By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Sri Lanka and Canada resumed fresh political and socioeconomic ties last week, after a lapse of 13 years or more of a bitter and estranged relationship over alleged human rights violations and war crimes. Canada kept pressing for umpteenth time on the Rajapaksa regime till it ended last year.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was under pressure from the West, especially from Canada and the UK, which constantly pressed charges against Rajapaksa on human rights violations, reconciliation process after the war ended, minority treatment, journalist abductions, lack of democratic governance, post war initiatives, and antagonizing world leaders and failures in diplomatic ties.
Over the failure of recognizing the importance of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s resolution sponsored by the US, the Tamil diaspora in Canada, the largest Lankan Tamil population outside Sri Lanka, kept pressurizing the Canadian politicians, paving the way for the Canadian Government finally to also co-sponsor the US resolution with Sri Lanka last year.
Canada and Sri Lanka saw two fresh leaderships, namely Premier Justin Trudeau and President Sirisena last year within a 10-month gap. Prior to these two leaders, it was then Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mahinda Rajapaksa who were webbed in brickbats and blistering attacks at each other at every confrontation they had during the war and after the war ended.
Both held strong opinions about each other. Harper said he wants Canada’s values to be upheld all the time and whoever does not, they would not be able to work with.
Rajapaksa’s only goal was to keep the country safe from ‘external threats’.
The bitter battle between the two countries flared only to end up Sri Lanka to be at the receiving end, but the big blow came when Harper boycotted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM 2013) in Colombo, considering the fact Rajapaksa as the Chair of the Commonwealth, was a ‘misfit’.
Before CHOGM event, Harper sent Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, on a fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka to deliver a recommendation on Canada’s participation at CHOGM, but Segal returned to Canada to only reveal he ‘saw nothing’ to make Harper change his mind.
According to Segal it was ‘frankly pretty desperate’. “I want to be careful with my terminology, but you did see a pattern of soft ethnic cleansing,” he had reported.
He pointed out to Harper that Sri Lanka’s Army, in control of the Tamil-populated North, is a professional organization, but its control of the northern economy leaves ‘no space for Tamils to rebuild businesses, to buy land in the North, to rebuild their farms, to get back into the fisheries’. He happened to say that all newspapers that take stands against the government see their staffs beaten by thugs, and there’s a pervasive attitude among some government officials that ‘all Tamils are sort-of terrorists or siding with terrorists’.
He also pointed out that the Muslims were scared to death and the brother of the President, exhorted people at a nationalist Buddhist temple to protect the Sinhalese identity – and then thugs from the temple burned a clothing warehouse owned by a Muslim, while Police did nothing.
CHOGM in Colombo was held after 24 years, however, Canada belittled Sri Lanka for hosting it.
Harper’s Foreign Minister John Baird, also attacked Rajapaksa and said he was ‘stunned’ that Colombo was not facing censure for its behaviour.
Baird quoted that the Canadians were appalled that Sri Lanka seems poised to host CHOGM and to be chair-in-residence of the Commonwealth for two years.
“Canada didn’t get involved in the Commonwealth to accommodate evil,” was his remarks.
Canada said Sri Lanka rather than seeing a meaningful progress since the last CHOGM in Perth in 2011, the Sri Lankan Government had only grown more authoritarian and less accountable and open to reconciliation.
The UK Guardian stated Baird as saying that not only Canada but professionals from Canada – the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association; the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative; the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association; the Commonwealth Legal Education Association; the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association; Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Human Rights Council, have all unanimously stated that Sri Lanka has not made any progress, but it’s getting worse.
Harper sent a minister to represent Canada at CHOGM, however, Sri Lanka lambasted Canada for decrying over alleged human rights violations when it, in fact, never took place in the country and Sri Lanka publicly announced no further investigation into the civil war was necessary and that it has confidence of convincing the UN of this.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s claim was that Sri Lanka was the only country in the world that defeated terrorism on its own without the presence of foreign military or intervention of other countries.
He showcased that the military stood by all Sri Lankans without discrimination and blamed the ‘LTTE diaspora’ living in the UK, USA, Canada, and Australia tarnishing the country’s image. This concept is exactly what remains in the minds of the Rajapaksa loyalists even now.
Canada-Sri Lanka relations date back to 1950s onwards and the two countries maintained great bilateral ties. There were scores of events that marked the great ties. Economic aspect was the major area that relations between the two countries developed over a period of times.
However, the civil war between the LTTE and the government brought about changes in Canada’s stance. The different stance on Sri Lanka whereby empathizing with the Tamils led to criticisms and eventually ties weakened. Since the war ended in 2009, two countries’ relations gradually started deteriorating further.
Canada has been striving to do its share of work as a Commonwealth country and as a funding country. After Britain, Canada is the second-largest contributor to the Commonwealth budget, and it provided nearly $20 million from the 2012 budget.
The Canada Tamils were furious over the way the war ended. It pressed charges after charges against the Government of Sri Lanka through the Canadian Governments.
There were protests and parliamentary debates on Sri Lanka and Canada having more than 100,000 Tamils there, had to apply pressure on Sri Lanka.
The charges pressed on Sri Lanka by the Canadians overall were countered in many theories by the Rajapaksa regime. They projected it was a vote winning strategy the Canadians were after and Tamil votes in many cities mattered in Canada. It was the similar stance when the UK politicians made a fuss over human rights issues.
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera recalled some of the greatest support Canada offered in the past era last week. Welcoming Canada’s Foreign Minister Dion, Minister Samaraweera said, Canada’s generosity was seen through the years and noted Canada’s assistance in developing the Airport in Katunayake. He also recalled the gift of train locomotives to the Sri Lanka Railways and the assistance for the Maduru Oya dam, and support following the 2004 tsunami and the 30-year conflict.
The Tamil Diapora or the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) has been powerful enough to push matters related to Tamil issues strongly. The CTC was banned as a LTTE front organization. They supported the winning Canadian Governments over the years in order to receive support for their Tamil cause and urged Canada to redress the grievances of Tamils who are suffering under the Rajapaksa regime without being resettled.
Even today, the Tamil cause is seriously backed by the CTC even after they were delisted by the government.
The diplomatic relations soured and saw them worsen when the Canadian Government also refused to accept credentials of certain individuals named as Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Canada.
The Canadian External Affairs Ministry objected to the posting of Esala Weerakoon as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Canada in 2013. At that time he was the deputy ambassador to the United States.
The current Canadian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Shelley Whiting’s credentials was accepted on 3 July 2013 after much waiting. Canadian External Affairs Ministry officials alleged to have complained that she was not afforded an opportunity to present her credentials although she arrived a month earlier.
When Weerakone’s appointment was ‘halted’ by Canada, Rajapaksa suggested his cousin Jaliya Wickremesuriya to be appointed as the High Commissioner to Canada. That too the Canadian Government rejected as he is a Rajapaksa loyalist. There was no Sri Lankan envoy in Canada till January 2015 when Sirisena became the President.
President of the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) Raj Thavaratnasingham on Foreign Minister Dion’s visit to Sri Lanka noted that the international community has a small window of opportunity to promote reconciliation in the island nation, and that moment is now.
CTC also called on the Trudeau government to make a substantial contribution to help those most affected by the war. This funding will make a significant impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of victims in Sri Lanka, and will position Canada as a leader in post-war development and progress among the G7 countries. It will help fulfil Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s vision to ‘refocus Canada’s development assistance on helping the poorest and most vulnerable, and supporting fragile states.’
Canada played a vital role in 1950 during the establishment of the Colombo Plan, which marked the birth of Canada’s foreign assistance to Sri Lanka and its neighbours. “The plan showed the best of Canada’s values as a compassionate, engaged player in global affairs. Once again, Canada has a great opportunity to seize the moment, build on this proud legacy, and be the global player that our Prime Minister envisioned,” he noted.
Although Canada is back, it has not fully forgotten what it stood for. Foreign Minister Dion has visited Jaffna. He has met the war victims’ families. He would also narrate what he saw and heard in Sri Lanka and hopefully the message would be significantly different from what Segal saw during his visit.