17 July 2007
The International Community (IC) is fast losing credibility among the Tamils, both within Sri Lanka and in the Diaspora. Despite the unprecedented level of human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) the IC remains unmoved.
Even the farcical proposals the ruling SLFP put forward as a political solution have not stirred the IC into reconsidering.
Other than a few vague statements and token suspension of some aid, there has been a peculiar silence that is frustrating and unsettling, not only for the Tamils, but also humanitarian and human rights advocates involved in Sri Lanka.
Notably, there has been no condemnations of the GoSL – unlike, say, Zimbabwe - for its gross abuses from the IC.
The lack of concrete plans for international action – or even a meaningful statement - at the conclusion of the recent meeting in Oslo of the ‘Co-Chairs’ of the Sri Lankan Donors - US, EU, Japan and Norway - is the most recent, and most regrettable, missed opportunity to ensure the protection of human rights and drag Sri Lanka back from the abyss.
Why this silence from these, the most vociferous advocates of human rights during the peace process?
There is a convincing argument spreading amongst the Tamils that the IC’s responses thus far have been limited to weak statements because this serves their ends: to be seen to be ‘concerned,’ but without hindering the GoSL from carrying out its military operations to destroy the LTTE.
IC statements of late have been limited to criticising specific incidents and urging ‘investigations’ – by the GoSL itself. These gentle admonishments may be intended to encourage GoSL to fight its war more cleanly. But these also intended as a sop to the powerless Tamil Diaspora that feels deliberately ignored by the IC.
In addition, the lack of any coherent tangible international policy or long-term plan to bring about a solution reinforces Tamil suspicions that vested international interests are driving policy, not – as is often proclaimed – altruism.
There is a certain preoccupation amongst key members of the IC to deal only with the symptoms and not the underlying cause – oppression of the Tamils by the Sinhala-dominated state.
Meanwhile, there is surprisingly little focus on the thinking of the LTTE itself.
The LTTE is a proscribed organisation in many of the countries involved in the Sri Lankan situation. The proscriptions in EU and Canada, in addition to those of US, UK and India, have resulted in the silencing of a key actor in the conflict and peace process.
The bans preclude the engagement with the LTTE by which solutions can be explored, confidence built and tensions reduced.
The vacuum of international engagement with the LTTE along with the war euphoria in the south, shenanigans of Sinhala politics and, especially, the ruling SLFP’s mocking proposal to the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) has served to reinforce the LTTE’s belief that meaningful negotiations towards political solution are virtually impossible now.
Furthermore, this perceived attempt by the IC to marginalize the LTTE is entirely in keeping with the IC’s track record of not viewing the LTTE as an equal partner in the peace process.
The Tamils’ bitter post-tsunami experience as well as their experiences during the past 40 years also tells them that the possibility of an agreement (even if reached) being implemented is utterly remote. The LTTE is well aware of the depth of this scepticism amongst the Tamils.
Meanwhile, from their comments, it is clear that the Tigers are interpreting current events, including the lack of any meaningful international reaction, as the IC turning a blind eye to the plight of the Tamils in the NorthEast and providing the GoSL with the space to destroy the LTTE militarily, despite the attendant humanitarian costs.
In the wake of ‘victory’ in the east, the calls in the south for further (‘final’) military action against the Tigers are growing louder. The IC seems less convinced than before, but is largely going along with Sri Lanka’s war.
But it is imprudent to interpret the lack of a more violent response from the Tigers to recent events as weakness or inability, rather than part of a calculated design.. The history of the LTTE tells us to expect the unexpected. And even if the Sinhala hawks are right, were the LTTE were pushed against the wall its response could be devastating.
Although the Diaspora is as much a stakeholder in the Tamil question as the residents of the Northeast, the bans have deliberately curtailed the LTTE’s interaction with it – even though many of the skills essential to forging a political solution are located in it.
Tamil pleas for the bans to be lifted fall on deaf ears.
In Britain, the Diaspora seems to have found some space for engagement with the London government, especially through the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Tamil affairs. The absence in other countries of such institutional avenues has served to completely silence and marginalize the equally distressed Tamil communities there.
The ‘war on terror’ and the associated complexities of the application of terror laws in the UK, the EU and elsewhere are causing moderates in the Tamil community to refrain from expressing their views publicly for fear of violating these laws.
This has lead to a shrinking in the spectrum of political discourse on Sri Lanka. Non-participation by moderates also has the potential to permanently damage prospects for a negotiated settlement in the future. Any peace initiatives will undoubtedly require the involvement of the Diaspora at all levels.
The GoSL has effectively dealt a severe blow to such possibilities by marginalizing the Diaspora through intimidation, harassment, and by branding all those who speak of Tamil aspirations or grievances or who attempt to provide assistance to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka as “terrorists”.
The marginalization and demonizing of an entire community by the Sri Lankan government has been institutionalised in the proscription of the LTTE by the US, EU, etc. Seeking to curtail professional expertise from reaching the LTTE, the bans have also rendered the Diaspora incapable of engaging with the LTTE on a solution.
The current strategy being pursued by GoSL is clearly focused on military initiatives – ostensibly with the stated goal of “weakening the LTTE to get them to the table”.
But the limit of political devolution being offered is incredibly at the district level. The preservation of a unitary state is further entrenched by the ‘power-sharing proposal.’
Though these are the stated goal and stance of the ruling party, it is by no means an isolated view unique to the ruling party; rather it is the well subscribed, mainstream view of the Sinhala majority.
Hence the chorus of Sinhala calls for further attacks on the LTTE, even though Sri Lanka’s increasingly severe military initiatives of the past twenty five years have not borne results.
The GoSL is completely cognisant of the consequences (such as adverse international opinions, should they occur) of pursuing a military solution and obviously sees these as inevitable challenges that must be endured and managed. Clearly the government, assisted by Sinhalese bureaucrats with extensive international experience, does not consider the consequences of upsetting the international community as unmanageable.
Thus GoSL’s undeclared but open war is a carefully thought through and crafted strategy built from a clear understanding of prevailing international sentiments and an awareness of the limitations on international actors.
GoSL is also taking full advantage of existing bilateral and multilateral differences among key states and state blocs of the IC.
The ‘war on terror’ provides fertile linkages for GoSL to seek assistance from ‘friendly; countries that have similar internal challenges and, frequently, are also human rights abusers. This can been seen in the GoSL’s effective dismissal of criticism and action at the UN Human Rights Council.
Exploiting the advantages of being a state, the GoSL also has mustered resources to manage propaganda, co-opting the local and sometimes international media. Despite the frequent gaffes, significant progress has been achieved in projecting Colombo’s case and viewpoint abroad.
Sri Lanka also has clearly demonstrated that demands to meet international norms of conduct can be disregarded with negligible consequences. Indeed, it is the accusers who are often put on the defensive by GoSL’s counter-attacks. All manner of tactics are used to discredit, delay, expel or intimidate each critic until they go away or be silent. This has included personal attacks on senior foreign personalities such as UN investigator Alan Rock or Ambassadors in Colombo.
President Rajapakse has taken it upon himself to destroy the Tamil challenge to Sinhala rule once and for all. His ambition is apparent in his undisguised strategy: destroy the LTTE and impose a solution that entrenches the unitary character of the state. When he says he is prepared to go that extra mile to find a solution, he means it. It is just not the solution that the conflict resolution advocates have in mind.
The appalling conditions being endured by the people of the NorthEast should have by now triggered international outrage and the strongest condemnation – which the IC has levelled at other states for far less.
But their misery is seen simply as a necessary part of the global ‘war on terror.’ Hence the silence.