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How international war crime probe threat fostered MR’s grip

31 August 2015 05:32 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Since the end of war, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the ex-President kept a nation; mostly its Sinhalese villagers in the rural hinterland petrified by the simple mention of a bogeyman: an international war crime trial. Of course, his nemesis in the West and the fringe groups of the Tamil diaspora unleashed it on him; and later MR and his acolytes began nurturing it. It provided a smokescreen for all his grotesque abuses. The sheer mention of the word was so terrifying that it dwarfed the real terror unleashed by real white vans.


 


Of course, he was pushed to the wall by his adversaries in the West and in the State Department, who did not like him for multiple reasons, ranging from his authoritarian tendencies to his cozying up with China. It was he, who had cultivated his cult persona back home and had paeans sung in his name (one of those female singers later got a road named after her as means of the President returning feudal favour), expected a similar reception from foreign Capitals. Instead, he was met with marauding Tamil mobs, who were driven by an equally destructive agenda.

Later on, MR turned his international calumny into advantage. He cried international conspiracies at every turn, and labelled his critics as traitors. A significant portion of people began to view Western embassies and NGOs as dens of conspiracy. Wimal Weerawansa, Mervyn Silva et al had a field day organizing protests in front of the embassies, often financed by the government itself.

The boogey (and another named, the dismemberment of the country which the Rajapaksa acolytes continue to spew even after their leader’s rout) provided legitimization for MR’s sinister machinations, from his trampling of human rights to his new foreign policy alignments. They also ensured his political survival and propelled his dynastic ambitions. The threat of an international investigation and his growing cult persona were mutually reinforcing.  

Rather than denting MR’s popularity back home, the threat of a war crime investigation, fostered it. Finally, by some miracle, he was voted out; not due to the threat of the investigation, but despite it.

Now that he is gone (this time, it seems for good), the war crime bogey has also  vanished. Last week Nisha Biswal, the US Assistant Secretary of State to South and Central Asian Affairs told the media in Colombo that the US, the primary sponsor of two previous anti-Sri Lankan resolutions at the United Nations Human Rights Council, would, in this September, present a resolution supporting the country’s domestic war crime probe. She says the recent developments here were a ‘testament’ to the rest of the world.

It took less than ten months for that metamorphosis to happen, all too remarkably,  emerging from the risk of being an international outcast.

Of course, the US about-face will remove a thorn in Sri Lanka’s relations with the West. However, more than that it would dismantle a major impediment that stood in the way of civilized discourse in Sri Lanka. The perceived threat of an international investigation was used by the manipulative Rajapaksas for the internal mobilization of gullible millions and to crack down on the dissent. It threw a lifeline to rabble-rousers like Wimal Weerawansa. It conditioned people to be indifferent towards attacks on the free media, white vans and Rajapaksa’s grand dynastic project. 

 Also, now in the absence of an international threat, the new administration is more at ease to address the hitherto contentious issues of the ethnic conflict, without provoking a backlash from the majority community. It can return the land to the original owners without creating a major fuzz; scale down the military presence in the North; provide reparations to Tamils and help ex-Tiger cadres rebuild their lives. Some of those measures have already been taken: land has been returned in Sampur; the check point in Omanthai, which since the end of war, served no purpose  other than nurturing fear psychosis  and was removed last week.

Perhaps, ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa should be wondering why he failed to achieve what his successor did during the last eight months; and why he failed to command respect and earn trust Sirisena and Wickremesinghe managed to garner. The simple explanation is that civilized countries do not respect, nor do trust pariahs, no matter how large their persona back home. MR was almost there to become one. Had he treated the people of this country as citizens (and not as subjects as he did) and kept his dynastic ambitions and aggrandizement of power under check, he could have been a different leader and left a different legacy. 

Now that the threat of an international war crime probe is taken off the table, the best the United States could do would be to leave Sri Lanka to manage its own affairs of the domestic investigation and reconciliation process. Too much meddling would be counter-productive and an overly amenable Premier Wickremesinghe (and even President Sirisena who may now have been taken up by his new found international recognition) would fall prey to a backlash from the South, no matter how well intended their motives are. Residue of MR’s indoctrination of Sinhalese voters would outlive him. If it is not for himself or Wimal Weerawansa or Ven. Gnanasara, some other demigod would emerge from a rat hole somewhere to pounce upon that receptive audience. The government should not provoke that regressive, yet numerically significant segment of the Sri Lankan population.

Also, the long term effects of the ethnic conflict, which a portion of the Tamil community drove to the extreme edge, churning out suicide bombers and financing the deadly cult of the LTTE would not go away in the immediate future. The new government should not rush into solutions that would upset the numerical majority in the South; thereby unsettling a far more important democratic reform process at national level.

 In recent history, the democratic evolution of this country has been held to ransom by a maximal terrorist insurgency in the North (which also robbed our economic future and 70,000 lives). The fault of MR, who defeated that terrorism was, he did not kick start the stalled process of democratization; instead preferring to build his cult personality. The new government which has resumed that process should make it the priority: Democratize the South, the North will follow. Democracy and democratization do not immediately yield equitable outcomes. The new US ambassador in Colombo who should know his country’s troubled race relations in the past (and even present - to some extent) would be able to explain that better.   

Another area that the US and the West can help in the local process is to rein in the maximal tendencies of the Tamil politics.  It is those same rhetoric that turned Tamil youth into cannon fodder of a nihilistic terrorist group headed by a megalomaniac. All that started with old school Tamil leadership, covertly and overtly backing a nascent militancy in the early 80s, in order to intimidate the then government in Colombo. Ultimately, Sri Lanka had to fight with both hands to defeat that terrorist group conclusively. Infractions happened in the conduct of the war, but they happened almost anywhere when the war deteriorated into a total war. Now those violations can be investigated; victims can be redressed.

However, to believe that the future of Sri Lanka lies in some forsaken corner in Mullivaikkal is a fallacy. The government should not buy into that.  

Follow Ranga Jayasuriya @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter
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