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All the action in Sri Lanka’s Action Plan

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When Prof. G. L Pieris, Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister, meets Mrs. Clinton, US Secretary of State tomorrow, he will have in his hand a piece of paper. The ‘Action Plan’ he will present was hastily put together in an attempt to deflect growing international criticism of Sri Lanka’s treatment of the Tamil people.

However, the title of the document is misleading. The ‘Action Plan’ is not actually a blue print for forthcoming action. Instead, and as Sri Lanka’s past record of promised ‘action’ on the Tamil question indicates, all the ‘action’ in the ‘Action Plan’ will be done with its presentation. In other words Sri Lanka’s ‘Action Plan’ to resolve the Tamil issue is simply to present the ‘Action Plan’ and then carry on much the same as before.

The ‘Action Plan’ is in reality therefore a prop in the ongoing drama of Sri Lanka’s international diplomacy on the Tamil question. Like any good prop, the ‘Action Plan’ will be indistinguishable from a real world ‘Action Plan’ and include detailed ‘actions’ and maybe even ‘timeframes’. However, like any other prop, its use in dramatic enactment is entirely disconnected from the offstage reality, which in Sri Lanka’s case is one of violently intensifying Sinhala Buddhist dominance over the Tamil people.

Furthermore, this gap between international performance and domestic reality is not something that is peculiar to the Rajapakse regime. It has been a longstanding feature of Sri Lanka’s international diplomacy on the Tamil issue. International focus on the island’s ethnic conflict has been heightened in the post Cold War era’s linking of internal conflict and international security but was important even before. In the years running up to independence from Britain, for example, Sinhala leaders made promises of ethnic accommodation in return for an early transfer of power.

Throughout this period, successive Sinhala leaders have engaged international actors on the Tamil question and produced in turn numerous pieces of paper. There have been countless and various constitutional reform ‘reports’, reform ‘packages’, reform ‘proposals’, and reform ‘recommendations’ alongside innumerable other ‘action plans’ on implementing these. Like the present ‘Action Plan’, these previous pieces of paper were of courses tailored for international performance rather than domestic offstage implementation.

Prior to the present ‘Action Plan’ Sri Lankan officials invoked the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission in their international performances. After the LLRC, came the report and recommendations of the LLRC, now in turn replaced by the aforementioned ‘Action Plan’. Before the LLRC, Sri Lankan performances relied heavily on the All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) which was then succeeded by the report and recommendations of the APRC. At present, and alongside the ‘Action Plan’, there is the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) which will very likely soon supersede the LLRC and produce in turn a new PSC report and perhaps even some recommendations from which may well follow a new ‘Action Plan’.

Of course, President Rajapakse’s tricks for the international show are not new. They were in fact well honed by his predecessor, President Kumaratunga. Soon after coming to power in 1994, Kumaratunga initiated and then broke off negotiations with the LTTE, launched a massive military offensive in the Tamil speaking areas, unveiled to the international community a set of constitutional reform ‘proposals’ and sought funding for development in the Jaffna peninsula - then recently captured from the LTTE. The similarities between Rajapakse and Kumaratunga are striking.

Her constitutional reform proposals and claims of development of course never hit the ground offstage. Indeed by late 2001, Dr. Meiko Nishimizu, a senior World Bank official, gave vent to a ‘growing sense of frustration amongst donors’ at the ‘disconnect’ or ‘gap between official policy and commitment on the one hand and, on the other, the voices on the ground in Sri Lanka.’ Almost seven years after Kumaratunga first unveiled her proposals, Dr. Nishimizu pressed President Kumaratunga’s government to act with urgency and ‘build legitimate institutions that have legitimacy for all citizens.’

Prof G. L Pieris, a key official in Kumaratunga’s government then switched sides and represented the United National Party (UNP) government during the ill-fated Norwegian mediated peace process (2001-6). In this process, Prof. Pieris, on behalf of the government, accepted and touted a series of agreements and proposals, including the Oslo agreement to explore federalism. He has of course since abandoned that particular prop and has now adopted the ‘Action Plan’ and is insisting on a ‘home grown solution’, presumably through the PSC.

The international politics of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict present therefore, at first sight at least, something of a paradox. Despite decades of donor funded conflict resolution engagement and a profusion of reports, recommendations and proposals, the Sinhala – Tamil conflict has inexorably intensified. The explanation for this lies in the clear disconnect between Sri Lanka’s international engagement on the one hand and its domestic policies on the other.

For successive Sri Lankan governments international engagement on the Tamil question is nothing more than a sometimes testing, but nevertheless unavoidable, theatre in which performances can be given more or less willingly and more or less successfully. The ongoing and countless bilateral and multilateral meetings on the Tamil issue have simply been sites of performances rather than arenas for reaching substantive agreements to then be implemented in good faith. In simply presenting the ‘Action Plan’, Prof Pieris will have enacted all the action that was ever planned for it.

Those in the international community who are now serious about a just and lasting peace in Sri Lanka must therefore look beyond the theatre of the ‘Action Plan’. No amount of serious engagement with a prop will change Sri Lanka’s offstage reality. Instead, Colombo’s violent attempts to impose Sinhala dominance over the Tamil people can only be checked by decisive international action and pressure. Willing members of the international community must therefore formulate an alternative and real action plan, backed up by a range of sanctions, to serve as a blue print for actual action in Sri Lanka’s offstage reality.

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