Denial as strategy

Published : Nov 02, 2007 00:00 IST

The LTTE appears cornered, but the government may soon exhaust its fund of goodwill inside the country and abroad.

in Colombo

AS the undeclared one-and-a-half-year-old war in the east and the north rages on, Sri Lanka is faced with a paradoxical situation. By all accounts, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has cornered the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) like never before. But alas, instead of winning over the hearts and minds of the people and the international community, the government is bent on antagonising its friends and well-wishers.

Thanks to its obsession with a military strategy and tendency to categorise as an adversary anyone who raises an inconvenient question about the army operations, the government has not been able to cash in on its military success. Zero progress on building a consensus within the majority community on a political solution to the ethnic conflict and the governments disdain for concerns within and outside the island nation about human rights violations have eclipsed the military gains made against the LTTE.

At the moment, it might all appear hunky-dory for the government and its cheer leaders, but in the long run the short-sightedness of the regime could prove costly. Though the government does not agree, the overwhelming opinion within and outside the country is that there can be no military solution to the conflict. The LTTE, for all its intransigence and violent politics, is seen as a symptom of the larger disease plaguing the island nation.

The root of the problem lies not only in the Rajapaksa governments conviction that the LTTE can be tackled militarily, but also in its suspicion that everyone who differs with it has a hidden agenda. There can be no other explanation for the manner in which the government has gone out of its way to annoy influential players within and outside the country, particularly at a juncture when the armed forces appear to be making unprecedented gains.

The government has been unnecessarily prickly over the subject of human rights violations, which is a matter for concern not just for several sections within Sri Lanka but for the entire international community. By its actions, the government has, wittingly or unwittingly, given the impression that it has something major to hide. The attitude has not only isolated it from several important players, but deprived it of an opportunity to enlist their cooperation in its fight against the LTTE.

The latest visit by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, in the second week of October, best illustrated the gulf between the government and the rest of the world on the state of human rights and the ability of the island nation to address the issues arising out of it. Though she was in the country at the special invitation of the President, the government treated her visit as an event that it needed to get out of its way as quickly as possible. She spent four days under the watchful eyes of the government machinery and was denied permission to visit Kilinochchi, the administrative headquarters of the LTTE, on the grounds of security. Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who shadowed Louise Arbour throughout the visit, reasoned at the joint press conference with her that the whole world knew what the LTTE was up to and there was no need for anyone to travel to Kilinochchi to discover what was going on.

The press conference turned into an ugly spectacle. The U.N. envoy and the Minister differed with each other virtually on every subject. In response to Louise Arbours strong plea on the need for an international mission to document and monitor human rights abuses effectively, the Minister told her in diplomatic language that the affairs of Sri Lanka were none of the business of the U.N. body and that it could at the most offer technical assistance to enhance the capacity of indigenous mechanisms. It was, in the end, a we agree to disagree situation.

The governments reluctance to allow international bodies to monitor the human rights situation does not seem logical in view of the fact that the military has made considerable gains on the ground in the last three or four months. Since the LTTE was driven out of the east in early August, the Tigers have not been able to strike back anywhere in a remarkable manner despite the fissures within the Col. Karuna group and general unrest among the people in the east, particularly the Muslims.

Contrary to apprehensions in several quarters, Colombo has been quiet and safe. The nascent air wing of the Tigers, which hit headlines worldwide in March/April with four daring raids on military targets, including two in Colombo, is grounded. The Navy claims to have destroyed all the 10 ships under the command of the Tigers. If the government claims are true, the naval fleet of the LTTE is wiped out, at least for now. In two cases, Sea Tiger ships were tracked and destroyed as far away as in the Indonesian waters. The Navy claimed to have seized two remote-controlled aircraft in the last attack on LTTE boats. And for the first time in years, the military claims to have made some territorial gains in the north by capturing a base of the Tigers in Mannar.

Despite all these achievements, the government betrays a lack of confidence in its dealings with the international community. The world community is seriously concerned about reports of widespread human rights abuses and the inability of the government machinery to cope with the situation. But the message is just not being registered in Colombo.

It is against this backdrop that there is a growing clamour on the need for an international mission to monitor the human rights situation. Going by the governments own admission, Sri Lanka narrowly escaped censure on the human rights front by the European Union. On the eve of the Human Rights Council of the E.U., the government, in an aide-memoire to the E.U. Presidency, made a strong case against any action on the human rights subject on the plea that this would only help serve the LTTE agenda.

Barring the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which leads the ruling coalition, and ultra-nationalist parties such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the Jathika Hela Urumaya, most other parties and organisations, whose representatives Louise Arbour met backed the idea of an international mission. In her statement at the end of her mission, she said that in the context of the armed conflict and the emergency measures taken against terrorism, the weakness of the rule of law was alarming. She said: There is a large number of reported killings, abductions and disappearances which remain unresolved. This is particularly worrying in a country that has had a long, traumatic experience of unresolved disappearances and no shortage of recommendations from past Commissions of Inquiry on how to safeguard against such violations. While the government pointed to several initiatives it has taken to address these issues, there has yet to be an adequate and credible public accounting for the vast majority of these incidents. In the absence of more vigorous investigations, prosecutions and convictions, it is hard to see how this will come to an end. She said that throughout the discussions she held in the country, government representatives insisted that national mechanisms were adequate for the protection of human rights but required capacity building and more support from the international community. However, she pointed out that in contrast, people from across a broad political spectrum, and from various communities, expressed lack of confidence and trust in the ability of existing institutions to guard adequately against serious human rights abuses.

Louise Arbour emphasised that the current problem of human rights protection in Sri Lanka was not solely a question of capacity. While training and international expertise are needed in specific areas, and I understand would be welcomed by the government, I am convinced that one of the major human rights shortcomings in Sri Lanka is rooted in the absence of reliable and authoritative information on the credible allegations of human rights abuses. Many state that the LTTE is quick to manipulate information for propaganda gain. In my view this only accentuates the need for independent information gathering and public reporting on human rights issues. UNHCHR is willing to support the Government of Sri Lanka in this way, she said.

Mahinda Samarasinghe chose not to respond to the suggestion. He made it a point to declare that the government was not willing to discuss the question of opening an office of the UNHCHR or the Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Sri Lanka.

At the moment, riding high on its military successes, the government might afford to ignore warnings from people such as Louise Arbour. But if it continues to be deaf to pleadings from the rest of the world, the tolerance levels of the international community could dip dramatically, and Sri Lanka could be on the radar of sanctions.

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