Tuesday, April 17, 2012

India gives Sri Lanka lessons in realpolitik

By J.S. Tissainayagam | Global Post

The United States sponsored and carried a resolution on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on March 22. However, what surprised observers was not US action but that India had voted in favor of a resolution against its South Asian neighbor.

The resolution, calling on Colombo to investigate war crimes allegedly committed by its own troops and Tamil rebels in the final months of fighting in 2009, is admittedly weak. It is nowhere near an international investigation that the UN and many in the international community argued for.

The resolution’s lack of vitality is partly due to an amendment moved by India on the original US draft. It was to ensure that any UN oversight on investigation into war crimes would take place only with Colombo’s concurrence.

Following the vote, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse. Singh said, “Your Excellency would be aware that we spared no effort and were successful in introducing an element of balance in the language of the resolution.” This fuelled the theory that domestic political reality had spurred New Delhi to first dilute the resolution and then vote for it.

The domestic political reality was the wave of indignation sweeping India’s Tamil Nadu state, where Tamils reacted angrily to mounting evidence of atrocities committed on their ethnic brethren in Sri Lanka by that country’s military. This led to the two most important political parties in Tamil Nadu – one which was a constituent of Singh’s ruling coalition – threatening drastic action unless India voted in favor of the Geneva resolution.

While it is true public opinion in Tamil Nadu pressured New Delhi to vote for the UNHRC resolution, it is only one reason. Other national interests were also at play emanating from international, regional and bilateral concerns.

Internationally, India’s reluctance to support democracy movements and struggles for human rights in different parts of the world has caused misgiving, especially as it seeks a permanent seat in a reformed UN Security Council. This has been referred to by commentators from India’s liberal establishment to US President Barack Obama during his visit to India in November 2010.

Of regional consequences to India are Sri Lanka’s moves to let China inveigle its way into the Gulf of Mannar, the narrow strip of sea separating India and Sri Lanka, in the guise of drilling oil. Earlier, although Sri Lanka appeared to take pains to treat both India and China – Asian giants competing for influence in the Indian Ocean – equally, recent reports say Colombo’s relations with Beijing run deeper. India is reportedly perturbed, not for lost commercial opportunities but because the Chinese presence in the Gulf of Mannar is a security threat.

Bilaterally, when India helped Sri Lanka destroy the armed Tamil rebellion, it wished to balance this policy by pushing Colombo to create institutions for minimal power-sharing with its Tamil population. But Colombo’s stonewalling on this has denied the project’s success. This has exasperated New Delhi not only because it perpetuates instability in Sri Lanka, but also because Colombo’s indifference challenges India’s regional pre-eminence.

An opportunity for India to make good these reversals without great cost to itself arrived with the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka.

First, as the resolution was US-sponsored, it had the US’s imprimatur and was therefore more or less assured of safe passage through the UNHRC. It meant, unlike in 2009 when India had to lobby the UNHRC for a pro-Sri Lanka resolution, it did not have to do anything this time.

Second, the UNHRC resolution was a good opportunity to test Sri Lanka’s bluff of many years – that the more New Delhi proved an irksome neighbor, the closer into Beijing’s embrace would Colombo go.

New Delhi was prepared to issue this challenge because Sri Lanka is India’s biggest trading partner, a position China cannot replace. In financing capital-intensive projects, while China’s investments are much larger, Sri Lanka is in no position to reject Indian aid. While China continues to provide military hardware to Sri Lanka, India’s military relations with Sri Lanka are much wider including joint military exercises, sharing intelligence and training. More than everything else, the presence of a trans-border Tamil population with cultural and linguistic ties, divided by a mere 22 miles of sea, is an advantage that China cannot balance. The list goes on, but let me not belabour the point.

Therefore, New Delhi feels there are limits to Colombo moving into Beijing’s orbit. And, even if it did happen, there is precious little Sri Lanka could do that would affect India’s vital interests. Drilling oil in the Gulf of Mannar might be the only exception.

In comparison, India’s handling of Burma (Myanmar) was different. Despite the US and others chiding New Delhi for remaining silent in the face of Naypyidaw’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists in 2007 and the extension of Aung San Su Kyi’s confinement in 2009, New Delhi did not reverse its stand. That was because the energy resources and the military and strategic influence China had over Burma made India realize relations with it had to be carefully handled.

Evidently New Delhi handles countries differently even when they call themselves Beijing’s friends. It is confident that handling Colombo needs no kid gloves now. How Colombo reacts to this demonstration of realpolitik will go a long way in determining future Indo-Sri Lanka relations.

J.S. Tissainayagam is a Weatherhead Fellow in International Affairs at Harvard University. He was Nieman Fellow in Journalism (2010-11) also at Harvard. Previously, he worked for a number of English national newspapers in Sri Lanka.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sri Lanka's leader keeps stirring the pot

By Hamish McDonald | Brisbane Times

D.R. Kaarthikeyan is a name renowned in India. He was the police officer who led the investigation into the assassination of the former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 by a woman wearing a belt bomb who came up close in a chaotic election rally.

Through clever detective work, Kaarthikeyan's team from the Central Bureau of Investigation identified the assassin and traced the lines of the plot back to the Tamil Tiger movement then controlling the north of nearby Sri Lanka. Arrests were made and warrants issued against senior Tiger leaders.

Kaarthikeyan is no sympathiser of the Tamil Tigers, who went down to bloody defeat by the Sri Lankan armed forces in May 2009. But like many Indians, particularly those in Tamil Nadu state, he is dismayed by the arrogance of the Sri Lankan government in victory.
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''Where there is no justice, there can be no peace,'' Kaarthikeyan told me in an email this week. ''Continued injustice and discrimination against minority Tamils gave rise to the birth of insurgency in Sri Lanka … If Sri Lanka or, for that matter, any society perpetuates injustice it is an indirect encouragement for violent movements to be born and grow.''

Nearly three years after the Tigers' defeat, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has ignored the recommendations of his own commission into the lessons of the 25-year insurgency.

The rule of law continues to be set aside. A huge military machine is yet to be stood down. Glaring war crimes remain to be investigated. Tamils are treated as a subjugated people. Emergency security measures continue, turned against Rajapaksa's critics even among the Sinhala majority. For this reason, India took the unusual step, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, of voting with many Western nations in favour of a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to apply its own reconciliation recommendations.

It was a mild resolution, with India watering down one part that called for a UN war crimes office to be opened in Colombo. Yet Rajapaksa sent a team of ministers and officials to Geneva with orders to block it at all costs. The delegation quickly became notorious for its efforts to intimidate human rights activists who turned up to lobby for the resolution.

Another indication of Rajapaksa's blithe contempt for world opinion came when his government assigned Major-General Shavendra Silva to a UN panel on peace-keeping. Silva was the commander of the 58th Division in the final battle against the Tigers. His troops are alleged to have gunned down Tiger leaders waving a white flag who had been promised safe passage across the battle line, allegedly on orders passed to Silva by Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president's brother.

To much outrage in Colombo, the Canadian diplomat heading the UN panel, Louise Frechette, threw Silva out, saying his participation was ''not appropriate or helpful''.

Colombo's reaction to the human rights council censure has been one of victimisation and outrage, as shown in local newspaper headlines: ''We will not let anyone intervene in Sri Lanka's affairs''; ''Be united to defeat foreign conspiracies''; ''Do not give India any economic concessions''; ''NGO conspiracy to create anarchy''; ''US resolution has set a very dangerous precedent''. One minister threatened to break the limbs of journalists.

As the even-handed Colombo legal analyst Jehan Perera noted, even many non-government Sri Lankans found it galling how former Tiger organisers in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, who kept silent about the Tigers' conscription of children and use of civilians as shields during the war, ''metamorphised'' into human rights activists at Geneva.

But he points out Rajapaksa's ingratitude. ''When it fought the war against the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government did receive the political and military support of virtually the entire international community, including the United States that sponsored the UNHRC resolution and India which voted for it,'' Perera says. ''This political and military support was given to Sri Lanka on the understanding that after the end of the war there would be structural reforms that addressed the political roots of the conflict.''

So far, however, it's been business as usual for the Rajapaksas in Colombo, and Australia has just been given a taste of how it works. An Australian citizen of Sri Lankan origin, Premakumar Gunaratnam, who had gone back to help set up a new left-wing political party, was abducted by armed men last Saturday. Another party activist, Dimuthu Attygalle, was removed at the same time.

Thanks to Canberra's intervention at high levels of the Sri Lankan government, the two were dumped on the streets of Colombo on Tuesday morning, still alive, and Gunaratnam immediately deported. Their accounts put the case as the latest in nearly 60 abductions of a spectrum of government critics in the past few months, carried out by armed men in ''white vans''. Attygalle reports the men who blindfolded and took her off in a white van spoke in police jargon and addressed their chiefs as ''sir''.

Another abduction pinpoints who is running the white vans. On March 26, businessman Sagara Senaratne was abducted by a group that demanded 50 million rupees ($370,000) for his release. But he had a brother-in-law who is a minister in the government, who contacted the president and the defence minister. The driver of the white van got a phone call, and announced: ''Let's dump him.''

As journalist Tisaranee Gunasekara noted in the Sunday Leader newspaper, the businessman was no ingrate. He thanked the Rajapaksa brothers for intervening. But, as Gunasekara asked, how did they know who to call?

Meanwhile, four months after it was delivered, Sri Lanka's Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission report is joining a long line of previous such reports gathering dust. It has not even been translated from English into Sinhala and Tamil. It is window dressing. If the Sinhala majority are not protected by law, what hope do the Tamils have?

In India, the retired ace detective Kaarthikeyan can see something like the Tamil Tiger movement rising again.

''If the minorities are not treated equally with the majority,'' he said, ''insurgency is bound to raise its head in the long run.''

Hamish McDonald works as the Asia-Pacific editor of Sydney Morning Herald.

© Brisbane Times

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

It’s all in the family for the Rajapakses

By Suhas Chakma | Tehelka

On pril 4, 2012, Sri Lanka’s parliament concluded debate on the resolution adopted at the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which asked Sri Lanka to report back on the implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in March 2013. The Mahinda Rajapakse government, however, failed to inform parliament as to which recommendations of the LLRC will be implemented. Earlier on March 27, 2012, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Management, stated that the LLRC went beyond its mandate. India will have to take tougher decision than the controversial voting at the UNHRC to ensure the rights of the minority Tamils.

India’s vote generated controversy: The liberals lauded it as a welcome departure suiting its emerging international stature while the usual hawks have condemned the move as a mistake in the geo-politics. Neither position is absolutely true.

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee may have forgotten that as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), India was the architect of the UN Convention Against Apartheid of 1965 that established the first intrusive and investigatory mechanism into apartheid practices. India also consistently voted at the UN in favour of the resolution against occupied Arab territories, including Palestine; human rights violations in the occupied Syrian Golan and the Israeli settlements in the occupied Arab territories. The Arab spring did force India to take positions: voting in favour of the resolution at the UN Security Council on February 4, 2012 which could have meant the regime change in Syria while abstaining at the UNHRC a week later. Geo-politics is not a zero sum game.

Further, how is India’s bilateral intervention different from the UNHRC resolution? In the 1980s, when supporting cross-border insurgents was the part of international diplomacy, India supported Tamil insurgents. India deployed its Peace Keeping Forces.

If Sri Lanka had taken positive measures, there would not have been any need for any intervention from India or the UNHRC. After the annihilation of the LTTE, Sri Lankan government washed its hands off displaced Tamils in camps. The responsibility for their rehabilitation fell on India, which has been building 50,000 houses at the rate of Rs 3.48 lakh per house in the northern and eastern parts.

President Rajapaksa further turned increasingly vengeful, dictatorial and thuggish. General Sarath Fonseka, actual hero of the war against the LTTE was put behind barst. Devolution and national reconciliation were put on the backburner.

Taking advantage of the UNHRC resolution, Sri Lanka decided to withdraw the diplomatic missions in Europe which are not allegedly serving any purpose in obtaining support for Sri Lanka’s national issues. This isolationist approach of turning Sri Lanka into the new hermit kingdom of Asia suits the Rajapakse family that seeks to prolong family rule. After all, no other political family in recent history held such vise-grip control over any country in Asia.

• President Mahinda’s Rajapakse’s son Namal Rajapaksa was elected as a Member of Parliament from the Hambantota district.

• President’s one brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is the current secretary of the Ministry of Defence and another brother Basil Rajapaksa serves as the Minister of Economic Development.

• The eldest brother Chamal Rajapaksa serves as the Speaker of the current parliament.

• Other family members hold key posts. President Rajapaska’s nephew, Shashindra Rajapaksa is the Chief Minister of the Uva Province.

• Shameendra Rajapaksa, second son of Chamal Rajapaksa is the director of Sri Lankan Airlines while Rajapaksa’s brother-in-law Nishantha Wickramasinghe is the chair of Sri Lankan Airlines.

• President’s first cousin, Jaliya Wickramasuriya, a tea-businessman by profession, has been picked to become Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States since 2008.

• The president’s other first cousin, Udayanga Weeratunga who is businessman by profession has been appointed as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Russia since 2006.

• That’s not all. Colonel (Retired) Prasanna Wickramasuriya who is also the first cousin of the president serves as the chair, Airport & Aviation Services Ltd, Sri Lanka.

• The family controls every aspect of the lives of the Sri Lankans. And the Constitution has been amended to remove two term limits for the President.

Suhas Chakma is director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights. The opinions expressed here are his own.

© Tehelka

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Human Rights in Sri Lanka: A Perennial Question Mark

By Apratim Mukarji | Mainstream

Twenty years ago Mahinda Rajapaksa was a fiercely dedicated human rights lawyer and, along with Mangala Samaraweera, a pillar of strength to Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike who was heading the Mothers’ Front in southern Sri Lanka. The latter was a frontal organisation to fight for justice for the thousands of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) members killed by the Sri Lankan Army and police in their successful campaign against the Sinhala nationalist-terrorist force.

Among his many qualities like an unbounded energy to work, simplicity and friendliness was his remarkable proximity to the Tamils, and still more remarkable was his easy flow of the Tamil language. He was a rare Sinhala politician who had consciously cultivated his relations with the Tamils.

Today’s situation is a complete reversal of the above. More than Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa, it is President Rajapaksa who is being increasingly and widely perceived as a fearsome embodiment of Sinhala nationalism, packaged as Sri Lankan nationalism, and a far worse perpetrator of human rights violations. While dictatorial practices have traditionally distorted democracy in Sri Lanka, the extent of human rights violations being witnessed under the present presidency—irrespective of the ethnicity of the victims— is unprecedented.

However, as far as the present government’s conscious failure to go ahead with the reconciliation and rehabilitation process in the aftermath of the conclusion of the ethnic war is concerned, it should be borne in mind that there are precedents in Sri Lankan history. The last bout of prolonged peace took place during 2002-04 when the war was no longer raging and the government in Colombo had plenty of opportunities to reach out to the Tamils in the the north and east.

Nothing of the sort happened. It was inexpli-cable that the longest lasting peace did not yield normalisation of life in the war zone. The Sri Lankan Government continued with the same arrangements as during the hostilities (which amounted to treat the north and east as hostile territory), and, the most surprising of all, the media in the south did not make moves to report on the kind of life being led in the north and east. A handful of Sinhala academics and practitioners of performing arts (such as intrepid theatre groups) ventured into Tamil land trying to build up and expand bridges of friendship, cooperation and understanding. Quite a few of these honest citizens are now suffering the displeasure of the Sinhala establishment.

WHILE the government remained unresponsive to the continuing opportunity to reach out to the Tamils in the north and east, it allowed Sinhala nationalists at the same time to make well-planned inroads into the area to strengthen the case for a de-merger of the provinces. For obvious reasons, Sinhala Sanvidhanaya, the strongest nationalist organisation, began a signature campaign in Trincomalee in mid-July 2003 to urge the demerger. The organisation said that the temporary merger in force since 1987 under the India-Sri Lanka Accord should be cancelled and two provincial councils for the north and the east should be established. Within a month the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga (who headed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party) issued a warning to the effect that she would not hesitate to demerge the north-east province if the United National Front Government (led by her arch-enemy Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe) failed to quell the violence and restore peace in the east.

This was the period when the Norwegian mission to monitor the ceasefire was being increasingly perceived as openly favouring the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Thus, the merger of the north and east under Indian pressure, which was never accepted by the Sinhala commu-nity, became a tool with dual roles to thrash the political rivals in the south and to prepare the Tamils for an eventual de-merger.

The last major opportunity to heal the Tamil psyche came in the midst of the devastation caused by the tsunami on December 26, 2004. While the Indonesian Government and the Aceh rebels cooperated in rebuilding the tsunami-devastated areas in Indonesia, there were hopes that a similar joint effort by the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE might usher in a period of reconciliation and reconstruction. In the latter case, however, the villain of the peace proved to be the LTTE which, alarmed by the excellent rescue operations carried out by the Sri Lankan defence forces in the affected areas, was determined to stymie the growing positive sentiments among the Tamils and Muslims. Six months into the posturings and negotiations, the government was seen to have lost its sense of urgency in rebuilding the devastated areas. The last opportunity to bring the Sinhala and Tamil communities closer to each other was then irretrievably lost even though Kumaratunga initiated a comprehensive peace plan in 2005, but by then Sri Lankan politics had rendered peace prospects much murkier.

ALL these factors no longer exist with the end of the war and collapse of the LTTE and Rajapaksa’s unchallenged sway over the country. It is truly tragic that the return of peace has also coincided with the flowering of a repressive and intolerant regime from which all the communities now suffer. Even a brief recounting of the measures taken by the government that qualify it to be branded as such suffices. All those in Sri Lanka who have publicly campaigned to highlight the atrocities committed during the last phase of the war are now in serious jeopardy as they have been virtually identified by the state media as “traitors”. For intrepid media-persons, however, risking their lives for exposure of lawless actions by the government and ruling party has been traditionally part of their careers. Some have escaped abroad but others are still in the country and face grave consequences. The repression is clearly aimed to silence human rights workers and mediapersons.

As for the situation in the north-east, reports say that the zone is being increasingly placed under still tighter Army control, thus fully ignoring the recommendation of the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to demilitarise the area. The government’s explanation that it cannot risk another rebellion there does not facilitate the return of normal life for the indigenous population. Settlement of Sinhala Army settlers from the south is on in full swing. This is being accompanied by the construc-tion of Buddhist stupas in the region, the logic being that Sinhala settlers (mostly Buddhists) need facilities to perform their religious rites.

On the other hand, the immediate necessities of Tamils like housing, farming, small trading and education are being ignored. Soon it will be three years since the end of the war, and the government has not yet prepared a satisfactory list of missing persons in the north-east.

Colombo’s sole emphasis appears to be on economic development of the north-east, which is obviously one of the urgent needs. Unfortunately, Tamils view this priority as more to facilitate Sinhala settlements than to rebuild the broken lives of Tamils. There is now increasing fear that in the wake of the adoption of the US-sponsored resolution on the war crimes committed by the armed forces, the extent of repression would intensify.

Apratim Mukarji is a scholar of South and Central Asian affairs.

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