A bargain in Geneva

India’s major concern in Geneva centres on the fact that despite having won the war against the LTTE, Colombo is yet to fully secure the peace.

As the UN Human Rights Commi-ssion starts sessions in Gen-eva from November 1 to access Sri Lanka’s human rights record, one of the three countries tasked with formulating a report will be India — which is chairing the committee — with the two others being Spain and Benin.

Delhi, in fact, has the toughest call of the three. It cannot afford to alienate one of its friendlier faces in the neighbourhood in the hitherto pro-India leaning Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse. Equally, it cannot be seen as not being fair and just, while examining the serious charges levelled against the Rajapakse government on its treatment of the minority Tamils, both during the final and brutal end of the Tigers in May 2009, and well after the conflict ended.
The questions raised by the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands as well as pro-Colombo Pakistan and China focus on the continued military presence in the North, the failure to hold Northern Provincial Council elections — due only in September 2013 — the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda and the
continued intolerance of journalists, NGOs and individuals critical of the government.
India’s major concern, however, continues to centre on the fact that despite having decisively won the war against the Tamil Tigers, Colombo is yet to fully secure the peace. Not just with the displaced, but more critically, with the Tamil GenNext.
The Tamil diaspora remain a vocal, well-heeled, highly educated and potent force, scattered across Canada, the US, Europe and Southeast Asia. They may lack the charisma and the ability to resurrect the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam, no doubt, but they are demonstrably capable of generating enough heat to put Colombo on the proverbial UN mat on its less than equitable handling of the Tamil dispossessed.
In India last week, for a quiet tete-a-tete was Sri Lanka’s powerful defence minister Gotabaya Rajapakse, when India’s concerns over the continued feet-dragging by the Sri Lankan government on implementing the 13th Amendment was conveyed. More so in the light of voices from the entrenched Sinhala Right-wing against the move, which many in Delhi believe to be orchestrated at the behest of the Rajapakse government, unwilling to hand over power to provincial councils that could be dominated by former Tamil Tiger proxies, like members of the Tamil National Alliance who are keen on joining the mainstream.
These include Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil United Liberation Front, and R. Sampanthan’s Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi, all of whom must navigate the shoals very carefully indeed as they make the transition into independent and bona fide political parties, rather than their earlier avatars as the voice of the slain separatist leader.
The 13th Amendment, a holdover from the India-Sri Lanka Agreement, would see a devolution of power to the north and east which India, for one, believes would go some way towards assuaging the alienation of the Tamil people.
Colombo’s denials notwithstanding, there is growing concern in the Sri Lankan business community and among the moderates over the effect sanctions could have on a less than booming economy, trying to shake off the ill-effects of over 30 years of war and the prohibitive costs of a standing army that numbers close to a lakh, even in peace time.
The Rajapakse government is understood to have sent a power-packed delegation to field the UN’s questions at Geneva. But India’s earlier vote against Sri Lanka on its human rights record has no doubt rankled, even as it signalled that India was moving to the next rung, its position as an emerging leader in the South Asia region reinforced. Just as it had engaged with Burmese generals in moving forward on jailed and now freed leader Aun San Suu Kyi, Delhi is hoping it can persuade the Rajapakse government not to go back on its word on full implementation of the 13th Amendment, with the Geneva meet and a less than harsh report as a possible bailout, emerging as a quid pro quo. One source close to developments pointed to the visit of the Spanish king Juan Carlos to Delhi as being no coincidence.
Theories abound on how India had given enough indication to the previous Chandrika Kumaratunge government that it was willing to turn a blind eye if Colombo moved on the Tigers and how she had baulked despite coming close to destroying the top leadership of the Tigers twice, which then paved the way for the surprise rise to power of Mr Rajapakse, who reading the signals correctly — India sent its national security adviser and its foreign secretary to say it would not interfere or step in — finally did the job.
But post-2009, the Sri Lankan leadership has been bogged down by its inability to find middle ground. That is, rehabilitate the Tamils without giving them the muscle to wield power in the provinces in the mistaken belief that empowering the Tamil political parties to run governments and handle security vis-à-vis police in Tamil majority areas where Muslims are also a force; concerned, it would only prepare the ground for the resurgence of another LTTE.
Some Western diplomats, who have served in Colombo, say a watered-down version of the 13th Amendment should be explored which does not wholly and completely hand over power to the provincial councils. Instead, it should examine the Indian Constitution on Centre-state relations where barring defence and matters of national security, the state — or in the case of Sri Lanka, the provincial council — is empowered to govern.
Mr Rajapakse, some say, is committed to ensuring the Tamil minority are no longer treated like second-class citizens, discriminated over language and ethnicity. But in his unstated intent to enforce a unitary form of government, the assimilation of the Tamils into
Sri Lankan society is unlikely in the immediate future.
Mr Rajapakse, not due to face the electorate till 2016 and therefore unwilling to go beyond his own vote bank, may yet see reason. Unless Geneva, where a high-level delegation led by Mr Rajapakse’s special envoy on human rights Mahinda Samarasinghe is unable to swing things Sri Lanka’s way, and forces his hand.

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