Tom Wright, Courtesy of Sunday Leader, 18 March 2012 and Wall Street Journal
The U.S. and some Indian politicians believe now is the moment to publicly pressure Sri Lanka to address rights abuses committed by its military at the end of the country’s 26-year war against the Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009. Next week, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the U.S. is planning to introduce a resolution calling for Sri Lanka to investigate and punish atrocities. Indian politicians from the south, where ethnic Tamil parties dominate, this week have called for New Delhi to back the motion. Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka’s envoy to India, cautions that this hard-ball approach could backfire by stiffening anti-U.S. feeling inside the country as it tries to come to terms with a conflict which caused tens of thousands of lives. “We’re very surprised on the U.S. trying to force our hand on what we’re doing naturally. We should be given time and space,” Mr. Kariyawasam said in an interview in New Delhi. “This kind of pressure, the public will see as not helpful. It will delay our reconciliation process.”
At the crux of the brewing diplomatic tensions are opposing narratives of the bloody closing months of the war, during which the government defeated the Tamil Tigers. There’s also a sizeable divergence of opinion over how best to move ahead with reconciliation between the dominant Sinhalese population and minority Tamils to ensure violence isn’t reignited. The U.S. view, expressed again this week by Robert Blake, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia, is that Sri Lanka needs to atone for the sins of its soldiers in early 2009, when government forces shelled Tamil civilian targets like schools and hospitals. Tens of thousands of people died at the war’s climax and 300,000 people were displaced. Washington recognizes the Tamil Tigers also carried out atrocities, not least the use of civilians as human shields. But, as Mr. Blake made clear, the U.S. believes a failure to fully account for government abuses will leave a wound festering that could lead to renewed hostilities. Sri Lankan officials, including Mr. Kariyawasam, the High Commissioner in India, have been pushing back against this version of events. For one, Sri Lanka defends its actions in the closing months of the war. Mr. Kariyawasam says Western nations pressured Sri Lanka during its 2009 offensive for a cease-fire. But Colombo rejected this because such pacts in the past had failed to hold. The Tamil Tigers refused to lay down arms and so the government had to fight to the end. “That’s why they were killed. We had to defeat terrorism since there was no surrender,” Mr. Kariyawasam said. On Wednesday, Britain’s Channel 4 aired a documentary claiming Sri Lankan forces summarily executed Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his 12-year-old son in May 2009. The documentary included video footage purporting to show the deceased bodies with multiple bullet wounds, suggesting execution at close range. Mr. Kariyawasam said the video, which he claimed was “not corroborated,” only served to poison the atmosphere in Sri Lanka as the state tries to rebuild the northern and eastern Tamil-majority areas devastated by conflict. He compared the killing of Mr. Prabhakaran to that of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs in May. “You don’t do cease-fire with him, you just kill him.” That brings us to the next gaping difference with the U.S. Listening to Mr. Kariyawasam, it appears that Sri Lanka’s government doesn’t agree with Washington that probing rights abuses will do much good. Sri Lanka’s government has formed its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which published a report in November. Human rights groups have slammed the commission for largely exonerating government forces. The report, they say, failed to address issues such as shelling of civilian areas and only recommended investigations into a small number of abuses. The report also ignored a U.N. panel of experts which called in a report a year ago for a U.N.-backed independent inquiry into Sri Lanka’s war deaths. Mr. Kariyawasam said that going deeply into abuses over the three-decade conflict, with an arbitrarily tight focus on the end of the war, would only further deepen divisions.“It’s a period of 30 years. So much wrong has been done by all parties,” he said. “If you go back that long, you can’t go forward.” Sri Lanka’s government, he said, views talks with the Tamil National Alliance, a local political party, over devolution of power and economic rejuvenation of Tamil areas as a better way to move forward. Many Tamils reject there’s any meaningful reconciliation taking place. Although emergency laws have been rolled back, the Sinhalese-dominated army retains a massive presence in the northeast. A Tamil lawyer in Colombo says the military is deepening its business ties in Tamil-majority regions, including taking over land from farmers. “You can’t even have a function without inviting those guys,” he said. Such reports, coupled with the Channel 4 documentary, have inflamed passion among India’s Tamil politicians. Mr. Kariyawasam said the military was pulling out gradually as the situation returned to normal and denied reports of land grabs. India’s Tamil politicians, he added, “have been ill informed about the ground situation” by pro-Tamil Tiger groups in the U.S. and U.K. (On Thursday, Mr. Kariyawasam apologized for remarks in The Indian Express suggesting India’s government investigate politicians who are sympathetic to the Tamil Tigers.) India’s government has been coy about the U.S.-sponsored resolution at the U.N. next week. But Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna, in remarks to Parliament on Wednesday, suggested that New Delhi’s view hews closer to Colombo’s than Washington’s. Backing the U.N. motion, Mr. Krishna warned lawmakers, could adversely affect India’s relations with Sri Lanka and may not assist in the process of reconciliation. The stance is not without risks. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a Tamil party in the governing coalition, has threatened to pull its support unless the government supports the U.N. resolution.