General election 2015: The Diaspora factor, foreign policy issues

1274564016genaralby Shamindra Ferdinando

President Maithripala Sirisena has set the stage for an early general election, ahead of the next session of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in early September.

The UNHRC holds three regular sessions a year, for a total of ten weeks. The sessions take place in March (four weeks), June (three weeks) and September (three weeks). However, in case, one third of the 47-member nations requested for a special session to address accountability issues, there is provision for that.

Nominations will be accepted from the 6th of July to the 15th of July for parliamentary election scheduled for August 17. New parliament will meet on September 1.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will declare his future plans today (July 1). Rajapaksa will make a public statement at Medamulana, Weeraketiya, at 10 am. Whether he decides to go it alone, as the prime ministerial candidate of a coalition comprising a significant section of the SLFP, (Wimal Weerawansa, Dinesh Gunawardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Udaya Gammanpila) or be part of President Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP, it will make a huge impact on the political scene.

A split in the SLFP will cause turmoil in Maithripala Sirisena’s camp, thus enabling the UNP to make headway at the onset of the campaign. However, an understanding between President Maithripala Sirisena, and his predecessor, will cause a debilitating setback to the UNP. But, such an understanding may seriously upset those who had backed the incumbent president, at the January 8 election.

Having defeated the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the January 8, 2015, presidential election, one-time SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena, invited UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, MP, to form a new government.

Subsequently, the President accommodated a group of SLFP members of parliament, in premier Wickremesinghe’s cabinet, to pave the way for an unprecedented UNP-SLFP partnership. The MS-RW project was meant to protect the minority government until Maithripala Sirisena could call for an early poll. The President dissolved parliament at midnight last Friday (June 26).

The new government swiftly changed Sri Lanka’s response to accountability issues, as well as post-war national reconciliation process, in accordance with its overall strategy.

Western powers, as well as India, appreciated the change of government, as well as Sri Lanka’s new policies.

mahinda-and-gotha-278x300The US went to the extent of rewarding the new administration with a visit by US Secretary of State, John Kerry. He was accompanied by Nisha Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. In Colombo, Kerry declared the inauguration of a new relationship. Before Kerry’s arrival, the US invited a top Sri Lankan naval delegation to their Nimitz class super carrier, Carl Vinson, in the high seas off Sri Lanka. The US also resumed joint training exercises, involving the US SEALs and the SLN, after a lapse of several years.

A new government will be in place before the presentation of the much-touted UN war crimes investigation report to the UNHRC, divided into five regional groups. The report, prepared by a team, headed by UK national Ms Sandra Beidas, formerly of the UK headquartered Amnesty International, was originally meant to be tabled in Geneva, last March, though being delayed at the request of the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The UNHRC wouldn’t have deferred the report under any circumstances if not for the change of government. The UNHRC ignored the plea by a group of influential Diaspora groups to go ahead with the scheduled release of the Beidas report, The Diaspora held the view that though they welcomed the emergence of a new coalition, the report should be tabled, as planned. The Diaspora also strongly objected to the new government being given an opportunity to address accountability issues, through a domestic mechanism, which met international standards. In spite of objections, UN rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, during the June sessions, reiterated his support for a domestic mechanism.

MAHINDA 2Hussein declared: “The new Government, in Sri Lanka, has passed a constitutional amendment which, if implemented appropriately, brings renewed hope for democracy and the rule of law. OHCHR will remain very engaged in discussions with the Sri Lankan authorities on the need for transparent and inclusive processes to develop credible mechanisms for accountability and reconciliation, ahead of my report to the September session. I encourage the Government to consult broadly with all political parties, civil society and, above all, victims and their families, to ensure full national support and ownership of these processes.”

Former President Rajapaksa’s swift re-emergence, as a powerful political force, within weeks after his defeat, surprised his rivals here. Even the former President wouldn’t have anticipated such a gradual increase in support among SLFPers, leading to a rousing welcome, as displayed at the last bring-back-Mahinda rally, held in Matara. Obviously, high profile attempts, both here and abroad, to portray him as a dictator, had failed with the war-winning president retaining immense pubic support. But, it would be a grave mistake, on his part, as well as those wanting him back, in active politics, to disregard accusations directed at his administration, and him, personally.

Although the former President quite rightly refused to call off the military offensive, until Prabhakaran was brought to his knees, much to the chagrin of Western powers, the then president bungled in handling the post-war reconciliation process. Rajapaksa, and those who had been tasked with post-war national reconciliation efforts, never adopted an effective strategy to counter the propaganda, pertaining to the massacre of over 40,000 Tamils, during the final phase of the assault. Western powers reacted angrily to Rajapaksa’s refusal to give up the military option. They can never get over the humiliation experienced by then then British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, during last ditch attempts to save Prabhakaran and the top leadership of the LTTE.

The former UK government’s position, in Geneva, in late February, 2012, reflected the Western policy towards Rajapaksa.

The then UK’s Foreign Office Minister, responsible for the human rights portfolio, Jeremy Browne, MP, emphasized the responsibility, on the part of the global community, to intervene in Sri Lanka, unless the government addressed accountability issues. The Liberal Democrat member, Browne, called for UN intervention to support a change in Sri Lanka.

Browne said: “We, as UN member states, must take seriously our human rights obligations and, where states fail, the institutions of the UN should act and support change. Such actions are what make the Council an effective human rights body, able to scrutinize states’ compliance with their obligations and offer technical assistance” (UK for UN intervention to ‘support change’ in Sri Lanka with strap line UNHRC chief pushes for new mechanism to tackle uncooperative government – The Island Feb 28, 2012).

The British statement, in Geneva, made expensive propaganda campaigns, undertaken by various Diaspora groups, against Sri Lanka, irrelevant. The UK-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF), as well as several other organizations, including the British Tamil Forum (BTF) and the LTTE rump, in Canada, had been campaigning for tougher action. Unfortunately, the then government ignored the British threat. In fact, the British wouldn’t have taken up such a strong position without consulting the US, which moved the March, 2012, resolution, as well as the EU. The UK was among 40 countries which co-sponsored the US resolution, titled Promoting Accountability and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Twenty four countries backed the resolution (Austria, Belgium, Benin, Cameron, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Guatemala, Hungry, India, Italy, Libya, Mauritius, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, Poland, Moldova, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, US and Uruguay). Fifteen countries voted against (Bangladesh, China, Congo, Cuba, Ecuador, Indonesia, Kuwait, the Maldives, Mauritania, the Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Uganda) while eight countries abstained (Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Dhijibothi, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan).

Western powers obviously loath Rajapaksa’s return to active politics, either through the SLFP, or a coalition, comprising of those who had been spearheading the bring-back-Mahinda campaign. The close relationship between the previous administration, and China, irked India though Sri Lanka repeatedly assured it wouldn’t do anything inimical to India’s interests. Thanks to Wiki Leaks, we know the previous Indian government seeking US intelligence on Chinese presence/activity here. Indian request to the US, regarding the Chinese-funded Hambantota port, is a case in point. Interestingly, India destabilized Sri Lanka in the 80s as it felt threatened by the then JRJ government’s close relationship with the US and its allies, Pakistan and Israel. That infamous decision was taken by the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in the backdrop of the cold war era politics. It would be pertinent to mention that New Delhi had been, at that time, the Soviet Union’s closest friend in the region and the principal receiver of Soviet weapons. Three decades later, India and the US have entered into an unprecedented partnership, with the latter building up a powerful coalition to meet the Chinese challenge. The recent modification of US-Japan defence pact, to allow the deployment of Japanese forces, in support of the US, reflected the Western strategy to counter growing Chinese power.

Similarly, India’s strong objections to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as well as some finding fault with Chinese investments here, should be examined in the backdrop of developments taking place in the region. When compared to CPEC, estimated to worth $ 46 billion, China’s largest investment here, the Colombo Port City Project is relatively smaller, though it caused concern in some quarters.

Having suffered the ignominy of defeat at the January election, Rajapaksa, in an exclusive interview with The Hindu, alleged India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), conspired with the US and British intelligence services, to paved the way for Maithripala Sirisena’s victory. Rajapaksa declared that he didn’t believe Indian government was responsible for the clandestine operation undertaken by the RAW. If Rajapaksa’s accusation is true, he cannot absolve the Indian government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of their responsibility.

The Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration earned the praise of Western powers by entering into a dialogue with the Tamil Diaspora, particularly the UK-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF). Recently, Deputy Foreign Minister, Ajith P. Perera, revealed, during a live political debate, on a private television channel, a government delegation, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, meeting the GTF President, Rev Father S.J. Emmanuel, and its spokesperson, Suren Surendiran, in London. The Deputy Minister declared he was also present at the discussion. The President was in London to meet Prime Minister David Cameron. Since the London meeting, Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, had made substantial headway in new administration’s efforts to accommodate the Diaspora.

The government is of the opinion that the GTF is the key to its efforts, though some organizations such as the TGTE (Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam), remained hostile towards Sri Lanka. The previous government, in spite of having obtained the services of South Africa, to explore ways and means of reaching consensus, with an influential section of the Diaspora, last year, banned the LTTE, and 15 other organizations, functioning on foreign soil as foreign terrorist organizations by Gazette Extraordinary 1856/41 of March 21, 2014. In addition, a further 424 individuals, with suspected LTTE links, living in 19 countries, including Sri Lanka, were also listed. The Gazette proclamation, listing designated persons, groups and entities, was done in accordance with sub-paragraph (2) of paragraph (4) of the United Nations Regulations No. 1 of 2012 that was published in the Gazette Extraordinary No. 1758/19 of May 15, 2012.

The South African initiative was meant to pave the way for a consensus among the government of Sri Lanka, the GTF and the four-party Tamil National Alliance. The Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is continuing the project. The recent talks in London is proof of that.

The designated Competent Authority, for establishing and maintaining the list, with respect to natural persons, legal persons, groups and entities, was Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who had been the then Secretary, Defence and Urban Development Ministry. The order, designating persons and entities, in line with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373, had been signed by Prof. G.L. Peiris who was then the Minister of External Affairs. The UN Security Council Resolution 1373 came into operation on September 28, 2001, in the wake of the attack on the New York World Trade Centre, on September 11, 2001.

Now, the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration wants to do away with the prohibition. Foreign Minister Samaraweera has publicly declared their intention, while the issue was discussed with talks the GTF. For its part, the GTF has requested the UK to take up this issue with Sri Lanka. Minister Samaraweera, quite rightly asserts that the continuing ban is an impediment to rapprochement with the Diaspora.

However, doing away with the ban is likely to be sensitive in the run up to the next parliamentary election, with the coalition, which had been previously in power, strongly opposing the move. Some of those who had backed Maithripala Sirisena, at the presidential election, are against the move with the JHU vowing to thwart it. Foreign Minister Samaraweera recently lambasted whom he called extremists hell-bent on sabotaging reconciliation efforts. Samaraweera tore into TGTE’s V. Rudrakumaran and JHU spokesperson, Nishantha Warnasinghe, for obstructing government efforts.

To be continued on July 8