If the going got tough for the government this
week, the tough also got going. A new controversy
erupted over the screening of a video in Britain
allegedly depicting war crimes being committed in
Sri Lanka but there was a flurry of other diplomatic
activity as well.
Before the hullabaloo over the video broadcast by
Britain’s Channel 4 network hit the headlines, a
high powered Indian delegation was in Colombo,
headed by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, India’s
former envoy in Sri Lanka.
Rao and her delegation
held talks with President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself
and although nothing sensational was announced, it
was noteworthy that India has refrained from calling
for drastic action against Sri Lanka - which is what
its detractors have been demanding in recent times.
India’s refusal to commit itself to a collision
course against Colombo is significant because it is
facing pressure to do so from two quarters: the
western lobby who are calling for action based on
the Moon panel report and its own Chief Minister in
Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa Jayaram.
Jayaram, perhaps euphoric in the first flush of
victory at the state elections, called on New Delhi
to impose economic sanctions on Sri Lanka and
demanded that President Mahinda Rajapaksa be tried
for alleged war crimes.
New Delhi’s response, though understated in the
media, was firm. The Indian delegation to Colombo
stopped en route to Colombo in Chennai, the Tamil
Nadu state capital to appease and reassure
Jayalalithaa. And in Colombo, they discussed the
Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA)
as well, instead of calling for economic sanctions!
The Indian delegation did call for a speedy
settlement of the political issues related to the
devolution of power among Sri Lanka’s different
communities and the 13th Amendment to the
Constitution was discussed at some length but again,
New Delhi has been careful not to issue public
recommendations, knowing only too well that this
could have negative implications in Sri Lanka.
If New Delhi’s stance vis-à-vis Sri Lanka was not
a diplomatic victory, it was at least a draw. And
from an Indian perspective, it knows only too well
that any deterioration of its relations with Sri
Lanka will be eagerly exploited by its neighbouring
rivals, China and Pakistan.
On another flank, the government was slowly but
steadily moving to neutralise hostility within the
United Nations (UN) as well. This came in the form
of extending support to United Nations Secretary
General Ban Ki moon who is seeking a second term of
Ban was - and still remains - a much vilified
person in Sri Lanka after he decided to appoint a
‘panel of experts’ to probe alleged war crimes in
this country at the end of the conflict with the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In fact,
Minister Wimal Weerawansa staged a fast unto death
to protest Moon’s actions.
Therefore, the government’s decision to support Moon
may come as a surprise and in fact some opposition
stalwarts were querying the decision. This however
remains the prudent course of action for obvious
reasons: while Moon is expected to be well disposed
towards Sri Lanka as a result, his re-election as
Secretary General is also a foregone conclusion.
Just as it was coming to grips with both with
India and the UN, a new hurdle confronted Colombo
this week: a video broadcast by Channel 4 in
Britain. What heightened concerns in Sri Lanka was
not so much the content of the video - the
authenticity of which is in doubt - but the British
government’s reaction to it.
That came in the form of a statement from British
Foreign Office Minister for South Asia Alistair Burt
who not only called on Sri Lanka to conduct a
‘thorough and credible’ investigation into the
allegations in the video but also set a deadline to
do so: by the end of the year.
In what amounted to a virtual threat couched in
diplomatic language, Burt was saying that if Sri
Lanka did not comply, Britain would do its utmost to
haul Sri Lanka before an international inquiry into
Whether a junior minister of one country can
threaten another nation on the strength of a video
footage was a subject for discussion in Colombo.
However, it was clear that Burt was not speaking in
a personal capacity. Obviously, he was chosen to do
the dirty work and convey the message by the British
Colombo was quick to react. Its position was
articulated in a statement which stated that “it
regretted that British Foreign Office Minister for
South Asia Alistair Burt has taken no account of the
Sri Lankan Government’s strong refutation of the
suggestion that the Government of Sri Lanka
deliberately targeted its own civilians, as alleged
in the video.”
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, known to
speak his mind on occasion went further, accusing
Channel 4 had been bribed by remnants of the LTTE.
The Defence Secretary maintained that the Sri Lanka
Army was a professional fighting force, and did not
stoop to committing war crimes as alleged.
There is of course a curious paradox in all this
that the western bloc of nations does not seem to
comprehend and that is the attitude of the vast
majority of Sri Lankans regarding the end of thirty
years of war.
Having been at the receiving end of the conflict on
a daily basis for almost thirty years, they are more
than happy that the war has ended and are willing to
make allowances for the manner in which it was done.
Evidence of this comes from the election results
that returned the government and the President to
power with an overwhelming mandate.
Therefore, Sri Lanka is no Libya, Syria or Yemen
- and in fact the Channel 4 video does compare Sri
Lanka to Libya. What these allegations of war crimes
will do is to make the government - and the
President in particular-even more popular within the
country, international opinion notwithstanding.
That is an asset that the President is certain to
utilise in the coming months. July will see the
remaining local government elections. It will also
no doubt see a lot of sabre rattling over the war
crimes allegations and Colombo will do well to deal
with all the related issues, one step at a time.