Wasting ‘time-outs’, the Sri Lankan way

By N Sathiya Moorthy

It is not only in sports and games that the players get time-outs for internal consultations and working out fresh strategies and/or refining the existing one. International diplomacy is full of such instances, and Sri Lanka has got very many of them on too many issues, but only to waste them all, without focussing on a unified national strategy to focus on the future.

The UNHRC resolutions in Geneva is one such instance over the past several years that Sri Lanka sought and obtained time, only to waste them. In doing so, it embarrassed friends and antagonised adversaries even more. The choice, when Geneva returns to haunt the nation two years hence, is between a hard place and a rock.

Rather, Geneva was already haunting the nation even before the war ended. It continued to haunt afterwards post-war, and now after the change of government, too. Whoever inherits the mantle of the incumbent government, after the presidential polls later this year and the parliamentary elections in August next year, can curse the former for leaving behind a job half-done, not done – and undone, to say the least.

‘Undone’ it is, because the Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could have at least stuck to the predecessor Rajapaksa regime’s stance not to be bothered by UNHRC resolutions and Darusman Reports on allegations of ‘war-crimes’. Ever to please the international community because they thought they needed the former more than the other way round, the incumbent twin leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe yielded more than they wanted, and handed themselves a fait accompli.

Haunting forever…

It continues to haunt them since 2015, and will do so for a long, long time to come. The alternative is for the Sri Lankan State (whoever is in power) to possibly get another resolution of the May 2009 kind, piloted and propped up by countries more friendly than the present-day western allies, to move another resolution, rescinding 30/1 and all those that are a follow-up thereof. That included the one that they all passed together only weeks ago, giving Sri Lanka two more years, until March 2021, to implement the commitments made under 30/1, wholly and to the full satisfaction of OHC-UNHRC.

To recall the none-too-distant past, the Rajapaksa regime successfully got Asian friends, including India, Pakistan and China, to co-sponsor a resolution only days after the end of the ethnic war back home, to nullify another one moved by western friends of PM Wickremesinghe’s UNP, but were seen as adversarial to the war-winning Rajaaksa regime, for more reasons than one.

It would be wrong to presume that the western adversity to Sri Lanka, both during the war and immediately afterwards, owed exclusively to the influence of the Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) Diaspora, in Europe, Canada and elsewhere. It also had much more to do with their assessment of the Rajapaksa regime’s unsure tilt towards China, which became more pronounced and visible in the months and years later.

Shifting the goal-post

Like everything bad and wrong with the 21st century Sri Lanka, this one also has had to do with the Rajapaksa regime. Thankfully, barring the Diaspora Tamils and a few of them back home, no one seems to have blamed Brothers Rajapaksas and their Government more directly for the elimination of the LTTE.

However, a strong and even more vocal section of the Colombo-based NGO/INGO community has been critical of the Rajapaksas for alleged war-crimes. They had the silent support of a section of the Sinhala polity, which did not want to be seen coming out in the open. The reasons were obvious and different.

Yet, at the international-level, there was criticism of the Rajapaksas, both before and after the war, for what was then understood as the Government’s constant ‘shifting of the goal-post’ on the twin-fronts of war-crime probe and political reconciliation. Some thought and hoped that a honourable political settlement would help put a strong lid on all demands for a war-crimes probe, whether internal or external. That was not to be.

There were/are reasons to believe that the Rajapaksas’ initiatives at negotiating a political solution to the ‘national problem’ were not dishonourable or insincere. Their own efforts at scuttling a war-crime probe of whatever kind too seemed hinged on it. With no real progress made on a political solution, their tentative deadlines aimed at staving off a probe proved both futile and seemingly insincere.

It was not without reason. Fresh from war victory, the Rajapaksas seemed to be confident about talking the TNA into a mutually-acceptable political solution. Not that the negotiations did not make much headway, but the TNA was not allowed to proceed along the line.  The Government failed to report this reversal to friends in the global community, to try and see if the TNA could cooperate – uninfluenced by external pressures, directly by the Diaspora and not-so-directly by the West.

If the Rajapaksas failed the nation and themselves, so to say, it owed to their global perceptions derived from a unilateral approach to ending LTTE terrorism. The world having cooperated with Sri Lanka in more than a full measure in this process, the inadequate Rajapaksas’ understanding of global politics and diplomacy made them believe that either the world could be made to be with them all the time – or, they could hoodwink the latter, at will.

Today, the Wickremesinghe Government has said from within the UNHRC sanctum what the Rajapaksas said outside – with a clear declaration that they would not cooperate. Barring UNHRC chief, Michelle Bachelet, no one in the international community has taken offence to what Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana is supposed to have told them. The question of ‘shifting of goal-post’ thus does not arise in this case – at least, as yet.

Walking into a trap

Today, after the ‘Big Two’ in national/Sinhala polity seemingly sharing similar or near-similar views on ‘war-crimes’ politics of the past decade, it may be time, they sat down between themselves and with the TNA leadership, to work out a genuine way out of the mess into which the nation is slowly but surely walking into. The term ‘genuine’ is the reference-point, and the TNA too cannot escape the responsibility to be so, and also be seen as being so.

If otherwise they thought that the world will forget, come March 2021, it does not work that way. It will not certainly forgive, either. The nation missed out already, as after the exit of the one-time prime-mover in the US, the Government could have talked the rest of them all into agreeing to a co-sponsored resolution to end the mess. There the Rajapaksas did wonderfully better than the present leadership, with its greater international acceptance – or, what seems to be so.

The fact is that Sri Lanka seems to be playing to a ‘TINA factor’, both inside and outside the country, at least on this score. The present-day rulers seem to think that they are safe from the international community as long as the Rajapaksas are around, and one or the other of them throws his hat into the presidential poll ring.

It is good thinking, but not so good for the nation if a Rajapaksa were to become President, or even prime minister – or, both – and walks out on the UNHRC resolution. Worse still, it has the example set by none other than the US, to walk out of the UNHRC as a whole without jeopardising its continued presence and participation – most of the time as a beneficiary – in other UN fora.

Alternatively, the western world could suddenly discover that Sri Lanka, independent of whichever Sinhala party or leader in power, continues to tilt towards China more than on the previous day. Fair enough, the Wickremesinghe Government has conducted naval exercises with Australia and allows greater leg-room for the US military. However, if Sri Lanka were to continue to borrow heavily from China with no way or possibly even intention to repay other than the Hambantota way of ‘equity-swap’ and ‘land ownership’ of a different kind, the West may not take kindly to that, Rajapaksa or no Rajapaksa.

Maybe, in such a scenario, the West may decide that it would be better off dealing with the Rajapaksas, if the nation were to vote them back to power to whatever post(s). But then, that could still mean that the UNHRC sword would still be hanging over the nation’s head – unless a future Government snaps it ahead of March 2021 session.

Yet, for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans to assume that the Rajapaksa card and the China card could do the trick with the West, it is not to be. Despite being seen as a B-Team of the rest of the West, especially the US, the Nordic nations and other European and Asian nations that were victims of the two Wars of the previous century, and also those like Canada and Australia, have a strong sense of human rights, whose reach and perception is only spreading.

This can only mean that Sri Lanka has only two ways – to comply or quit. Is the international community, too, ready for the latter, as much as it expects Sri Lanka to do their bit on the former alone, with no reciprocity of any kind from their side?

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)


  1. I beg to disagree, the best way to deal with the West especially the US, is to promise everything and deliver 10%. That keeps the West happy and helps SL to fend off western bullies.


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