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Promoting Peace — International Options for Sri Lanka

| by Jochen Kiesow

(September 13, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Western states, particularly the UK and France, are currently pushing for action and intervention in Sri Lanka; however, if these states conduct themselves in the same manner as they have before, then they are only likely to alienate Sri Lanka, thereby creating another Burma in Southeast Asia. If there is to be a movement for international intervention in Sri Lankan politics, then it must be sensitive, multi-faceted and concerted.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. (AP)

In recent times, rather than undermine the autocratic nature of the Sri Lankan government and diffuse ethnic tensions, Western criticism has had the opposite effect: the average Sinhalese civilian is more ready than ever to stand by the government and deny or belittle the marginalisation of Tamils in the North and East of the country. The Western policy of consistent and one-sided targeting of the Sri Lankan government, without due recognition of the crimes of the LTTE, has pushed the ruling Rajapaksa administration into a corner, where it has borne its fangs and gone into the hyper-defensive. Once in this mode the government has been able to foster nationalistic sentiments and support among the population of Sri Lanka, who feel targeted by what they consider to be hypocritical Westerners. The recent boom in economy in addition to significant improvements in infrastructure has shored up other doubts about the government – bread and circuses abound to placate an otherwise agitated populace.

Despite domestic complacency, there are genuine concerns that justify international attention and potential involvement. A continuation of the status quo would likely lead to a flare-up of ethnic hostilities in the years to come. The current Rajapaksa government may have ended the Civil War, but it has not taken adequate steps to prevent a return to violence. Even in the absence of renewed ethnic conflict, all the citizens of the country are threatened by continued curtailment of their democracy and the consolidation of power in the Rajapaksa family. Peace will not prosper under such a nepotistic and authoritarian regime.

Domestic efforts at reconciliation pioneered by the Sri Lankan government have been characterized by a lack of transparency that is symptomatic of severe and detrimental manipulation by Sinhalese executive political elites. The Sri Lankan government has set up nine farcical Commissions of Inquiry and now the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which have repeatedly failed to impartially investigate the issues and crimes of the civil war. As ad hoc bodies, they have not been empowered with the ability to conduct proper investigations of human rights violations, are absent of the ability to hold any perpetrators accountable, and have been consistently characterized by military intimidation tactics which seek to prevent witness and victim testimony. “Impunity” has been the word used to describe Sri Lankan governmental affairs.

In response, Western states have heralded an international criminal tribunal as the solution to the problem. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s commissioned Panel Report even specifically recommended an international investigation. Nevertheless, the UN will prevent itself from ever conducting one: only a corresponding UN Security Council Resolution can authorise an independent international body, or more specifically an international criminal tribunal as demanded by some states. China and Russia, both permanent members of the UNSC, have repeatedly affirmed their support for the Sri Lankan government (http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2011/06/19/pol01.asp) and their faith in the ability of said government to conduct local reconciliation efforts. The Russian and Chinese stance is likely founded on ulterior motives, but even so they would still need to join the bandwagon if the rest of the UNSC Permanent-5 would like to take action.

With perhaps the most desirable – or perhaps just the simplest – option off the table, Western states need to put aside their simple view of Sri Lanka and find a pragmatic approach to the problem rather simply than pouncing on an easy target. Some form of international intervention is advisable, but haranguing the Sri Lankan government, as guilty, autocratic, and sanctimonious as it is, will not bring desirable results. The likely result of continued calls for an international investigation and criminal tribunal, specifically without the support of Russia and China, will only nurture a growing scepticism in Sri Lanka which considers the West hypocritical, prejudicial and monolithic. Furthermore, uninformed policy towards the country could isolate Sri Lanka, thus allowing the despotic grasp of President Rajapaksa to smother the country’s remaining flicker of democracy and fuel lingering ethnic hostilities.

So what to do?

If the aim of the international community is to foster a lasting peace in Sri Lanka, then it must be recognised that the actual ability to achieve reconciliation and overcome post-conflict hurdles lies foremost within the powers of domestic groups and civil society. Correspondingly this article intends to draw international attention to initiatives founded and promoted by the Sri Lankan people, but left undelivered by their government.

Immediate and effective steps for European and transatlantic states that want to get involved would first be to turn to Sri Lanka’s neighbour, India, and encourage the regional hegemon to take some initiative. Such a step would also diminish the imperialist after-taste that many Sri Lankans sense, as a result of a suddenly activist, although previously uninterested and far removed West. India is the traditional regional actor, and even given its fluctuating relations with Sri Lanka, geographic and geostrategic concerns will forever keep the two states tied at the hip.

In regards to specific talking-points, a war crimes tribunal might satisfy the West’s capricious lust for sacrifices on the altar of human rights, but there are other concrete measures that Sri Lanka should – and could – be convinced into doing. Sometimes it is the bureaucratic and less sensational options can have the most dramatic effect. International pressure that would compel the Sri Lankan government to become more accountable to its citizenry is the keystone of successful diplomatic activism and could ultimately foster an effective and genuine “home-grown solution”. In the absence of concerted UN action, everything that can be done to facilitate a local accountability mechanism should be done.

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