N Sathiya Moorthy
The joint statement issued at the end of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo, praises internal mechanisms in Sri Lanka, in terms of ethnic reconciliation and accountability issues. PM Abe in particular underscored the need for continuing the dialogue among political stake-holders in Sri Lanka, and for the host-Government to address the concerns of the international community on accountability issues, as expressed in the US-sponsored UNHRC resolution.
It is incidental yet significant that on both issues, Japan holds similar views as Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour, India. It’s but a coincidence that Abe should be visiting Colombo within days after India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan. Independent of the leadership-change in India, both nations had abstained from voting in the March 2014 UNHRC resolution on an international probe into accountability issues on Sri Lanka. Both had similar reasons and justification for taking that decision independent of each other.
For other reasons, Australia, Sri Lanka’s other middle-power neighbour, if it could be called so, too is against an international inquiry into accountability issues. That China and Russia, two veto-power nations in the UN Security Council and at present voting-members in the UNHRC, have backed Sri Lanka to the hilt. Thereby hangs a tale that the West cannot ignore beyond a point, however Geneva-centric and however non-veto the UNHRC vote might have been calculated to be.
All this only goes on to show that there are powerful nations outside of the traditional western bloc that think alike on issues concerning third nations. A common line still exists, be it on issues of sovereignty and/or threats to the neighbourhood (as much as threats in and from the neighbourhood). In an interview to The Hindu, President Rajapaksa has reiterated in context, for Sri Lanka to oppose any similar move on Kashmir viz India.
Before PM Abe met President Rajapaksa, Yashushi Akashi, Japan’s Special Envoy on Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue, met with the latter. An old hand from Japan with the largest aid and trade with Sri Lanka when it all started, Akashi’s efforts did not produce as much results as might have been hoped for when the LTTE was around. In fact, Japan had to plough a lone furrow, after India had left. At the time, Japan was even seen by some in Sri Lanka as the western voice in the region. It was not to be. That role went to distant Norway, instead.
New leader for ITAK
The Japan-Sri Lanka Joint Statement came on a day when the Ilankai TamizhArasu Katchi (ITAK), popularly calling itself the Federal Party, had a change of guard at the top. In his presidential speech at the three-day, 15th ITAK conference at Vavuniya after taking over from octogenarian R Sampanthan, who continues to be the leading light of TNA, Maavai Senathiraja talked more about peaceful protests, international probe and support. As news reports indicated, the leadership also had to re-write the 15-point party resolution, under protest from the conference participants, to make it reflect the aspirations of the Tamils than in the original draft.
ITAK is the soul and leader of the multi-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which in turn had swept the Tamil-exclusive Northern Provincial Council (NPC) polls in November last year – the first to be held after the court-ordered de-merger of 2006 and the conclusion of the ethnic war in 2009. In his conference speech, NPC Chief Minister, former Supreme Court Justice C V Wigneswaran, reportedly talked about the party having to provide working space for younger generation to take up leadership roles. As with other communities caught in conflict-situations, youth (spoken in relative terms of age and experience) in the near-exclusivist Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community are more forceful than the rest. The ethnic wars, violence and terrorism too were demonstrative of the same.
The stake-holders in Sri Lanka are already talking two different languages. If there is something common to both in all this, it is their mutual mistrust and suspicion about each other. Going beyond what they may say in public or their written statements might indicate, neither side seems to be serious about wanting a permanent, political settlement to the ethnic issue that is negotiated through and through. If they are agreeable to a solution of the kind, it should be on their individual and separate terms. In the case of the Tamils/TNA, there are those in the majority Sinhala community and the Sri Lankan State apparatus who say they are separatists still.
In his interview to The Hindu, President Rajapaksa has indicated, possibly for the first time since negotiations broke down, that he was willing to talk to the TNA. He has not possibly indicated clear-cut issues on which his Government was willing to talk. Earlier after return from their first meeting with PM Modi in Delhi, different TNA leaders too reiterated their readiness to talk to the Sri Lankan Government. They however wanted the Government to formally invite them, and have the TNA’s 2011 written proposal as the basis for talks. They also did not rule out willingness to go to the Parliament Select Committee (PSC), where alone a real constitutional solution remains – and which fact President Rajapaksa and his Government has been repeating ad nauseum.
Sphere and atmosphere
The post-war ethnic dead-lock in Sri Lanka owes also to the prevailing international spheres of influence and consequent atmosphere. It had nothing directly to do with Sri Lanka, per se. Instead, it owes more to the post-Cold War global re-positioning. Such re-positioning has had consequences on countries and communities, far removed from the multiple theatres and levels of emerging global adversity and competition.
Sri Lanka has become a victim, in a way. The contribution of the nation, the Government and political stake-holders to the current unenviable position in which all of them, and also the nation as a whole, cannot be overlooked. Once again, through the past five years, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans (language and ethnicity, no bar) have demonstrated a wonderful knack at messing up things for themselves. If they had blamed the rest of the world – and in instalments – for their plight in the past, now they have all graduated to looking externally for sources and solutions to their internal problems.
They have refused to learn lessons from such nations as Pakistan and Afghanistan in the shared South Asian neighbourhood. Pakistan, since the birth of the nation in particular, had externalised its domestic politics and policies, with the result, it has to date not been able to create a national identity or generate a national action plan, going beyond the immediate. In the Eighties, Sri Lanka externalised viz India. At present, the UNHRC and the US may be providing the avoidable external dimension to Sri Lanka’s internal politics and priorities. It’s both unsustainable for the leadership and unsettling for the nation of the future.
Sri Lanka, including the nation’s GoP, namely, the UNP, and also the rest of the ideologically-splintered political Opposition of the present-day, has continued with the practice, be it on the national problem, or on economic issues and policies. Where it has concerned, strategic security, successive Governments have fallen prey to the habit of looking beyond the region – where alone their security remains.
Insulating and insuring
Today, in the post-9/11 global and larger regional context, nations such as India and Japan have as much responsibility to smaller neighbours and the geo-political predicaments that they have come to face, where none should have existed, post-Cold War. TNA’s Maavai Senathiraja’s reiteration of the party’s role in influencing the US resolution on accountability issues at Vavuniya is testimony to a trend that was visible elsewhere earlier, but ignored, to regional and global peril.
It’s thus that the post-Cold War western role felt, not seen in the Orange Revolutions and the Arab Springs need to be viewed and studied in-depth. Regional middle powers like India and Japan, Australia and Indonesia, all within the larger Indian Ocean Region (IOR), need to take a principled position, if the inherited global order is not to be twisted and turned, beyond recognition – and taking all that has been won by nations and regions, down with it.
It is thus that the West, particularly the US, used democracy as a standard for measuring a nation’s acceptance in the post-Cold War global order – but only when it suited them. They also used democracy as a tool to shape changes in nations that did not fall into their definition of and prioritisation for a democracy. More than messianic democracy, where it did not exist incidentally, the neo-cons in the West, starting with the Bush Administrations in the US, were concerned about keeping their power and power-projections intact under the changed circumstances of the emerging post-Cold War global order. They did not bother, or bother about, non-democracies or outright dictatorships – civil, military or monarchy – where their collective geo-strategic purposes were served, to their ultimate satisfaction.
It is thus that there are now contradictions, where none of the kind had existed between democracy and non-democratic mindsets in individual nations and regions. It had become visible in the Afghanistan of pre-Cold War era. At the time, Osama bin-Laden and other jihadi warriors became acceptable overnight to western democracies.
Rather, the Soviet engagement in Afghanistan became the cause and effect of the West, the US in particular, mindlessly propping up first-generation of jihadi leaders and groups in the region. India, already suffering the Pakistani ISI onslaught, also bore the brunt.
Compared to jihadist Afghanistan, Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a democratic people’s revolution, to which religion provided the mass-base and psychological basis. Given the cause and circumstances, the result of the revolution could not have been democracy.
In more recent times, the Arab Spring, where State resistance was involved, witnessed jihadis (at times from across the world) participating in people’s protests. The electoral victory for the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt was a pointer. It could be overthrown only through street-violence, where the Army had to be involved. Syria has since come a whole circle.
Projected and propagated as a people’s movement of the Arab Spring type, it now has jihadis from even faraway countries like Maldives, participating in the war against the Government and laying down their lives, too.
In the early weeks and months, the West championed the cause of the people’s protests as a reflection of the desire of the Syrian masses for democracies.
When they were convinced that jihadis had over-taken and over-run their ill-thought-out drawing-board strategy on the ground, thankfully for them, they have now got Ukraine-Crimean imbroglio for diverting their attention and that of the world, too.
Today, the emergence of ‘ISIS’ – or, only ‘IS’, if you want to delink Iraq from it, for whatever reason has created new divisions within the jihadi movement. Once again, the West was not prepared for the same. But this has created a new situation for nations of South Asia. Already, two of them, namely, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are under full-fledged jihadi threat for wholesale control. Al-Qaeda has since announced its intention to expand and target India and Sri Lanka.
It is in this context, regional powers like India and Japan need to view the emerging situation in a stand-alone island-nation like Sri Lanka. There can be no two views on the shared concerns of nations like India and Japan for the stake-holders in Sri Lanka to negotiate a political settlement to the ethnic issue. But they all need to remember that it cannot stop with the two existing stake-holders, namely the Government and the Tamils, the latter represented by the TNA.
The concerns and the aspirations of other minority groups, particularly Muslims and Upcountry Tamils of recent Indian origin, cannot be and should not be overlooked. The Al-Qaeda message cannot be overlooked even otherwise, particularly in the context of the BBS attacks on Muslim establishments and individuals over the past couple of years. Sri Lanka’s suitability as a theatre of internecine insurgencies too should be remembered – particularly by the Sri Lankan State and the Government of the day, and in ways they should be remembered. All of this at one level would dictate the expansion of the stake-holders’ dialogue, both in form and content. At another, all this also involves the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan State, and the unity of its peoples. It’s here that the UNHRC probe and the Al-Qaeda threat hint at near-similar consequences – one, civil and the other, violent, the latter as violent as the LTTE’s war and terrorism, and the two militant Left’s two JVP insurgencies, but with a difference, both between them and when compared to the past.
It can be safely concluded that even if the Al-Qaeda threat were to materialise, it would still lack legitimacy, and involve greater global cooperation to putting it down. That cannot be said of the UNHRC probe-centric threat, with its equally undefined goals and processes. It is not necessary that the Tamils on the ground and their Diaspora brains have to think and act the same way as the international community wants them to think and act.
Only recently, former anti-LTTE Tamil Chief Minister of the North-Eastern Province in Sri Lanka both, the one and only of their kind explained how the Tamil moderate groups and militant youths had read India wrong in the Eighties. There is nothing to suggest that the Tamil thinking, attitude and approach have changed since. Nor is there anything to show that the Western nations have learnt either from their mistake – or, those of others handling Sri Lankan ethnic issue in the past, particularly India and Norway.
The TNA’s greater focus on accountability issues and other non-issues on devolution-based political solution is accompanied only by the proven inability of the moderate political and social leadership in the country, to rein in violators and ensure acceptance of any deal that it may now do with the Government. Add to that the near-simultaneous but highly independent Al-Qaeda threat, and India in particular and Japan and other middle powers in the region have their hands full on the shared Indian Ocean maritime security front!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.)