Photo by AFP, via SBS

“I fled down labyrinthine ways
And glooms of chasmed fears”
(Not exactly Francis Thompson)

This essay is premised on an ill-omened reading of the Geneva tea-leaves. What be this ominous message I see floating in the cup? For reasons I will lay out in the initial paragraphs I find it hard to refute the conclusion (more than just a suspicion) that the international powers that pushed through the UNHRC resolution in Geneva in March have made a strategic decision to carry through regime change in Colombo, in due course, and when conditions ripen. We are now in the early stages of that process. This is not to say that they will succeed, though unless there is profound conversion in Temple Trees, it is likely they will. Regime change in Kiev (Yanukovich’s ouster) was so badly managed that it woke the Russian Bear, lost Crimea and now (April 2014) imperils the very existence of the Ukraine as an independent state. Tealeaves only signal messages, but there’s many a slip possible before the lip. My assessment, however, is that since the West has India on board, bashful abstention notwithstanding, it will not screw up this one. The only way out for the Rajapakse Regime is to experience profound epiphany, renounce its wicked ways, repent and renew its commitment to 13A and LLRC obligations. But can it?

My case in summary

Let me summarise my case upfront in point form:

(a)   The long-suffering international community (IC) is fed up and has arrived at a decision as per the previous paragraph. The reasons I will speculate on anon.
(b)   India will not break ranks but is likely to be assigned an appropriately different role.
(c)   Even more than stringing along with the UNHRC investigation, the crucial variable which may relax this pressure on the regime, is a political settlement of the Tamil question. But the government seems paralysed and unable to move in that direction.
(d)   Refusal to cooperate with the investigation will lead to penalties; the screw will be tightened one step at a time.
(e)   There is likely to be political instability and conflict in the country during the next 24 months.

The two statements here that I need to dwell on are (a) and (c), the others are subsidiary, say (b), or flow from them (d, e). The resolution moved by the United States, Britain and Europe in Geneva is harsh; the decision to commence an international investigation is exceptional. The proposers could not be unaware of its consequences as confrontation rises (GL Peries has already said that the government will not cooperate). Tension between an export oriented, borrowing and tourism dependent economy like Lanka, and the metropolitan West on which it depends, will cause pain and eventually turn people against the government. Colombo’s human rights record is abhorrent, not unique, but Canada has already suspended its $10 million annual contribution to the Commonwealth Fund and Britain issued a toughly worded negative travel advisory in April. I believe that a thought out strategy, instead of simply shooting from the hip, much better fits as a theory of why these global powers went ahead with a tougher than usual resolution. Logically, the objective seems to be regime change.

Every opposition party in the country is baring its claws ready to bury talons deep in the UPFA’s jugular – this goes especially for the JVP and UNP; the TNA doesn’t count in this context. Surely the US and UK are aware of this composite roadmap and they went ahead, which says they have had enough, are committed to change and will likely get their way. Who do they want as a replacement? They don’t seem fussy; they may retch a bit at Ranil but can put up with him. Anyone with leadership authority in the UNP will be good enough for the IC for first change. I also think the IC does not worry that the JVP will rise to the helm in the foreseeable future. With these remarks I rest my case for (a).

India understands this strategy and its long-term implications and for that reason needs to be cautious. Indian representative Dilip Sinha declared in Geneva that the resolution was “impractical”; he also called it “intrusive”. The latter remark refers to Delhi’s opposition to country specific resolutions (India has numerous internal atrocities to hide) but what’s the implication of “impractical”? Is it diplomatic-speak warning that India will have implementation difficulties? Knowing what is on the cards, India has worries about playing hardball with Lanka because of time-honoured people to people relationships. The new government in Delhi is likely to pull the rug from under the Rajapakses without actually saying it is doing so.

Why has the regime fallen foul of the West?

I still need to address the ‘why’ question; granting the hypothesis that the West is bent on regime change, then why? We are in the realm of speculation, but here goes. Four reasons are usually offered but none is important enough in isolation. American and British public and Congressional and Parliamentary opinion about justice and human rights has to be assuaged, but a lukewarm resolution would have done that. Second, Washington and London, like Delhi, are fed up with Colombo’s insolence and untruths and want to teach the upstarts a lesson; but it is unlikely that the foreign policy of world powers is made in response to pique. Third, is the pressure brought by the Tamil diaspora in Britain and Canada. Though Gotabaya thinks otherwise and has gone berserk banning 420-odd Tamils and 16 diaspora Tamil groups suspected of campaigning for the adoption of the resolution, the Tamil diaspora is not influential enough to push through this UNHRC resolution.

A fourth more substantial reason is the strategic factor. Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean, sea routes, proximity to India and a great and growing Chinese strategic and economic global threat. But there is no Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean, nor will there be for another quarter century; China does not have a blue water fleet. Nor will the UNHRC fracas help in this respect; it is more likely to push Colombo closer to China. On the economic side too Lanka is not a big factor in China’s great global outreach; Africa, Central Asia and South America matter much more. Therefore I consider this too to be a subsidiary and not a fundamental reason.

This brings me to a hypothesis, which includes all of the above but only as factors. It goes like this. The crucial point is that the regime is headed for instability; the relationship with the North is deteriorating and there is no political solution in sight, Muslims are alienated and the rapport with India will worsen. Most serious, the political scenario in the south shows growing fault lines on economy, autocracy and democracy issues. The objective is to nip snowballing instability and autocracy in the bud and encourage a more “normal” liberal democratic alternative before Lanka becomes another source of regional volatility. This also interests India.

Therefore the West is setting in motion a process of regime change which will deliver results some years down the road. If the Rajapakse government rejects the UNHRC resolution pressure will be beefed up quickly, otherwise the screws will be turned when the government begins to manipulate the local investigation it has been “called upon” to establish. The assumption is that the government will interfere with and impede the investigation.

The mechanics

The operative parts of the UNHRC resolution consist of Clause 2 and Clause 10b which I reproduce below.

Clause 2: Calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to conduct an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as applicable; to hold accountable those responsible for such violations; to end continuing incidents of human rights violations and abuses in Sri Lanka; and to implement the recommendations made in the reports of the Office of the High Commissioner.

Clause 10b: (Requests the Office of the High Commissioner) To undertake 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.

These two clauses overlap; there is ambiguity whether the High Commissioner’s investigation is to be undertaken only in the event the government turns down the call “to conduct an independent and credible investigation”, or only if a local investigation is not independent and credible. The first sentence of Clause 10 suggests that the ambiguity is deliberate. It starts: Takes note of the recommendations and conclusions of the High Commissioner regarding ongoing human rights violations and the need for an international inquiry mechanism in the absence of a credible national process with tangible results”.

Is the High Commissioner’s investigation to be undertaken only (a) “in the absence of a credible national mechanism” or (b) is the underlined passage merely a reference to Ms Pillay’s report which said “National mechanisms have consistently failed to establish the truth and achieve justice”? If (a) the international investigation will take place only if the local one is bunkum; if (b) the international probe is a separate matter and will go ahead in parallel anyway. The ambiguity is deliberate; it is not possible, after a local enquiry commences, to declare it to be a sham, but it is possible, if it is unsatisfactory, to commence a probe under 10(b) and say that a parallel probe was always intended. The Commissioner and the West are keeping this card up their sleeves.

The regime can temporarily preserve its skin by feigning to cooperate and buying time. Incredibly, the midst of all this, some maladjusted Tamils say that the UNHRC resolution and the to-and-fro swings in Delhi are irrelevant; nothing useful will come out of either they argue. They are smarting from Delhi’s and Washington’s help in defeating the LTTE. Nevertheless Indian and international pressure was imperative in getting the Northern Provincial Administration in place and will be essential to reach a political solution; Delhi’s duplicity in abstaining in the UNHRC vote notwithstanding, this is true

The net impact of the Indian abstention is counterproductive. It is a slap in the face of the local and international human rights community; it has angered Tamils, and put a momentary spring in the step of chauvinists and the Rajapakse clan. Fortunately the resolution was carried by such a large majority so the impact of the Indian betrayal is not crucial. Now there is concern in the corridors of power in Colombo about how the international investigation may pan out. There is fear that if Colombo rejects the investigation it will be in line for sanctions. The Rajapskses and the top-brass are concerned about possible criminal charges. But there seems to be internal disunity; Gotabaya has lashed out irrationally at diaspora Tamil individuals and organisations; Gotabaya’s cynosure, the BBS, has condemned Basil as a traitor, there is no word from the President whether the government will cooperate with UNHRC processes.

The open door Rajapakse cannot pass through  

If the regime settles with the Tamils, call it 13A plus, minus, divided or multiplied, it will survive this ordeal. A compromise can be reached on police powers but land powers must be mainly vested in the Province; I do not intend to be prescriptive. The key is that if the regime is committed to devolution, details can be sorted out over a cup of tea – after straining those frightful leaves. But if the regime is committed to centralisation and not to devolve power to the provinces, what then? That’s the reality and the reason for crippling Chief Minister Wigneswaran and undoing the Northern Provincial Administration.

A genuine political settlement will calm the waters and put the Tamils in a position where they can no longer pursue war-crimes and human rights accountability demands with single minded purposefulness. I was a little taken aback but quickly grasped the point when several Tamil nationalist intellectuals said to me on separate occasions, “Well if there is a genuine political settlement, there is no point in harassing them with accountability issues, is there?” This release of tension that a viable settlement and its implementation will inject into domestic politics will take the wind out of the sails of the Western powers pursuing a not so veiled regime change agenda. If the domestic Tamil community is mollified the attack on the Muslims will also be brought under control and the equation on the international side also changes. This line of development will throw Rajapakse a life line.

Point 6 in the UNHRC resolution reads as follows.

“6. Encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure that all Provincial Councils, including the Northern Provincial Council, are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the 13th amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka”.

Looks simple enough does it not? Still ultra-nationalism will have none of it. It of course true that fundamentalism in faith-wars and racialism in ethnic-standoffs is an emotionally charged affair where believers go to the stake proclaiming their convictions. But this reluctance of the present government to devolve power is nothing of that sort. True believers who are willing to die for their faith are not cheap kleptocrats. Hence this shunning of the open door is something else; it is the government’s fear of the narrow ultra-nationalists to whom it is beholden for its vote base. The choice is simple, political settlement or regime change; the door to settlement is wide open but no change seems to be in the air for an obdurate regime.

Clause 6 needs to be understood from another point of view; that is the remarks I made previously about India’s role being tangential. If the regime could bring itself to implement this clause in full measure it will also being India on board. Then amendments softening the March resolution may be considered at the September UNHRC meeting. Ah well, I could go on: there’s no prohibition on day-dreaming.



This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.