Reconciliation and the role of India

Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP

At the Observatory Research Foundation

Delhi, December 13th 2013

 

I must admit to being deeply worried about the current state of relations between India and Sri Lanka. I contrast this with the excellent situation that obtained in 2009, when India was the chief component of the protective barrier against efforts to stop us eradicating terrorism from our shores. One might have thought that this was a goal the whole world would have supported, but sadly this is not an ideal world and countries will naturally put their own self interest first. Fortunately, not only did India’s interests coincide with our own at that stage, but given the terrible toll terrorism funded by external sources was taking on both our countries, I think it is also true to say that we worked in accordance with the highest moral perspectives.

But the aim we shared then, of eradicating terrorism on our shores, went hand in hand with another commitment, which was the promotion of pluralism in Sri Lanka. This again is a moral goal, but it also has a practical dimension, in that the full incorporation of the Tamil people in the body politic in Sri Lanka would have reduced the potential for future terrorism.

Sadly Sri Lanka has not pursued the Reconciliation process with the commitment it requires. Given its urgency I believe we should try to understand the reasons for this, and try to overcome them. In this process India has a significant role to play.

The first reason is myopia. Major decision makers in government, or rather the only decision maker in this regard, the Minister of Economic Development, believed that material development would ensure integration of conflict affected areas in the national economy and hence promote reconciliation. He was wrong, and it is a pity that he does not understand the need for consultation of potential beneficiaries as well as professionals when planning benefits for some sectors. But in mitigation it should be said that the strategy had worked to a great extent in the East, and he did not have established institutions to which to turn when making plans for the North. The absence of think tanks in Sri Lanka, the abolishing of the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation, as well as the Ministry of Human Rights, left a vacuum which sheer energy cannot fill.

While India has always tried to adopt a government to government strategy in its relations with other countries, and in particular with regard to aid programmes, this was a mistake. It should have engaged more actively with thinkers. I believe it has excellent relations with the Institute of Policy Studies, which had done its best to develop a coherent economic policy for the Sri Lankan government, albeit with limited success. But it should also have worked together with political thinkers, even if informally, and developed an aid strategy that also concentrated on human resource development, and putting in place consultative mechanisms.

This is where institutions like the Indo-Lanka Foundation can play a greater role, but it needs modernization and a more coherent agenda. If government cannot move, the Indian High Commission should develop its own think tank. I had suggested this a couple of years back, at a time when several Embassies were assisting with the development of ideas on Reconciliation, but unfortunately the hidebound traditions of Indian diplomacy, either totally working with government or else working on a confidential basis with select individuals, prevented the systemic interventions that were desirable.

The second reason for the failure of the reconciliation process is diffidence. While I believe Sri Lanka should have moved quickly on the actions it had promised in the joint communiqué signed by the President and the Secretary General of the United Nations, there was from the beginning a fear of unfair persecution. Given the lack of professionalism, and understanding of the international psyche, in the agencies which should have dealt with charges, namely the Ministries of External Affairs and Defence, there were blanket denials, whereas we should have worked closely with those international agencies that work to a professional rather than a political agenda.

I realized what was happening when I was rebuked by the then Attorney General for having given an estimate of the number of civilian casualties, in an interview in the middle of 2009. He informed me that the Secretary of Defence was angry with me, and asked why I had said what I did. My answer was that it was true, which threw him for a minute, but his response was significant. He told me that people would take advantage of what I had said, and I realized then that, given the paucity of people able to put forward a consistent and credible position, even someone as sophisticated as a senior lawyer thought blanket denial the best defence.

This I think explains the failure to deal with the few aberrations in the course of a war that by and large we fought more decently than any of the other exercises against terror now privileged by the powerful. I think that some decision makers in government are convinced that, if we move, we will be pushed further. And while I think this is wrong, and we owe it to our own people to fulfil our commitments and in particular the recommendations of our own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, I can see why there is diffidence. The manner in which the United States responded to the LLRC report, which all other interlocutors were positive about, suggested that they were determined to go further.

In this regard I believe India had a significant role to play, though perhaps that is more difficult now. There should have been confidence building to make it clear that fulfilling the LLRC recommendations was all that was needed, and there would be strong support provided against any further demands. I believe some such understanding early in 2012 would have prevented the debacle that occurred in Geneva in March.

That debacle was due to our not having done anything significant after the LLRC report was published, and that lack of action was inexcusable. Trying to understand it, I realized it related to the third problem we face, which is that many of those around the President are not concerned with his interests, let alone those of the country, but rather pursue their own ambitions. These are tied to others with influence, rather in the manner of the old Roman clientela, and therefore the wishes of the President become secondary. Thus those tasked with producing an Action Plan did nothing, just as nothing significant was done with regard to the LLRC interim recommendations. Some measures I should note were taken, but those in charge did not think it necessary to report on these and consult more widely on the best way forward, because they were keen to safeguard their own absolute authority.

This is where I believe India should have worked more consistently with the Secretary to the President under whom these mechanisms were meant to function. Though he has not been as effective in recent years as when he was part of the team that worked together with India during the conflict period, he clearly has no agenda of his own, except support for the President, and it would have made sense to have supported areas under his purview and enabled him to function more effectively. This can be done even now with regard to the Task Force on implementing the LLRC, and through confidence building the Secretary could be encouraged to ensure that that Task Force works through a distinct Ministry, without its personnel being hampered as now by a lack of clear authority.

While this would help I should however note that the fourth reason for government failure may still prove too strong, unless firmly countered. This is what I can only describe as fear of the Sarath Fonseka phenomenon. Once the government decided, in 2009, that it had to compete for the hardline vote, it cut itself off from dealing firmly with abuse. The decision to react to allegations Fonseka made by calling him a traitor, rather than a liar, suggested that there was something to hide. Worse, it made it difficult for government to take action against abuses since that would lay it open to charges of treachery. Unfortunately elements in the Ministry of Defence have adopted this mentality wholesale, which explains the critique of the LLRC that has appeared on its website, in a shocking example of how the authority of the President can be undermined.

This is an approach that can destroy the country, and in particular the military leaders who did so well in the war, and proved so humane afterwards, when there were efforts to keep the displaced in welfare centres for a protracted period. The recent refusal of a visa to one of the most accomplished of our officers, and that by Australia which government is confident is a strong supporter, shows clearly how insensitive we are to realities.

But at the same time it must be granted that these realities are monstrously unfair. As the Indian government knew well in 2009, it was ironic that countries which had been loudest in alleging war crimes and the complicity of the army commander at the time, saw him as a hero afterwards, when he became the chosen instrument of regime change. That certainly contributed to the neurosis that has oppressed our defence establishment since then, though typically they have reacted in a manner that can only make the neurosis worse.

Again this is where India can help build confidence, by affirming its support for the Sri Lankan military. But that should be in terms of its military role, and unfortunately this has been made difficult by the forces seeming to take on civilian functions. This brings me to the fifth and perhaps most important reason for government failure to move on reconciliation, namely its incapacity to work positively with moderate Tamil forces.

There are many reasons for this last, most obviously the pervasive distrust engendered by thirty years of conflict in which Tamil politicians were often in thrall to the LTTE. This has however to be understood in context, and we must learn to work together with those who from our point of view behaved badly because they were under threat. We have however failed to do this, and have spent more time attacking moderates, in the belief that their final goals are separatist, without trying to win them over.

I should add that they have to some extent contributed to this, by flirting with the Sarath Fonseka candidacy, by continuing to talk in terms of a merger (which suggests commitment to the concept of a homeland rather than devolution for greater responsiveness to the needs of the people) and also by following the American lead (as with Sarath Fonseka) in criticizing the LLRC and thus creating the impression that they too wanted blood.

This is where I believe India should have made greater use of its influence. After all, allowing Tamil political parties to emerge that have a greater commitment to Western nations rather than the sub-continent itself would be a greater disaster for India than for anyone else. The future of South Asia requires a strong and prosperous India, with positive relations with all its neighbours, and to sacrifice this for temporary gains would be a disaster all round.

I am not one of those who advocates continuing patience when there is no sign of movement. But I believe a clear message of support for Sri Lanka and the work of its armed forces during the conflict is essential, albeit combined with stronger mechanisms for providing advice and assistance that leads to greater cooperation between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil populations that suffered so much in the last few decades. We do not want the seeds of further conflict to be sown, either in Sri Lanka or in India, which means we need to work together urgently to ensure reconciliation and both dignity and prosperity for all our people.

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