President’s Promise: Where from here Diaspora?

By N. Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 28 2021
Columns President’s Promise: Where from here Diaspora?

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

In his address to the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has expressed his readiness to engage all domestic stake-holders, international partners and the UN for post-war reconciliation, which is already a decade old. In a meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres a day earlier, he expressed similar willingness to work with the Tamil Diaspora too for the purpose. 

Noble intentions, yes, but do any or all of it mean anything at a more practical level? Or, can any of it mean anything beyond an expression of good intention even though it is not outright rhetoric? A quick look at the President’s speech clearly indicates how he has pointed to the incongruity of it all to ground realities that are wedded in the Nation’s institutions authored by the Constitution. “Fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace,” is what President Gotabaya actually told his international audience at the UNGA. 

He also referred to the Sri Lankan State ‘ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development’. President Gotabaya’s reference to domestic stake-holders and international partners is linked more to it than to the ethnic issue and/or a political solution. “It is my Government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender,” he said. “We are ready to engage with all domestic stake-holders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the UN, in this process,” he added. 

Yet, his stand-alone reference to how “history has shown that lasting results can only be achieved through homegrown institutions reflecting the aspirations of the people” has to be construed as having relevance more to the ethnic issue than economic concerns, which have multiplied at present. “Sri Lanka’s Parliament, Judiciary and its range of independent statutory bodies should have unrestricted scope to exercise their functions and responsibilities,” he said, reiterating without mentioning ‘war crimes probe’ and other ‘accountability issues’, as the UNHRC is seized of now. 

Engaging civil society 

In contrast, the President was explicit in his commitments on engaging with Tamil groups during his conversation with Secretary-General António Guterres. Or, so it seems. According to a President’s Office statement, the President “expressed his readiness to hold a dialogue with Diaspora Tamils and also the UN on a domestic mechanism to address postwar reconciliation efforts”. 

As the statement read, “The President informed the SecretaryGeneral that legal action would be expedited with regard to …the personnel who could not be released” and that “he would not hesitate to grant a presidential pardon to the Tamil youths who have been in custody for a long time, taking into account their long-term detention and after the legal process was completed. 

The President stated that his objective is to strengthen the democracy in Sri Lanka and accordingly, there are no baton attacks or use of water cannons on protesters under his Government, and that a separate area has been set aside for protesters near his office.” In an obvious reference to his meeting with a group of civil society organisations recently, “President Rajapaksa also explained the engagement with civil society organisations to bring about development and reconciliation in the country”. 

Yet, the statement also underscored how the “President said that the internal issues of Sri Lanka should be resolved through an internal mechanism of the country”. President Rajapaksa told the UN chief the “Tamil Diaspora would be invited for discussions in this regard…. he is always ready to work closely with the UN and added (in the same vein) he assures there is no room for separatism to re-emerge. Sri Lanka as well as other States should be vigilant about religious extremism”. 

Oscillating cooperation 

According to the President’s Office statement, Secretary-General António Guterres told President Gotabaya “the UN will provide its full support to Sri Lanka in moving forward to promote unity among different communities”. Therein lies the catch, and it is obvious. What kind of cooperation is being envisaged by the prospective recipient-Nation and what kind of ‘cooperation’ is being offered? From a Sri Lankan State perspective, it cannot be of the UNHRC variety, certainly not as envisaged under Resolution 46/1. Though the Rajapaksa Government has returned to the council with a 13-page statement on its adherence to ‘cooperation’, there are inherent limitations despite the pious commitment. Such commitment to cooperation is at variance from what the Nation’s withdrawal from council Resolution 30/1 entailed, but it is not what 46/1 envisages, either.

 It cannot be so, if read especially with President Gotabaya’s reiteration of domestic institutions and internal mechanisms. Does it mean that what could be described as the Government’s actiontaken-report to the UNHRC is selfcontradictory if not one more instance of ‘shifting the goal-post’, as the West has often charged the Rajapaksa leadership in the post-war scenario? The answer is both a ‘yes’ and also a ‘no’. It is ‘Yes’ because there are inherent limitations to a sovereign State like Sri Lanka surrendering more of its ‘sovereignty’ under the international scheme than originally envisaged under the UN Charter. It is ‘No’ because the Government’s ‘intention’ is to comply with the spirit of the council resolution though not the spirit thereof, seems to be the Government’s position – oscillating between good intention and practical difficulties.

 The reasons are not far to seek and it is embedded in the Nation’s psyche and that of the ruling Rajapaksas, given their southern Hambantota background and upbringing unlike when viewed from Colombo, circa 2021, and more so from the distant West. Generations of Sri Lankans, especially those in the Sinhala majority South, have not forgotten the second JVP insurgency of 1987-89, which was attributed to perceptions of the then JRJ leadership compromising sovereignty in the name of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. They are not going to yield, more so, not going to be seen as yielding, more of the Nation’s sovereignty. 

To ‘em all and also the present generation of Sri Lankans who have stayed put to the Nation’s territory with no hopes or intentions of migrating out for good, sovereignty means much more than the linguistic or legal or even constitutional meaning of the term. It is a sentiment wedded to their own ideas of Nationhood, which cannot be erased by the UNHRC resolution or by the will of their own elected rulers. It does not stop there, though. 

Just as there is no clear-cut idea as to whom the Government (this one or another) should be talking to on ethnic reconciliation, there is no clue as to whom among the Tamil Diaspora should be involved in such consultations. For their part, the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) has already welcomed the President’s proposal to the UN boss. 

But it may stop there, even if the Government is willing to take it forward. Whether it is the GTF or any other Diaspora group, they are unlikely to commence consultations with the Government, as if on a clean slate. They will have to make known their positions on the UNHRC resolutions and other such ticklish issues before the Government would feel confident enough to proceed with the President’s proposal. 

Diaspora discussions

 If nothing else, the Government cannot be seen as contesting the UNHRC resolution(s) at the council and outside and still hold consultations on larger reconciliation issues with the Diaspora, as if it had conceded the former, to begin with. That is not on and that is not going to happen. Which takes us to the question: What is feasible under the circumstances for the Government to do under the circumstances? Independent of the GTF and other Diaspora groups, the TGTE wedded to the LTTE’s idea of a ‘separate Tamil homeland’ has since all but rejected the President’s proposal / offer. Their preconditions for talking ethnic reconciliation with the Government has made that much clear. 

The TGTE has stopped with seeking a ‘referendum’ among the nation’s Tamils on a ‘separate homeland’, as different from a ‘separate State’, as among their pre-conditions. But then, they also want the Government (this one or any other?) to sign an international convention on ‘genocide’, which is what they say allegations of ‘war crimes’ tantamount to. All this does not mean that this Government wants to talk ethnic reconciliation with the TGTE. It’s far from it, or so it seems going by known perceptions of successive Governments in the matter. But then this is the (only) kind of Diaspora group that wants to talk to the Government – but with so many pre-conditions. 

There is the other, attendant problem or problems. One, if the Government wants to talk to a Diaspora group or groups, it depends on the feasibility of such a discourse leading to a possible political solution. Two, such groups should have a demonstrable influence over a substantial, if not majority section of the Tamil political and public opinion, back home. Three, there should be demonstrable benefits accruing to the Sri Lankan State for the Government choosing Diaspora groups without actually talking to mainline or peripheral Tamil political and social groups within.

 TNA Spokesperson M. A. Sumanthiran has pointed to the dichotomy – of the Government now wanting to talk to the Diaspora without acting on a similar proposal to talk to the Alliance, just ahead of the outbreak of the COVID-19 third wave. Leave aside the fact the Government has to justify to the domestic Tamil polity, why not them but the Diaspora, it has to justify its decision to itself – both in terms of political fallouts for the ruling SLPP combine, and also the Sri Lankan State apparatus. For their part, the invited Diaspora groups too would be asking themselves, why they and not the divided Tamil polity back home. In context, less said about the Sri Lankan civil society and ‘international partners’, the better.

 The former, as often understood within the country and outside, has spoken more of the language of the West, which in turn got reflected in the UNHRC resolutions, than even of the local Tamil polity. Departing from the past, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government has commenced inviting civil society group(s) for talks. It is a test in which they are not likely to succeed as much as they expect the Government to yield – and only yield – on all grounds and on all fronts. And with that would also go any meaningful role for ‘international partners’ and the UNHRC in political reconciliation of whatever kind that President Gotabaya may have had in his mind! 

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian publicpolicy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected] 

By N. Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 28 2021

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