Time to Move On

The coun­tries that are forc­ing Sri Lanka to in­ves­ti­gate al­leged war crimes do not have an en­vi­able hu­man rights record them­selves.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Jave­ria Shakil

In­stead of re­open­ing old wounds, the big pow­ers should help Sri Lanka in its post-war re­con­struc­tion ef­forts.

It is said that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones at oth­ers. Per­haps this rule is not ap­pli­ca­ble to world pol­i­tics where those liv­ing in glass houses are at the fore­front of throw­ing stones at oth­ers. What hap­pened in the 25th ses­sion of the UNHRC in Geneva at the end of March val­i­dates this hy­poth­e­sis. In one of the ses­sions, su­per­power U.S. pre­sented a res­o­lu­tion against Sri Lanka that called for an in­ter­na­tional probe into war crimes al­legedly com­mit­ted by the Sri Lankan Army dur­ing the last months of the three-decade long civil war. The UK strongly backed the US’ ef­forts and the res­o­lu­tion was passed by 23 votes to 12.

The Sri Lankan civil war was a highly vi­o­lent af­fair that spanned over 26 years (from 1983 to 2009) and was fought be­tween the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE (Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Elam). The LTTE, bet­ter known as the Tamil Tigers, com­prised Tamil sep­a­ratists who de­manded free­dom from the Sin­hala-ma­jor­ity coun­try in the form of a sep­a­rate state in the north­ern and east­ern parts of Sri Lanka. Re­la­tions be­tween the Sin­hala ma­jor­ity and the Tamil mi­nor­ity were never am­i­ca­ble and had, in fact, turned vi­o­lent on many an oc­ca­sion. But the in­ci­dent that pro­voked a full-fledged civil war is known as Black July in Sri Lankan his­tory. Ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates, as many as 3,000 Tamils were killed in a hor­ri­ble pogrom in Colombo in July 1983. The mas­sacre was a re­sult of an ear­lier at­tack by the LTTE on an army con­voy. Thir­teen soldiers were killed in the at­tack.

The civil war that broke out in the wake of the prose­cu­tion cam­paign claimed up to 100,000 lives ac­cord­ing to the UN. Both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army adopted a no-holds­barred at­ti­tude and launched vi­cious at­tacks against each other. The Lankan Army, be­ing an or­ga­nized force with state-of-the-art weaponry, had the up­per hand. To defy the army’s ad­van­ta­geous po­si­tion, the LTTE came up with a hard-to-counter weapon: the sui­cide bomber. It was the LTTE that in­tro­duced this deadly phe­nom­e­non in South Asia and used it for killing many im­por­tant per­son­al­i­ties, in­clud­ing for­mer Sri Lankan pres­i­dent Ranasinghe Pre­madasa, for­eign min­is­ter Lak­sh­man Kadirga­mar and a num­ber of high-rank­ing mil­i­tary of­fi­cials. The LTTE also used women as sui­cide bombers. This was es­tab­lished when for­mer In­dian Prime Min­is­ter, Ra­jiv Gandhi was as­sas­si­nated by a fe­male be­long­ing to the LTTE cadre. With Gandhi’s as­sas­si­na­tion, the LTTE be­came the only ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion in the world to have killed two world lead­ers. It has also been ac­cused of ab­duct­ing chil­dren and ma­nip­u­lat­ing them into be­com­ing soldiers.

By 1997, the or­ga­ni­za­tion had be­come so vi­o­lent that it was in­cluded in the list of for­eign ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions by none other than the U.S. it­self. Nine years later, the Euro­pean Union took the same step, pro­scrib­ing the LTTE as a ter­ror­ist out­fit. From the start of the civil war in 1983 to its end in 2009, sev­eral un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts to es­tab­lish peace were made by both sides in

the form of cease­fire agree­ments. A neu­tral body, the Sri Lanka Mon­i­tor­ing Mis­sion, has doc­u­mented 3,830 cease­fire vi­o­la­tions by the LTTE as against 351 by the se­cu­rity forces dur­ing Fe­bru­ary 2002 to May 2007.

When the war fi­nally ended in 2009, as a re­sult of a mas­sive as­sault launched by the govern­ment of Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa, it had ef­fec­tively torn down the en­tire coun­try. Thou­sands of lives were lost and the econ­omy was in tat­ters. In fact, Sri Lanka reg­is­tered a neg­a­tive growth rate in 2001. It is against this back­ground that the fi­nal of­fen­sive against the Tamil Tigers, in which 40,000 Tamils were al­legedly killed, should be seen.

The de­mand of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity that Sri Lanka con­duct a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the al­le­ga­tions of war crimes rings par­tic­u­larly hol­low when seen in the con­text of warn­ings given to the LTTE by the UN in the last phase of the civil war. It is true that the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil had made an of­fer to the LTTE that al­lowed “a UN-as­sisted evac­u­a­tion of the re­main­ing civil­ians in the con­flict area, and join the po­lit­i­cal process." Did the LTTE agree? It did not.

The Sri Lankan govern­ment an­nounced the end of war on May 16, 2009. A few days ear­lier, on May 13, 2009, the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil had con­demned the LTTE, de­nounced its use of civil­ians as hu­man shields, and urged it to ac­knowl­edge the le­git­i­mate right of the govern­ment of Sri Lanka to com­bat ter­ror­ism by lay­ing down their arms and al­low­ing tens of thou­sands of civil­ians to leave the con­flict zone. On May 14, 2009, the UN’s Act­ing Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Sri Lanka, Amin Awad, had re­ported that 6,000 civil­ians “had fled or were try­ing to flee the war zone, but the LTTE was fir­ing on them to pre­vent them from es­cap­ing”.

It is against this back­ground that the ‘war crimes’ al­legedly com­mit­ted by the Sri Lankan forces should be viewed.

The sad­dest as­pect of this sit­u­a­tion per­haps is that those at the fore­front of the cam­paign against Sri Lanka do not have an en­vi­able record when it comes to hu­man rights.

Dur­ing last year’s Com­mon­wealth Sum­mit in Colombo, UK Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron chas­tised the Sri Lankan govern­ment for not do­ing enough. While Cameron was be­ing supremely pa­tron­iz­ing, did it ever oc­cur to him that one of his pre­de­ces­sors, Tony Blair, had played a rather shame­ful role in at­tack­ing Iraq? Ac­cord­ing to some re­ports pub­lished in the Bri­tish me­dia, Blair had ex­am­ined ways of “jus­ti­fy­ing an in­va­sion of Iraq” with his se­nior staff back in July 2002. As for the U.S. and post-war hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions, only one word should suf­fice: Abu Gharaib.

When at­tack­ing a for­eign coun­try can be val­i­dated on the ba­sis of du­bi­ous in­tel­li­gence re­ports and jus­ti­fied on flimsy grounds such as ‘es­tab­lish­ment of democ­racy’, then a govern­ment’s right to crush a se­ces­sion­ist move­ment by any means to keep the phys­i­cal borders in­tact should also be re­spected.

Since 2009, there has not been a sin­gle sui­cide or bomb at­tack in Sri Lanka. The coun­try’s econ­omy is grow­ing at a rate higher than that of all other South Asian na­tions. For­eign in­flows have in­creased and de­vel­op­ment work is tak­ing place in all parts of the coun­try. How­ever, this does not mean that ev­ery­thing is fine in Sri Lanka. The Tamil prob­lem still ex­ists and the Tamils have many grievances. But the govern­ment is try­ing to bring them into the main­stream. A num­ber of de­vel­op­ment projects are un­der­way in the war-af­fected ar­eas. New roads, high­ways and rail­way tracks are be­ing con­structed.

More im­por­tantly, a po­lit­i­cal process has started in the ar­eas once con­trolled by the LTTE. Lo­cal bod­ies’ polls were held in Jaffna and Vavu­niya soon af­ter the war ended and were won by the Tamil Na­tional Al­liance – a coali­tion of mod­er­ate Tamils. The TNA also won the elec­tions of the North­ern Provin­cial Coun­cil held in 2013. It was the first ever elec­tion for the semi­au­tonomous body that was set up in 1987. Al­though a lot is yet to be done, things are mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion al­beit slowly. In­stead of re­open­ing old wounds, the world com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially the big pow­ers, should help Sri Lanka in its post-war re­con­struc­tion and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion ef­forts.

The writer is as­sis­tant edi­tor at SouthAsia. She fo­cuses on is­sues of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial in­ter­est.

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