Sri Lanka Perspectives (September 2017); By Col. Hariharan

CAS article no. 0046/2017

Courtesy: Security Risks

Sri Lanka has once again been embarrassed when a human rights group – the International Truth and Justice Project – filed lawsuits against Sri Lankan ambassador to Brazil (concurrently accredited to Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Suriname) General Jagath Jayasuriya, former chief of defence staff and  army commander, for his alleged complicity and role in torture of prisoners, artillery strikes on hospitals and civilian targets and enforced disappearances in the last stages of Eelam War IV.

Though the ambassador enjoyed diplomatic immunity and the law suit was filed at the end of the ambassador’s tenure, it has once again brought international focus on Sri Lanka army’s allegations of war crimes. They are said to have been committed in the final lap of the war from January to May 2009, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was eliminated. This was not the first time senior army officers, who served in the battle field, have  faced threats of international legal action on war crimes charges. It is not going to stop unless Sri Lanka takes credible action to bring the culprits to book.

The war crimes allegations gathered international momentum, after Channel 4 TV screened the video “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” in May 2011. However, President Mahinda Rajapaksa who reaped maximum political mileage out of the military victory, denied war crimes allegations saying the government pursued “a humanitarian rescue operation” with a policy of “zero civilian casualties.”

A panel of experts of the UN Secretary General in its report submitted in July 2011 found the allegations credible. It said, if proven they would indicate serious violations amounting war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both Sri Lanka government and the LTTE. President Rajapaksa called the report an international conspiracy to tarnish Sri Lanka’s image and whipped up nationalist sentiments.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in March 2013 passed a US sponsored resolution seeking Sri Lanka’s accountability in observing international human rights laws. It called for a “credible and impartial investigation” into such violations.

President Rajapaksa governments dithered in conducting such an investigation into the allegations. His half-way measures to buy time further eroded Sri Lanka’s international credibility resulting in increased international political and economic pressure.

Though the Sirisena government accepted and co-sponsored a UNHRC resolution that required carrying out an international investigation into war crimes and human rights violations, it has found it difficult to execute. The issue of foreign judges in the investigation has become a politically explosive issue. As the issue hangs fire, senior army officers have been facing the threat of international legal action from time to time.

On the sidelines of the issue of international law suit, there was an ugly spat between General Jayasuriya and his army chief during the war Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka regarding the responsibility for war crimes. On his return home, General Jayasuriya in a media interview denied the charges of war crimes; he was also reported to have said that the then Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka was in charge of military operations at the point of time.

Commenting on Jayasuriya’s statement, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, now the minister for regional development, in an interview claimed he had information on the crimes committed by Jagath Jayasuriya, the then Vanni commander. The Field Marshal said he was ready to give evidence if proper legal action was instituted against General Jayasuriya.

He further added “I was aware that he committed crimes and I tried to initiate an investigation. As the initial step, I arrested Mr Jayasuriya’s Aide-de-camp.” Obviously, he could not proceed with the investigation as he was removed from the post of the army commander.

President Maithripala Sirisena came out in strong defence of Jayasuriya. He said, “I state very clearly that I will not allow anyone in the world to touch Jagath Jayasuriya or any other military chief or any war hero in this country.” However, the stark truth is the issue of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Eelam War cannot be wished away by statements.

As a signatory to UN conventions on human rights and humanitarian laws, Sri Lanka government has very limited option in carrying out an impartial and credible inquiry into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Though politically it might be tricky, the Sirisena government, which claims good governance (Yahapalana) as its credo, is accountable to thousands of families of victims of such crimes.

There is an urgent need for an impartial investigation into the allegations to bring to book the guilty, not only within the army, but also among the former militant Tamil militants. It will also remove the blot on Sri Lanka army’s sacrifices made to bring an end to decades of insurgency and terrorism.

Constitution-making process  

The painful process of drafting a new constitution took yet another step forward when the Steering Committee responsible for drafting the proposed constitution presented its interim report to the parliament on September 21, 2017.

Overall the report has tried to strike a consensus by providing options on wording controversial issues. In the important articles 1 and 2, the Interim Report has avoided the terms “unitary” and “federal”state by suggesting Sri Lanaka as “a free, sovereign and independent Republic consisting of the institutions of the Centre and of the Provinces, which shall exercise power as laid down in the Constitution”. Explaining the concept, it said the state as undivided and indivisible, in which the parliament and the people shall have the power to amend, repeal and replace the Constitution.

Other salient features of the report include:

Article 5 barring declaration of any part of Sri Lankan territory as a separate state or advocate secession or take any steps towards such session.

Article 7 incorporating the Sinhala and Tamil versions of the national anthem as suggested in the respective language versions of the constitution.

Article 9 on the status of Buddhism shows the report treading carefully by offering two alternate versions. Both versions give Buddhism “the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddhist Sasana.” But, on other religions, while one version assures all the rights as per constitution, while the other specifies while treating all religions and beliefs with honour and dignity, and without discrimination, and guaranteeing to all persons the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Part II of the report “Principles of devolution” the principles of subsidiarity has been applied to suggest a three tier system of government. The Provincial Council shall be the primary unit of devolution. At the lowest tier the local bodies shall have the power to govern themselves and conduct their duties at their own pace and discretion. The State and provincial councils shall have the powers to delegate powers to the local bodies. It has also recommended establishment of community councils to ensure minority rights are protected at various levels of government.

Part II of the report “Principles of devolution” the principles of subsidiarity has been applied to suggest a three tier system of government. The Provincial Council shall be the primary unit of devolution. At the lowest tier the local bodies shall have the power to govern themselves and conduct their duties at their own pace and discretion. The State and provincial councils shall have the powers to delegate powers to the local bodies. It has also recommended establishment of community councils to ensure minority rights are protected at various levels of government.

The reaction to the interim report was divided on expected lines: political parties that represent the minority and majority. The SLFP, the rightist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the Joint Opposition view the devolution of power, amendments pertaining to national anthem and status of Buddhism with skepticism.

On the other hand, Tamil and Muslim minority parties like the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) want adequate representation for minorities.  It was interesting to note the leader of the opposition R Sampanthan asking Tamils to drop their obsession with federalism. He said that while the new constitution might not provide hundred percent satisfaction, it would still be an improvement.

Fallout of Rohingya refugee crisis

Rohingya Muslims have been the target of decades of state-backed persecution and discrimination in Myanmar, where the state and people view them as illegal immigrants. Buddhist fringe elements led by monks like Wiratu have been spearheading the hate campaign against Rohingyas in Myanmar. Since January 2017, the violence against them has been stepped up after Islamist terrorists among them started attacking Myanmar army posts. Myanmar army in its retaliatory attacks had destroyed many of the Rohingya inhabitations; this had triggered a deluge of Rohingyas fleeing the country to seek refuge elsewhere. As of now, over half a million of them seeking safety have fled to Bangladesh.

Buddhist fringe elements led by monks in Sri Lanka like Sinhala Ravayya and Bodhu Bala Sena, which had gained notoriety by attacking Muslim businesses, madrasas and houses have always shown their solidarity with Wiratu and Myanmar Buddhist fringe elements. This came to the fore once again when a Buddhist mob led by monks, said to belong to Sinhala Ravayya, attacked a small group of 31 Rohingyas who were rescued by Sri Lanka navy in April 2011 and was being looked after by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Colombo.

Though the government spokesman condemned the incident and called the attackers of innocent persons “animals” follow up action by police had been tardy, as in the past.  Though the attackers had uploaded their action in the Face Book,  police have arrested only one person in connection with the incident. While Sri Lanka civil society and the JVP have condemned the attack, Buddhist clergy, particularly the Mahanayakas (prelates) had been silent.

The incident has unnerved Muslim minority who had faced attacks by Buddhist fringe elements in the past, the last one being in May 2017  when a mob of BBS followers incited by Gnanasara Thera attacked Muslim business and torched a shop in Panadura.

Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute, Chennai. E-mail: haridirect@gmail.com  Blog:http://col.hariharan.info

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