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Hiding the Elephant : India, Sri Lanka and the Crisis of Commonwealth

Paper No. 5596                                    Dated 11-Nov-2013

Guest Column by Prof. Ramu Manivannan

A view that India’s “paramount security and strategic interests” in and around Sri Lanka and India’s national interests dictate that the Prime Minister should represent the country at Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo, Sri Lanka needs to debated.

This view has conveniently bypassed two important questions regarding the recommendation and choice of Sri Lanka as the host for CHOGM and, another serious one for that matter, that why Sri Lanka should be suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations?  This is not at all surprising given the role of Indian government in covering the distance before it unveils its next strategy.

The observation of the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma that the candidature of Sri Lanka was approved collectively is only a half truth.  The decisions are usually sought in consensus on such vital issues.  It takes two to tango with Sri Lanka and India pushing for their covert interest, the choice could not be different.  The Prime Minister, as the government sources reveal, will not go but the External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, who is anyway going to Colombo will therefore represent India at CHOGM is the predetermined strategy of the Ministry of the External Affairs (MEA) with a time tested  approach of horses for courses.  The Parliamentary Elections-2014 and the prospect of virtual rout of Congress in Tamil Nadu has forced the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to change the horse but the course remains intact.   

The Government of India has no doubt succeeded in promoting Sri Lanka as the venue for the CHOGM-2013 as part of its larger interest in securing international legitimacy for the Mahinda Rajapakse led government in Sri Lanka when the cries for credible international investigation into the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces during the final phases of the brutal war that ended in May 2009 could be heard loud and clear all over the world. This is a matter of considerable concern to the  UPA  government in India and particularly to the MEA which provided a diplomatic cover to the Indian government’s political and military assistance to the Sri Lankan government’s military resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. 

The complicity factor is haunting the Indian government with the growing revelations and extent of international campaign against the Sri Lankan government and its political leadership.  The political, economic, military and diplomatic support extended by the Indian government to the Sri Lankan government in its approach to military solution has consistently been known by the international community. India’s role and contribution to the military resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has been acknowledged by the now estranged Sri Lankan war trio, Mahinda Rajapakse, Gotabaya Rajapakse and Sarath Fonseka in several national, political and diplomatic forums. 

Basil Rajapakse had gone on record to observe that Sri Lanka had only fought “India’s war”.  There are more formidable evidences of the war crimes and dehumanized conduct of the Sri Lankan armed forces emerging, including the Channel 4 (authenticated by a team of international experts) documentaries. Gotabaya Rajapakse has in fact said that there was a six member council that met daily during the final months of the brutal war, and composed of three top ministerial advisers from the Government of India who along with three from the Sri Lankan Government had conducted the war on a day to day basis until the final days of the war, and that, undeniably proves our fears that we are also complicit to the emerging ground realities of the military resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.  There is a deafening silence of the Indian government to all these revelations. 

Indian diplomacy has never before suffered such moral bankruptcy as revealed in its role in the recent decades in Sri Lanka. We are pretending to look away from the humanitarian crises that we had contributed in Sri Lanka through an unsuspecting collusion of politicians and bureaucrats in defining the interest of UPA  as the national interest(s) with generous distribution of power, privileges and rewards including safe kicks to upstairs for people involved in key decision-making roles with appointments to National Security Council, as ambassadors abroad and governors at home.  There is no end to our dismay in India because our politicians do not retire on their own choice and with the clique of ambitious bureaucrats, who do not want to retire, make a deadly combination of defiance against truth.  This is one of the tragedies of our public life without any scope for democratic debate denied in the name of national interest.   

Commonwealth Charter

More importantly, the CHOGM should not have been allowed to be held in Sri Lanka. Then we had clearly failed to seek the suspension of Sri Lanka from Commonwealth.  Instead the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government and the MEA have managed to reduce the entire debate as though the only question before us is the Prime Minister’s visit to Colombo.

We may mention here a few core values of the Commonwealth without raising further questions about their relevance to Sri Lanka that may be posed at later stage.  The Commonwealth Charter is an established, recognizable statement of what the Commonwealth stands for, accessible to all Commonwealth citizens, and a means to protect and promote the Commonwealth’s core democratic values.  The core values and principles of the Commonwealth Charter do include the commitment towards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant human rights covenants and international instruments.  The Charter is implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political beliefs or other grounds. The Charter believes in the rule of law as an essential protection for the people of the Commonwealth and as an assurance of limited and accountable government.  The Charter supports an independent, impartial, honest and competent judiciary and recognizes that an independent, effective and competent legal system is integral to upholding the rule of law, engendering public confidence and dispensing justice.  The Charter accords considerable importance to the status of gender equality and women’s empowerment as essential components of human development and basic human rights.  More significantly, the Charter recognizes the role of civil society in our communities and countries as partners in promoting and supporting Commonwealth values and principles, including the freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and in achieving development goals. 

If democracy as one of the core values of the Commonwealth can be applied to countries like Nigeria, Fiji, Zimbabwe and Pakistan, then why are we protecting Sri Lanka with regard to values of human rights, rule of law, status of women and the role of civil society?  Aren’t Tamils of Sri Lanka  citizens of Commonwealth? The question is whether the Sri Lankan defence forces and the government authorities (including the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Former Chief of Army Sarath Fonseka) are guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces?

The answer lies in the extent of their responsibility and the depth of their culpability.  They are responsible and culpable for deaths that were reasonably foreseeable with the clear choice of military strategy and application of military technology accompanied by the complete political support of the government and its leadership.  The extraordinary number of civilian casualty constitutes as an inherent part of their military strategy, in other words, as chosen means to the predictable end of ethnic cleansing. 

A 1993 report by the UN Commission of Experts to the Security Council defines “ethnic cleansing as rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.”  In saying that the role and relevance of the Commonwealth goes much beyond the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka, the Secretary-General  Kamalesh Sharma sounds like another hawk in Mahinda Rajpakse’s cabinet.  The Secretary-General had also observed recently that the Commonwealth Secretariat will assist Sri Lanka in setting up a National Inquiry on Torture under the aegis of the Sri Lanka National Human Rights Commission that would complete its work within 18 months.  Does he concede that the Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) duly constituted by the Sri Lankan government has failed in addressing these concerns? If so, then Human Rights Council (HRC) of the United Nations is the agency to take up this subject with the preceding engagements on this issue. How can we expect justice when Sri Lanka is going to be the chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years? The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth should not be presenting an impression of defending the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world or even a perception of his batting for the Sri Lankan government, for the survival of the idea and spirit of Commonwealth.   

War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity

The Sri Lankan military shelled the UN humanitarian hubs, food distribution lines and Red Cross ships arriving to rescue the wounded and their relatives.  The Sri Lankan military systematically bombed hospitals on the frontlines, which were clearly marked and were protected by international humanitarian law.  It has been well documented now that almost all the hospitals in the Vanni region were hit by mortars and artillery, sometimes, repeatedly, despite the Sri Lankan military knowing their locations as sites that were to be legally protected. Tamils have long been subjected to enormous suffering and discrimination for long but the nature and intensity of these acts became more heightened as the Sri Lankan defence forces and the government considered that everything can be wrapped under the scheme of war against terror and there would be no evidence further to challenge their atrocities. 

The Sri Lankan government forced the Tamils to participate in their own death by forcing them to go to No Fire Zones (NFZs) and later bombing those areas with Kfir jets and deadly weapons.  The Sri Lankan Army did use cluster bomb munitions, white phosphorus and other chemical substances against Tamil civilians, particularly in the Pudukudiiruppu area and in the second NFZ.   The family members were never told about the status of young men who have disappeared after interrogation and much worse was the situation of parents with young girls and women.  The young women suspected of having received LTTE training were taken away in ambulances at night from the camps (including Manik Farm) and brought back in the morning.  They were usually taken away under the pretext of interrogation while there was an investigation centre existing within the camp.  The mothers of these young women suffered a silent death everyday witnessing the unspeakable pain and humiliation borne by their children.  The worst was reserved for the former LTTE female fighters  while being held in detention centres and shot with gruesome wounds.

The Right Reverent Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph, in an affidavit submitted to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), appointed by the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, had asked “Due clarifications should be made regarding what happened to 1,46,679 people, which is the discrepancy between the number of people who came to the government areas between October 2008 and May 2009 and the population reported to be in Vanni in early October 2008”.

According to the Bishop of Mannar, the records of the Sri Lankan government Agent offices of Mullaitheevu and Killinochi comprising the Vanni region in October 2008 was 4,29,059 and the number of people who entered the Sri Lankan government controlled area after the war was 2,82,380, as per the UN update on 10 July 2009.  Therefore he seeks the clarification for 1,46,679 people. The Bishop of Mannar submitted this affidavit on 11th January 2011 and the Sri Lankan government has neither denied nor refuted his submission.  But the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, released in November 2011 does not even acknowledge the affidavit submitted by the Bishop of Mannar.  There are many more such deliberate acts of overlooking the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan government and its security forces.  The development and reconstruction of the North, as in the East, is being characterized by heavy militarization.  The militarization of North and East along with building of large “cantonments” for the military and their families in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts are part of an overall strategy of military encirclement.  The establishment of security settlements in the North would explicitly link military, development and ethno-demographic policies that we cannot ignore for long. 

We need to ask the MEA and the Government of India that why the war crimes and the crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces should not be considered as gross violations of the core values of the Commonwealth Charter.  The three-member UN panelists report, consisting of Mr.Marzuki Darusman(Indonesia), Ms.Yasmin Sooka(South Africa) and Prof.Steven Ratner(USA), acknowledged that time and again UN offices, humanitarian hubs and even relief distribution centres were relentlessly attacked by the Sri Lankan military.  The satellite photographs of the UNSAT remain as reliable evidence which the Sri Lankan military and the government cannot refute. International human rights advocates including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, Asian Human Rights Forum, Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal and Internal Report of the United Nations have all   presented sufficient reasons for us to ponder regarding the accountability question of the Sri Lankan government and the role of its armed forces.  But the Indian government and the Congress leadership has so far succeeded in reducing these global concerns as sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu and thus projecting a picture of divide between the national interest and the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu.  This is a cruel ploy to hide the elephant in the room.

Tamil Nadu Factor

MEA has rarely addressed the sufferings of the Tamil Nadu fishermen who are seen as an easy target for sending message to the government and people of Tamil Nadu by the Sri Lankan government.  We are more than concerned that what gains are there for the MEA in pronouncing Katchatheevu as the settled matter between India and Sri Lanka when the people of Tamil Nadu and other opposition parties at the national level consider the agreement as illegal.  Katchatheevu is an integral part of India and in asking for review and retrieval of the same how do we betray our national interest?  Would it not fetch an advanced post for the Indian Navy when there are growing reports of Chinese movements near the Palk Straits?   

People of Tamil Nadu are often intrigued by the definition of national interests as observed by the government and leadership at the centre that lacks credibility and character with mounting questions of scams, corruption charges and lack of accountability.  We should not reduce the concerns of the state as sentiments as though the responsibility of defining national interest rests with only a few lording the South Block.  There is a scant respect even to the unanimous resolutions of the state legislature in this regard.  Tamil Nadu is not only a rightful stake holder in defining our policy towards Sri Lanka but also its concerns about the war crimes and crimes committed against humanity by the Sri Lankan armed forces are not unjustified.      

There is a Tamil Nadu factor and the influence of it can be recognized from the fact that Tamil Nadu is part of the global articulation against the Sri Lankan government and its leadership for their military excesses, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces.  The morale of the Congress led UPA government is embarrassingly low with the growing numbers among the ranks of Congressmen from the state arguing for an appropriate action against the Sri Lankan government.  The parliamentary elections in 2014 would uncork the conscience of many more Congressmen in the state.  Every election is a bitter pill even for an astute politician.  The Congress party has many of them and they are getting ready to swallow their own past.    

Provincial Council Elections in North of Sri Lanka                              

The recently held elections in the Northern Province and the success of the TNA in the provincial elections does not take away rights of Tamils living in Sri Lanka and the Tamil Diaspora living in different parts of the world, to seek a credible international investigations into the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) under the monitoring of the United Nations.  Instead the Congress party, Indian government and the MEA are applying the recently held elections in the Northern Province as a shrewd ploy against the emergence of a credible international investigation into the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces, the role of Sri Lankan government and its political leadership.  Commonwealth Lawyers Association had earlier asked for the suspension of Sri Lanka from Commonwealth of Nations regarding the status of rule of law in Sri Lanka.  But the MEA’s recommendation is clear.  We need to know that why is our government bending over backwards to protect the Sri Lankan government and its leadership?  Why Sri Lanka should be exempted from observing the Commonwealth Charter and its core values? Is this a special waiver for protection of our national and strategic interests?  MEA would do well to remember the political and strategic support provided by the Sri Lankan government in 1965 and 1971 wars against our national interests, instead of contributing to the gradual decline and collapse of the Commonwealth itself.  

There is no doubt that the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi are among the grave acts of LTTE that continues to serve as the benchmark of India’s stance against the LTTE.  We need to know that how many lives of Tamils and how much more suffering would be seen as enough for the anger and revenge of India. Should we count civilian deaths too? We may move a little forward with questions that we have rarely dared to ask.  There has been little debate yet in this country regarding Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to send Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) to Sri Lanka in 1987 including its disastrous consequences at home in terms of policy consequences.  Much less about the enormous human rights abuses and violations of the rights of innocent civilians including reports of torture.

We are more than aware that an eye for eye only makes the world go blind.  In asking the Tamils to seek reconciliation with the Sri Lankan government after the brutal war in May 2009 and with the application of provincial elections in the North in 2013 as an end itself, we have not remained as an example in defining the limits of anger and revenge of an empire state in the region.   Tamils are also angry but have no power or influence to exercise their revenge.  Tamils are in no mood to seek revenge but want to understand that why did we abandon them like we did during the final phases of brutal war.  Our stout silence during the final push and refusal to co-operate and even allow international humanitarian rescue mission would go down in the annals of international law as crimes of intent and complicit in nature.

 The mandate given to Tamil National Alliance in the recently held Northern Provincial elections was an expression of their collective determination and political will that should pave way as means to find an appropriate political solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.  The holding of the provincial elections cannot be treated as bargain for not raising concerns about the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces.  Tamils have witnessed many elections and have given mandate as strong as the recent elections to the Northern Provincial Council.  But they are yet to witness justice. 

There is a strong resentment among the Sinhala political parties in Sri Lanka, contrary to the routine diplomatic pronouncements, regarding the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which is derived from the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.  In June 2011 President Rajapaksa told the Indian team comprising National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, foreign secretary Nirupama Rao and defence secretary Pradeep Kumar that it would not be possible for him to hand over control of land and police to the provincial councils.  The Indian government and the MEA in particular, would do well to remember the assurances given by the President Mahinda Rajapaksa regarding his interest and commitment to go beyond the 13th amendment when he wanted the Indian government to support his government’s decision to seek military solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.  This time it was the turn of Mahinda Rajapaksa to use the constituent parties in the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) like the previous leaders citing the opposition from both within and outside the government towards the implementation of the 13th amendment even after diluting the provisions and altering the demographic conditions of the North and Eastern provinces.  Given the access and influence enjoyed by the South Block power coterie inside the Temple Trees in Sri Lanka, we should demand land rights and police powers to the Northern Provincial Council. After May 2009, the Sri Lankan defence forces have occupied more than 7000 sq km of land owned by the Tamil people besides the land held under the control of the military during war period.  This attempt should not be seen as a bargain for seeking a credible international investigation into the role and responsibility of the Sri Lankan government and its leadership for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Tamils search for justice does not end with the elections to the Northern Provincial Council and the formation of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) government in the North. A credible international investigation into the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces, the role and responsibility of the Sri Lankan government and its political leadership is part of the national and international accountability mechanism. The fate of LLRC is now fully known to the world.  India should facilitate the scope for exploring justice in Sri Lanka instead of creating more roadblocks that would not keep the island afloat.  India’s Sri Lanka policy has been at the edge of a grand tragedy for long and wish we had not dragged the Commonwealth of Nations to defend our follies and the criminal allies. 

There is an organic quality to politics that we cannot overlook to in order to remain hopeful.  The Commonwealth is likely to be engulfed in more gale and guilt but institutions of greater meaning have potential to survive the deceitful schemes of the crafty governments of our times.  At the same time, we will be naïve if we do not take time to ponder over the future of Commonwealth itself.  Britain and other members of the Commonwealth still have time to reflect on the foreseeable future of the Commonwealth itself with the trying circumstances ahead and the ritual resulting in the elevation of a leader and government, accused of  war crimes and crimes against humanity, as the Chair of Commonwealth of Nations for the next two years.   It is time to sing that “Commonwealth is Dead and Long Live the Commonwealth” as a tribute to the idea and spirit of Commonwealth itself.     

(Professor Ramu Manivannan Chair-Department of Politics & Public Administration School of International Relations, University of Madras, Chennai-600 005.  The views expressed are his own and not that of the South Asia Analysis Group).