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Solving Sri Lanka's Tamil problem

2014 Mar 24

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting in Geneva on Friday may shine international spotlight once again on human rights violations in Sri Lanka, particularly in the context of the still unresolved Tamil issue in that country. The meeting will debate a draft resolution presented by the US, with Britain, Montenegro, Macedonia and Mauritius as co-signatories. Though the resolution does not call for an immediate international probe into Sri Lanka’s war crimes in connection with the decisive battle against Tamil separatists, it calls for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “to investigate alleged violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes” in the island nation. It also “welcomes” a report by UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay that proposed “an independent and credible international investigation in the absence of a credible national process.”

This is the third resolution on Sri Lanka sponsored by Washington in as many years. There is mounting evidence of war crimes by the Sri Lankan government in the 2009 war that ended with the defeat and decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). According to UN estimates, about 40,000 civilians were killed during the final months of the conflict and LTTE leaders were shot dead even after they surrendered. Tamils form 15.4 percent of the island’s population.

India, Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbor and home to the world’s largest Tamil population, has decided to vote in favor of the resolution that addressees many of its concerns. Unlike the West which focuses on human rights, India’s Sri Lanka policy is influenced by geostrategic considerations, regional politics and the cause of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka should worry New Delhi as much as Tamil Nadu-based Dravidian parties’ strident demands for stronger action against Colombo for its handling of the Tamil issue. It was the systematic discrimination by the majority Sinhalese against Tamils in employment and education that gave birth to the demand for autonomy and later a separate state for Tamils after the LTTE became a formidable force and changed the shape of the ethnic conflict. Tamil Tigers were the first to introduce suicide bombing.

Sri Lanka’s civil war began on July 23, 1983, with insurgency against the Colombo government by the LTTE. This war continued till the Tamil Tigers were defeated in May 2009. But the complete rout of LTTE does not mean an end to the Tamil grievances which in the first place plunged the island nation into communal strife.

So India is particularly pleased with the inclusion of the “13th amendment” in the resolution. Paragraph 6 of the resolution “…encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to provide the Northern Provincial Council and its (Tamil) Chief Minister with the resources and authority necessary to govern, as required by the 13th Amendment of Sri Lanka’s constitution.”

It is true the Sri Lankan government has taken many measures to win the hearts of Tamils like clearing around a million land mines laid by the LTTE, rebuilding infrastructure, housing and schools in war-torn areas and accepting Tamil as an equal official language. Elections were held in the Tamil-dominated north and east, giving people there their first chance to vote in 30 years. There has been substantial reduction in the military presence in the north. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now in his eighth year of power, has not made any serious effort to reach out politically to the Tamil minority.

When it comes to human rights abuses, even some sections of the Sinhalese majority feel that under Rajapaksa’s rule, Sri Lanka is becoming authoritarian in all but name. That a former president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, last week charged Rajapaksa with subjecting her to “illegal and unconstitutional” surveillance is likely to cause a huge embarrassment to Colombo when the debate on the US resolution takes place in Geneva.

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