A Month Of Forgettable Performance
By R Hariharan
If the happenings during the month in Sri Lanka are any indication, the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, voted to power by 6.9 million Sinhalas to restore Sinhala pride and Buddha Sasana as he claims, did not cover itself with glory. This was evident in the government conduct on three issues which peaked during the month – troubled ethnic relations, the handling of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting on Sri Lanka’s human rights accountability, and challenges of governance. Perhaps, the bonhomie showed by visiting Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, despite accusations of Islamophobia voiced by Muslim minority, was the only moment of cheer for the government.
Significance of P2P march
Perhaps for the first time since the 70s, Tamils of all hues – Jaffna and Easterners, Muslims and Tamils of Indian origin (Upcountry Tamils) – came together, across political affiliations, to march peacefully for five days to voice their demands. They covered a distance of 750 km from the eastern town of Pottuvil to Polikandy in Jaffna in the North, to draw attention to demands, ignored by successive governments, as well as concerns on current issues.
The march held from February 3 to 9, now embedded in Tamil lore as P2P, did not draw much attention in mainstream media, though Tamil media estimated the participation of a thousand people. Apparently, it was timed to draw international attention on the eve of the UNHRC meeting slated to discuss Sri Lanka’s human rights accountability issue. The proceedings of the UNHRC session, so far, indicates they had achieved their aim.
The P2P march is a watershed moment for a number of reasons. For the first time, besides Tamils from north and east, plantation Tamils and Muslims had joined hands to project their demands peacefully. It was led by civil society organisations, with Tamil and Muslim political parties taking a back seat.
Slogans raised at the march voiced, much more than longstanding demands of Tamils of North and East like forcibly disappeared, the vacation of land under occupation of security forces and release of LTTE suspects still in custody without due legal process. They also protested against the denial of burial rites to Muslim victims of the Covid pandemic, continued recourse to Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), denial of minimum wage of Rs 1000 per day to plantation Tamils and aberrations of Sinhala majoritarian rule against minorities. This would indicate, the patience of the minority population is wearing thin over the government’s continued indifference to their grievances. This increases the likelihood of minority politicians coming together for making a common cause to build upon the Tamil idiom to further their political aspirations.
Two mainstream political parties the SJB (clone of its parent UNP) and the JVP – came out in support of the Tamil marchers. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who is politically savvy, would remember that the P2P was reminiscent of the early 70s when Tamils started projecting their demands for autonomy peacefully. It later snowballed into the satyagraha movement under Dr SJV Chelvanayakam’s leadership and opened the gates for the Tamil separatist struggle.
Wasted opportunity at UNHRC
The four-week-long 48th session of the UNHRC conducted virtually, has so far gone according to the script. HR Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s report was taken up for discussion, with 40 countries presenting their views in the interactive dialogue that followed.
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s address was largely defensive, trying to counter Ms Bechelet’s report with recycled arguments, rather than breaking new ground to tone down the damage caused by the report. He said her report has “unjustifiably broadened its mandate and scope” to incorporate many issues of governance and matters that are essentially domestic, and dismissed the previous resolutions brought at the UNHRC as politically motivated. Few would be convinced by his argument that the former Sri Lanka government decision to co-sponsor UNHRC Resolution 30/1 resulted in compromising national security, which eventually led to the Easter attacks of 2019.
Representatives of the UK, Germany, Canada, Norway and the US shared the concerns raised by the OCHR and called upon Sri Lanka to share a time table for the implementation of the recommendations mentioned in the report.
India did not allow the recent hiccups in its relations with Sri Lanka to highlight the core aspects of Sri Lanka’s human rights issue. India’s Permanent Representative, Indra Mani Pandey, noted that India was an active participant in the discussions on the seven resolutions on the question of human rights in Sri Lanka since 2009 and Sri Lanka remained a close friend and immediate neighbour.
“We believe that respecting the rights of the Tamil community through meaningful devolution contributes directly to the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka.” Therefore, she added India advocated “delivering on the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community is in the best interest of Sri Lanka.” India called upon Sri Lanka to take steps to address such aspirations through reconciliation and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Sri Lanka is worried about the new draft resolution put forward by the Core Group led by the UK, which would be voted on March 22. Sri Lanka would consider certain comments and clauses of the draft resolution as provocative. For instance, it takes note of the passage and operationalisation of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, counsels the government to respect local governance including holding elections to provincial councils and ensure they are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the 13th Amendment.
It asks Sri Lanka to provide sufficient resources and technical means for the effective functioning of the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations and stresses the importance of maintaining support to these institutions, “safeguarding their independent functioning.”
It expresses serious concern over emerging trends over the past year, which “represent clearly early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, including the accelerating militarization of civilian functions, erosion of the independence of the judiciary and key institutions responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights, ongoing impunity and political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations in emblematic cases.”
Presumably, the draft resolution would be toned down in its final form; but the writing on the wall is clear – Sri Lanka cannot do business as usual if it wants to maintain its win-win relations with its traditional Western allies. India in 2010 had provided valuable support to Sri Lanka in the UNHRC in shaping the final resolution. With China assuring Sri Lanka its support in international forums, how would India handle Sri Lanka’s request for help in the UNHRC, remains to be seen when the final resolution takes shape.
Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group summed up the situation in Sri Lanka in his paper, “The Rajapaksa family’s return to the government has put an end to tentative efforts to address the legacy of civil war and brought in more centralised, militarised government, anchored in Sinhala majoritarianism. As Sri Lanka’s longstanding ethnoreligious tensions continue to linger, the presence of hard-line Sinhala nationalists in power rules out any accommodation of Tamil political claims. Once-fringe ideas of militant Buddhist groups regarding violence and hate speech against Muslims are increasingly being adopted as government policy.”
The Rajapaksa government has so far shown neither the willingness, nor the ability, to tackle these issues dispassionately. The Rajapaksas weakest link is the ineptitude in handling foreign relations, which has caused maximum damage to the country. This was seen in all critical situations: continued insensitivity in handling India’s concerns, embarrassing the new US administration by undiplomatic comments, and clumsiness in handling Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Colombo and the inability to strategize the approach to the UNHRC session. The after-effects of this weakness is likely to impact the country in the coming months.
*Col R Hariharan, a retire MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Website:https://col.hariharan.info