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From 'Retributive Justice' To True 'Reconciliation'

2014 Jan 16

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

Going by media reports of the past weeks/months, it’s no more about ‘accountability issues’ against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. Instead, there now seems to be an emerging competition for credit-taking. After visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron, the now-visiting US Ambassador on War Crimes, Stephen J Rapp, is quoted as saying that his Government would be moving a harsher resolution in the March session at Geneva, than the two already standing in the latter’s name.

Nearer to Sri Lanka, ahead of the parliamentary polls in India, competitive Dravidian politics in the southern Tamil Nadu State has led to national parties joining the bandwagon on targeting Sri Lanka. The clamour, if it can be called so, can provide the launch-pad possibly for yet another instalment of the Channel 4 expose. The result, even if it were not the aim, is to pressure the Government of India to do somebody else’s bidding on Sri Lanka, albeit through the legitimate political voices nearer home.

Solomon W. R. D. Bandaranayake should be turning in his grave – full of remorse. So should be the Cyril Mathews of the world. They could not have imagined – but should have – that the ‘Sinhala Only’ law of the former in 1956 and the ‘anti-Tamil pogrom’ of the latter spearheaded in 1983, violence in between and war after, to have created an influential Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora with voting-power and vote-share in host countries that the local polity could ignore or over-look only at their own electoral peril.

‘Global Tamil Diaspora’?

It’s better in India, in comparison. There is no SLT Diaspora with voting rights in the country. For all its alleged failures, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition Government at the Centre has survived without the parliamentary support of any of the so-called Dravidian political parties after the DMK withdrew support some time ago. Today, the problem for the Centre, on the Sri Lanka front, is from Singh’s Congress Party leaders and senior Ministers of the State.

This is the extent to which post-war attempts are being made to brand and band the Tamil population in India as a part of a non-existent global Diaspora. Western Governments are as much a silent part of what should be seen as a deliberate effort. The consequences for India, in its unity and territorial integrity, could be devastating. The consequent impact on India’s bilateral relations with third countries too cannot be inconsequential.

The SLT Diaspora, though not as vocal as their Israeli/Jewish counterparts in a bygone era in the West, starting with the US, has shown that they have it in them to change the course of domestic politics in their host-nations and bilateral relations with and for Sri Lanka, otherwise. Yet, the world needs to remember that the Jewish lobby in the West could not bring an amicable end to the ‘Palestine issue’ to date. The situation has worsened at times, with the West busying itself with other priorities in other parts of the world. Sri Lanka is one, but only one of them.

Media reports have claimed that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has rapped Stephen Rapp, by bringing up Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in their Colombo discussions on ‘war crimes’ in Sri Lanka. It’s anybody’s guess if Colombo would want to up the stakes in the international arena, even if to counter the western attacks – and if so, if it could get support from expected or not-so-expected quarters.

In a world without the anti-West ‘giants’ from the past, if a situation will arise – and/or would be created – for Sri Lanka to grab that mantle, unwillingly – and afterward, unwittingly, too. In a world, where original issues often get forgotten, and non-issues end up being a new issue each passing day, there are greater – or, worse – consequences for Sri Lanka, either way. It may be time that the Government in Colombo realised those consequences and looked inward – at Sri Lanka and in Sri Lanka, as well.

Retribution, not Reconciliation

This is not to say that there were no ‘war crimes’ or ‘accountability issues’, as the West now perceives it. ‘Liberal democracy’ and its interpretation of cause-and-effects as relating to ‘accountability issues’ are not about putting the past behind, as is being propagated. Instead, it is more about ‘revenge’ and ‘retribution’ in a more sophisticated and more organised form than is accepted. ‘Retributive justice’, by whatever named called, is not about reconciliation.

It keeps boiling blood on the boil all the time, on either side of any conflict situation. Before the eternally-evolving ‘liberal democracy’ came to South Asia some centuries ago, for instance, there remained a philosophy that preached peace, not war – and peace after war, not retribution [NISM1]. It’s in the DNA of those people, whatever the circumstances, whatever the chances. Neither the Tamils, nearer home, nor their political leadership, nor their Diaspora has acknowledged that the post-war processes did not involve the Sri Lankan State going after ex-LTTE cadres with a vengeance, all across the world, ‘pressure’ those held in captivity to name names, and get the Western hosts of those delinquents to go after them in their own territory.

Whatever the causes, circumstances and methods, successive Governments in the country have been ‘accommodative’ in their own way – whether it was the political rehabilitation of the ‘Col’ Karuna, Pillaiyan or ‘KP’, in their time. It suits the unattained, yet unattainable, agenda of the hard-line sections of the SLT Diaspora to brand them all ‘traitors’. In the process, Tamils nearer home, the TNA included, have problems acknowledging what they see are good for their people even while demanding what was promised, or what they still want.

Shaming a people – the Sinhalese in this case – and making them, their family and leaders ‘accountable’ in criminal terms can be worse than the problem that the West wants to resolve, just now. The Sri Lankan State learnt a hard lesson – so did the Sinhala people and their polity – after ‘shaming’ the Tamils in their time, and ended up paying through an unwanted and unwelcome war with its own people. What Sri Lanka today wants is reconciliation, even if it is slow and halting in coming – not, retribution, that too in the name of Justice! A proud people who believe that they had gotten rid of whom the world had told them were the worst terror-network is now (being) confused. Confusion complicates the present, and creates more confrontation(s). That is what Sri Lanka is going through post-war, either anticipating ‘accountability issues’ or coming to face them, not long afterward. The consequences can be more troublesome than the past.

Going by public statements of the time, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, who for instance, was sort of convinced about the possibility of ‘accountability issues’ even at the conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’ has been proven right, so to say.  It is no proof of anything otherwise. Yet, that section of the Sri Lankan leadership that was all for a negotiated settlement, however many hurdles that route may present, do not have an explanation, or a new prescription. It’s ‘accountability issues’ that is staring Sri Lanka in the face. Political solution will have to wait – and into an indeterminable future.

When Pressure Alone Works

No one in Sri Lanka, or elsewhere, is talking about a political process or a negotiated settlement. President Mahinda Rajapaksa too, while reviving the mention of a ‘home-grown solution’ only weeks ago, left it at that. Maybe, he was not enthused by the response, or the lack of it, from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on the other side of the ‘ethnic divide’.  Maybe, his Government too is too busy – and has been made to be too busy – with ‘accountability issues’ hanging over its head all the time. With the result maybe, and without it otherwise, the Government has let windows of opportunity pass by, since the West began flagging ‘accountability issues’ at UNHRC, circa 2012. One was at the beginning, the Government could have agreed voluntarily and magnanimous on some of the immediate political demands of the TNA that have had nothing to do with re-starting the stalled post-war negotiations.
One thing would have led to another, and re-commenced negotiations could have pushed ‘accountability issues’ to the side-lines, at least within Sri Lanka, if not into oblivion.

But at every turn, the Government has made it impossible by not giving in with grace when it could still have done so, and by only yielding under seeming pressure from or through UNHRC. The Government then starts complaining about the world, and the Tamils feel that international pressure works – and international pressure alone works. India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has flagged the political process in a recent media interview, by referring to the India-Sri Lanka Accord. [NISM2] As he pointed out, “Sri Lanka is a sovereign State. It is for them to decide about their country.” In context, he may have sought to dispel continuing delusions to the contrary when he recalled: “The Sri Lankan Government sought our help, and, in response to that, we were promised that there would be a devolution of power from the Centre to the States — like it is in India…

We were assured that the 13th Amendment would give Sri Lankans, Tamils and other ethnicities the right to live with dignity and honour.” It’s not about ‘retributive justice’ of any kind, but true and effective political reconciliation for and of the future, where the ‘sovereignty’ of Sri Lanka and its decisions would be – and would have to be – respected. In the short-term, it may spice up the lives of Diaspora Tamils, but over the medium and the long-terms, the current phase of global engagement with and in Sri Lanka can only bring more harm than good to the Tamils who are living in Sri Lanka – Sri Lankans who are living in Sri Lanka!

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