Originally Published 2014-03-24 03:54:13 Published on Mar 24, 2014
Going by the Sri Lanka-related events and developments on the global arena, it looks as if the international community has not learnt any lessons from the recent past in and of the country. Be it the Indian neighbour, or the distant Norway, or whoever had attempted to help resolve the ethnic issue, had to give up after a point.
Is air of permissiveness back here?
Human Rights (HR) NGOs across the world may have cause to condemn the Sri Lankan Government for the detention of three civilians, including a woman and a Christian priest, under the draconian anti-terror laws. They now also have cause to celebrate, because two of the three arrested persons, have since been released. The celebrations pertain more to the power of 'collective voice', as they have unilaterally concluded, than possibly for the freedom of those thus detained.

The Government statement said that the three persons were detained in relation to a specific case, while the anti-terror security agencies were searching for an 'LTTE operative' who has returned home from overseas and was looking for the buried armed cache of the terror group, banned still by most nations in the West, as well. The question is if detaining some person, or persons, for interrogation in a specific case, or their release after such interrogation, should be made the subject of HR discourses and protests, as an extension of and addenda to the UNHRC proceedings.

This is not to cast a slur on any of those detained. Among those arrested, the woman, Jeyakumari, has been in the forefront of anti-Government protests in the Tamil areas, particularly in relation to 'missing persons'. Her photograph was reportedly on the front pages of newspapers, among the 'war victims' jumping at the convoy of visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron in the Northern Province in November last. Whether it has to be linked to the absconding ex-LTTE cadre, who is also charged with shooting at a police officer, could be based on investigations into the lady letting the wanted man live on her premises.

The priest, Fr Praveen, is a known HR activist, it is said. But the Church in the Tamil areas has taken more than an active role through the decades of ethnic war and violence, too. Such pro-active approach did not - has not - stopped with providing succour to the needy, a job that the Church and priests are well-trained and well-equipped to address, both in spiritual and temporal terms.

It is not as if Ruki Fernando, the HR activist arrested with Fr Praveen, was a terror-suspect, either. He was known as a HR activist and nothing more. Yet, in Sri Lanka of the war years, HR activists and HR NGOs, including INGOs, were known to have facilitated movement of goods and cadres for the LTTE terror network. In specific cases, their vehicles were known to have been 'taken over' by the LTTE (confiscated or otherwise), and used to transport ready-to-explode explosives, especially to the Capital city of Colombo.

This is one sordid aspect of the ethnic war that is yet to be investigated by anyone, including the Sri Lankan Government. Instead, the latter was satisfied with banning the activities of INGOs, or curtailing their movement, as their numbers had grown over the decades of war and violence, and increasing, at times disproportionately, to the havoc wrought by the Boxer Day tsunami of 2004. A more thorough record-keeping on the part of the NGOs and the Government would instead have helped them both to serve the affected/afflicted people better.

Boosa, bagram and the bay

With the arrest of the three, Boosa camp is back in the news. News reports say that it's there the three arrested persons were taken initially. To the uninitiated of the post-war era, Boosa was Bagram and Guantanamo Bay put together in the Sri Lanka of the Seventies and the Eighties. The interrogation methods in and the ever-incomplete list of 'missing persons' taken to Boosa may have been the single largest way the State security agencies 'recruited' ever-willing youthful cadres for the emerging ranks of Tamil militant groups at the time, and without effort.

The mention of Boosa is thus a cold, and at times, crude reminder of the air of permissiveness that had haunted the Tamil areas, particularly after the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983, which took thousands in toll. The question is if that air of permissiveness is returning to the Tamil North all over again - if it has not returned already - and if the need for a mention of Boosa just now is only a part of the process that had made the name read 'historic' in the annals of Tamil militancy.

Crude and crass as the Boosa interrogation might have been, it was preceded by an era of bank-robberies and attack on security forces by Tamil militant groups, competitive in their own ways, to make a mark, also to impress the unsure youth to fight for the 'just cause' (?) and join the heist-group in preference to the rest. As far back as the mid-Seventies, the infant LTTE had mauled Alfred Duraiappa, the popularly-elected Mayor of Jaffna, and investigating police officers of the crude and cruel calibre like Bastian Pillai, both fellow-Tamils. That 'Pogrom 83' was a product of an LTTE ambush that killed 13 soldiers is also recorded.

It is in this context that the 'air of permissiveness' in the Tamil areas needs to be properly understood. The security agencies have since claimed that in searching for LTTE absconder Gopi in Jeyakumari's accommodation, they had recovered some weapons. This claim again may be contestable, yes, but it in such contestable claims by either side that an 'air of permissiveness' has had its origins in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, too.

By the time the contested 'facts' (?) are proved one way or the other, in episode after episode, the 'air of permissiveness' would have given way of a thicker air of hostility between the State and the community in question - an 'air' that could be shot across, leaving a gaping hole in the middle. It is this that the Government, the Tamil leadership and the HR activists should be concerned about even more. So should be the international community, which should be turning inward and asking questions.

'White Van' is back?

Whether it could be linked to the TNA-controlled Northern PC's resolution, calling for an international inquiry into 'accountability issues', passed some time ago, is unclear. Yet, the detention of the three has since been accompanied by other reports, alleging the reappearance of 'white van disappearances', attack on police officers, rushing to answer a call of harassment of a woman, by unidentified persons, and a multi-ethnic protest against the UNHRC resolution in the strategically-located Trincomallee town, once propped up as the capital of a merged Tamil North-East - but mentioned no more in that context.

Elsewhere, as a part of the internal TNA one-upmanship and otherwise, senior leaders are reported to be organising mass protests in Tamil areas supporting the UNHRC resolution. In doing so, specific references are being made to the 'last battle' in Mullivaikkal, from where the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) had freed 300,000 Tamil civilians, held hostage by the LTTE. That the LTTE used them as human-shields and hence canon-fodder, literally, and that the SLA did not target any of those hapless civilians has been forgotten in a jiffy.

Velupillai Prabhakaran had crassly and cruelly designed the 'human shield scheme' through all of the 30-year war, and had built upon it, one civilian hostage over another, with every loss of LTTE cadre-life, by vowing to keep his/her orphaned parents under his personal care. This crudity has not even been acknowledged, either by the Tamils, the TNA or the international community. While the international community was sure that the LTTE was left with anything upward of 7000 fighting cadres even ahead of the end-game of the war, no mention has been made since about this background, if it was one, of the purported victims in that battle of Mullivaikkal. This does not mean that no 'accountability issues' existed on the side of the armed forces.

Worse than the 'white van' and attack on police officers - condemnable as the cause for future worsening of the ground situation - may be the casualness and sarcasm that seems to have accompanied a TNA member telling the Northern Provincial Council that if Gopi, the wanted man, was really an ex-LTTE cadre, he would not have missed his mark, the police officer who had reportedly gone to apprehend him. Though made in half-jest, it is a reflection of an era of casual, but at times deliberate, permissiveness and acceptance of such acts by the larger Tamil community that had once facilitated Tamil militancy to take deeper roots than would have been possible otherwise.

From adversity to hostility

If the UNHRC process in distant Geneva has achieved anything over the past two or three years, when it was all initiated, it is in regard to converting what was still continuing ethnic adversity in the post-war Sri Lanka into the 'historic hostility' between the communities, and between the Tamils and the State, which the LTTE had managed to infuse and induce, effortlessly, in its time. This is a trend that should have been discouraged and eschewed, instead.

In the name of 'accountability' and the rest, the world has given to a nation that was very badly in need of post-war confidence-building measures (CBM) between communities, a sure recipe for ethnic disaster. The Government and the TNA that were talking about a political settlement to the vexatious ethnic issue post-war, even if over-cautiously, stopped talking even about talks about talks, after the international community got 'engaged'.

Today, to revive any talk about reviving 'the' talks would require another series of CBMs, which are both imaginative and effective. The 'accountability' investigations that the West wants, and a 'truth and reconciliation commission' of the South African variety, are anything but the CBM that will work on the ground. They could make the lurking ranks of 'Tamil separatists' overseas over-confident, and kill the confidence and morale of the Sri Lankan State, and not just the Government of the day, less than confident, nearer home than overseas.

Better or worse still, it could render the current crop of TNA moderates wanting to work within a 'united Sri Lanka' irrelevant. Sri Lanka's stability is thus being threatened, and no easy ways being found even on the 'accountability' front, leave aside a permanent solution to the core aspects of the decades-old ethnic dispute. If anything, the entire issue and the Geneva vote are being 'auctioned' among the international community, not for 'maximum effect' but for 'maximum support'. The Tamils back home seem to be learning their prime lesson in international diplomacy and deal-making. The blame of wanting to learn on the job of international diplomacy, and failing each time they attempt to be such quick-learners that the community is otherwise being credited with, should go to them.

Learning from experience

Going by the Sri Lanka-related events and developments on the global arena, it looks as if the international community has not learnt any lessons from the recent past in and of the country. Be it the Indian neighbour, or the distant Norway, or whoever had attempted to help resolve the ethnic issue, war or no war, had to give up after a point - or, were given up after a point. They did not understand Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, starting with the Tamils, enough. In turn, Sri Lanka understood their 'template models' on level-playing ground, peace-building and 'accountability', even less.

It's all based on and/or drawn from a society-specific culture that is unfortunately steeped in a divisive history. It is as hard to imbibe as it is harder to infuse another set of socio-political behaviour, which is the hallmark for any external model to work - and work wonders, too. The Sinhala-Tamil history would show that neither has learnt enough about the other, nor about themselves. For 'outsiders' thus to try and impose an 'external model' that has not worked elsewhere without being accompanied by disastrous, long-term consequences for the local stakeholders as nations and communities, cannot be imposed on Sri Lanka now - and expects positive results to flow from the same. It cannot be an 'Orange Revolution' in Sri Lanka. Such efforts can only end up as a 'red revolution', if at all, of the colour of the blood all over again.

thus for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans to decide if they want to go back to those days with each other's blood in their hands, or walk in unison, hand-in-hand, where possible, but at least with extended arms ready to shake rather than to battle, otherwise!

It's the missing CBMs that they should be talking about between them just now - and not about somebody else's diplomatic ICBMs of the sanctions variety, instead. After all, sanctions would affect the already afflicted Tamils even more than the rest of the Sri Lankan community, as it has done elsewhere, too. That is, unless of course, the sponsors of global sanctions, of whatever kind, have already decided to violate it themselves, to help the Tamils alone - which would push sovereignty issues to the forefront and push 'accountability' deeper still, eliminating a political resolution for good! It's all about 'the day after', not just the past jutting into the present, and stopping there!

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter, Delhi)

Courtesy: The Sunday Leader, Colombo, March 23, 2014

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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