Sri Lanka returns to fold of democracy

| by Kuldip Nayar

Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not regret the blood bath that the Sri Lankan Army indulged in even after the LTTE surrendered

( January 21, 2015, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) New Delhi had lots to explain when Mahinda Rajpaksa was re-elected as Sri Lanka’s President for the second time. India had supplied him small arms which he liberally used to kill the Tamils, the largest minority in that country. He should have been tried for war crimes because he killed 40,000 Tamils in cold blood even after the surrender by what was then called the LTTE, the militant face of Tamils in northern Sri Lanka.

That he tried to woo both military and police chiefs to stay back even after the defeat shows how adroitly he led a democratic India up the garden path. Yet New Delhi should have known what was all over — that he ruled the country by force.

One of his brothers was the defence secretary. I can never forget his role because the police harassed me at night. My only crime was to observe that the now-defunct LTTE should be fought politically, not with the military. That night there was a knock at my door. The police did nothing except to see my passport. The message was clear. I left the country the following day and have never returned to Colombo.

Now that the country has ousted the dictatorship, it should implement the old US-sponsored resolution, adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The resolution said that Sri Lankan government should conduct an “independent and credible” investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and the untold atrocities committed in the last phase of the war.

Unfortunately, one message that came loud and clear was that New Delhi tried it best to defend the Rajpaksa government. But the 47-nation strong body, led by the US, not only brushed aside India’s objections but also refused to water down the resolution. As a protest of Delhi's attitude, the DMK had withdrawn support at that time. It is still not too late to constitute the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) suggested by India at that time, to probe the atrocities unleashed which would bring skeletons out of the Sri Lankan cupboard. A similar attempt earlier proved to be futile because the Sri Lankan government, the accused, held the probe itself. Naturally, nothing worthwhile emerged from the investigation, which was a sham.

Indeed, it is heartening to see Sri Lanka returning to the fold of democracy. But it is unfortunate that, in contrast, people of Pakistan are not asserting themselves to have real democracy back. The surrender of politicians on the constitution of military courts is the recent example.

What it meant is an amendment in the Constitution to provide for trial of terror suspects by military courts for a period of two years. Unfortunately, the only comment came from General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s military chief, who said: “Special courts are not the desire of the army but need of extraordinary times”. The timid politicians gave concurrence by their silence.

Both Sri Lanka and Pakistan are our neighbours. What happens there can have repercussions in India. That the roots of democracy in our country are deep enough to withstand such developments is heartening to see. Yet a dictatorship next door is disconcerting. New Delhi cannot export democracy to other countries. But it should do all it can to see the will of people prevailing in the neighbourhood, without interfering in the internal affairs of the countries.

Dictatorships get a fillip when democracies falter. India committed this cardinal sin when it abstained from voting at the UN Human Rights Council a few years ago. A resolution was sought to be passed to seek an international, transparent inquiry to find out whether Sri Lanka had killed in cold blood 40,000 soldiers and others in the wake of hostilities against the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE). Even after they surrendered unconditionally.

India's abstention at that time reminded me of the words of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: “When aggression takes place or human rights are violated, we will not and cannot remain neutral.” Yet the Manmohan Singh government was found placating the dictatorial government headed by Rajapaksa. New Delhi did not bother the harm it would be doing to the cause of Tamils' rights and their own say in governance.

My hunch is that bureaucrats in the Ministry of External Affairs, with their mindset, decided to stay absent because of what they thought was “in the interest of the country.”

The then hapless Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid went along. He probably wanted the release of 100 fishermen who had “strayed” into the waters claimed by Sri Lanka. I was not surprised to read the Rajapaksa government's reaction: Thank you.

No doubt, New Delhi was under pressure from the democratic world, led by America, that China and Pakistan, where democracy has been reduced to a relative term, supported Colombo. I do not regret the obliteration of the LTTE, which was largely a terrorists' organisation. But as a humanist, I feel sad over the killing of soldiers and their supporters after the surrender.

The Sri Lankan army, obviously with the blessings of President Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, had no remorse over their indulging in a blood bath.

The world would not have known about the killings if the enterprising BBC Channel 4 had not shown the documentary on the killings and atrocities committed not only against the LTTE troops but also against the innocent Tamils. Colombo’s own inquiry was eyewash, exonerating the army and heaping the blame on the Tamils who wanted an equal say in the affairs of Sri Lanka. Will they get it under the new regime is a test for its democratic governance.