The real healing story can only be scripted in Sri Lanka.
That the United States has no moral right to talk about human rights does not take away the urgent need to discuss the issues at the heart of the final resolution now in the making in Geneva. Irrespective of how it is voted at the Human Rights Council meeting on Friday, what needs to be debated is whether it will make a difference to the situation now prevailing in Sri Lanka. In all probability, it will not.
The reasons are not too far to seek.
Already, the great debate over the impending vote has ethnically polarised Sri Lanka like perhaps nothing else did since the war against the LTTE ended in May 2009. The government has thrown everything it can behind its diplomatic war on those it feels are needlessly intervening in its internal affairs. That those sections of the Tamil diaspora that backed the LTTE are with the U.S.-sponsored resolution and that the West for decades played host to the LTTE have only added fuel to the still raging ethnic fire. If the resolution does get majority support, it could well further widen the Sinhalese-Tamil divide. It is near impossible for Sri Lanka to let any international body carry out an independent probe into the civilian casualties and “war crimes.”
War's final stages
Let there be no doubt that civilians did die in large numbers during the final stages of the war on the LTTE. With Sri Lanka fearing a possible electoral defeat of the Congress in India in May 2009, and with the now dead Velupillai Prabhakaran also wrongly assuming that this might happen, both parties were desperate: the former to quickly achieve victory and the latter to prolong the fighting. Both felt that a return to power of the BJP could radically alter the situation. This lay at the root of the civilian crisis that followed.
Intending to remain alive, the Tigers forced a large mass of civilians to stay put in their territory, in the belief that this would halt the punishing Sri Lankan blitzkrieg. The victory-sniffing military, knowing it had to press on no matter what, used overwhelming firepower that not just destroyed the LTTE completely but did not spare the nowhere-to-run civilians either. The Tamil population, which had borne the brunt of suffering in Sri Lanka since 1983, paid a huge price even as the Tigers went down.
But this was not the first instance (hopefully it will be the last) of mass killings in Sri Lanka. On two occasions — in 1971 and 1988-90 — the state slaughtered tens of thousands of leftwing Sinhalese youths who revolted under the JVP banner. It was among the dirtiest wars ever seen in Asia. In the Eelam drive, massacres became commonplace, the victims drawn from all three major communities: Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. The average Sri Lankan is bound to ask: where was the West then?
Yet these arguments cannot hide what happened in the war zone in 2009. If only the country's leadership had, after crushing the LTTE, offered a genuine general apology to all Sri Lankans for all the suffering everyone endured for over 25 years, it would not be facing a vote in Geneva today. Sadly, that didn't happen. Wedded to the idea that there was never an ethnic conflict but only a “terrorist problem,” Colombo went back even on the promises it made to friendly countries on how it planned to deal with its minorities — a question other Asian countries too face in varying degrees. In the process, it forced countries which had covertly and overly backed Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the LTTE to become its vocal or silent critics.
Over a quarter century of bloodletting has turned the once idyllic island into a troubled state. It won't be easy for anyone to heal the many festering wounds on all sides of the ethnic divide. Miracles do happen but are unlikely in Colombo. A state which spews belligerence even after vanquishing the enemy will always see a foe behind every shadow.
Beyond a point, Geneva won't matter. If New Delhi votes for the resolution, it will do so only if its language has been stripped of every rough edge and is acceptable to Sri Lanka too. In any case, a politically beleaguered Manmohan Singh cannot afford to openly antagonise its ally, the DMK. However clichéd this may seem, the real healing story can only be scripted in Colombo.
Having been repeatedly brought to its knees, Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksas became an LTTE to defeat the LTTE. It succeeded, albeit after inflicting terrible pain on its civilian population which was not its enemy. It now needs to shed its Tiger stripes. The Tamil civilians killed in LTTE zone in 2009 were as innocent as their Sinhalese counterparts in Anuradhapura in 1985. Justice is not just given; it must be deemed to be given. Colombo needs to alter its postures radically to bury its warring past and reach out to its minorities with abundant generosity. Though late, this can still happen, Geneva or no Geneva.
(The author, a long-time Sri Lanka watcher, is Executive Editor at IANS.)