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Defiance, thy name is Maithri or what!
Published Date: 03/10/2018 (Wednesday)

By Thavam 

By telling the UN General Assembly “to allow Sri Lankan people to solve their problems on their own” and adding that “as an independent country we do not want any foreign power to exert influence on us”, President Maithripala Sirisena may have let the cat among the global pigeons – or, is it a mixed metaphor, where the terms ‘cat’ and ‘pigeons’ are inter-changeable? If one were to recall the not-so-infrequent posting of the social media visual, the mouse may be chasing the cat all around the kitchen, for a change!

The question is whether the Cabinet of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and other coalition partners of the government got to hear and clear the President’s UNGA address. Or, did the coalition decision-makers at least had an inkling of what Sri Lanka’s presentation to the UNGA was all about, beyond what the President had told media editors days before leaving for New York?

Looking back, it would seem as if Sirisena did not possibly get to read – or, at least read beforehand – his UNGA speech in the first year of his presidency, 2015. In that session, he committed Sri Lanka to an independent probe of the kind that the ‘international community’ (read West) had sought into ‘accountability issues’ and ‘war crimes’ that predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa would not yield. It was the kind of commitment that the West wanted and the Tamil Diaspora of all hues celebrated.

Back in Colombo then, Sirisena would go into trance of a kind, if not comatose, that he would say exactly the opposite thing that he had told the UNGA. It is another matter that his government would still go ahead with the US and the rest of the West in co-sponsoring the UNHRC resolution calling for a war-crimes probe, and also move with them and through them, requests for time-extension and mild modifications to the original resolution.

Full U-turn

Today, Sirisena has made a full U-turn. There was no reference whatsoever in his speech to war-crimes and accountability issues, or any investigation of any kind – internal or international, credible or not-so-credible. Between 2015 and 2018, not only has President Sirisena moved away from the nation’s commitment to the UNGA, by this one act, he has also moved away from his one commitment to the nation on the war-crimes probe – that there would be an all-Sri Lankan affair of the kind promised at the UNHRC.

The fact is that the President does not have to address the UNHRC, or even be present there. That job falls on the Foreign Ministry, if not the Foreign Minister himself. Going by official pictures of the President’s UNGA address this time, incumbent Foreign Minister, Tilak Marapana, was among those seated at the Sri Lanka Officials’ Desk, listening intently to the speech. Seated along Marapana were at least two other Ministers, namely, JHU’s Champika Ranawaka, and Upcountry Tamil representative, Mano Ganeshan, among others.

Whether the three Ministers shared the President’s views on the past commitments that the latter now declared Sri Lanka remains to be explained. Even more is the position of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s UNP partner on Sirisena’s declaration, which comes with consequences.

If nothing else, the UNP has been seen as a ‘liberal, democratic’ friend/front of the political West all along, nearer home and abroad.

Removing the goal-post

In his time, the international community came down heavily on President Rajapaksa for ‘constantly shifting the goal-post’ on the war-crimes probe. Maybe, their real concern at the time was China, but they had convinced themselves, or the Diaspora Tamils, had convinced the international interlocutors of the Sri Lankan State, to believe that the world was more concerned about ‘accountability issues’ and ‘war crimes probe’.

Today, at one stroke, or without playing any stroke at all, President Sirisena has removed the goal-post altogether from the arena. The thinking seems to have been that the world could complain about ‘shifting goal-post’ only if there was one.

It is anybody’s guess who cheated whom in the process, between Sri Lanka and the world, President Sirisena and the UNGA? Or, was the US and the rest of the West so naive’ and/or outright ignorant of Sri Lankan realities that they actually thought that an ‘international, independent war-crimes probe’ of whatever they had envisaged was possible?

Is it that the West knew all along that any probe into Sri Lankan ‘war crimes’ was not possible, after all, but they would be happy to go any extent to believe in the lies of a future leadership as long as it ensured that the Rajapaksas were out of the way? If the construct is true, there again, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo have not removed China from Sri Lanka, as was desired, but have brought in more of China, and along with that more of other nations.

On the ‘investment front’, Chinese funding continues to be accepted it used to be under Rajapaksa. That also means that there is more Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka. On the same count, there is all tall talk of the present government encouraging investments from ‘friendly nations’ like India and the rest, but much of it remains promises in terms of the required clearances – again on the same lines as under the Rajapaksas.

Feeling cheated and worse

The US and the rest of the West must be feeling cheated on both fronts, namely, Chinese influence and alleged war crimes. The nation’s Tamil population should be feeling so even more. After all, it was on such hopes and expectations, though not bonded promises that they voted for Sirisena. They and the Muslims made his victory possible. The immediate and intermediary loser at the same time is not even the UNP underwriters of the Sirisena candidacy of the time. Instead, it may be the TNA leadership, which accepted the international community’s ‘commitments’ on the Sirisena candidacy and the UNP’s attestation of the same – or, was it the other way round – hook, line and sinker.

The TNA cannot escape taking stock of Sirisena’s address and the larger ‘Tamil position’ it claims to espouse every time a crisis of the kind occurs. Even the Sirisena address could not have come at a worse time for the TNA leadership, as the alliance had announced its conference in the first week of October, long ago.

Speeches apart, the Tamil audience at the TNA conclave would ask for more and expect more. The ill-advised demand for the TNA to give up the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ office being held by R Sampanthan can be one such expectation finding voice at the party conference. That may help the Rajapaksas’ SLPP-JO, which has been claiming the position in terms of the higher number of seats can show up in Parliament.

The elected TNA political administration in the Northern Province, headed by controversial former Supreme Court Judge, C V Wigneswaran, too, would not suffice. After all, the NPC is facing dissolution under the Constitution at the end of its five-year term, and fresh elections will be delayed.

If, at the end of it all, the Sirisena camp believes that his hardened stand on war-crimes probe will help him win over the Sinhala South and the armed forces, which are all supposed to be with the Rajapaksas, that, too, may not materialise. But then, it could well clear the decks for him to join hands with the Rajapaksas, if both desired, but then for more reasons than one, it need not also guarantee him a presidential ticket that promises to be a winner, this time too.

With Sirisena in the rival Rajapaksa camp, it can at best give an opportunity for the TNA to convince itself to back the UNP candidate in the presidential polls. Then again, it need not mean anything to the results, though both the TNA leadership and the UNP candidate, would be facing vociferous queries from the Tamil voters, and their Diaspora backers – drowning in the melee, Sirisena’s UNGA tall talk on the ‘reconciliation process’ gaining momentum under his care!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)



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