Is the West heading for a showdown with Sri Lanka?

Friday December 27, 2019

By Dr A.R.Sriskanda Rajah


On 8 December 2019, Kalaikathir, the newspaper run by veteran Tamil journalist Nadesapillai Vithiyatharan, came out with the sensational headline claiming the Tamils can expect a good resolution to come out of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March 2020. Citing Mr Mathiaparanam Abraham Sumanthiran, the TNA’s spokesperson, the newspaper added that the TNA was engaged in extensive talks with Britain and other Western states and would not allow the Sri Lankan government off the hook at the UNHRC.


So far, Western diplomats remain tight-lipped over their strategy at the UNHRC in March. But there are already signs that the West may consider upgrading UNHRC Resolution 30/1


Since it was passed in September 2015, the resolution has remained only on paper. Despite the opposition of the Sinhalese, the then government of Ranil Wickremasinghe co-sponsored the resolution. Mr Wickremasinghe, whom the Voice of the Nation Dr Anton Balasingham once referred to as a cunning fox, knew very well that paying lip service to the resolution was enough to satisfy the West. Thus, whilst the Sri Lankan government took no action to implement the resolution, the West granted extension after extension for its implementation. 


Had Mr Sajith Premadasa won the presidential election and Mr Wickremasinghe continued to remain the prime minister, the extension game would have continued for at least another five years. But with Mr Gotabaya Rajpaksa’s election as president, speculation is rife that the West is now considering upgrading the resolution and using it to keep the new regime at bay; or even possibly ensure the UNP’s victory in the general election, expected in April 2020.


For the past four years, the UNP claimed that by co-sponsoring the resolution, it had saved the Rajapaksa brothers from the ‘electric’ chair. For their part, the Rajapaksa brothers claimed the Wickremasinghe government had betrayed the country by co-sponsoring the resolution. During the presidential election campaign, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa even promised to scrap the resolution, claiming it had no legal value. It would therefore not come as a surprise if the Rajapaksa government refuses to co-sponsor the resolution in March 2020.


Having won the presidential election on a pro-Sinhala (or anti-Tamil, anti-Muslim), anti-Western rhetoric, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa know well that they can sweep the general election, and possibly obtain the two-third majority required to scrap the 19th Amendment to the constitution, if they walk away from the resolution in March.


One must remember that the West will not be seeking to upgrade the resolution in March out of compassion towards the Tamils. If that had been the case, the West would have long taken steps to haul Sri Lanka’s current and former officials, including the Rajapaksa brothers, before an international tribunal for the mass atrocities they committed against the Tamils.


It is in the interest of the West to see that every country outside the Western hemisphere remains a free market economy. Regardless of the protectionist policies Western states may implement in their countries, they would like to see non-Western countries adhere to free market economic policies. And Sri Lanka is no exception. As a champion of market economic policies in Sri Lanka, Mr Wickremasinghe remained the darling of the West.


Now that the statist Rajapaksa brothers are back in power in Sri Lanka, the West would like to keep them at check. Of course, the Rajapaksa brothers have no aversion to embracing free market economic policies. But they know very well that it would lead to their downfall. 


Given Sri Lanka’s inability to produce and export anything other than tea and a few thousand gems, and given the small size of its market, no government that embraces free market economic policies can be expected to stay in power for long. The Rajapaksa brothers know this very well. For them, if they are to sustain the Sinhala vote bank, they need to adhere to statist economic policies, and this means more borrowings. And borrowings from the West comes with conditions for economic liberalisation. But this is not the case with China.


We can therefore expect a spat in diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and Western countries in the forthcoming weeks as Sri Lanka once again makes a tilt towards China and begin to implement statist economic policies. The Swiss Embassy employee abduction fiasco is a foreshadowing of this. And the UNHRC resolution will be resurrected by the West, possibly with a new ‘body’, which many Tamils will begin to see as their path to salvation.


When Mr Maithripala Sirisena, with the backing of the UNP-led rainbow coalition, came to power in January 2015, he received congratulatory messages from the US President Barack Obama to the UK Prime Minister David Cameron. But the same did not happen to Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A British Tamil Conservative source told this writer that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office turned down the request of a UK-based Sri Lankan lobby group to send a congratulatory message to Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa upon his election.


So what will be on the plate when the West presents its upgraded resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC? At the three day conference held in Zurich with Tamil Diaspora groups in October, international experts and Swiss diplomats suggested that Tamil activists pursue travel bans and seek their host governments to exercise universal jurisdiction against Sri Lankan military officials accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Tamils. 


This writer was a privy to these discussions, and therefore believes that these are likely to be included in the upgraded UNHRC resolution in March. Whether this will have any effect on the Rajapaksa regime will depend on how hot or mild the resolution is spiced up by the West.


The UNP will be banging on the upgraded resolution to claim that had it remained in power, it would have managed to water down the resolution; and blame the Rajapaksa regime for bringing disrepute to the country. It will gamble on the resolution to garner Sinhala votes. 


On the other hand, the TNA will use the upgraded resolution to lure Tamil votes. If Tamil press reports are correct, for the first time the TNA is expected to contest outside the Tamil homeland, including in Colombo, Negombo, Puttalam and the Upcountry to increase its seats in the parliament, possibly to the levels when it functioned as the proxy party of the LTTE.


If all goes well for the West and the UNP, the TNA can be expected to join the UNP-led government, and Mr Sumanthiran indicated this immediately after Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as president last month. But that will depend on whether the upgraded UNHRC resolution will be able to sway Sinhala voters from the Rajapaksa brothers to the UNP. 


As the Tamil Eelam National Leader Mr Velupillai Pirapaharan proclaimed in his Heroes’ Day speech in 2005, the ‘Sinhala nation continues to be entrapped in the Mahavamsa mindset.’ Having brought the Rajapaksa brothers to power, it is highly unlikely the Sinhala masses will overthrow them within five months simply because of a UNHRC resolution.


(The writer is an International Relations scholar, specialising in liberal peacebuilding. He is the author of the book, Government and Politics in Sri Lanka: Biopolitics and Security)


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