Dayan Jayatilleka is a former Sri Lankan ambassador to Geneva and Paris, an academic, former political activist, and former minister in the short-lived North-East Provincial Council. He is the author, most recently, of ‘Long War, Cold Peace’, written after the military victory. He was in the capital recently for an IDSA conference on South Asia and spoke to Seema Guha.
How important is the CHOGM for President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his administration?
The CHOGM is important in that it signals a breaking of an attempted blockade of Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa administration by powerful elements in the Tamil diaspora, Tamil Nadu, the Western media and the international human rights community. However it is a mixed blessing, because there is also a spike in the criticism of Sri Lanka due to the holding of the meeting. Sri Lanka’s higher profile has meant it is a bigger target.
If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh does not attend the meet mainly due to pressure from Tamil Nadu, what would be the reaction? Will it be a turning point in bilateral ties?
There are no irreversible setbacks or irreparable damage in diplomacy and international relations. That said, the absence of the Indian prime minister would subtract from the space that India has and can have in Sri Lanka and would certainly damage its standing among the Sinhalese. Such a glaring absence would also diminish the leverage that India can exercise with regard to the devolution process. India’s capacity to help Sri Lanka’s Tamils would not be enhanced by the PM’s non-attendance.
What are the views of the Tamil community on this? Chief Minister Wigneswaran has written to the PM and invited Manmohan Singh to come to Jaffna when he visits Colombo. Is that a subtle hint that he should attend the CHOGM and also go north?
The Tamil political community and perhaps the Tamil community at large is divided on this issue. This division may reflect a divided Tamil collective self and a divided collective psyche. CM Wigneswaran has struck a constructive note by urging the Indian PM to visit Jaffna. This makes plenty of sense, given that India has implemented a mini-Marshall Plan to rehabilitate, reconstruct and uplift the people of the north. Now is hardly the logical moment for India to retrench in its interaction with Sri Lanka.
Your comments on the latest video being circulated of the Sri Lankan army’s atrocities on civilians after the military victory.
I think these are horrors that must be exposed and the perpetrators punished sooner rather than later. It is, however, crucial that one has the right perspective. No fewer than 11,000 Tiger fighters who surrendered or were captured, were incarcerated, rehabilitated and released. If the general practice of the Sri Lankan armed forces was to execute captured Tiger cadres, then most of these captives would be dead. I am sure there were horrors perpetrated by individual soldiers or even groups of them, but the empirical evidence shows that these were aberrations, excesses, exceptions, rather than the rule. The horrors in the Channel 4 movies, authentic though they may be, tell one side of the end of a 30-year story replete with horror. Most countries in the world and every country in South Asia has some part of its modern history similarly darkened by blood and shadow. In Bangladesh, Cambodia, Brazil, Argentina, and Guatemala, it has taken roughly 40 years for the truth to be confronted. In Spain, 75 years after the civil war, no investigation is permitted. Meanwhile, the catharsis is best left to the artists and the historians. Truth will out some day as it must, and there will be a settling of accounts according to the law, but no imposition from outside can bring accountability, justice and reconciliation to a postcolonial society proud of its sovereignty and the durability of its admittedly battered democracy. Sri Lanka, a democratic state, will not submit to punishment for having liberated itself by winning a protracted civil war against one of the word’s most monstrous terrorist formations.
If ties with India hit rock bottom, can India hope to have any leverage with the president?
Let me put it this way: if India abandons its soft power instruments in relation to Sri Lanka, it will be limited to the projection of hard power, which will diminish its soft power in the region and in Asia as a whole, to the benefit of its competitors.
Now that a government is in place in the north, do you think negotiations on the 13th amendment could speed up? Why have successive governments in Colombo been so reluctant to give a modicum of self-rule to the Tamils? Why does the political class feel threatened?
Negotiations on the implementation of the 13th amendment presuppose a dialogue between the Colombo government and the Northern Provincial council. Such a dialogue is not taking place. India can nudge Colombo in the right direction and shepherd the process. This is exactly the wrong time to disengage or engage at a lower level with Colombo. As for the reluctance to devolve, the clinging to a centralist, even hyper-centralist model stems from the insecurity of having a hostile Tamil Nadu next door, across a narrow strip of water. There is an understandable apprehension of irredentism and centrifugal tendencies. I would suggest that what is imperative is a reasonable sufficiency of authentic devolution to the provincial councils, which would correspond to a middle path as commended by the Buddha.
How do you see the issue of devolution and ethnic peace panning out? Are those opposed not worried that another armed conflict may be on the cards? What is the alternative vision they offer to the Tamils?
Those who are opposed to devolution do fear another secessionist surge, but fear that devolution itself would enable and encourage such a surge. I do not think they’re too worried about another armed conflict, because they feel confident of their ability to handle it. Their fear of secessionism makes them maintain a panoptic presence in the Tamil majority areas. I think they are too narrowly focused, and fail to realise the lessons of history, namely that too little devolution can be just as much a stepping stone to secession as too much devolution.
The alternative vision the Sinhala hardliners, in the establishment and outside, seem to offer the Tamils is an utterly unviable one of assimilation or subordinate integration. Pressure and hostility from Tamil Nadu and the Tamil diaspora will only retard the cause of devolution, not hasten it. Encouragement from influential friends of Sri Lanka such as Russia, China, Japan, South Africa, et al, can push devolution forward.