The human-rights challenge posed by Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan peace process in pieces


India Abroad, October 2, 2009

If war-scarred Sri Lanka is to re-emerge as a
tropical paradise, it has to build enduring peace through genuine inter-ethnic
equality and by making the transition from being a unitary state to being a
federation that grants local autonomy. Yet even in victory, the Sri Lankan
government seems unable to define peace or outline a political solution to the
long-standing grievances of the Tamil minority.

A process of national reconciliation anchored in
federalism and multiculturalism indeed can succeed only if possible war crimes
and other human-rights abuses by all parties are independently and credibly
investigated. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has acknowledged
civilian casualties were “unacceptably high,” especially as the war built to a
bloody crescendo earlier this year. 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 powerful defense secretary who fashioned the war plan, and Basil,
the presidential special adviser who formulated the political strategy.

Yet another brother, Chamal, is the ports and civil
aviation 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 titled 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.

also is culpable for the Sri Lankan bloodbath. Having been outwitted by China, India
was compelled to lend critical assistance to Colombo,
lest it lose further ground in Sri
Lanka. From opening an unlimited line of
credit for Sri Lanka to extending naval and intelligence cooperation, India
provided war-relevant support in the face of a deteriorating humanitarian
situation in that island-nation.

Sinhalese nationalists now portray President Rajapaksa as
a modern-day incarnation of Dutugemunu, a Sinhalese ruler who, according to
legend, vanquished an invading Tamil army led by Kind Elara more than 2,000
years ago. But 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 government’s
policies to help create greater inter-ethnic 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 Sri Lanka’s
decision to press ahead with a further expansion of its military. Not content
with increasing the military’s size fivefold 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 2008 victory, the government, for example, announced a drive
to recruit 50,000 new troops to help control the northern areas captured from
the rebels.

The Sri Lankan military already is bigger than that of Britain and 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 is determined to keep a hyper-militarized Sri Lanka on something of a war

Yet another issue of concern is the manner the government
still holds nearly 300,000 civilians in camps where, in the recent words of UN
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.

Lanka’s interests would be better served
through greater transparency. It should grant the UN, International Red Cross
and nongovernmental organizations at home and abroad unfettered access to care
for and protect the civilians in these camps, allowing those who wish to leave
the camps to stay with relatives and friends.

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 identified and not denied access
to legal representation.

Bearing in mind that thousands of civilians were killed
just in the final months of the war, authorities should disclose the names of
those they know to be dead — civilians and insurgents — and the possible
circumstances of their death.

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 a quarter of a century of
war. Yet there is a lurking danger that the government may seek to change
demography by returning to its old policy of settling Sinhalese in Tamil areas.

More fundamentally, such have been the costs of victory
that Sri Lankan civil society stands badly weakened. The wartime suppression of
a free press and curtailment of fundamental rights continues in peacetime,
undermining democratic freedoms and creating a fear psychosis. Sweeping
emergency regulations remain in place, arming the security forces with
expansive powers of search, arrest and seizure of property. Public meetings
cannot be held without government permission. Individuals can still be held in
unacknowledged detention for up to 18 months.

For the process of reconciliation and healing to begin in
earnest, it is essential the government give up wartime powers and accept, as
the UN human-rights commissioner has sought, “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. According to Ms. Pillay, “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.”

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 hard-line constituency argues that the Tamils in
defeat shouldn’t get 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

Add to the picture the absence of international pressure,
despite the leverage provided by a cash-strapped Sri Lankan economy. The United States enjoys a one-country veto in the
International Monetary Fund, yet it chose to abstain from the recent IMF vote
approving a desperately needed $2.8-billion loan to Sri Lanka.

In the face of China’s
stonewalling in the UN, Ban Ki-moon has been unable to appoint a UN special
envoy on Sri Lanka,
let alone order a probe into possible war crimes there. By contrast, the UN
carried out a recently concluded investigation into Israel’s
three-week military offensive in Gaza
earlier this year.

Today, 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 post-conflict 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.

has to stop dragging its feet, as it has done for long, on implementing the
Constitution’s 13th amendment, which requires the ceding of some powers at the
provincial level. But these tasks are unlikely to be addressed without
sustained international diplomatic intervention.

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

(c) India Abroad, 2009.

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