Originally Published 2016-08-16 13:58:17 Published on Aug 16, 2016
In Sri Lanka, reconciliation still a non-starter

If someone thought that regime-change in Sri Lanka would facilitate fair, frank and serious attempts at ethnic reconciliation, they have been proved wrong. It owes to the realities of the ground situation, which the international community was either unaware of, or unbothered about. Today, when the chickens are coming home to roost, they seem to be reviewing their own positions from the post-war period and are also helping to reset the agenda for the Sri Lankan Government of the day. It could not have been otherwise.

Like most other issues and concerns of the kind elsewhere, the ethnic issue is a local, domestic problem. It did/does not have an international magnitude as the international community believed — or, was made to believe. Only LTTE terrorism was international in concept, composition and content. That having been eliminated — yes, with international help and cooperation of varying degrees and at varying times — the global community should have left it to the domestic stakeholders to find a permanent way out, through negotiations.

It’s not without reason, however. Having backed the Government of the day to help liquidate LTTE terrorism, the international community expected the former to keep its part of the deal on political resolution. When that did not happen, they felt the urge to intervene. The China factor under the erstwhile Rajapaksa regime did not help matters, either. It was thus that ‘accountability issues’ became an end in itself than a means to the end, as some of them had thought and professed.

Today, if a political solution is stuck — or, got stuck when the Government and the TNA were talking — it also owed to the international demands and consequent pressures on ‘accountability probe.’ After a point, the accountability issue assumed a life and course of its own. Today, the nation, if at all, is talking about ‘missing persons’, not even an ‘international probe’, leave alone a political solution.

The Tamil polity and civil society has evolved a mechanism. If and when the ‘missing persons law’ gets enacted by parliament, they could be expected to go back to their one-time non-existent demand for an ‘international probe’. It’s another matter if the higher judiciary were to find fault with such a law. The blame could then be passed on to the Sri Lankan State and polity — deservingly or otherwise.

Then again, a political solution should wait. The promised draft of a new constitution for the nation could create more problems than solutions, both in form and content, processes and procedure. It would be more so, if the stakeholders do not act/react with responsibility. Such a behavioural expectation should not be confined to the Sri Lankan State, Government and the polity. The Tamil polity, diaspora and the international community too should read the writing on the wall — as they had failed mostly in the past.

Elsewhere, the international community has got used to managing a diverse polity to produce desired political solutions to domestic conflicts and decisions on bilateral and multilateral issues. In a way in Sri Lanka, they have got ‘market capitalism’ in without much effort, hence possibly the confidence that they have developed on the ethnic front, too.

Sri Lanka, over the past decades, has proved to be a different cup of tea, on the ethnic front. Here, the society runs the polity, and not the other way, when it comes to ethnic issues of the kind — and the consequences derived from their fallouts over time. Or, at least that’s what the apprehensions of the political players have been. With the result, even a politically strong Rajapaksa, post-war, could not consider yielding more than his ‘Sinhala constituency’ might have accepted.

The real recent episode relates to the failure of the Rajapaksa-TNA talks. The Government introduced new conditions, or went back on previous promises with each round, after news of the perceived ‘concessions’ leaked. The TNA had not made a serious issue about accountability concerns at the time. ‘Closure’ possibly meant opening a fresh page and chapter in the nation’s ethnic troubled ethnic history, through political negotiations. In due course, it bowed to Diaspora pressures and/or international intervention.

Today, if no Sri Lankan stakeholder is talking seriously about a political solution, it also owes to such apprehensions, untested however on the ground. It suits ‘em all to dabble in diatribe of the ‘accountability’ and/or ‘missing persons’ kind if that would help not having to address the real issues in real-time. This has been the case all through. It could remain so for the foreseeable future.

< style="color: #163449;">Re-reading the polls

International stakeholders, self-styled as they are, need to re-read the verdict of the 2015 presidential polls. They also need to understand the dynamics of the subsequent parliamentary poll verdict. Rajapaksa lost the presidency but did not lose the popular Sinhala vote-count. His party lost the parliamentary polls, but that too was made possible by the Muslim parties standing with the rival UNP camp.

In ethnic terms, between the two elections, the Muslim parties have taken a stand independent of the Tamils’ TNA, as has been the case on most occasions in the past. Thus, for the likes of Northern TNA Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran, or others, to talk about a North-East re-merger could be the non-starter of a negotiated settlement. It was the case before the presidential polls, and has been so after the parliamentary elections, too. It’s thus anybody’s guess why and how the international community thought that re-merger could be a part of a solution. If they did not think so, they should not shy away from telling it to the Tamils, frankly so.

Each and every component of a negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue, now including accountability probe and missing persons head-count, are as complex, and uncompromising, as the re-merger question. If the international community really thought that after Rajapaksa’s time in power, a new government would really concede an ‘international probe’ into accountability issues, either they were being misled, or they were misleading others — or, both.

The ‘missing persons’ probe could get even more complex, if not non-performing at the end. There are no figures of Tamil population that had migrated, especially illegally, before, during and after the war. Western governments did not cooperate with the Rajapaksa regime sought their help for a verification process. No computations may have been made for those that are living in government-run camps or outside, in neighbouring India — over a hundred thousand of them legally. If there were tsunami deaths of Tamils, which was put at a conservative 25,000 at the time, there may be no provable record. There are no real figures for those that had died under LTTE’s care and/or custody, owing to natural causes or otherwise. There have been no census figures until post-war 2011/12 head-count to cross-verify for decades now.

So, where does the probe really begin — and can end? Are the ‘victim’ families going to be satisfied if there is a ‘closure’ report that their ‘missing’ kin were ‘non-traceable’? What then could be a way-out? As with ‘foreign occupation’ in territorial terms, the West seems not to have thought for the ‘Day After’ in terms of concepts, too. Does it mean, for the victims, the ‘missing persons’ book is going to be another round of wild-goose chasing like the ‘accountability probe’ before it – and after it too? But the Tamils are unyielding and unbending, too, like their Sinhala brethren.

To cap it all, there is the near-eternal two-party issue between President Maithiri Sirisena’s SLFP and Prime Minister Ranil’s UNP. The latter has nothing to lose just now. Maithiri too may not want Rajapaksa back — and obviously so, at least for now — but he may not want to be seen as writing the post-script of the party. When and how would their differences show, and would have to show is the question that they cannot decide, much as they may not want to time it, either.

That would be one more reversal, and possibly the final straw and nail at the same time. The Tamils can — and will, with justification — then revive their lament that the Sinhala polity had cheated them all over again. But then, that’s also when the present-day TNA leadership could have lost out. But with no extremist in sight to possibly take over the Tamil socio-political leadership, there is the real apprehension and possibility that the Tamils could then become rudderless and clueless — and the international community could not escape the blame, then again.

This commentary originally appeared in The Sunday Leader.

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