President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his first-ever address at the 76th UN general assembly session on September 22 spoke about transitional justice and reconciliation.

But his widely reported readiness to have a dialogue with Tamil expatriates to address post-war reconciliation did not find a place in the speech.

This was not an oversight because in March 2021 his government had proscribed a number of Tamil groups such as Global Tamil Forum, British Tamil Forum and Canadian Tamil Congress.

The government had also banned a number of individuals based in the UK, Germany, Italy, Malaysia under the UN terrorism designation law. The reason for banning them was their influence on Tamils in Sri Lanka and mould public policy abroad.

This was perhaps the reason the ban followed a scathing indictment of the Rajapaksa government by the UN high commissioner for human rights in her report.

It had warned against the deterioration of human rights in Sri Lanka and highlighted “intensified surveillance and harassment of civil society organisations, human rights defenders and victims”.

Sri Lanka needs to realise bringing the Tamil ethnic issues to a closure is important for India. Perhaps, India can use its good offices in this respect, provided both the Sri Lanka government and Tamil polity are ready to come to the table.

This will remove one ponderable obstacle for Indian investments in Sri Lanka in the war ravaged North and East to provide employment and also trigger the tourism industry in the country. To achieve this, President Rajapaksa will have to walk the talk to achieve economic prosperity, which was the theme of his UN address.

President Rajapaksa has not so far responded to the request of even the biggest domestic stakeholder in parliament – the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – to discuss issues related ethnic reconciliation.

So, if the President speaks of talking to domestic stakeholders, who does he refer to? Equally relevant is the question: Are the otherwise squabbling Tamil political parties ready for a common platform to participate in the talks? If the President is serious about a dialogue with domestic and expatriate Tamil organisations, it would have to involve lifting the ban on some of the individuals and diaspora organisations. But the Rajapaksa government has a strong aversion to the involvement of international institutions in domestic issues — a stand shared by many countries including India. President Rajapaksa was emphatic that “fostering greater accountability, restorative justice and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions was essential to achieve lasting peace. So too is ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development.” These powerful words would have carried more meaning if the government had made sincere efforts to translate them into action during the past one-and-a-half years.

However, to avert international intervention, the domestic institutions should be able to deliver. Even after 12 years since the Eelam war ended, issues of transitional justice, essential to trigger ethnic reconciliation process remain in the halfway house. The office of the missing persons (OMP) set up by President Sirisena in 2018 is a good example of hiccups in delivering results.

Till December 2020, it had received more than 29,000 complaints of missing people. In January 2021, President Rajapaksa outlined his plans to address the issue at a meeting with UN resident coordinator Hanna Singer. He explained that these missing people were dead. Most of them had been taken by the LTTE or conscripted. Though the families of the missing attest it, they do not know what has become of them. After investigation the president added that a death certificate for the missing person would be issued. Support in the form of 6,000 Sri Lankan rupees was given to the families.

This satisfies neither the families nor does justice to the perpetrators of forcible disappearance of the individual. However, the President sees the whole issue as a part of Tamil political agenda. The recent reports of misconduct by the minister of prisons Lohan Ratawatte, are symptomatic of all that is wrong with this government.

On September 6, the drunken minister, brandishing a pistol, forcibly entered Welikada prison with a group well beyond visiting hours. Six days later, the inebriated minister flew in a helicopter to the Anuradhapura prison. Armed with a pistol, he summoned a group of Tamil political prisoners detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1979 and threatened them to accept their offences. The minister was forced to resign after hue and cry by the media and the opposition. This culture of impunity has grown to Himalayan proportions under the current dispensation.

Despite claims that the government was preparing to reform the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, it continues to be misused to detain people without trial. Sri Lanka analyst Asanga Abeyagoonasekara, writing in the Observer Research Foundation, gives an ominous warning: “With the present dysfunctionality, hopefully, Sri Lanka will not see another youth insurrection from its majoritarian Sinhalese Buddhists as seen in the past in 1971 and 1989, triggered by economic failure and political injustice where thousands of lives were lost.”

India and Sri Lanka by geographic connectivity share mutual concerns of national security. A destabilised Sri Lanka is a potential security challenge to India.

According to the newly appointed Sri Lanka high commissioner Milinda Morogoda, Sri Lanka wants to elevate the present bilateral relationship to a strategic level, bolstering foreign investments and earnings from exports and expanding strategic cooperation in defence and Indian Ocean security. To realise this, Sri Lanka will have to tone down its majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist narrative, ease militarisation of the administration, provide equitable opportunities for Indian investors and ensure visible progress is made in delivering transitional justice to the affected and resume ethnic reconciliation process.

(The writer served as the Head of Intelligence of the IPKF from 1987-1990)


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