An appeal to India’s conscience

The call for justice for his people by the Tamil head of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province is quite significant. But is there political space in Sri Lanka that New Delhi can manoeuvre?

imagesThe appeal made in Chennai this week by the Chief Minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran, for Indian help to procure justice for Tamils in his country is perhaps the most impassioned, well-articulated and timely call by any leader of the community from Indian soil since the days of Tamil United Liberation Front leader A. Amirthalingam. To place it further in historical context, Mr. Wigneswaran’s lecture marks the first articulation from a public platform in Chennai on the plight of Tamils by a legitimately elected leader of the community in the last 25 years since the assassination of Amirthalingam in 1989. And the first since Sri Lanka’s military project achieved unqualified success in May 2009. It was Mr. Wigneswaran’s first visit since becoming Chief Minister in an election that was held mainly because of India’s pressure on the Sri Lankan government. With a year of ineffectual attempts to govern the Province behind him, and finding himself in the hapless situation of having to remain in a largely meaningless office, lest the military tighten further its hold on the hapless Tamil populace, the former judge of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court used a human rights platform provided by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties to depict the current situation and suggest the way forward.

An Indian role in agreements

‘Safeguarding Security and Sovereignty,’ his disarmingly titled K.G. Kannabiran Memorial Lecture, was noteworthy for rooting its main arguments for an Indian role in existing agreements and understandings. Mr. Wigneswaran’s main theme may have been that freedoms cannot be suppressed in the name of security and sovereignty, and that security must be understood as “human security” rather than “regime security.” However, it was clear that it was not a dissertation on rights, but an impassioned appeal to India’s conscience. It is an appeal India cannot afford to ignore. In detail, it was moving, and in substance, it was characteristic of the way in which the moderate Tamil leadership has made a convincing case before the bar of international opinion for years. The demands it contained were drawn from the promises publicly made by the Sri Lankan government and in the guarantees that the international community impliedly sought when it gave diplomatic, moral and material support to the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Mr. Wigneswaran recalled that in a joint statement with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had promised to implement the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, as well as enhance this process in negotiations with Tamil parties. While speaking on India’s legal and moral obligations, the Chief Minister referred to the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and also added, “The military, political and intelligence assistance given by India to Sri Lanka during the final stages of the war were clearly based on the premise and/or promise that there would be a meaningful political solution.” India may seek to downplay the nature of its assistance and the Rajapaksa administration pretends as if it was just anti-terror cooperation, but neither of them can evade the moral underpinning of any form of external intervention in a politico-military conflict: that political questions cannot be resolved by war, and that instituting a putative provincial government without any powers and letting the Army run the administration by proxy cannot be a substitute for restorative justice and durable peace.

In his wishlist for the Indian government, the most important, undoubtedly, was his call for help to reverse the process of militarisation of his province, a phenomenon that the international community understands well, but can do little about. For, under the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, the internal political situation has undergone a complete transformation. The international community, which underwrote Sri Lanka’s unity during both peace and war, entered the picture at a time when conflict resolution required the participation of both the government and the LTTE and a parliamentary solution to the ethnic question required the participation of the two main political parties: the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party(UNP). However, the present configuration in the country’s parliament and the power structure in the whole island have been altered to such an extent that it really requires only the will of one man to address any question.

There is no doubt that the ongoing militarisation of the country, the attempts to change the demography of the north, the growing power of Sinhala supremacist groups and the threat they pose to national minorities, including Muslims, the subjugation of the judiciary, the stranglehold that one family has on public life in the country, the collapse of institutions and the atmosphere of intimidation and fear enveloping any likely resistance are all attributable to Mr. Rajapaksa. Mr. Wigneswaran also asked for Indian support for the return of rule of law and democracy to Sri Lanka. This is not easily achieved, as it actually means India should either convince Mr. Rajapaksa to reform his administration or obviously back a rival candidate.

A tough path to democracy

Both do not seem to be achievable goals. In his nine years as President, Mr. Rajapaksa has achieved two significant successes: monopolising the political space in the country, with the rest of the polity existing only on his sufferance, and using strategic ties with China and India to overcome the diplomatic fallout of his scarcely concealed disdain for the United Nations and for Western opinion and to ward off the threat of concerted action to investigate grave allegations of war crimes. Given the delicate balancing act he does resourcefully to keep external forces at bay, there is little hope for the restoration of rule of law during his tenure. In this backdrop, the prospect of his getting a third term is portentous. It is no more certain, as it was in past elections, if his popularity among the Sinhalese is intact. That does not however mean that he will not emerge winner in the next presidential election, expected in January.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has quite a task at hand in framing its stand ahead of the election. Its support for Sarath Fonseka in the last election had the positive outcome of preventing Mr. Rajapaksa from claiming all-island support for his first regime. For Tamil parties to take a clear stand against him now may prove to be a handicap for his principal rival — someone fielded by the UNP or a possible common opposition candidate, as the Rajapaksa campaign may cite TNA support for his opponent as an imagined threat to the Sinhala nation and thus reap electoral dividends. Yet, they may have little choice, as a broad-based democratic opposition is what Sri Lanka will need most.

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