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Sri Lanka must engage more with Tamils and their issues

| by Shastri Ramachandaran

( March 27, 2014, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The resolution coming up in the UN Human Rights Council has revived the debate on Sri Lanka's war crimes, justice to the Tamils and the urgency of ethnic reconciliation. The resolution has brought to the fore issues more important than how India votes on it.The core issue is a political solution to the tribulations of the Tamils in the aftermath of a war that has wrecked their lives, ravaged their land and economy, heightened their insecurity and condemned them to a grim battle for survival. More than opposition to the resolution, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's refusal to recognise the crisis of the Tamils, which demands a political settlement, may prove to be his undoing. The condition of the Tamils underscores the failure of reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts. It is imperative that President Rajapaksa respond to the crying need for greater engagement before the concern and anger — reflected in calls for boycotts and sanctions by the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and Tamil parties in India — assume a more punishing form.

For any community that has lost thousands of lives, accounting for the dead is a necessity. Accepting the need and creating the mechanism for such accounting is a prerequisite for political resolution. Far from taking steps towards this, President Rajapaksa has, by his intransigence, precluded any attempt to address grievances accumulated over 30 years of conflict. This provided an opening for the tug of war in international forums, shaped by the interests of powerful States. Last September, an independent Northern Provincial Council (NPC) was elected, providing the chance for a shift from decades of military rule towards a civil administration — provided the powers in the 13th Amendment are fully devolved and not undermined by Colombo as is happening today.

Tamil public engagement ended decades ago when politics was taken over by separatist militancy, particularly with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ruthlessly eliminating dissent. Six months after the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won the NPC elections, there is public optimism; and, an opening to engage with Tamil concerns, for giving substance to Tamil aspirations.

Such an engagement can neutralise the pull on the TNA by opportunistic and extremist sections (in Sri Lanka and among the diaspora), which remain wedded to a polarising separatist agenda. By undermining devolution, the Rajapaksa regime is also polarising the communities with a view to consolidating its post-war supremacy. This politics of polarisation needs to be confronted by all those committed to democratisation in Sri Lanka, in India and in international forums.India's support to democratisation, devolution of power and demilitarisation cannot be overstated. Yet that support is overshadowed by big-power politics behind the UNHRC resolution; and, the Palk Bay conflict between fishermen of Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka. Issues are further muddied by the rhetoric of Tamil Nadu's Dravidian parties, which go overboard at election time.

However, the UPA government, far from taking a principled position actuated by the larger objectives of India-Sri Lanka relations and the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils, is swayed by domestic political compulsions. Thus, the focus is on the UPA's dithering over the UNHRC resolution instead of the Tamil population's concerns that President Rajapaksa should be prevailed upon to address.

Last week, the TNA, which controls the NPC, agreed to resume direct talks with President Rajapaksa for finding a political solution to the problems of ethnic Tamils. The talks, which began in January 2011, broke down in February 2012 when Rajapaksa set up an All-Party Committee, which was seen as a tactic to stall the process of delivering on agreements reached during talks.

The politics of polarisation would be better thwarted by the revival of the talks proposed by the TNA than by the UNHRC resolution. India should "help" Colombo recognise this rather than let the "international community" play games in the neighbourhood.

The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator

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