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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2673

President Rajapaksa’s speech at UN: Is Sri Lanka at the threshold of peace?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is due to deliver his address to this year's UN General Assembly 25th of this month. There is much anticipation that he will outline the principles of a political solution to the conflict that has sapped the energy and the blood of the country, killing thousands of its citizens in the process, preventing the country from realizing its full potential as a vibrant, free and democratic economic force in the region. While all communities have suffered as a result of terrorism unleashed by the LTTE and its leader Prabakaran, those who have suffered most are the Tamils themselves. They surely must have very little to thank for the misery and hardship they have been undergoing for decades under their so called liberators, the LTTE.

The Tamil community in Sri Lanka can take heart from the Presidents recent interview given to the Indian journalist and writer Inderjit Badwarth and carried in full in the Asian Tribune, where he has outlined a clear vision for the country and all its citizens. He has publicly acknowledged that Tamils do have grievances and that they need to be addressed. He has articulated the position taken by a majority of citizens that the LTTE has no place in his vision unless they gave up violence and agreed to work with all other communities to better the lives of all people in the country. He has clearly outlined that as long as the LTTE is engaged in militarism and terrorism, and they espoused a separatist cause, they will be retaliated and defeated by the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka. A recent poll conducted by the Marga Institute and the National Peace Council demonstrates that an overwhelming majority of Sri Lankans support this stance taken by the President. As the President has also articulated well, he is also convinced and committed to the only way this conflict can be solved: through a political solution. Again the same survey indicated an overwhelming support for this stance as well.

It needs to be mentioned that President Rajapaksa is not the first Sri Lankan leader who has publicly accepted the existence of Tamil grievances and that all leaders before him had made attempts to reach an understanding with the Tamil community to address these issues. Since the early 1980s and the advent of the LTTE, no leader had been able to make any headway on account of LTTE terrorism and their military strength, and their hold on the international community as freedom fighters, and on every occasion a leader tried to extend an olive branch, the LTTE had responded with bombs and hand grenades and machine gun fire, making it impossible to discuss a solution that would be acceptable to all communities. Today, the situation is different, and thanks to the vision and strategic activity of the late Lakshman Kadiragarmar who served as the Foreign Minister under former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the LTTE has been exposed for who they really are, militarily marginalized by the current government, and moderate Tamil leaders in a better position to engage in discussions to end this conflict.

The President therefore has two messages for the world community when he addresses the UN. Firstly, that he and the country will not tolerate separatism, militarism and terrorism by an illegal armed group. Secondly, that he and the country recognizes there are genuine Tamil grievances and that they need to be addressed through a political solution.

The world community cannot and will not dispute the first message as most democratic, freedom loving countries who believe in law and order will not tolerate an illegal armed mob to attack a legally elected, democratic country for whatever the cause. If the world community expresses any reservations on this, it will be duplicitous and the height of double standards practiced by them.

The world community would however be concerned and will consider the President and the country being duplicitous and engaged in double standards if he does not present at least the governing principles of a political solution when he addresses the UN. This expectation arises from the fact that the world community sees the two messages as being parallel processes that need to run concurrently and not in sequence. This stance again arises from their belief that LTTE terrorism and militarism has no link to genuine Tamil grievances, and has nothing to do with Tamil nationalism, but pure avarice for power by forceful means. Tamil grievances therefore need to be addressed irrespective of LTTE terrorism, and if the LTTE stands in the way of bringing redress to Tamils, then they, and not the Sri Lankan government or the Sinhala people, will be seen to be the true impediments preventing Tamil aspirations being realized.

In regard to Tamil aspirations, the President should outline that they can only be possible within one country and that they have to be in concert with Sinhala and Muslim aspirations. All communities must realize that they all have unfulfilled aspirations, and that they could be realized only through a process of compromise and consensus.

In regard to the first message about LTTE terrorism, the President needs to remind the world community about the cold blooded murders that the LTTE has been responsible over the years. Some in the world community has forgotten these terrible deeds, foremost the Norwegians, who continue to provide a safe sanctuary for the LTTE and support them in word and deed. Among other things, the President must mention some of the major atrocities committed by the LTTE, the mass murder of innocent civilians, attacks on the hallowed places of Buddhist worship like the Sri Dalada Maligawa, Sri Maha Bodhiya, the attack on the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, The main bus stand in Pettah, and the killing of many Tamil political leaders, national leaders like President Premadasa, Foreign minister Kadiragarmar and international leaders like Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The list is endless but it is worthwhile for the President to spend time to give details about some of these terrible acts of violence so that the world community will be jolted from their sense of complacency about the viciousness of the LTTE. Hopefully, the President should put to rest any thoughts of any country pressurizing Sri Lanka to negotiate with such an organization that has stooped to such levels to win power. If the world community is not convinced and continues to exert pressure, it would be more a reflection of their own complicity in supporting armed groups to grab power by unlawful and forceful means.

As stated earlier, the world community will not be convinced however that the President is genuine about addressing Tamil grievances unless he matches his words with deeds. Words are cheap and politicians use them to their political advantage all the time. The President cannot be seen in that context and the world stage at the UN is an occasion for him to demonstrate his Statesmanship, and his ability as the President of all Sri Lankans to rise above Sinhala nationalism and forge a Sri Lankan nationalism. Words uttered at the UN also could be cheap unless action follows on what has been stated there. The international community will hold the President accountable for what he says there, and he will not be taken seriously if he does not keep his word. If this happens, it is not only the Presidents reputation that will be tarnished, but that of Sri Lanka as well.

To those who argue that a problem that is decades old cannot be solved in 2 years, the President must show leadership in identifying the problem, what constitutes Tamil grievances which he has acknowledged as being there, and what he intends doing about it, even if the actual doing part needs time. For example, although Tamil is an official language of the country, it will take time to make sure every student in the country is able to learn Tamil. However, the government must have a long term, well funded plan to make sure enough teachers are available and trained to provide this education over a reasonable time period. Similarly, Tamil public servants who require a working knowledge of Sinhala, and likewise, Sinhala public servants who require a working knowledge of Tamil, should also be given time and resources to acquire that knowledge.

The international community also expects Sri Lanka to realize and understand the politics in their own countries, especially democracies where politicians are responsible to their constituents and are pressurized by them on various issues, including the Tamil grievances issue. The Tamil Diaspora is substantial and is powerful and they have positioned themselves well to exert such pressure on politicians in several powerful countries including the USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Switzerland and Australia, to name a few.

Such pressure could have a direct impact on the electability of politicians, and those politicians do not have the luxury of time on their sides. If the Sri Lankan President is to continue to enjoy the support of the international community, he and the people of Sri Lanka must understand and realize that he cannot wait to address the core issues of the conflict, as there are others who are supporting Sri Lanka who cannot wait.

Those who throw caution to the winds and are advocating the view that the international community should mind their own business, are intent on throwing not just the bath water but also the baby with it, as Sri Lanka cannot expect to win this battle with the LTTE unless the international community backs such a battle. It would be foolish to imagine that the current military engagements with the LTTE would have been possible unless a powerful country like the US, and through them, India and the EU, backed what Sri Lanka was doing. Previous instances when such backing was not available had resulted in the Sri Lankan government having to withdraw from advantages military positions. Many who are promoters of the stand that the international community could go to hell should know of the many instances where Sri Lankan Forces were forced to withdraw from such advantages positions due to pressure from the international community, especially India.

The world community will also expect the President to demonstrate the government’s commitment to upholding human rights of all people, while battling an organization that has no belief in upholding such rights. These are also parallel processes that have to be run as no legitimate government could ignore or be inactive or not active enough about human rights violations. It is therefore a tough, but necessary task, and also an added responsibility for the legally and democratically elected President and the government to provide sanctuary and security to its entire people, including those who have no such rights under the LTTE. What is important for the government is to have the mechanisms in place to ensure human rights and provide the independence and access to organizations to monitor any possible violations and take immediate and tangible action to prevent and redress any abuses.

While it may be true that LTTE infiltration has spread even to sections of the UN and some international NGOs, any hesitance on the part of the government to access and information, and any real or perceived bias in taking action against perpetrators of human rights abuses will render the government to be seen to be either responsible for such abuses or at least being complicit in such abuses.

Having said this, the President must also convey a message for those countries and organizations sympathetic to the LTTE that the LTTE is the reason for whatever human rights violations taking place in the country, and that such sympathizers should exert some pressure on the LTTE to desist from the many human rights violations they are notorious for. The President must remind the international community that some countries that are promoting discussions with the LTTE have never pointed out the violations on the part of the LTTE, including the recruitment of child soldiers, and have never condemned the many atrocities they have committed over the years against innocent civilians and politicians on both sides. The President should take the opportunity to expose the double standards of some of these do good countries and organizations, while emphasizing his and his government’s commitment to upholding human rights.

No one expects President Rajapaksa to emulate speeches of leaders like Nelson Mandela or John F Kennedy. If he could, that is well and good. But there is an expectation that he will make a speech that will give hope to all Sri Lankans, Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims, and the international community, that he and his government is serious about addressing Tamil grievances, that he has a plan for that, that he is able to articulate the governing principles of such a plan, and if the plan is opposed by the LTTE, then they and only they, will stand in the way of ending this conflict and years of suffering that people in the North and East have been undergoing for decades.

- Asian Tribune -

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