Photo courtesy Janikissima on Flickr
“He who tries to defend everything, defends nothing”– Sun Tzu (‘The Art of War’)
With the arrests of an outspoken middle aged Tamil woman activist with no history of violence, her detention in Boossa under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the handover of her 13 year old daughter to the child protection authorities, the detention without acknowledgement of two human rights activists, Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen reportedly also under the PTA, the Sri Lankan authorities just torpedoed Sri Lanka’s chances at the ongoing crucial 25th sessions of the UNHRC.
The latest revision made in the US-UK draft resolution requests the Office of the High Commissioner to undertake a ‘comprehensive investigation’ into abuses by both sides. This means that there is no time limitation. This also means that anyone who served in the Sri Lankan armed forces in each and every one of the Eelam wars going back to the first troop deployments and incidents of the late 1970s and early 1980s would come into the net of a comprehensive investigation.
If the resolution goes through with Op 8 (b) in place —the request for ‘a comprehensive investigation’ conducted by the OHCHR— then, the entire war and the entire armed forces are wide open. Thus this clause has to be removed either through negotiation or defeat in a vote. The stakes are sky high. Any concession that can get this clause removed must be made. Any failure to make the necessary compromises is irresponsible. Anything that risks diminishing the votes in favour of Sri Lanka is profoundly counterproductive. Anything that is certain to do so is irrational to the point of lunacy.
This latest round of arrests in Kilinochchi-Vavuniya is not just outrageous, but also decidedly irrational. Apart from the ethics, the optics are all wrong. Detention under the harsh PTA of Tamil and Christian activists simply makes the case that the regime is targeting minorities. This impression is reinforced by the invective against the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. When it takes place under the Geneva UNHRC searchlight, the impression is one of arrogant regime impunity masquerading as the defence of sovereignty; an impunity that invites a retaliatory response by Sri Lanka’s powerful and unfair critics while embarrassing and alienating potential friends. Thus the behaviour of elements of the regime actually makes Sri Lanka less defensible internationally. It jeopardises national sovereignty while rendering the security forces less secure.
When the timing is all very wrong because that vote pertains to so poisonous a clause as ‘a comprehensive investigation’ by the OHCHR, one cannot but notice that this is not Mahinda Rajapaksa’s usual style. Who decides? Is the Minister of Defence, who is also the President, really making the decisions? Or in the ultimate irony, has there been a dangerous degree of devolution of power?
A crackdown in the North won’t deter dissent. It never did and never will. The decision of then Perm Secretary of Defence and External Affairs, the Sinhala-Buddhist hawk NQ Dias, to send Major Richard Udugama to the North to disperse a peaceful Satyagraha in 1961, which the latter did by cracking heads with rifle butts, didn’t dissuade Tamil nationalism. Nor did the arrest and detention a decade later, of youth who hoisted black flags to protest the 1972 Constitution. Ask Mavai Senathirajah or Vardarajahperumal, who were jailed for several years for that non-violent protest. A policy of zero tolerance of dissent in the North will only catalyse civic protest which, if met coercively by the State, will trigger a huge Tamil Nadu response, which in turn will bring India down on our heads.
Similarly, the repeated insults to the SLMC will only drive Muslim sentiment in the East into the arms of the TNA, changing the balance of forces to the detriment of the security interests of the state.
Coming as they do at this very moment, the worst from the standpoint of the vital interests of the Sri Lankan state and the Security forces, these arrests reveal that there is something almost pathologically wrong within the System. This streak of unreason seems to be uncontrollable. Since the necessary restraining cannot come from enfeebled institutions or a chronically self-destructive Opposition, it can arguably only come from without— from the international system as a whole.
While the runaway unreason within the regime needs to be contained and constrained, by an external counterweight if necessary, such external means have to be ‘smart’ not dumb. A dumb or half-crazy regime cannot be constrained by dumb policies on the part of smarter international players. That would be the equivalent of a smart drone engaging in a dumb strike that kills an entire wedding party of civilians, alienating all their relatives and the tribe as a whole.
This is why I argue that the international community must not re-visit the war, which enables the regime to wrap its unreason up in the flag, the collective emotions against the fascist Tigers and for the heroes who fought to liberate us from them. The idea of an external investigation into the war must be refocused. The OHCHR and the UNHRC must be re-targeted to the present and the future; not the emotive and unalterable past. Thus the call should not be for an OHCHR investigation into the war years and decades, but for a robust OHCHR presence to be established in Sri Lanka, to monitor, report on and thereby deter or reverse ongoing future threats to human rights and international humanitarian law.
The regime is placing all its bets on electoral performance. The Opposition is betting on the deepening of the crisis. Both are in serious error. Elections in and of themselves do not deter, still less resolve crises. As President Jayewardene found out in his second term, neither his re-election nor the frozen two thirds majority in parliament could prevent the destructive ferocity of the ethnic crisis and its external aspect which culminated in a large presence of foreign troops and threatened to capsize the government and state. Conversely, as Madam Sirima Bandaranaike found out in 1988, no crisis, however catastrophic can obliterate negative memories and ensure a comeback, if the other side has a more popular (or populist?) candidate.
We are living through a transition to a new period after both the UNHRC Geneva vote and the Indian elections of May 2014. In that new period the regime, and also, unfortunately, the Sri Lankan state, are in danger of being caught in what is known in economics as a “scissors crisis”. This happens when two factors act as two blades of a pair of scissors and begin to close of an object. In the Sri Lankan case one blade is the Western thrust manifesting itself in a sharper resolution in Geneva. The other blade is the Jayalalithaa-driven threat from the neighbouring North, with her slogan of a referendum on Tamil Eelam. Let’s call it the Kosovo-South Ossetia-Crimea scenario. Over the next several months, the blades of the scissors (which are garden shears in this case) will begin to close.
The Sri Lankan regime seems to believe in nothing but its own preoccupations, prejudices and preconceptions; its own ‘false consciousness’. It can only go a relatively limited distance for a relatively limited period before it encounters the “seismic shock” (as Mervyn de Silva put it after the ’87 airdrop) of external material reality and the actual balance of forces.