund, but it chose to abstain from the recent IMF vote to give Colombo a $2.8 billion
loan. In the face of China’s
stonewalling at the U.N., Ban has been unable to appoint a special envoy on Sri Lanka. A
U.N. special envoy can shine an international spotlight to help build pressure
on a recalcitrant government. But on Sri Lanka,
the best the U.N. has been able to do is to send a political official to Colombo this month for
talks.

It is thus important for the democratic players,
including the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway — co-chairs
of the so-called Friends of Sri Lanka — and India, to coordinate their policies
on Sri Lanka. If Rajapaksa continues to shun true reconciliation, these
countries should ratchet up pressure on Colombo
by lending support to calls for an international investigation into the
thousands of civilian deaths in the final weeks of the war.

The International Criminal Court has opened an initial
inquiry into Sri Lankan rights-abuse cases that could turn into a full-blown
investigation. Sri Lanka, however, is not an ICC signatory and thus would have
to consent — or be referred by the U.N. Security Council — for the ICC to have
jurisdiction over it. 

As world history attests, peace sought through the
suppression and humiliation of an ethnic community proves to be elusive.

If Rajapaksa wants to earn a place in history as another
Dutugemunu, he has to emulate that ancient king’s post-victory action and make
honorable peace with the Tamils before there is a recrudescence of violence. It
will be a double tragedy for Sri
Lanka if making peace proves more difficult
than making war. 

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the
independent, privately funded Center for Policy Research in
New
Delhi
, is on the international advisory council of the Campaign for
Peace and Justice in
Sri
Lanka
.

The Japan Times: Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009
(C) All rights reserved

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