Who should blink first – and why

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Going by media reports, no positive movement seems to have emanated at the Gota-Modi talks at New Delhi in the Sri Lankan President’s maiden overseas visit after his convincing electoral victory back home. It was the first meeting between the two leaders, in any capacity, and for India, it was possibly a meeting that it had to carefully calibrate the ‘Rajapaksa responses’, especially on what essentially remains an ‘internal matter’ of the southern island-neighbour.

It’s not without reason. Throughout the disastrous Sirisena-Wickremesinghe era, which preceded the Gota presidency now – and provided the justification for Sri Lanka’s expanding urban middle class, too, to return to the Rajapaksa fold, the Sri Lanka’s vociferous Tamil polity (read: TNA) had distanced itself from New Delhi. They had instead counted near-exclusively on the US-led West’s efforts of arm-twisting the Sri Lankan State through the UNHRC processes, to obtain a favourable political solution.

Nothing came off the twin efforts, even under the twin leaderships of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNHRC processes on ‘independent, international war-crimes probe’ and ‘accountability issues’ did not move an inch. If anything, it has only faced dilution and distortions. Other than kindling and mis-directing the Tamil political aspirations towards an even less tangible war-crimes probe of a non-Sri Lankan kind, it got simply nothing for the minorities in the country.

Instead, after a time, it looked as if there were certain elements in the West who wanted to de-link the UNHRC processes from a political solution for the Tamils, and make the two, stand-alone affairs. Interestingly, the West has since given greater priority to war-crimes probe and less and less to a political solution to the ethnic issue.

This is where things stand just now. Post-war again, TNA’s top leadership of R Sampanthan seems to have laid greater stress on war-crimes probe than on a political solution. Having followed the people’s lead when they should have led their peoples post-war, today the TNA is caught in a web of its own making.

Not fellow-travellers

War-crimes probe, even of a non-interventionist, non-UNHRC process and a political solution just cannot go hand-in-hand. They are not fellow-travellers. Instead, they could be cohabiting rivals, who can end up ‘killing’ each other. From a Tamils’ stand-point, they can get a political solution, not a war-crimes probe. It is for their TNA leadership to prioritise, before the party became irrelevant to the aspirations and acceptance levels of their future generations, distanced in time and emotions from the LTTE and war-crimes, the latter real and/or imaginary.

Answering a query on India-facilitated 13-A as a solution, President Gota R seemingly deflected from the query, and reiterated the forgotten Rajapaksa belief of ‘development as a more viable route to Tamil prosperity than ‘devolution’. By now, Brothers Rajapaksa should have understood that the democratic world does not work that way, and the resultant wave could sweep them off their feet. It happened in Elections-2015.

If the wave that upset incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa did not affect brother Gota this time round, it owed not to such concepts and contextualisation. It owed to predecessor-rivals’ inability to provide even a modicum of political stability and cohesion. It also interfered with the management of the nation’s economy, which in turn left most moneys in the pockets of select politicians and denied even the required minimum for a decent living in the pockets of the common man.

It is not that the Rajapaksas alone seem to have confused democracy and development. The West that backed the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo, without any deep insight into the Sri Lankan national scheme, too needs to understand and acknowledge that the whiff of fresh air that the Rajapaksa exit breezed in the last time round. It would have happened even without their policy of political intervention and ‘regime change’.

The West should now ask itself if there was any real or realistic movement on core issues of political solution, or even war-crimes probe. Other than arraigning the incumbent Chief of Defence Services (CDS), Adm Wasantha Karanangoda on ‘accountability issues’ in a move that upset the armed forces across the board, and directing low-level police officers to ‘investigate’ and interrogate erstwhile high-end political players, on allegations of corruption while in power, the West got simply nothing out of the duo leadership.

Corruption is an all-pervasive issue across all democracies, whoever is in power in whatever time-frame. The Central Bank bonds scam, initiated within a fortnight of ‘regime-change’ is something that the West needs to think about, if corruption (alone) was high on their political agenda. If devolution was on their mind, the duo was more devious than the Rajapaksas, with their taking the consultation processes from one-on-one negotiations between the immediate stake-holders, to a Constitution Assembly – which could not have achieved anything, anytime.

More than 13-A

The TNA leadership knew it even more. It has to convince themselves and more so the new Rajapaksa regime even more, if they past negotiations were to be revived taken forward, and taken to an acceptable, logical conclusion. Having boycotted the Constitution Assembly process, they are unlikely to revive the same – which is what the TNA has talked about, post-poll.

The ‘regime-change’ was not intended to ensure power-devolution and/or war-crimes probe as the UNHRC had conceived before the duo leadership took over – or, at least it was not expected to be. Who convinced whom between the two – the West and Team Wickremesi8nghe – is a question that they alone could and should answer. Or, was it for the West, regime-change was a goal in itself, as if to teach someone some lessons that they otherwise seemingly refused to learn.

Looking back, the Rajapaksa-TNA negotiations did move on and more from the 13-A, on specifics, especially. There was a certain agreement on Land and on financial powers. The other touchy issue was ‘Police’ powers, where again negotiations were on. Did the papers that emanated from the committees of the Constitution Assembly go beyond some of these specifics, or deflect from them, and reduce them, is a question that the TNA has to ask itself honestly.

Had it not been allowed to flounder, also owing to ‘motivated leaks’ from either side – or individual players thereof – it was not unlikely that the Rajapaksa era negotiations with the TNA could have made the political solution a real possibility. The UNHRC process intervened, and the Tamils have neither the political solution, nor the war-crimes probe, that their leadership claimed to have wanted.

Today, after unnecessarily burning the Rajapaksa boat before reaching the other side, by wantonly and willingly calling for a vote against Gota in the presidential polls, the TNA and the Tamils are on a weaker wicket. Episodes like the ‘Swiss Embassy staff harassment’, if taken up before UNHRC in September, could only help embarrass the Sri Lankan State and the Rajapaksas personally, but is it going to achieve anything for the Tamils, and for the TNA to market itself as also the leader of the future generations of the community, is again a question for which they alone can find answers.

For instance, the Foreign Ministry has denied any governmental involvement in the episode. If flagged more than required in the UNHRC, the Government may not be unwilling to try and turn the tables on the accusers, by seeking information on how and why the embassy concerned – and possibly the staff involved – helped a police officer to jump immigration and fly off to Switzerland, seeking political asylum.

During the war’s end, similar accusations were laid against certain other foreign governments and their embassies in Colombo, that they had facilitated illegal and improper ‘smuggling’ of LTTE cadres out of the country, and possibly giving them new identities in the nations of their final landing, was becoming a hot issue. However, by botching up ‘la affaire Kumar Gunaratnam’ involving an erstwhile Tamil JVP leader, who took Australian citizenship with an alias and smuggled himself into the country post-war, the previous Rajapaksa regime lost the locus standi to challenge Australia first and the rest of the West later on, on the LTTE cadre-smuggling issue.

Ball before the Tamils

Post-poll, the Tamils and their TNA leadership have to decide which way to choose and what to choose from. They cannot have the UNHRC cake and eat it too. It is a ‘either or the other’ question before them, not ‘neither’ as yet. It means they cannot have the UNHRC processes and political negotiations at the same time – not with this Government atehe very least.

Even without the intervention of the international community, the Rajapaksa leadership has enough problems on hand in offering a political solution to the Tamils, from their perceived ‘Sinhala hard-liner’ constituency. No Sri Lankan leader has aspired to be a statesman fit for a Nobel Peace laureate, and in any electoral democracy, they will need a core constituency, ore something equally committed to replace it. Over the post-war decade, the TNA and the Tamils have wantonly proved that they are not the ones – so the Rajapaksa fall-back on the Sinhala hard-line constituency has become more crucial for the Gota-Mahinda team that is now in power – and will be in power for the next five years, if not more.

The Tamils also need to understand that if ‘pragmatic hard-liner’ in the Rajapaksas cannot offer them a political solution acceptable to their own Sinhala constituency and  the permanent Sri Lankan State apparatus, and also market it for the Tamils, then no other in the majority Sinhala polity can do so, in the foreseeable future. The Tamil experience with the erstwhile Sirisena-Wickremesinghe leadership is also all and more about it.

Thus, before isolating the issues and points for political negotiations, the Tamils and the TNA has to lay out their preferences – without stopping with their choices and options. The latter looks stimulating but they are also stagnating and strangulating the former. If they did not come to that stage under the duo as with the previous Rajapaksa regime, the former did not ever take them that far, keeping them guessing and hoping, until other political issues and electoral priorities crowed the ethnic issue out of their reckoning.

The ball is now again in the Tamils court, more than in that of the Sri Lankan State, wherein the Rajapaksas and Sirisenas, Wickremesinghes and Premadasas are all just passengers. The Tamils alone have remained an eternal passenger that has remained onboard a slow moving train that is also on reverse gear. It is now for them to decide if they want to get off, and if so, when and where. The Sri Lankan State express keeps moving on all the time.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Head, Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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