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Lanka’s double tragedy

[Express Buzz, Tuesday, 6 October 2009 20:33 No Comment]

If war-scarred Sri Lanka is to re-emerge as a tropical paradise, it has to build enduring peace through genuine inter-ethnic equality and by making the transition from being a unitary state to being a federation that grants local autonomy. Yet even in victory, the Lankan government seems unable to define peace or outline a political solution to the long-standing grievances of the Tamil minority.

A process of national reconciliation anchored in federalism and multiculturalism indeed can succeed only if possible war crimes and other human-rights abuses by all parties are independently and credibly investigated. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has acknowledged that civilian casualties were ‘unacceptably high’, especially as the war built to a bloody crescendo. The continuing air of martial triumph in Sri Lanka, though, is making it difficult to heal the wounds of war through three essential ‘Rs’: Relief, recovery and reconciliation.

Months after the Tamil Tigers were crushed, it is clear the demands of peace extend far beyond the battlefield. What is needed is a fundamental shift in government policies to help create greater inter-ethnic equality, regional autonomy and a reversal of the state-driven militarisation of society. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa has already declared: “Federalism is out of question.”

How elusive the peace dividend remains can be seen from Lanka’s decision to press ahead with a further expansion of its military. Not content with increasing the military’s size fivefold since the late 1980s to more than 2,00,000 troops, Colombo is raising the strength further to 3,00,000, in the name of ‘eternal vigilance’. The Lankan military is bigger than that of Britain and Israel. The planned further expansion would make the military larger than the militaries of major powers like France, Japan and Germany. By citing a continuing danger of guerrilla remnants reviving insurgency, Rajapaksa is determined to keep the country on something of a war footing.

Another issue of concern is the manner in which the government still holds nearly 3,00,000 civilians in camps where, in the recent words of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, the ‘IDPs are effectively detained under conditions of internment’. Such detention risks causing more resentment among the Tamils, sowing the seeds of future unrest. The internment was intended to help weed out rebels, many of whom already have been identified and transferred to military sites.

Those in the evacuee camps are the victims of the war. To confine them against their will is to further victimise and traumatise them. Sri Lanka’s interests would be better served through greater transparency. It should grant the UN, International Red Cross and NGOs unfettered access to care for and protect the civilians in these camps, allowing those who wish to leave to stay with relatives and friends.

Then there is the issue of thousands of missing people, mostly Tamils. Given that many families are still searching for missing members, the government ought to publish a list of all those it is holding — in evacuee camps, prisons, military sites and other security centres. Suspected rebels in state custody ought to be identified and not denied access to legal representation. Bearing in mind that thousands of civilians were killed just in the final months of the war, authorities should disclose the names of those they know to be dead and the possible circumstances of their death.

The way to fill the power vacuum in the Tamil-dominated north is not by dispatching army troops in tens of thousands, but by setting up a credible local administration to keep the peace and initiate rehabilitation and reconstruction. Yet there is a lurking danger that the government may seek to change demography by returning to its old policy of settling Sinhalese in Tamil areas.

More fundamentally, such have been the costs of victory that the civil society stands badly weakened. The wartime suppression of a free press and curtailment of fundamental rights continues in peacetime, creating a fear psychosis. Sweeping emergency regulations remain in place, arming the forces with expansive powers of search, arrest and seizure of property. Public meetings cannot be held without government permission. Individuals can still be held in unacknowledged detention for up to 18 months.

For the process of reconciliation and healing to begin in earnest, it is essential the government accept, as the UN human-rights commissioner has sought, ‘an independent and credible international investigation … to ascertain the occurrence, nature and scale of violations of international human-rights and international humanitarian law’ by all parties during the conflict. Rather than begin a political dialogue on regional autonomy and a more level-playing field for the Tamils in education and government jobs, the government has seen its space get constricted by the post-victory upsurge of Sinhalese chauvinism opposed to the devolution of powers to the minorities. The hardline constituency argues that the Tamils in defeat shouldn’t get what they couldn’t secure through three decades of unrest and violence.

Such chauvinism seeks to tar federalism as a potential forerunner to secession, although the Tamil insurgency sprang from the state’s rejection of decentralisation and power-sharing. The looming parliamentary and presidential elections also make devolution difficult, even though the opposition is splintered and Rajapaksa seems set to win a second term.

Add to the picture the absence of international pressure. The US enjoys a one-country veto in the IMF, yet it chose to abstain from the IMF vote approving a desperately needed $2.8-billion loan to Sri Lanka. In the face of China’s stonewalling in the UN, Ban Ki-moon has been unable to appoint a UN special envoy on Sri Lanka, let alone order a probe into possible war crimes there. Beijing provided Colombo not only the weapons, but also the diplomatic cover to prosecute the war in defiance of international calls to cease offensive operations to help stanch rising civilian casualties. China has succeeded in extending its strategic reach to a critically located country in India’s backyard that sits astride vital sea-lanes of communication in the region.

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