Yet another fleeting opportunity

Photo courtesy Xinhua

Anxiety dominates the post-Geneva political climate in Sri Lanka, the result of a heady mixture of different reasons, which sees the ruling regime pursuing short-sighted solutions in order to neutralise.

March turned out to be an eventful month for Sri Lanka domestically and internationally, with the passage of the UNHRC resolution, the arrest and detention of several key human rights defenders and elections in two Provincial Councils, all set against a backdrop of an alleged resurgence of the LTTE in the North of the country.

The UNHRC resolution in March is the strongest resolution yet on Sri Lanka, calling for (amongst other points) a “comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and to establish the facts and circumstances of such alleged violations and of the crimes perpetrated with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability, with assistance from relevant experts and special procedures mandate holders”. Unsurprisingly, the Government lashed back at the resolution saying it will not cooperate with any UNHRC probe. With Provincial Council elections fixed for the immediate aftermath of the UNHRC vote, this outright rejection of an international investigation was expected to play well into the election campaign of the ruling party. It was also expected to congregate the masses of the Western and Southern Provinces who have been steadily nurtured with nationalist sentiments, to electorally prove through unwavering support, the sheer dominance and backing for the ruling party’s government.

This projection backfired. Not only did the elections experience a low voter turnout (55-60%), it also proved through fallen support for the UPFA (142,440 fewer votes in the Western Province and 104,663 fewer votes in the Southern Province compared to 2009 polls) that the President’s war hero trajectory is growing sour. This may have driven His Excellency to immediately make the statement that there will be no Presidential elections until 2016.

One cannot help but wonder – is the South starting to wake up from the trance it has been in for years? Or is that just wishful thinking?

It may be that the public increasingly realises there is some credence to what the UN and the international community are calling for – reconciliation, accountability and human rights for our own. That the UNHCR resolution might not be ‘against’ Sri Lanka, but in fact ‘for’ Sri Lanka. That the actions of a ‘democratic’ Government – in office to protect the rights of all Sri Lankans- should be of a different order to those of a ruthless terrorist organisation. That pointing out the hypocrisy of the West does not discount the suffering of our fellow citizens. That three years of replaying this same argument is a non-excuse to avoid investigations into the horrific continuation of human rights violations. That if the allegations aren’t true, there needn’t be such paranoid and hostile backlash. That the defence of sovereignty and territorial integrity is a convenient cover for a Government that continues to dodge a genuine reconciliation process.

It may be the impeachment of the Chief Justice and the total collapse of respect for the rule of law that has come as a late reminder that the ruling regime knows no bounds. That as the UNP put it, “it is because of our silence towards the atrocities in the North that the terror of Weliweriya came to our doorstep in the South; it is because of our apathy at the killings of journalists in the North that Editors of national newspapers were killed in broad day light in the streets of Colombo; it is because of our inaction that this regime has been able to get away with crushing all our collective rights.”

It may be the ‘toy’ pistol carrying Mayors and ruling party supporters attacking opposition MPs, or it may be the audacity of hardline monks of the Bodu Bala Sena that is beginning to strike a moral chord in the conscience of the peace loving people. Recent events have publicly illustrated the inaction of law enforcement in the face of thuggery. The absence of official condemnation from government reeks of tacit approval. The shameful actions of collectives such as the Bodu Bala Sena begs the question – are the real culprits of what the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act terms as committing acts of “violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony” human rights defenders like Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen, or those who parade such brazen disregard for other religions under the guise of being religious leaders? No more is it possible for the public to turn a blind eye at what is so overtly a new cause of tension within ethnicities. It must ring a bell from history. This cannot end well for Sri Lanka.

The support received by the TNA at the Northern Provincial Council elections in 2013 should have been a wake up call to the ruling party that winning the war alone is insufficient to win the hearts of communities that have been tormented by three decades of war. The results of the Western and Southern Provincial Council elections is yet another wake up call. Another chance to engage – another opportunity soon fleeting.

Claims of a resurgence of the LTTE make one thing clear- the conflict is not over. The Government’s strategy of ramping up military activity in the North and East in light of this alleged resurgence almost amounts to a situation where the Government is trying to drain the sea to catch the fish. Nipping an alleged armed struggle at the bud is not a long-term solution. Continuing militarisation in the North is not a long-term solution.

Ironically and throughout history, successive Governments and their policies have fuelled the LTTE. Politically addressing the rights of minorities is the only real solution to end conflict and to stop the start of another war. There would be no need for an international probe if the Government embarked on a genuine truth seeking process that focuses on accountability for alleged crimes, a reconciliation mechanism that addressed inequitable policies, an effective justice system that upholds law and order and human rights for all despite ethnic divides.

The failure to deliver these basic needs of a multi-ethnic country has resulted in an international probe. Intimidating human rights defenders, refusing cooperation with the UNHRC investigation, delegitimizing overseas Tamil diaspora organisations (some with legitimate intentions and moderate views) through proscription and threatening to take legal action against anyone who testifies before the UNHRC are the ridiculous and short-sighted reactions of a panicking regime.

When will those in power realise that focus should perhaps be on real post-war reconciliation strategies? When will they realise that this could have proved to all those who voted in support of the resolution – that they made a mistake? That addressing root causes of the conflict will win more elections than the number of highways they build? That post-war reconstruction should be of people and not of cement?

Of course we can be almost certain that the Government will come up with a brand new strategy to overcome the latest blow to it’s electoral base, one that doesn’t address the real issues. Maybe one day it will look back and note in hindsight that in 2014 they let yet another opportunity to get it right, whisk by.