Western Remedies for Lanka's Ills: Lessons From History

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By 2017-03-19

By Dr Palitha Kohona (Former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN)

Sri Lanka commemorated a dark day in its long and proud history earlier this month. We recalled the cession of our sovereignty to King George III of Britain following the signature of the Kandyan Convention on 2/3 March 1815 in the historic Audience Hall.

On 1 March 2017, in the same Audience Hall, President Sirisena made the much belated pronouncement to remove from the list of traitors in the government Gazette those who valiantly but vainly struggled against the troops of George III two years later to recover the sovereignty that we had lost through a combination of factors, mostly beyond our control.

Among others, a lack of awareness of the momentous developments in the contemporary world now dominated by the superpower, Britain, debilitating economic pressures, sheer exhaustion after having resisted foreign efforts to subvert our independence for over three centuries, a lack of confidence in the king, petty jealousies, a paucity of trust among the leaders, internal squabbling and, very importantly, a naive belief by some that prescriptions by external entities, essentially by European expansionist powers, would somehow be a panacea for our problems. Two years later, as Britain blithely reneged on its treaty commitments, our vain efforts to regain the country's sovereignty, spearheaded by the Kandyan aristocracy, were ruthlessly crushed with unmitigated brutality, even though the rebellion dragged on for over one year. Hundreds were executed, thousands killed in the fighting or displaced and their possessions expropriated by the British crown. The Perfidious Albion had yet to discover human rights, war crimes and the rules of war.

History can teach us much. But those who refuse to learn from history or are dismissive of its lessons are condemned to relive history with all its attendant miseries.

Today we are witnessing events with familiar echoes to those that resulted in the cession of our sovereignty in 1815, unfolding in slow motion, including a worrying willingness to unquestioningly comply with the prescriptions of Western powers and their willing tools, such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and pliant NGOs. Although in 1815, the leaders of Kandy, menacingly hemmed in by a hostile world power, had little access to developments in the external world, today this is not the case.

Compromising sovereignty

After having eliminated the brutal terrorist challenge to its sovereignty and unitary existence in 2009, Sri Lanka seems to be again drifting in the direction of compromising on the very sovereignty that it sacrificed the lives of 21,000 young men and women to defend. Worryingly, the economy is under considerable pressure, internal divisions and a lack of confidence in the government are widespread and the selfish goals of power, privilege and wealth are taking precedence over national interest.

Meanwhile, demands for compromises on the country's right to manage its own domestic affairs and its sovereignty are becoming shrill by the day, based essentially on the UNHRC resolution of 1 October 2015 on Sri Lanka, particularly from the leadership of the Tamil minority some of whom blindly complied with the dictates of the LTTE, the NGO community and some international journalists. The names of Taylor Dilbert of the Huffington Post and Callum Macrae of Channel 4, Yasmin Sooka and the International Crisis Group come immediately to mind. Media outlets spread far and wide, from The Economist and the AFP, to the Gulf News and journals as far away as the Philippines tend to pick up these lopsided views without question generating global public opinion in the process.

Simultaneously, we observe signs of seething resentment seeping through the majority community. These two tendencies should worry the government which has mostly tended to respond sympathetically or without comment to the demands of pressure groups using the Resolution and this can only bode ill for the future of the country. As is evident from recent experiences elsewhere in the world, once the hounds of conflict are let loose, the purveyors of advice (and demands) for settling our problems will not have much to offer and will make themselves scarce. Think of South Sudan, Syria and Libya.

Prudently, President Sirisena, conscious of the growing unease in the country, has ruled out the use of foreign judges to determine cases against service personnel subjected to allegations of war crimes. He has said that he, "is not going to allow non-governmental organizations to dictate how to run (his) government." A day after the UN HCHR criticized Sri Lanka's "worryingly slow" progress in facing its 'war time' past, he emphatically stated, "I will not listen to their calls to prosecute my troops." The Prime Minister has taken a similar position. The Foreign Minister, on the other hand, nuanced the message when he recently said in Geneva: 'In the face of roadblocks and other obstacles in the day to day world of realpolitik, there may have to be detours from time to time, but the destination will remain the same. Our resolve to see the transitional justice process through has not diminished.' Thus leaving serious doubts about what the President meant.

LTTE atrocities

It is nevertheless curious that the international media and the NGOs continue to noisily harp on human rights violations and war crimes allegedly committed by service personnel, while the endless massacres of villagers, bombings of sacred sites, buses, trains and busy cities, the slaughter of devotees and monks at places of pilgrimage, extensive ethnic cleansing, and the recruitment of thousands of child combatants by the LTTE are hardly mentioned. Those who collected funds for the LTTE to purchase weapons, explosives to carry out the dastardly bombings, recruit children for combat purposes and who continue to live comfortably in Western countries do not get mentioned in the think pieces, pained reports and press releases. The motives of these entities remain seriously suspect due to their lopsided campaign.

Many a commentator has asked whether it was necessary for Sri Lanka to have accepted the terms of the UNHRC resolution of 1 October 2015 and proceeded to cosponsor it with such eager enthusiasm given the largely one sided and onerous nature of some of its provisions and the distinct risk of aggravating dormant ethnic tensions within the country. Did Sri Lanka have no option but to accommodate the demands of certain countries of the West led by the US, the reasons for whose single minded targeting of Sri Lanka have never been convincingly explained, and who were egged on by the vociferous and well resourced Tamil lobby overseas and the NGOs. Was the decision, inter alia, to agree to a constitutional reform process, to reduce the number of national security forces in the North and the East, to allow mechanisms established in accordance with the Resolution to obtain assistance, including financial, from international sources, to establish an independent judicial and prosecutorial mechanism with the participation of foreign personnel, including judges, to repeal security related legislation which had served its purposes well in the past, to create mechanisms designed to investigate primarily the infractions allegedly committed by the security forces, as dictated by the Western drafters of the resolution, well considered given the implications for Sri Lanka's sovereign right to manage its own internal affairs and its domestic ethnic harmony. The endless commentary demonizing the soldiers who rid the country of terrorism, while having an undoubted demoralizing effect (perhaps intended) is also creating widespread disenchantment of the government.

While the UNHRC adopts resolutions selectively against targeted countries, usually those that have fallen into disfavour with the West and least capable of defending themselves, these are regularly ignored, Sri Lanka proceeded to cosponsor the resolution creating at least a moral obligation to comply with it. The moral obligation so blithely accepted will hang over not only the present government but also future governments. If cosponsoring was the favoured option of the government, and in view of the sympathy that existed for the newly elected President, were all possibilities for mitigating the provisions of the resolution explored?

Global currents

It would be difficult to contend in the contemporary world that the leaders of the government were unaware of existing global currents when it agreed to cosponsor the resolution.

The effects of resolutions of the UNHRC are well known. The UNHRC or the High Commissioner have no powers of enforcement and the other target countries have highlighted this reality.

If generating goodwill in the West to replace existing sources of development finance with new ones, and attracting investments, were among the objectives for cosponsoring the resolution, that would be a case of not properly appreciating global realities. The West was in no condition to replace China as a key source of development funding and this has now become embarrassingly obvious. Many countries of the West are themselves lining up at the gates of Beijing looking for trading opportunities and investments. Furthermore, the need to keep traditional friends on side was brusquely ignored in accepting Western prescriptions (demands?), setting unmanageable precedents, and creating problems not only for the present but for future governments as well. Given that many developing countries, given their own circumstances, were traditionally inclined to sympathize with Sri Lanka, keeping them on side by adopting a more nuanced approach would have been the strategically sensible thing to do.

While one could fault the confrontational approach of the previous Rajapaksa administration, the ready willingness of the current managers of foreign relations to accommodate the dictates of the West, raises serious issues. Had a more nuanced approach been adopted, it would have been possible to exploit the opportunity presented by the departure of UK's David Cameron and Secretary of State Clinton, to Sri Lanka's advantage. For one, the messianic pursuit of Sri Lanka by Cameron (Cameron was under pressure from the Tamil voter bloc in the UK and Tamil contributors to the Conservative election funds) and those who served Clinton (the human rights activists in diplomatic positions appointed by Obama were hell bent on pursuing the Rajapaksas) would have ended. Not only do those who replaced the human rights warriors of the previous administrations have other more important fish to fry, they also may not have the same commitment to causes that occupied the thinking of the previous tormentors of Sri Lanka. According to reports, the US has even threatened to withdraw from the UNHRC.

The current effort to seek extra time to implement the provisions of the resolution will only strengthen the hand of those who will continue to exert pressure to have those commitments discharged to the letter and more. Note the demonstrations being staged in front of the security establishments in Mullaitivu and Iranamadu. These demands are being justified on the basis of the resolution cosponsored by Sri Lanka itself on 1 October 2015. The same demonstrators were conspicuously absent when the LTTE built those installations. In addition, seeking a time frame creates the distinct possibility of keeping alive issues that may not be foremost in the minds of the majority of Sri Lankans. With the economy posing an unprecedented challenge to the country and the government, it would have been more prudent to make that the priority of the government rather than Geneva.

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