Friday, December 25, 2009

A nasty, cruel war followed by a nasty, dirty election

by Dr. Packiyasothy Saravanamuttu - Philip Alston the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions has asked the Government of Sri Lanka for explanations regarding the deaths of three senior LTTE leaders and members of their families in the final stages of the war.

He wants in particular information pertaining to the the “circumstances of the death of three representatives of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Balasingham Nadesan, Seevaratnam Pulidevan and Ramesh, as well as members of their families in the night of 17 to 18 May, 2009”.

Alston’s inquiry follows the allegations made by presidential candidate Fonseka in an interview with the editor in chief of a Sunday paper. Fonseka claims that he was misquoted and the editor stands by her story.

What the Newspaper reported was that according to Fonseka who had obtained this information from journalists “embedded” with the 58th Brigade of the Sri Lanka Army, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had instructed the Brigade Commander Major General Shavendra Silva to shoot and kill the above named LTTE leaders as they came out carrying a white flag to surrender. Fonseka has subsequently insisted that these orders were not carried out and that he as the then Army Commander takes full responsibility for the conduct of the troops. He also maintains that he was in full command, even when he was out of the country in China in the last days of the war.

These allegations are self evidently serious. Every school boy and girl knows that a white flag means surrender and every soldier surely knows the basic rules of war – people carrying white flags are not to be shot at and killed. The fall out from them, generating more heat than light, underscores the challenge of the choice before us in this presidential election and the prospects for democracy, peace, reconciliation and unity. One thing seems clear, there are questions, serious, unanswered questions about the way in which the war was won and what happened in its final stages.

Allegations of human rights violations and war crimes persist. They are not going away, notwithstanding the belief of the main political formations that the credentials of their candidates must reside in their indubitable claim to responsibility for military victory.

In the context of the presidential election and prevailing political culture it is not surprising that Rajapaksa supporters have all screamed betrayal at candidate Fonseka. Supporters of candidate Fonseka, on the other hand, have resorted to a number of responses.

They range from accusations of partisanship against the Leader to commending his courage in spilling the beans on the heart of darkness of the regime to even those who believe that whatever may have been retracted, the allegation will garner votes for him amongst the Tamil community which according to the conventional wisdom will have a decisive say in the choice of the next president. No doubt there are those who will buy the argument about betrayal and Fonseka’s handlers may hope that the damage having being done in the relatively early stages of the campaign may be undone, subsequently.

What they do need to take note of are the costs of their candidate going solo and expressing his visceral hatred of the Rajapaksas. This if let out often will obscure whatever other qualities and attributes his supporters and handlers believe he brings to his quest for the presidency and undermine it.

Betrayal suggests that whatever is alleged in the newspaper interview, happened. It certainly constitutes grounds for reasonable speculation. There is a presidential panel mandated to respond to the US State Department report to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Incidents During the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka, commonly referred to as the War Crimes Report. Fonseka’s Ambalangoda speech is cited in the State Department report as well as the killing of LTTE surrendees. Will the recent controversy be looked into as well and when will the findings of the panel be made public? Or is all of this irrelevant because there will always be doubts about the independence and impartiality of any commission or panel in this country and in any event, the allegations are such that neither side of the political divide in the current election is exempt from suspicion and culpability? Is the regime interested in investigating these allegations? In a response to Alston, Prof Wijesinghe, Secretary of the Human Rights Ministry states:

Since your letter was based on a report of allegations by General Fonseka which he has clarified in a manner that negates the story, I assume you will now withdraw your letter.

At the same time, the Daily News headline referring to the Fonseka allegations and Alston letter reads in bold letters – Great Betrayal. Now it may be argued that the betrayal referred to is of the troops he commanded irrespective of whether the allegation is true or not. In his overwhelming desire to throw muck at the Rajapaksas, Fonseka does not, it is argued, give a damn about muck sticking to the soldiers who were under his command, now commonly referred to as the heroic troops.

There must be an occasion on which he states clearly and unequivocally as to what he knows of what happened. More than just his presidency or that of the current incumbent depends on it. Accountability, reconciliation and unity do. On this score, there is hardly any difference between the incumbent and his principal challenger. Each one has publicly, loudly and proudly proclaimed that he alone will bear responsibility, if any, for war crimes.

We need to know what happened and yes, it has a bearing on who we choose to be our president.Voters who want to be better informed should read the latest Special Report No 34 by the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) titled Let Them Speak: Truth about Sri Lanka’s Victims of War.

This report by the internationally recognized UTHR whose reports have been quoted by successive Sri Lankan governments should be made mandatory reading for all Sri Lankans and for generations to come.

Chilling and harrowing it records the experience of the civilians who were targeted by both sides in the war. The UTHR report alone surely must constitute grounds for an investigation of the allegations and incidents that marked and marred this war, if nothing else. The report states that:

What these survivors’ stories make clear is that for both parties, the key to military dominance lay not in brilliant strategies, but in an utter disregard for the lives of civilians and combatants alike, driven by their leader’s single -minded pursuit of personal power.

A nasty and cruel war is being followed by a nasty, dirty election. We must vote and thereafter ensure as best we can that whoever becomes president sheds as much light on this nastiness and cruelty and commits to ensuring that it is never repeated.

Even if peace, reconciliation are not accorded the prominence they demand in this election campaign, they must be acknowledged as the imperatives for government and governance thereafter.


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