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‘President Sirisena says his government will not act “in haste.” This is unacceptable.’
- New York Times Editorial, Jan 28, 2016.

“…there is no ethnic group called the Sinhalese.”
– Chief Minister Wigneswaran, Jan 19, 2016.


President Sirisena has followed up his important BBC interview on accountability with a lengthier one on Al Jazeera. The BBC interview evoked a swift, sharp reaction from Human Rights Watch, the Global Tamil Forum,the New York Times,and the US Ambassador to the UNHRC—as well as the Sri Lankan PM himself. Samantha Power took a swipe on missing persons and impunity. Ban-Ki-Moon weighed in, supporting international participation in the judicial mechanism. Zeid al Hussein, Human Rights High Commissioner, is due. Meanwhile the President reiterated his basic position at some length while facing gruelling questioning by Al Jazeera.  

In the BBC interview the President restated and elaborated his stand on the accountability process. I say “restated” because he said as much, albeit far more briefly, to the BBC’s Sandeshaya on his trip to the UK last year, and to the New York Times in early Oct 2015. 

The President told the BBC he was for a purely domestic inquiry mechanism without foreign judges or personnel, because he had faith in the Sri Lankan legal system and processes. This was a rebuttal of the position of the Zeid Report and the Geneva resolution that Sri Lanka did not have the capacity to inquire on its own, into its own recent history,and that any domestic mechanism required a significant “international element”, as UK Foreign Secretary Hugo Swire put it. President Sirisena ruled out foreign participation—not merely foreign judges—saying that Sri Lanka can summon up the necessary expertise. When Mr. Swire’s mention of a June-deadline was tossed at him by the able young BBC interviewer Azam, President Sirisena was studiedly dismissive, saying that anyone was free to express an opinion. On Al Jazeera he conceded the possibility that “foreign technical knowledge” may be sought, but no foreign personnel, no “outsiders” would be involved. 

The President made five important and accurate points to the BBC. Firstly, he used the phrase “I shall not permit”, which implies he is ready to use his executive powers to draw red lines around the composition and scope of any inquiry. Secondly, he widened the frame of the discussion, commending a comparative global approach, saying we must look at how other countries handled the aftermaths of similar conflicts and how long they took to get to accountability hearings. Thirdly, he said Sri Lanka would have to select those recommendations of the Geneva resolution that can be implemented within the parameters of the Constitution and the law. Fourthly,he limited the role of the international community to helping develop the Sri Lankan economy, ruling out involvement in the affairs of the Sri Lankan State. 

Fifthly, he told Al Jazeera that two sides fought the war, and the Sri Lankan military observed international and national law while the LTTE terrorists consistently violated international law. He added that neither the military nor the Government of the day gave orders “for destruction” in violation of international law. If there were violations by the Sri Lankan military these were individual violations and would be dealt with under the law. He drew a distinction between violations of human rights and war crimes, implying that the former may have occurred and would be focused on. Asked whether top military brass and the leaders of the former government would be prosecuted and punished if found guilty, he brushed the issue aside as irrelevant until such a thing was proven in a court of law.  

In contradistinction, the PM told Channel 4 that foreign involvement in the accountability process “has not been ruled out” by the Government, going on to say that the numbers of war dead will be ascertained “together with the international community”. Much more pointedly, PM Wickremesinghe emphasized to the Sunday Times last weekend:“We will have participation of foreign Judges.”

Post-BBC interview, the US Ambassador to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Keith Harper imperiously tweeted that “for Sri Lanka, credibility of any accountability mechanism requires involvement of foreign Judges etc.—that has and will not change”. 

The final call on ‘credibility’ is a national one, just as accountability is ultimately a sovereign decision —to be made by the President, Parliament and perhaps the whole citizenry at a referendum.A democratic Asian government is unlikely to sacrifice its domestic credibility and electoral standing in order to measure up to a Diaspora-driven Western opinion of its credibility. An external accountability drive could stimulate a backlash that destabilizes all other gains and Indo-US objectives in Sri Lanka, namely devolution and a stable,liberal, civilian democracy. 

Grounded and pragmatic, President Sirisena knows that domestic credibility and legitimacy are necessary for domestic survival and that these can only be secured by ruling out external involvement and establishing a purely national mechanism within the existing structures,for “no drama” low intensity accountability. 

Balancing accountability, devolution, democracy and stability is increasingly fraught. In his January 19, 2016 address to a forum on a federal constitution (with Swiss participation), Chief Minister Wigneswaran engaged in a bit of conceptual ethnic cleansing, if not ideological genocide, declaring that: “…Also there is no ethnic group called the Sinhalese. The Sinhala language itself came into being only around 6th century AD. There was no Sinhala language before that…There is on the other hand, contrary evidence of the existence of pre-Buddhistic Hindu culture in the North and East available.”

This is fighting talk. R. Sampanthan -- good cop to Wigneswaran’s bad cop -- said that “maximum devolution is not possible within a unitary system” and “is unacceptable”. De facto federalization means greater executive power for this Chief Minister who publicly articulates racist views on Sinhala ethnicity and the Sinhala language, and more legislative power for the Council which passed a resolution framing the State for ‘genocide’—the worst crime under international law—and presented it to a high-ranking UN official. What will such a Chief Minister and Council not do with quasi-federal powers (and a ‘Hanuman bridge’ to Tamil Nadu)? 

Without the trip-switch of an executive presidency, the Sinhala majority will be less inclined to improve upon or even retain existing devolution arrangements.

The scene outside the Homagama Courts and the Sinha-Ley rally in Kandy are, but the faintest flicker of the rage that would spew out onto the streets and eventually besiege the System, if the Geneva resolution were implemented. If the cosmopolitan quartet of Ranil-Mangala-TNA-CBK, the pro-Western, neoliberal Old Right, insists on implementing the Geneva resolution, it will (a) fuel extremism(b) disrupt the progressive parliamentary Joint Opposition led by moderate nationalist Dinesh Gunawardene (c) shrivel the centrist SLFP and (d) accelerate the vertical take-off of a radical Sinhala New Right with a Netanyahu-Advani type hardcore orientation. 

PM Wickremesinghe reminded Jon Snow of Channel 4 that it was he who had “put his neck out” in support of the Geneva resolution. President Sirisena is, himself not invulnerable because any President and Commander-in-Chief perceived to have failed to protect national sovereignty and the armed forces,would step on an impeachment landmine. 

As Iran proved in 1979, Emergency rule, aircraft carriers, Police and the paramilitary STF cannot hold the line on the ground, up close and personal, against monks, a majoritarian mass movement and a resentful military. Implementing Geneva will shrink the middle-ground, generate polarization, social rancor and radicalization, trigger civic conflict and a Hartal ’53-type uprising and culminate in a bloodbath.

As Lenin put it, “who will prevail over whom?” The PM or the President? The answer will reveal who wields the VETO; who leads this country, and where to.

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