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A traumatic past and a stifling present

The Tamils of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province do not have it easy even five years after the war ended. But the language of war crimes alone would not address their problems

With its failure to convincingly address allegations of war crimes, or implement a meaningful process of reconciliation over the last five years, Sri Lanka finds itself trapped by international pressure ahead of the UNHRC meet in Geneva.

All along, criticism of the country’s human rights record has come largely from rights groups or sections of the Tamil diaspora — some still espouse the separatist cause. But clearly, mounting international pressure now is something that Sri Lanka will find hard not to miss.

To add to this, the Northern Provincial Council (NPC)’s resolution — passed at its fifth council session recently, calling for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka — came as a shocker to the government. With such a move from a democratically-elected body representing northern Tamils, the call for an internal probe only gained more legitimacy and steam.

The NPC resolution and the remarks by visiting United States envoy Nisha Biswal on the international community’s frustration over the pace of reconciliation in Sri Lanka have visibly irked Colombo.

Soon enough, Sri Lanka lashed out at the U.S. envoy, terming her remarks as unsubstantiated, and at times, patronising.

Having failed to focus on ground realities all this while, Sri Lanka now appears to be hurriedly channelling its energy and might towards thwarting the resolution.

Senior Sri Lankan ministers and bureaucrats are busy travelling the length and breadth of the globe to make a strong case for its post-war progress, and lobby against a potentially strong resolution in Geneva. Unfailingly highlighting the country’s flagship accomplishments since the end of the war — what it proudly terms infrastructure development and economic growth — the government is working overtime to garner support ahead of the Council session less than two months from now.

Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and External Affairs Ministry Monitoring MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardene were in Washington recently to meet legislators, policymakers and officials, to convince them of Sri Lanka’s progress on the reconciliation front. Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera, who went to Vietnam, returned with a robust assurance of fullest support, The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka reported. Other ministers, the Sunday paper’s political column noted, had been assigned various UNHRC members, including Brazil, Kuwait and the Philippines for this campaign.

Embedded message

Sri Lanka says that a third U.S.-sponsored resolution against it is totally unwarranted. Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris who, on his recent visit to New Delhi, met envoys of 82 countries, urged them to reflect objectively on the situation in Sri Lanka and its achievements since the end of the war, according to media reports. The Minister also protested against the selective manner in which Sri Lanka was treated at the UNHRC sessions by certain members, the state-owned The Sunday Observer reported.

At this point, the U.S. seems inclined to table a resolution that would call for an international probe. Ms Biswal did not explicitly say so during her visit to Colombo but repeatedly emphasised that the patience of the international community was wearing thin. The U.S., she said, preferred a Sri Lanka-led process of reconciliation, but international pressure, she repeatedly said, was mounting.

Sri Lanka’s failure to fully implement recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), that even the earlier HRC resolutions commended, has contributed further to the growing scepticism, going by Ms Biswal’s remarks.

The climate is tense with indications — both, from Ms Biswal’s address and from other diplomatic sources in Sri Lanka — pointing to an increasing possibility of a strongly-worded resolution in Geneva.

It has been so ever since British Prime Minister David Cameron — who was in the country for the Commonwealth Summit in November 2013 — served a virtual ultimatum to Sri Lanka. Following his visit to Colombo and Jaffna, he set a March 2014 deadline for Sri Lanka to complete a credible probe. Failing that, he said, an international probe would be inevitable.

India’s stand

While the U.S. may appear to be taking a softer line compared to the U.K., Ms Biswal’s emphasis on the international community’s “frustration” seems to point to more than what was said.

India, which voted in favour of the resolution at the last two sessions, will be closely watched. With the Palk Bay conflict already putting India on a weak wicket, it will only present a greater dilemma should the resolution turn out to be very strong. While a deviation from India’s earlier voting pattern seems unlikely, it would be interesting to see how New Delhi handles the pressure from Tamil Nadu — given its own parliamentary elections this year — and Colombo.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, has been arguing that it would need more time. It probably will. The aftermath of a war has a lifespan of its own. All the same, the absence of meaningful and consistent engagement by the Sri Lankan state with the war-torn Northern Province evokes concern. Highways and an assured supply of electricity — which the government has been fairly successful in providing — are necessary, but far from sufficient.

Food insecurity

The realities facing the people of the north are way more complex. There is an acute need for jobs. With the rising cost of living, households — particularly those with women heading them — are struggling to make ends meet. Many public institutions, including those that lost land to the army’s high security zones in the Northern Province, are crying for attention and support. Fishermen of the north are badly hit. With the failure of successive monsoons, food security is emerging as a serious concern. The region is still heavily militarised.

The Sri Lankan government may not acknowledge these problems anytime soon, as the rhetoric, for both the government and those opposing it, seems to begin and end with war crimes — now an all-too-familiar game of allegations and denial. While allegations of war crimes and human rights violations keep surfacing from time to time — justifiably so after a brutal war that allegedly claimed several thousand civilian lives — it is important that we simultaneously shine the spotlight on some of these current challenges.

Caught between a traumatic past and a stifling present that together threaten to drain the community of any little hope and promise they might see, people of the north do not have it easy even five years after the war ended. And speaking the language of war crimes alone may not be adequate to address this.

To start with, it would only make it far too easy for the Sinhala hardliners in the south to instantly dismiss charges, with well-thought-out conspiracy theories readily lending themselves to the cause. Moreover, it is likely to breed more hostility, distancing Colombo even further away from the north.

The rhetoric, therefore, has to be broadened to capture some of the nuances of the everyday struggle of an ordinary person in the north. Undoubtedly, while it is important to fix accountability for the atrocities committed during the war, it is equally crucial to see if the end of the war has actually translated to peace.

When the Sri Lankan government ended the war in May 2009, it had a golden opportunity — a chance to tell its own citizens that it cared. Five years, as the Sri Lankan government often says, may be inadequate to complete its reconciliation process, but it is certainly enough time to make a meaningful beginning.

Was that beginning made? Maybe Sri Lanka does not have to wait for March every year to answer this question.

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