Originally Published 2016-06-15 07:32:59 Published on Jun 15, 2016
Sri Lanka: Time for international community to wake up

Chinese Ambassador Yi Xianliang’s call for Sri Lankan leadership(s) to ensure that the post-war reconciliation mechanisms voted in by the UNHRC do not create new conflicts in Sri Lanka should make the nation sit up. It should be more so for the ‘international community’ (read: West), considering that the ruling Duo in Colombo has reportedly decided on ‘local judges’ alone for ‘war-crimes’ probe. Both come at a time when the TNA has decided to brief UNHRC chief Prince Zeid on the ‘ground situation’ ahead of his mandated ‘oral report’ to the end-June session.

To expect China to keep quiet on Sri Lanka’s ‘internal matters’ too far and too long would have been a ‘lesson’ for other existing and aspirant ‘allies’ of the super-power-to-be. China cannot be seen hunting for itself in their backwaters and yet running with the West on issues of their concerns. If that were so, they would rather settle with the West on politico-strategic issues, and confining China relations to investments.

Ambassador Yi did not stop there. “It would be ill-advised to put reconciliation before development because it is only all-round equitable development which will prevent social, political and economic conflicts,” he is reported to have told a Colombo audience. It’s the kind of ‘Development vs Democracy’ discourse of President Mahinda Rajapaksa days, so to say.

It’s another matter that post-Mao, China has followed ‘limited/guided democracy’ at the top, if at all it could be called so. It has changed the leadership with periodic regularity, but by the party, not the voter, per se. The West has not acknowledged it. The Rajapaksa camp did not understand it. Hence they stuck to only one part of China’s internal agenda — 18-A, Mahinda’s bid for a third term and losing elections to inevitable anti-incumbency.

Better or worse still, Ambassador Yi was also seeking to ‘balance off’ between the erstwhile Rajapaksa regime and the present-day Maithiri-Ranil Duo in power. China did not work with individuals but with States, he is reported to have said further. It’s again a message not just to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, but also to the West and the rest that had thought that post-Mahinda, Sri Lanka would move all-round away from China.

It’s not about development funding and geo-strategic security/competition in Sri Lanka’s Indian Ocean neighbourhood. By now, it’s well known that China had made last-minute efforts to muster up votes for Sri Lanka at UNHRC in 2012, but failed. It might have even entered too late in the day, or so it would possibly want Sri Lanka now to believe. Today, as the drift on the UNHRC front is becoming increasingly visible, China seems wanting to step in early on — but with a chaste word for the local leadership.

< style="color: #163449;">UNHRC drift

The ‘UNHRC drift’ and the Chinese statement have come after Sri Lanka unilaterally co-authored and co-sponsored the UNHRC resolution on accountability probe the last time round. It may not (want to) step in without being asked. But the message could also be for the Sri Lankan leadership (this one a different regime from 2012) not to rush to China too late in the day, if it came to that in the months and years ahead — for China to be of consequence and help.

The Chinese statement comes ahead of yet another Beijing visit for President Maithripala Sirisena, his second in as many years since coming to power. Ahead of him, predecessor Mahinda R, too, used to ‘balance off’ India and China by visiting the two nations. In the case of the present-day Sri Lankan regime, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too shares the two-way honours. Both leaders have also been visiting the US and Europe, not so infrequently. Sirisena was also at the G-7 Summit in Japan recently.

< style="color: #163449;">Heating up again

It’s not about international relations and international visits of Government leaders any more. Instead, it’s about the domestic pot that has begun heating up all over again — and could soon be on the boil. For starters, this is the first time there are reports about the unanimity of views between Sirisena and Ranil over the composition of any ‘war-crimes’ probe.

Either they have had honest differences in the past, or were playing good-cop-bad-cop to the Tamils nearer home and the international community otherwise. They have since ‘sorted out’ those differences, this round going to Sirisena, if it could be said so. Could a ‘victory’ (?) for Sirisena viz Ranil mean that he has scored over the Rajapaksas in the larger ‘ethnic’ context within the Sirisena-led SLFP partner in the Government for National Unity (GNU)?

The Duo has not made it easy for the Tamils and the TNA, the designated ‘Opposition Party’ in Parliament, over their 15 months’ rule. The TNA too has not made things too easy for the Government, especially in recent months. But the trouble is in a continuum of the pre-war past in the case of the former, and pre-polls for the latter.

Added to this are the internal troubles within the TNA and the larger Tamil polity and society — as there are internal troubles within the SLFP. If there are problems within the UNP, Ranil has been able to keep it under a lid, for the first time in years.

The reported TNA decision to brief Zeid in Geneva too is a repeat of the past that Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans are familiar with. The consequences, especially nearer home, could well be imagined.  The TNA could and would sound frustrated and ‘cheated one more time’. On return, they would be branded ‘anti-nationals’ taking the ‘LTTE way’.

If the situation so evolved, like the Rajapaksa regime before it, this Government too could come under pressure from within to disassociate from the TNA.  Ahead of the 2012 UNHRC vote, the Rajapaksa leadership called off what was shaping up as halting-yet-meaningful political negotiations with the TNA after the party claimed ownership for the US-sponsored resolution at the UNHRC. The West continued to give the impression that they did not want the negotiations to succeed. The ‘Diaspora LTTE’ rejoiced.  Today, every stake-holder has forgotten that those negotiations at all took place.

Any repeat of the pre-war, post-war, pre-polls past could lead to the ‘Diaspora LTTE’ mustering up the political muscle to claim purpose and legitimacy all over again. They could put the recent the US State Department Annual Report on its head and argue why that LTTE funding-channels and tax-collection have to continue.  The US Report and Sirisena’s subsequent Delhiwala speech that he would crush ‘LTTE (separatist)  ideology’ with the cooperation of world leaders with whom he had good equations (?) could only become the grist of his critics’ mill.

< style="color: #163449;">Nothing path-breaking

All this and more when PM Wickremesinghe has promised to present a new draft Constitution before the year is out, for national discourse and later passage in Parliament, which has converted itself into a Constituent Assembly. The nation would then have no time or energy, or both, for UNHRC. To the Tamils, it would all add to their long and ever-expanding list of grievances and cheating.

The report of the Public Representations Committee (PRC), submitted recently, was expected to set the tone and tenor for a healthy national discourse on contentious constitutional issues of re-merger, power-devolution, including Land and Police powers, has said nothing new or path-breaking. It may have even said less than what the Majority Report of Mahinda-time APRC had recommended — or, at best stopped with repeating what other reports of the kind had said over the past decades.

All of it opens up a fresh look as to why the Duo did not plain and simple start with — or, even stop with — the implementation of 13-A, with or without re-merger and proceed from there. At the end of the day, the Constituent Assembly could well end up as their way of deviating from the script that the international community had thought was that of the Duo’s and had existed on a ‘political solution’ if not ‘accountability issues’ — but actually did not.

Going by PRC’s claims, the Preamble of a new constitution could have a lot to say, promise and reassure the Tamils and the rest on rights, including human rights, much of it ornamental in effect. The Preamble is a political statement — or an emotive exhortation at best. The Articles, Clauses and Sub-Clauses alone would make legal and constitutional sense. The PRC report does not promise hopes on that front — and not always for the wrong reasons, however.

For the Tamils in particular, the character of the ‘State’ — whether ‘unitary’ or ‘federal’ — should not really matter, though they have got caught in the web of what essentially is a Sinhala politico-academic past-time. Re-merger may not happen, but power-devolution to the levels up to 13-A, and later, beyond it should be what they could aim to achieve, if they are realistic.

Wherever they feel uncomfortable or less satisfied, they could have sought a review after a 10-year period or so. Independent of constitutional and political reforms, they could have commenced post-war negotiations with a demand for freezing the number of parliamentary seats per electoral district till 2051 Census, providing for deaths and disappearances for war-time. They did not even ask for it, when possibly the Mahinda leadership might have considered it favourably — for its own reasons, at least until 2031/2021 Census.

Still, freezing the number of Parliament seats in the war-affected areas need not be a far-cry — or a ‘take-away’ for some Tamil/TNA ‘give-away’, in the interim. After all, the Government has now agreed to issue ‘Certificate of Absence’ for the war-missing. If the Government and the international community are serious about it, they should be following upon the Paranagama Commission’s request for the latter to help identify SLT citizens in their countries, some of them in aliases. That too is going to take as much time.

Instead, the Tamils and the TNA sought the impossible(s) at the time, when the decades-old “Sri Lanka’s war on terrorism” had gone against them. Better or worse still, ‘war-crimes’ probe was not on their original agenda — but was an after-thought, contributed by the international NGOs, their governments, and the ‘Diaspora LTTE’. What is not acknowledged is a tentative agreement of the time on ‘financial powers’ of the State, which is where the present Government may have issues of its own.

< style="color: #163449;">Going overboard

Today, the Tamils neither have a political solution, nor can they really have hopes on ‘war crimes probe’ of the UNHRC kind. The ‘Diaspora LTTE’ would rejoice, the critics of Tamils nearer home would again start campaigning against the moderate Tamil leadership. The international community (read: West) would not even be able to decipher what had gone wrong, why, when and how.

All along, the international community has been talking near-exclusively about sensitising armed forces about ‘accountability issues.’ If a new Constitution, whether stopping with the Preamble or otherwise, were to talk more directly about HR issues, there could be greater concerns than already, however subterranean they be just now.

It would mean that the Government and more so the international community would have to be even more sensitive to the anticipation and apprehensions of the Sri Lankan armed forces than the other way round. Sri Lankan critics of the international community in particular are not going to keep quiet, either, if in between either the UNHRC, or the Government, or the Constitution draft were to be seen as going ‘overboard’ on accountability-linked HR issues.

< style="color: #163449;">Gota game-plan

All this apart, there is already talk, hopes and promises of the ‘second place’ in the Sirisena-led SLFP for former Defence Secretary Gota Rajapaksa, brother of Mahinda R. Under 19-A, the presidency has become both unattainable and unattractive for Mahinda. The new Constitution could confirm both — and Mahinda might have to be out of the run, unless he tries his luck for the post of the more powerful prime minister one more time, whenever elections become due.

Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, CBK, the scion of the SLFP founder-family, has cautioned about distancing herself from the party if it were to accommodate the Rajapaksas at the top-rung all over again. The problem for the party is not the Rajapaksas per se. It’s more about the inability of others, including Sirisena and CBK put together, to retain the 47 percent vote-share of Mahinda R, won twice last year.

The alternative is to lose the party’s identity to the UNP leader in the GNU, at least in the interim — whose length is undeterminable just now. Ideas leading to the SLFP reasserting itself could imply that it cannot reinvent itself now without a Rajapaksa. It could however mean a drift in the current UNP-SLFP combine, but the UNP-led Government could be expected to ‘expose’ the Rajapaksas even more.

The clincher however is that Mahinda might not have ‘transferrable vote’ for any other in the SLFP, including a third Rajapaksa. But Gota could be another story altogether. Rather, if Mahinda could ‘transfer’ his votes to any other SLFP leader, it could only be Gota. Or, so seems to be the logic.

 It’s in this larger background that the clock has begun ticking on Sri Lanka, accountability and/or political solution to the ethnic issue, for which alone the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Duo got a mandate but without promising anything specific other than replacing the Rajapaksas at the helm.  It would in turn mean that the clock has begun ticking for the West, which had hoped and promised things that it did not divine or define — and especially now after China having expressed an open ‘concern’ in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs, as never before in the past.

 A way out could be for the international community to wake up, put its act together, shake up the domestic stake-holders, who are divided, anyway. How and how soon they decide to do it, and do it afterwards, could also be a determinant in the upcoming follow-up to what promises to be a tentative present, leading the nation into an even more unsteady future — as the past already had been.

This commentary originally appeared in The < class="aBn" tabindex="0" data-term="goog_509776855">< class="aQJ">Sunday Leader.

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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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