Sri Lanka’s attempts to humour western powers cause unease

army sri lankaBy Sunil Raman.                                                                       

In the third week of November, Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena summoned top army generals who were involved in the campaign against LTTE. The Army Chief was not invited. The discussion focussed on how the government should respond on the setting-up of a commission that will investigate human rights violations in the months leading to the end of a 25-year-old bloody civil war in 2009.

Sources in Colombo told this writer that while the president tried to allay fears among the military of any “witch-hunt”, military and sections of Lankan population are apprehensive about where this entire exercise is headed.

Military officers have made it clear that investigation can certainly be carried out but the Sirisena government must not undermine the hard won peace. After all, it was one of the world’s longest civil wars won against highly motivated and committed LTTE cadres with sophisticated military hardware at their disposal.

There is some disquiet among the military about government’s eagerness to placate international concerns, mostly that of Britain and other EU countries, on investigating and fixing responsibility for alleged human rights violations. For a country that lost several thousand people, some estimates put the figure to 1,00,000 that included presidents, prime ministers and even a former prime minister in India, the victory over the Tamil Tigers was hard-fought and much-welcomed.

The change in dispensation has led to a change in terminology as well. Western governments have increasingly started addressing ex-LTTE cadres and pro-LTTE sympathisers in jail as political prisoners, and military officers as war criminals.

A growing assertion by western powers to seek justice for a military campaign that saw some excesses as soldiers liberated territory from the LTTE and zeroed-in on its leadership has naturally worried some. These leaders and influential Lankans are not necessarily pro-former president Mahinda Rajapaksa but, they are conscious of the challenges Sri Lanka faced for its survival in those years.

Outreach to Tamil diaspora

Sri Lanka is headed by a National Unity government, where the two main political parties are partners. In recent months, the Lankan government co-sponsored a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in October to ensure justice for Tamil population, investigate and punish those responsible for alleged human rights violations. The government also lifted a ban on several Tamil diaspora organisations and has promised a judicial mechanism to provide justice to Tamil people who suffered in the military campaign.

In Geneva, Sri Lanka proposed to establish a committee on the lines of South Africa a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence, and to set up with the expertise from the International Committee of the Red Cross, an Office on Missing Persons.

Sponsored by the US, the UK and other countries, including Sri Lanka, the UN Council resolution called upon Colombo to establish a credible judicial process, with the participation of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators, to go into the alleged rights abuses.

The judicial mechanism “should include independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for their integrity and impartiality,” according to the resolution.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announced a domestic mechanism based on South Africa’s Truth Commission and an assurance that foreign jurists would be allowed to carry out investigations

The US, UK and other countries of the European Union have repeatedly demanded an international probe to punish military officers at the end of the civil war. While the earlier Rajapaksa government, in whose term the war ended, refused to entertain such international pleas, the national government of Sirisena seems to have gone out of its way to placate foreign powers.

The new dispensation in Colombo, in its effort to break from the past (executive presidency of Rajapaksa) which was marked by a “don’t give a damn” attitude to western sensitivities on the manner in which the civil war was ended, has won goodwill both within and outside the country. The current government has reached out to the Tamil population and promised to address their grievances.

A week ago, on the eve of the Colombo visit of Samantha Power, US Permanent Representative to the UN, Sri Lanka’s defence ministry announced it had revoked a ban on eight of the 16 Tamil diaspora organisations and 269 out of 424 individuals believed to have had connections with LTTE

Seven of the wanted men are said to be in hiding in India including one Sinhala, Gajaweera and six Tamils, Sivaganasundaram Sivakaran; Aganila alias Gemini; Amuthan; Suresh alias Kapil Master; Rajendran Murthy; Velupillai Revathan; Vigneswaran Parameswari.

Under the Sirisena government, Tamils and Tamil groups have certainly received more freedom to articulate their thoughts about the reconciliation process. They have been promised that an honest attempt is underway to give them space and share in political process but, many are apprehensive. There are fears that the current reconciliation process might be doomed as it is led by the foreign ministry and not the justice ministry. Strangely there is no explanation from the government about the ownership of the reconciliation process.

But, with a coalition government that seems to pull in different directions on many sensitive issues, the Sirisena government needs to move ahead on bringing about reconciliation without jeopardising its military victory and morale of armed forces. (First Post)

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