Groundviews

Policy vs Politics: Global Sri Lankan Forum’s telling myopia

Featured image courtesy Huffington Post

A look at a recent event organised by the Global Sri Lankan forum

The Sri Lanka Foundation Institute was largely empty as the Global Sri Lankan Forum, (a group in favour of the unitary state system of governance) convened for a seminar on ‘The Geneva Resolution and Federalism as it is today‘.

“My favourite quote on terrorism comes from Putin,” said retired Rear admiral Sarath Weerasekara. “To forgive the terrorists is up to God. But to send them there is up to me.” The audience chuckled grimly as he continued on to say that while former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had the political will to stop terrorism, only “pro LTTE stooges” and “foreigners like Ban Ki Moon” were focused on human rights violations, through the Geneva resolution.

This set the tone for the rest of the event. What was particularly chilling throughout, however, was the casual dismissal of even the idea that any violation of human rights might have been committed in the final stages of the war.

Later on in his speech, Weerasekara spoke of how the army held back at great cost to themselves, in order to save civilians and children. He described, in graphic detail, the mutilation that LTTE cadres wrought on brave soldiers. He also claimed evidence (though unsubstantiated) that the LTTE had fired artillery on civilians, to ensure that there would be international involvement and halt the conflict, since the Army was making advances in the final stages of the war. He was also up to date with his knowledge, citing UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s recent statement that the UN could have saved more lives, had they been more active in Sri Lanka. He ended with the stirring proclamation that if Sri Lanka adopted a federal system of governance, then all the forces who gave their lives had suffered and given their lives in vain.

Senior Journalist at the Island, Shamindra Ferdinando said that there were “missed opportunities” that the Government had failed to capitalize on in Geneva. In the first instance, he mentioned that the allegations made in the Geneva resolution could not be verified until 2031, and even then, has to be UN approved. Drawing mostly from his own work, Ferdinando pointed out the case of a former US defence attaché, Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Smith, who had defended the Sri Lankan government at a seminar hosted by the Army in 2011. He was subsequently recalled, and the US embassy said the remarks he made were his personal opinion. The revelations of Wikileaks could also have been used in Geneva, he added. Once again, the final bloody weeks of the war were glossed over. There was no withholding of medical supplies, the military acted humanely to save civilian lives, and foreign relief workers were able to go ashore in Pudumathalan, and were only barred from the second week of May in 2009 – a week before the war ended.

In the first instance, the Indian medical aid team, cited by Ferdinando, flew in only on March 2009, and flew out in 6 months. This hospital consisted of, initially, just 50 beds, according to the Indian High Commission, and later on, was upgraded to 115. More than 40,000 people sought treatment at this facility alone – not counting referrals from local hospitals. This was not mentioned at all by Ferdinando – he seemed to blithely assume that this single facility was enough to treat the thousands of injured who were caught in the crossfire in the last stages of the war. The ICRC’s own reports show that its workers were injured while trying to evacuate citizens. “The violence is preventing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from operating in the region, ” said Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of operations for South Asia in Geneva in a press release in January 2009. This was also not dealt with by Ferdinando. He continued on to allege that the figure of 65,000 missing people given by the Government was false, as many had fled overseas. As evidence of this, he cited three cases of people who had surfaced overseas – which presumably refuted the figure in entirety. [edit: In addition, none of the three cases he noted; which included FSP member Kumar Gunaratnam, Antonythasan Jesuthasan aka Shobashakthi (lead actor in Dheepan) and an NGO worker in the Vanni, were reported as disappeared]. No mention at all was made of the submissions made by families of the disappeared to a Consultation Task Force on reconciliation recently, in the lead up to the creation of the Office of Missing Persons.

President’s Counsel Manoharala Silva said that a comparison of the 1815 Kandyan convention, where Sri Lanka handed over territory to the British, contained much of the same content as the Geneva resolution, echoing the sentiments expressed by former President Mahinda Rajapakse in February, since the government was ‘devolving’ power to the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR). He also went on to say that the 19th amendment, with specific provisions on age and dual citizenship, was crafted solely to prevent former President Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting in upcoming elections. “Every single clause in the Geneva convention deals with the abdication of power. Who are they to tell us to revise our judgments?” he asked rhetorically.

That question was tackled by Mohan Samaranayake who spoke of the US’s chequered human rights record – touching on Iraq, Syria, and the Vietnam war.

A telling comment was made by Samaranayake when speaking about how former US President Abraham Lincoln dealt with 13 states who wanted to secede: “Lincoln is worshipped, but when Mahinda does same thing, he is to be taken to the UN Human Rights Council and criminal court. This is duplicitous,” Samaranayake said, going on to add that the real reason for the Geneva resolution was to maintain the World Order and ensure that the top 1% of global economies continued to profit off poorer nations.

At this point, a common thread could be seen among all the speakers – many of them echoed sentiments spoken by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was all there – the dismissal of critics as “LTTE stooges” the pointing fingers at evil foreign powers, the casual dismissal of allegations of human rights violations – just as earlier on, Rajapaksa said there had been “zero civilian casualties” before having to backtrack, resulting in the admission made by the Paranagama Commission.

“It should not be the person who is objected to but the policy,” Manoharala Silva said earlier on in the evening, equally tellingly. Conversely, the speakers at this seminar were willing to gloss over allegations of death, rape, withholding of supplies, including medical equipment, and the use of cluster bombs.

In the end, the event, rather than being a balanced discussion on the positives of the unitary system of governance was a rehash of rhetoric already spoken about in the context of the Geneva resolution, and much of it in support of former President Rajapaksa. And while the US certainly does not have the cleanest human rights record, the casual dismissal by the speakers (some of whom admitted they were “not experts”) of the fact that civilians might have been hurt or killed in the final stages of war was equally revealing. In the rush to point fingers at the pesky foreign body meddling in Sri Lanka’s affairs, the suffering of the families of the missing, all those who lost mothers, fathers and children in those final months was simply dismissed as a necessary means to an end.

The timing of this event, so long after the resolution has been passed; might also seem odd, if Sri Lanka weren’t currently undergoing the process of constitutional reform.

Recent visits to Jaffna show that people in the North have painful, lingering memories of conflict. The sense of anger about the injustice wrought against them remains, as a walk through the town’s bustling market showed. This was reflected too, during UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon’s visit to the island, when the usually mild-mannered TNA MP R Sampanthan said the Tamil people would become ‘ungovernable’ if their aspirations for self-governance were not met, although he was quick to add that they would not resort to violence.

If Sri Lanka is to truly reconcile, and move forward away from war, then these lingering resentments must be addressed, and not by brushing away memories of pain and suffering.

In the past, it was this simmering resentment that led to a violent and bloody conflict that Sri Lanka is still recovering from. This, certainly, must be avoided again. To do so, perhaps it is important to take Manoharala’s Silva’s suggestion of looking beyond people and politics, and instead focus on policy – a policy of reparation and reconciliation, rather than of rancour and recrimination.

Click on the links to listen to the full speeches from Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara, Shamindra Ferdinando, Mohan Samaranayake, Manoharala Silva and Gomin Dayasiri.