Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

Stepping Up

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapakse is now under greater international pressure than ever before. The two issues are his refusal to halt the blatant human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan armed forces and also to put forward a proposal for a solution to the protracted ethnic conflict. With their friendly advice falling on deaf ears, the Western states have ratcheted up their pressure on the Rajapakse regime with public criticism and threats of action
It is on the human rights front, quite rightly, that the government is under the
greatest pressure.
 
While international human rights groups have been making vocal protests for some time, international media has now ramped up coverage of the deteriorating conditions in Sri Lanka. And, as if on cue, the international panel of experts overseeing President Rajapakse's much-heralded probe into a handful of incidents of past abuses has also come out with strong criticism about conduct of the probes. There are reports and claims of visas being denied to security forces' personnel involved in rights abuses and rumblings of sanctions being prepared.
 
There is almost unanimous agreement amongst the international critics that
international human rights monitoring must be introduced to the island.
So far the regime is unrepentant. The President himself simply denies that abuses are taking place. Those said abducted have either gone abroad or joined the Tigers he says. He blames the LTTE entirely for the ongoing killings - a daily occurrence across the Northeast and even Colombo, marked by the dumping of mutilated corpses.
 
Meanwhile, his brother, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the Defence Secretary, is openly contemptuous of the international hand wringing over rights abuses. He compares Sri Lanka's brutal counter-insurgency to US actions elsewhere and charges hypocrisy.
 
The international pressure on the Sri Lanka state to halt its abuses is, of course, welcome. However, the inherent character of the atrocities is studiously not being acknowledged: that the state is using a systematic campaign of terror to subdue the Tamil demand for self-determination. A cursory survey reveals the pattern: the victims are activists or relatives of those involved even peripherally in the Tamil political struggle.
 
In this context, the international pressure has been a long time coming.
 
The abuses came out of the escalating shadow war between Sri Lankan military intelligence (and its allied paramilitaries) and the LTTE which began in late 2003. But beyond these atrocities, for the past year the Sri Lankan military has waged a war that has targeted the Tamil population: indiscriminate and deliberate bombing and shelling has systematically cleared the Tamils from larges swathes of the Northeast: The government has ruthlessly used starvation and denial of medicine as a tactic to compel populations to move out of LTTE-controlled areas.
 
Yet throughout all that, the international community has supported President
Rajapakse. Even at the peaks of human suffering in the Northeast countries like the United States have come out stridently in support of Sri Lanka. The self-styled 'war on terror' has by far taken priority over international human rights and humanitarian norms.
 
Even the international pressure on President Rajapakse to forge a southern
consensus and put forward a solution to the ethnic question is driven by the logic of counter-insurgency, rather than justice. A solution must be offered, some suggest, to encourage the Tamils - who are said to be 'moderates' - to distance themselves from the Tigers - the 'extremists'. What is important then is not whether President Rajapakse can actually deliver a solution
(in fact he can't: it is well known that the shaky ruling coalition built on handouts, blackmail and coercion is moribund and the state is being managed by a Rajapakse family-led coterie).
 
It is for these reasons that the international community continues to laud the
now discredited All Party Representative Committee (APRC). This body can never deliver a proposal that all major Sinhala parties can accept and yet offer credible power-sharing to the Tamils. Sri Lanka's post-independence history demonstrates that the southern polity, which operates in the logic of majoritarian anti-minority outbidding, will never agree on a reasonable solution for the Tamils. Some voices suggest over a year of brutalizing has softened up the Tamils and produced a desperate yearning for an end to the violence.
 
In this climate all that is required is a credible solution from the government for the LTTE to have to negotiate or see its support amongst the Tamils ebb away. But this is a plan that is as old as the conflict itself.