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Why PM should have taken the flight to Sri Lanka

Last updated on: November 13, 2013 23:24 IST

The prime minister should have visited Sri Lanka, armed with a critique of the Rajapakse government based on nuance and fact, says Sreenivasan Jain

This past week, more than one columnist rightly skewered the hypocrisy of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Congress' Tamil Nadu leaders who managed to bully the prime minister into backing down from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting visit, while remaining resolutely silent during the course of the Sri Lankan army's final, bloody offensive.

In fact, in May 2009, when Mahinda Rajapakse declared victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the DMK's biggest grievance with the United Progressive Alliance was not over its tacit support to the war effort, but over which of the members of the warring Karunanidhi family would be part of the Cabinet.

Of course, some would argue that an even more blatant example of double standards is the complete silence of Tamil Nadu's political worthies against the LTTE's excesses, while ratcheting up the failures of the Sri Lankan government to address the wartime atrocities of the Sri Lankan Army, or of keeping the promise of political rights to the Tamils.

A more productive strategy would have been to acknowledge the measures taken so far by the Lankans, however inadequate, and use the PM's visit as part of the twin strategy of public and silent diplomacy to push the Sri Lankan government to do more.

Certainly on the question of political autonomy, the recently concluded provincial elections in the north, in which the Tamil National Alliance won a sweeping majority, deserve some acknowledgement. Of course, Sri Lanka refuses to cede full autonomy to the provincial councils specifically, police and land powers - but that presumably would have been part of the PM's agenda were he to have met Rajapakse.

On the prickly question of wartime excesses, Sri Lanka is on far weaker footing. And yet, there are tools for leverage available even within that government's own framework of redressal. I refer here to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), whose 2011 report has been dismissed as pro-government eyewash. This is a mistake. It is true that the Commission found that "the military strategy that was adopted to secure the LTTE held areas... was carefully conceived, in which the protection of the civilian population was given the highest priority" and "that the Security Forces had not deliberately targeted the civilians in the No Fire Zones".

But a closer reading suggests that the LLRC has not let the military establishment off the hook, even if the indictment is couched in committee-speak and multiple caveats.

Here is what, for instance, the LLRC has to say on the possibility that civilian deaths may have occurred: "While the Commission finds it difficult to determine the precise circumstances under which such incidents occurred... the material nevertheless points towards possible implication of the security forces for the resulting death or injury to civilians, even though this may not have been with an intent to cause harm. In these circumstances the Commission stresses that there is a duty on the part of the state to ascertain more fully, the circumstances under which such incidents could have occurred, and if such investigations disclose wrongful conduct, to prosecute and punish the wrong doers". 

On forced disappearances, the Commission says it "must emphasise that in respect of the representations from a number of people who stated that they had directly witnessed certain persons surrendering to the custody of the army, it is the clear duty of the state to cause necessary investigations into such specific allegations andwhere such investigations produce evidence of any unlawful act on the part of individual members of the army, to prosecute and punish the wrongdoers".

Rather than blocking the prime minister from visiting Sri Lanka, wouldn't a more effective strategy have been to let him use the visit to demand the Lankan government to implement the LLRC report in full? (The follow up National Plan has only taken on board 82 of the LLRC's 285 suggestions).

Instead, the anti-Lanka chorus has created a fuzzy wall of high-pitched rhetoric, in which wartime atrocities have segued seamlessly into continuing atrocities in the Tamil areas. This unfounded claim, too, could have been set to rest had the prime minister been allowed to visit the north. He may have found, as we did in 2011, little evidence that the Tamils are still being "tortured" in "detention centres". Sri Lanka's last refugee camp - Manik Farms, in Vavuniya - has been wound up. The process of homecoming, of rebuilding homes and livelihood that we witnessed is deeply flawed not so much because of anti-Tamil discrimination, but administrative apathy.

What is causing deep anxiety and anger in the northern Sri Lanka is not so much the slowness with which housing loans are being processed, but the absence of significant demilitarisation, the near-complete militarisation of the civilian administration, and most worryingly, war tourism. We came across busloads of Sinhala families from Southern Lanka wandering through the shattered ruins of the bombed-out village of Puthukkudiyiruppu, clicking pictures inside Prabhakaran's bunker, and most appallingly, drinking beer and snacking on biryani in a shack erected on the strip of beach that served as the No Fire Zone, where burnt tree stumps remind of the horrors of the last days of the war.

The Tamils in northern Sri Lanka are better served if those who claim to speak on their behalf would have allowed the prime minister to visit, arming him with a critique of the Rajapakse government that is based on nuance and fact, rather than use Eelamist propaganda and political brinksmanship to derail India's engagement with a regime, which, for better or worse, is here to stay.

Sreenivasan Jain
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