The National Peace Council (NPC)

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The government appears to have woken up to the gravity of the problem posed by repeated attacks on the Muslim community. The police have announced that they will not permit meetings that cause ethnic or religious hatred to be generated. This new policy is to be welcomed to the degree that it is implemented in fact, and is not simply restricted to rhetoric. The police have become a scapegoat for permitting the BBS to hold the public rally that ended up in anti Muslim violence. However, there is a doubt whether the government will instruct the police to go ahead and arrest and prosecute those who instigated the violence and that this will be done on the ground. Although President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself has denounced those who engage in violence, the indications are that the momentum in favour of continuation of sporadic violence that keeps the country on tenterhooks will be hard to reverse in these circumstances.

The latest victim of anti Muslim carnage has been the large “No Limit” Department Store in Panadura, a town that is close to the scene of the large scale anti Muslim violence the previous week in Aluthgama. Although the preliminary police reports stated that it was possibly due to an electrical fault in the middle of the night, the timing of the fire suggests a connection with the previous violence. The Police Spokesman has been reported as saying that a group had asked all Muslim shops to be closed on Thursday but No Limit stores in Wellawatte and Dehiwela had remained open. Six persons, four in a three wheeler and two on a motorbicycle had met the managers at the two shops and demanded to know why they remained open while other shops were closed. This suggests a pre-planned operation, just as much as the way in which the Aluthgama violence took place suggests another pre-planned operation.



The international human rights community’s determination to pursue with its probe into alleged war crimes in the last phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war is widely seen within Sri Lanka as evidence of prejudice against the country. However, what has happened to the Sri Lankan government must not be seen in isolation from international developments. Some of Britain’s most senior military and political figures now face a war crimes inquiry as the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it would make a “preliminary examination” into claims of “systemic” abuse by British forces in Iraq. More than 400 individual cases are cited, representing “thousands of allegations of mistreatment amounting to war crimes of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." In a statement on its website, the ICC said “The new information received by the Office alleges the responsibility of officials of the United Kingdom for war crimes involving systematic detainee abuse in Iraq from 2003 until 2008.”

The British government has sought to downplay these allegations but at the same time affirmed that they will conduct their own investigations. The Attorney General has said that the government "completely rejects" claims that British forces had been responsible for systemic abuse and pledged to do "whatever is necessary" to show any allegations were being dealt with within the British justice system. He described British soldiers as ”some of the best in the world” and said “the vast majority” of the armed forces “operate to the highest standards, in line with both domestic and international law.” At the same time the Attorney General indicated willingness to cooperate with the ICC investigation saying “I will provide the office of the prosecutor with whatever is necessary to demonstrate that British justice is following its proper course."



In addition to being subjected to international scrutiny on account of war-time human rights violations Sri Lanka is now coming under international scrutiny for religious intolerance. Several incidents have highlighted the rise of Sinhalese nationalism that is at odds with the requirements of national reconciliation that includes the ethnic and religious minorities. These have included attacks on mosques and churches. The attacks on Christian churches have been going on for the past two decades at least. Most of these attacks have been against the new churches that are active in attempting religious conversion allegedly by unethical means of providing for the material needs of those whose conversion is sought. However, as most of these conversions take place at the local level and in relatively poor areas, they do not receive much media publicity. They are one of the unacknowledged problems concerning inter-community relations in the country.



The outcome of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a let down to the Sri Lankan government. There was a general expectation in Sri Lanka, fueled by the optimism of government leaders that a new era of relations would open up when the President of Sri Lanka met the new Prime Minister of India. In particular there was the hope that the vexatious international pressure on the government to proceed with a political solution on the basis of the devolution of power to the Tamil-majority areas of the country would subside. But this did not happen. On the contrary, Prime Minister Modi was uncommonly blunt and precise in calling on his Sri Lankan counterpart to begin delivering on his oft-repeated promise to the international community of a political solution that goes beyond the 13th Amendment.



The Sri Lankan government sees in the Indian Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi a new opportunity to win India over to its side. President Rajapaksa has made sure that he will be off to a flying start with his decision to be present at the swearing in of the new Indian Prime Minister, who had tweeted that it was a great pleasure to talk to the Sri Lankan President when he made his congratulatory call. It is clear that the Sri Lankan government leadership senses, or believes there is, a resonance with the new Indian leadership. Indeed, the change of government in India has opened up the possibility of a new dimension of personal warmth to enter into the relationship between the two leaders of Sri Lanka and India. There is every possibility of the personal charisma of President Rajapaksa, and his closeness to the ethos of the masses of people, to find resonance in the new Indian Prime Minister.

However, there is a danger of reading too much into the personal relations between leaders. Politicians and the general public have a tendency to prioritise the role of individuals in history. When Russia annexed Crimea, much of the debate in the international media revolved around the personal motivations of President Putin. In reality, however, individual leaders have a limited ability to affect international relations, which are primarily driven by geopolitical and socio-cultural forces. President Putin is important no doubt, but only insofar as he reflects the values and goals of his inner circle, a broader coalition of the elites that back him, and, no less importantly, the general population. All parties represented in the Duma (Russian Parliament) were behind the annexation. In the Duma vote, 445 votes were for the annexation with only one against. Not only did President Putin’s party, United Russia, support him, the other three parties, Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats and even the Communists, were also behind him.

This same prevalence of national interests over personal relationships can be seen in Sri Lanka’s own experience with India in the past. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike enjoyed a warm personal relationship with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Both were women leaders, both were widows bringing up families, and both were strong in their leadership. But when the Pakistan civil war broke out and India moved to cut off West Pakistan from East Pakistan, Prime Minister Bandaranaike gave permission to Pakistani airplanes to refuel in Sri Lanka. This would have been in opposition to India’s interests, but the Sri Lankan Prime Minister decided to act in Sri Lanka’s longer term interests. She was backed in this by the key decision makers within her government. During Sri Lanka’s own civil war, Pakistan was one of Sri Lanka’s staunchest allies, and its defense of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in March of this year was very special.



The election of a new government in India opens up new vistas for Sri Lanka’s relationship with its closest neigbour. With his congratulatory phone call to the Indian Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi,President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the initiative to rebuild ties with India. Relations with India have grown strained due to the Indian stance on issues relating to the country’s Tamil problem and the government’s prevarication regarding promises of devolution of power made to the Indian government. The President’s ability to get a phone call through a very busy Narendra Modi just after his party’s victory at the election was being announced shows the special nature of the relationship that Sri Lanka can enjoy with India. This is an opportunity that comes from both geography and history and needs to be carefully built upon so that it is an asset and not a liability.



The government’s inability or unwillingness to provide the international community with the quantum of evidence required to ban the 16 Tamil Diaspora groups and 424 individuals it listed under a UN anti terrorism resolution has led to both the United States and Canada refusing to ban them. The government spokesperson on the issue had stated that it banned them all following extensive investigations in which 65 arrests had been made. But the government also weakened its case by stating that the compelling evidence it had found could only be provided after the investigations had been completed. It would have been more appropriate to list the organizations and persons it suspected, but only ban them after getting more solid information. The reluctance that the government has shown in convincing the international community about the threat posed to the country’s national security by those Diaspora groups and individuals it has banned will only serve to further undermine its credibility.



Five years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka remains a post-war society that has yet to make the transition to a post-conflict society. While the violence has ceased, the political roots of the conflict that gave rise to war remain to be addressed. There continues to be extreme political polarization between the government and the Tamil and, more recently, the Muslim polity. The government has in recent weeks being talking in terms of the revival of the LTTE and Tamil separatism. In recent months, a new front has opened up with the renewed targeting of the Muslim minority, which shows that the build-up of extremist Sinhalese animosity against them, has not stopped. The attacks against the Muslims have not enjoyed popular support, but they are becoming regular enough to sow seeds of fear and apprehension within the Muslim community.

The anticipation that presidential elections will be held early next year, or sooner, has received a boost after a government minister made an announcement to this effect in parliament. However, this announcement does not bode well for those who wish to see more devolution of power or a focus on the rights of the ethnic minorities. The recently held provincial council elections made it starkly evident that the ethnic minorities are not voting for the government. This will strengthen the resolve of the government to look to its Sinhalese voter base to prevail at the forthcoming elections. This may account for the lack of deterrent and punitive action against those who attack the ethnic and religious minorities. But there is a danger here. The government’s policy is to gather all Sinhalese under the banner of ethnic nationalism. It may lose out with more moderate Sinhalese who have spoken out against the actions of the nationalists who attack the minorities.



Less than five years after the end of the three decade long internal war, the government has warned that the LTTE is regrouping and plotting to renew its violent campaign for a separate state again. This warning has come in the context of a shootout reported in the North that led to the killing of three LTTE members by the military, who according to the government, had shot and injured a policeman in the leg. It is plausible that there are small groups within the local population as well as internationally who may be plotting some violent acts, even if they know that the conditions at the present time do not permit sustained rebellion. The slain persons are accused of having had connections with the Tamil Diaspora and had prominent targets in mind. It will be ironic if Sri Lanka, which achieved what seemed impossible by defeating the LTTE, should lose its prospects for peace so rapidly.



Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunge gave an early warning of things to come during his visit to Washington DC in February to lobby against the proposed UNHRC resolution on war crimes that was being led by the United States and reached its denouement in the vote in Geneva on March 27.  The presidential secretary drew upon his knowledge of the workings of Sri Lankan society and government to warn of chaos if the resolution was passed.  At that time he was criticized for making this statement.  It was seen as reviving the ghosts of Sri Lanka’s most tragic episodes, the anti Tamil riots of 1983, behind of which were sections of the then government.  The larger implication of his statement was that an international investigation into the last phase of the war, which would implicate those who ended LTTE terror in the country would be resisted to the fullest extent possible.



The issue of the vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva became the main political issue during the provincial council elections in the Western and Southern provinces. The government’s decision to conduct those elections in the same week as the UNHRC resolution was being voted upon was likely to have been prompted by political considerations. It reflected the government’s continuing belief in the domestic electoral process, and obtaining a renewed mandate, as providing it with the legitimacy to rule regardless of other considerations. The threat to the unity of the country and to its sovereignty was brought to the fore by government campaigners in the run up to the provincial council elections to the Western and Southern provincial councils

While the government has shown resilience in its ability to utilize nationalism to win the support of the general population in relation to electoral politics and defeat the opposition, it has been meeting with increasing resistance and disenchantment on the ground. There are localized pockets of political activity where there is increasingly strong opposition to the government. While the election reflected in the main a continuing trust in the stability and security represented by the current ruling party, it also gave more than a hint of the disenchantment due to governance and insecurity issues faced by the ethnic and religious minorities. While the margin of victory achieved by the government at the provincial council elections was impressive there is unease in government ranks.



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