Photo: President Sirisena (left) greeting people. Credit: The official website of the President of Sri Lanka. - Photo: 2017

Western Remedies for Sri Lanka’s ills: Lessons From History

By Dr Palitha Kohona

Dr Palitha Kohona is former Ambassador & Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in New York. This article first appeared in Ceylon Today on March 19, 2017 and is being reproduced courtesy of the daily newspaper. – The Editor

COLOMBO (IDN-INPS) — Sri Lanka commemorated a dark day in its long and proud history last month. We recalled the cession of our sovereignty to King George III of Britain following the signature of the Kandyan Convention on March 2/3, 1815 in the historic Audience Hall.

On March 1, 2017, in the same Audience Hall, President Sirisena made the much belated pronouncement to remove from the list of traitors in the government Gazette those who valiantly but vainly struggled against the troops of George III three years later to recover the sovereignty that we had lost through a combination of factors well beyond our control.

Among others, a lack of awareness of the momentous developments in the contemporary world now dominated by the superpower, Britain, debilitating economic pressures, sheer exhaustion after having resisted foreign efforts to subvert our independence for over three centuries, a lack of confidence in the king, petty jealousies, a paucity of trust among the leaders, internal squabbling and, very importantly, a naive belief by some that prescriptions by external entities, essentially by European expansionist powers, would somehow be a panacea for our problems.

Two years later, as Britain blithely reneged on its treaty commitments, our vain efforts to regain the country’s sovereignty, spearheaded by the Kandyan aristocracy, were ruthlessly crushed with unmitigated brutality, even though the rebellion dragged on for over one year. Hundreds were executed, thousands killed in the fighting or displaced and their possessions expropriated by the British crown. The Perfidious Albion had yet to discover human rights, war crimes and the rules of war.

History can teach us much. But those who refuse to learn from history or are dismissive of its lessons are condemned to relive history with all its attendant miseries.

Today we are witnessing events with familiar echoes to those that resulted in the cession of our sovereignty in 1815, unfolding in slow motion, including a worrying willingness to unquestioningly comply with the prescriptions of Western powers and their willing tools, such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Although in 1815, the leaders of Kandy, menacingly hemmed in by a hostile world power, had little access to developments in the external world, today this is not the case.

Compromising sovereignty

After having eliminated the brutal terrorist challenge to its sovereignty and unitary existence in 2009, SriLanka seems to be again drifting in the direction of compromising on the very sovereignty that it sacrificed the lives of 21,000 young men and women to defend.

Worryingly, the economy is under considerable pressure, internal divisions and a lack of confidence in the government are widespread and the selfish goals of power, privilege and wealth are taking precedence over national interest.

Meanwhile, demands for compromises on the country’s sovereignty are becoming shrill by the day, based essentially on the UNHRC resolution of October 1, on SriLanka, particularly from the leadership of the Tamil minority, the NGOcommunity and some international journalists.

The names of Taylor Dilbert of the HuffingtonPost and Collum Mcrea of Channel 4, Yasmin Sooka and the International Crisis Group come immediately to mind. Media outlets spread far and wide, from the The Economist, AFP, to the Gulf News and journals as far away as the Philippines tend to pick up these lopsided views without question.

Simultaneously, we observe signs of seething resentment seeping through the majority community. These two tendencies should worry the government which has mostly tended to respond sympathetically or without comment to the demands of pressure groups basing themselves on the Resolution and this can only bode ill for the future of the country. 

As is evident from recent experiences elsewhere in the world, once the hounds of conflict are let loose, the purveyors of advice (and demands) for settling our problems will not have much to offer and will make themselves scarce. Think of South Sudan, Syria and Libya.

Interestingly, and prudently, President Sirisena has ruled out the use of foreign judges to determine cases against service personnel subjected to allegations of war crimes. He has said that he, “is not going to allow non-governmental organisations to dictate how to run (his) government.” A day after the UNHCHR criticised SriLanka’s “worryingly slow” progress in facing its ‘war time‘ past, he emphatically stated, “I will not listen to their calls to prosecute my troops.” The prime Minister has has taken a similar position.

The Foreign Minister, on the other hand, nuanced the message when he recently said in Geneva: “In the face of roadblocks and other obstacles in the day to day world of realpolitik, there may have to be detours from time to time, but the destination will remain the same. Our resolve to see the transitional justice process through has not diminished.” Thus leaving serious doubts about what the President meant.

LTTE atrocities

It is nevertheless curious that the  international media and the NGOs  continue to harp on human rights violations and war crimes committed allegedly by service personnel, while the endless massacres of villagers, bombings of sacred sites, buses, trains and busy cities, the slaughter of devotees and monks at places of pilgrimage, extensive ethnic cleansing, and the recruitment of thousands of child combatants by theLTTE remain hardly mentioned.

Those who collected funds for the LTTE to purchase weapons, explosives to carry out the dastardly bombings, recruit children for combat purposes and who continue to live comfortably in Western countries do not get mentioned in the think pieces, pained reports and press releases.

Many a commentator has asked whether it was necessary for SriLanka to have accepted the terms of the UNHRC resolution of October 1, 2015 and proceeded to cosponsor it with such eagre enthusiasm given the largely one sided and onerous nature of some of its provisions and the distinct risk of aggravating dormant ethnic tensions within the country.

Did Sri Lanka have no option but to accommodate the demands of certain countries of the West, the reasons for whose targeting of Sri Lanka have never been convincingly explained, and who were egged on by the vociferous and well resourced Tamil lobby overseas and the NGOs?

Was the decision, interalia, to agree to a constitutional reform process, to reduce the number of national security forces in the North and the East, to allow mechanisms established in accordance with the Resolution to obtain assistance, including financial, from international sources, to establish an independent judicial and presecutorial mechanism with the participation of foreign personnel, including judges, to repeal security related legislation which had served its purposes well in the past,  to create mechanisms to investigate primarily the infractions allegedly committed by the security forces, as dictated to by the Western drafters of the resolution, well considered given the implications for SriLanka’s sovereign right to manage its own internal affairs and its domestic ethnic harmony? Was this approach oblivious to the palpable resentment bubbling through the majority community?

While the UNHRC adopts resolutions selectively against  targeted countries, usually those that have fallen in to disfavour with the West and least capable of defending themselves, these are regularly ignored, Sri Lanka proceeded to cosponsor the resolution creating at least a moral obligation to comply with it. The moral obligation so blithely accepted will hang over not only the present government but also future governments. If cosponsoring was the favoured option of the government, and in view of the sympathy that existed for the newly elected President, were all possibilities for mitigating the provisions of the resolution explored?

Global currents

It would be difficult to contend in the contemporary world that the leaders of the government were unaware of existing global currents when it agreed to cosponsor the resolution.

The effect of resolutions of the UNHRC were well known. The UNHRC or the High Commissioner have no powers of enforcement and the other target countries have highlighted this reality.

If generating goodwill in the West to replace existing sources of development financing with new ones, and attracting investments, were the objective, this would have clearly been a misreading of global realities. The West was in no condition to replace China as a key source of development funding and this has become embarrassingly obvious. Many countries of the West are themselves lining up at the gates of Beijing looking for trading opportunities and investments.

This reality and the need to keep traditional friends on side was casually ignored in accepting Western prescriptions (demands?) creating problems not only for the present but for future governments as well. Given that many developing countries, given their own circumstances, were traditionally inclined to sympathies with SriLanka, keeping  them on side by adopting a more nuanced approach would have been the strategically practical thing to do.

While one could fault the outright confrontational approach of the previous Rajapaksa administration, the ready willingness of the current managers of foreign relations to accommodate the dictates of the West, raises serious issues. Had a more nuanced approach been adopted, it would have been possible to exploit the opportunity presented by the departure of UK’s David Cameron and Secretary of State Clinton, to Sri Lanka’s advantage.

For one, the messianic pursuit of Sri Lanka by Cameron (Cameron was under pressure from the Tamil voter bloc and contributors to Conservative election funds) and those who served Clinton (the human rights activists in diplomatic positions appointed by Obama were hell bent on pursuing the Rajapaksas) would have ended.

Not only do those who replaced the human tights warriors of the previous administrations have other more important fish to fry, they also may not have the same commitment to causes that occupied the thinking of the previous tormentors of Sri Lanka. According to reports, the US has even threatened to withdraw from the UNHRC.

The current effort to seek more time within a framework to deliver on the commitments undertaken will only strengthen the hand of those who seek to have those commitments implemented to the letter. Note the demonstrations being staged in front of the security establishments in Mullaitivu and Irranamadu which are being justified  on the basis of the resolution cosponsored by Sri Lanka itself on October 1, 2015. 

In addition, seeking a time limit creates the distinct possibility of keeping alive issues that may not be foremost in the minds of the majority of Sri Lankans. With the economy posing a serious challenge to the government, would it not be prudent to make that the priority? [IDN-INPS – 20 April 2017]

Photo: President Sirisena (left) greeting people. Credit: The official website of the President of Sri Lanka.

IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate. –

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