While the Tamils have upped the ante considerably, Colombo has resolved to stick to its stand against foreign interference
Colombo, January 18: In the run-up to the March session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Sri Lankan Tamil parties and civil society groups have jointly presented a radical set of demands. On its part, the Sri Lankan government has resolved to stick to its stand that there is no room for any kind of foreign interference in what it considers to be an internal matter to be resolved through indigenously developed mechanisms.
Eleven Tamil political parties and civil society organizations had written to the 47 countries in the UNHRC urging them to accept their demands. They have demanded that other organs of the UN, including the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, take up the Lankan Tamil question and refer it to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or any other appropriate and effective international accountability mechanisms to inquire into the crime of “genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity,” allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the last phase of the 2006-2009 Eelam War IV. They have demanded that the members of the UNHRC mandate the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to continue to monitor Sri Lanka for ongoing violations and have an OHCHR field office in the island. Further, the Tamils have demanded that the UN take steps to establish an evidence gathering mechanism similar to the International Independent Investigatory Mechanism (IIIM) in relation to Syria established as a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly with a strict time frame of twelve months duration.
The signatories to the letter dated January 15, 2021 were: R. Sampanthan, Leader, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), G.G. Ponnambalam, Leader, Tamil National People’s Front, Justice C.V. Wigneswaran, Leader, Tamil Makkal Thesiya Kootani, Rev. Fr. Leo Armstrong, Tamil Heritage Forum, Mullaitivu, Sabharathinam Sivayhoyanathan, Eastern Province Civil Society Forum, Rasalingam Vikneswaran, Amparai Civil Society Forum, Amarasingham Gajenthiran, Tamil Civil Society Forum, Yogarasa Kanagaranjini, Association of Relatives of the Enforced Disappearances North and East, Subramaniam Sivaharan, Tamil Thesiya Vaalvurimai Iyakkam, Velan Swamikal, Sivaguru Aatheenam and Rt. Rev. Dr C. Noel Emmanuel, Bishop of Trincomalee.
Reacting to this, a top functionary in the Sri Lankan government warned that the radicalization of the Tamils’ demands to this degree would only exacerbate ethnic differences and prevent reconciliation, which is the stated goal of all parties including the UNHRC.
“These demands will only harden the stand of the majority community, whose views no democratic country can ignore. It’s time the Tamils realized this and accepted the thesis that the liberation of all Sri Lankans, irrespective of ethnic or other identities, lies in economic development on an equitable basis,” the official said.
The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government is unfazed by the Tamil demands and the possibility of Western nations’ taking a hostile stance at the March session. Asked if the Biden Administration, which will be in place at the time of the UNHRC session, will pursue the Obama Administration line on human rights, the Lankan official said: “The US has to first put its house in order, restore democracy, instill in its population and leaders respect for the law and the constitution and curb racism. The Biden Administration will be busy doing precisely this.”
On its part, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government has already declared that it will not co-sponsor any resolution against itself. According to the media, this position was reiterated recently, when the UNHRC invited it to co-sponsor the resolution to be presented in the March session.
Given the irreconcilable positions between the government and the Tamils, the council will find it very challenging to present a generally acceptable resolution. Both the Tamils and the government will be straining every nerve to garner support for their respective stands.
The contents of the new resolution will have to take into account: the Tamils’ new and radical demands; new issues like the burial of Muslims who had died of COVID; and of course, Colombo’s contention that the Tamil or the Muslim issue is a domestic one, to be solved internally in Sri Lanka without outside interference.
Critical Role of Diaspora
The Sri Lankan Tamil issue has been complicated not only by the involvement of foreign governments and international organizations but also by the Tamil Diaspora. It is the Diaspora which is leading the Lankan Tamils, setting the agenda for them, and funding activities in the island to implement the agenda.
A senior journalist and writer who had earlier been part of the Tamil liberation movement, said that the Diaspora’s power over the resident Tamils in Sri Lanka rests on several planks: It funds (in millions) political parties and individual political leaders. It sends money to Tamil families to enable them to live in reasonable comfort in North and East Sri Lanka. It funds charitable, educational and social welfare activities in the war-affected parts of the North and East. Given this situation, the Tamils in the island feel duty-bound to go by the Diaspora’s requests to support this or that cause or candidate.
The Diaspora also gives voice to their demands – demands they cannot voice in Sri Lanka itself for fear of being proceeded against by the law enforcement agencies. The Diaspora gives voice to their sentiments, anger and demands through over 500 social media outlets and websites. Many sites go overboard doing so. But they are safe in sanctuaries overseas. Colombo can do nothing about it partly because foreign democratic governments allow such dissent. And, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have pointed out many times, foreign governments do not respond to requests for information even on “missing” persons about whom their own families had wanted information.
Govt’s Stand Hardens
The blame for the Tamils’ parties’ radicalization cannot be laid at the door of the Diaspora, entirely. The Lankan government’s stance on the demands of the Tamils has also hardened, especially after the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) proved in the November 2019 Presidential and the August 2020 parliamentary elections, that as a nationalist Sinhala-Buddhist party it can win comfortably without the support of the Tamil and Muslim minorities.
In this scenario, it is not surprising that there is a demand, at least in a section of the government, that the 13th. Amendment (13A) devolving powers to elected Provincial Councils should be repealed or substantially amended to bring about greater central control. There is also a demand that elections to the Provincial Councils need not be held, or that elections should be postponed indefinitely, as the provinces are being run pretty well by bureaucrats for the past three years. The entire provincial administrative structure is seen as a White Elephant by the elite.
The Tamils on the other hand, want greater powers for the councils and have appealed to India, the creator of the 13A, to see that Colombo does not deviate from the path set by the India-Lanka Accord of 1987. Indian Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar air-dashed to Colombo earlier this month to press President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to abide by the Accord and the 13A, for the sake of ethnic reconciliation and in “Sri Lanka’s own interest.”