Independence and Sovereignty - a Time of Renewal - 04 February

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The 4th of February this year will be a very special occasion. It will mark the first occasion in about two decades when Sri Lankan sovereignty will extend over practically the whole country. From 1987, when the Tigers rejected the Indo-Lankan Accord and began their battle against the Indian army, then acting in concert with the Sri Lankan government, they held sway over a wide swathe of territory. That was reduced but, when they were on the verge of extinction, different opinions in India as well as the Sri Lankan government coming to terms with the Tigers gave them a new lease of life which was accompanied by control again over substantial areas.

Though the Kumaratunga government managed to regain Jaffna in 1995, its other offensives were less successful. The loss of camps at Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu led to domination of those two districts, an arrangement officially accepted in 2002 with the Ceasefire Agreement. Indeed that Agreement led, though that could not have been the intention of the government that signed it, to an extension of LTTE control over several other districts, and the decimation of other Tamil groups that attempted to resist this hegemony.

All that changed from 2006 when the Tigers withdrew from Peace Talks, and launched their two intensive assaults in North and East respectively, expecting that the extent of their infiltration during the CFA, the arms they had brought in and stockpiled, the strongholds they had built up, made their victory inevitable. The forces however managed to resist and repulse them, both in Muttur and in Muhumalai, and then proceeded to ensure that they would never be subject again to such sudden surprise assaults.

I will not attempt to comment on the brilliance of the strategy that was employed, the intensity of the concentration, the excellence of the discipline that contributed to so signal a victory. There will in time be enough experts in military history to write about the most successful struggle against terrorism in recent years by a small country subject to so much pressure to allow others to dictate as to how it should conduct itself. The achievement of India against Sikh terrorism, the achievement of Russia against Chechen terrorism, were impressive, but no one would have dared to interfere with India or Russia.

I think we have learned lessons from those two operations too, the need to be firm against terrorists, but ensure that we do not engage in othering, that we work together with moderate forces amongst the minority group that sought separation. We must acknowledge that terrorism developed because those minorities felt discriminated against, and we must work together with those amongst them committed to a united country to remove all causes of complaint. But there should be no compromise on our sovereignty, because we saw in the case of Kosovo how urges to compromise, on the basis of guarantees, lead to splintering, with guarantees forgotten in a paean of self-righteousness.

So I believe that, on this the 61st anniversary of our independence, we have reason to be immensely proud of what might be termed our regained sovereignty. But there is more too, for we can also congratulate ourselves - despite what seem last ditch efforts to stymie this - on what might be termed a renewal of independence too.

Sri Lanka is used to such variations on the theme of independence. There are those who say we did not really get our independence in 1948, because we still had British bases on our territory. The Soviet Union certainly thought so, and vetoed our membership of the UN for several years, though in fact they yielded well before the Bandaranaike government politely asked the British to take away their troops, from Trincomalee as well as Katunayake.

But then there was the fact that we continued as a Dominion, with the Queen still our titular Head of State. That problem was got over only in 1972, with the proclamation of the Republic. So, if you read the rather facile notes reproduced year after year by tutors of politics for the Advanced Level, you have assertions that we only got independence properly in 1972 (or in 1956, because that was when we got a government that got rid of British bases).

Personally neither of those deficiencies strikes me as serious, because in both cases there was no question about who made the decisions, the British government very properly agreeing promptly to both our requests to remove themselves. Contrariwise, I believe we were in much greater danger in recent years of losing our independence, to a very strange mindset that developed after the CFA, and which sadly we allowed to hold sway without challenge.

I refer to the fact that, after the CFA, the impression grew that somehow there were two equal parties in Sri Lanka, between whom some sort of balance had to be maintained. Unfortunately the CFA lent itself to this type of approach, and the then government failed to insist on interpretations that would have accorded with its position as an elected government, willing to negotiate with a terrorist grouping for the sake of peace. Indeed, had it not been for the Americans asserting their own principles about terrorism and not allowing the LTTE to attend the 2003 Washington Conference, there is no doubt that by the end of that year the whole world would have been thinking of the LTTE as an equal partner of the government.

Fortunately for us the LTTE, encouraged by the indulgence shown them by others, turned intransigent after this supposed insult, and refused to attend further talks, making clear what their final goal was. This allowed President Kumaratunga to attempt to restore some balance, and the electoral support she then received made it clear that the country at large had no sympathy at all for the appeasement practised by the Wickremesinghe government.

But, if the country owes President Kumaratunga an enormous debt for her courage in dismissing first a Defence Minister and then a government that had allowed our sovereignty to be eroded, characteristically she then lost the plot and allowed a commensurately serious challenge to our independence. This occurred after the tsunami, when a whole host of NGOs were permitted to come in without proper procedures for ensuring accountability or even governmental supervision.

Emergency needs at the time perhaps justified this, and certainly many of the NGOs did much good work, with funds which they collected abroad and devoted to the welfare of hard hit Sri Lankans. Over the next couple of years however the situation changed. We had accepted the presence of what is termed OCHA, the UN body that is supposed to coordinate Humanitarian Aid, but having come in for the tsunami, it stayed and began to think it had a major role with regard to the conflict too.

Worse, it set up what it termed the Inter Agency Standing Committee, based on a UN General Assembly decision to set up such a body in New York. Unfortunately our Foreign Ministry at the time did not put a stop to this, nor comment on the fact that the so-called IASC in Sri Lanka is nothing like the body envisaged in documents, not as yet ratified by the UN, that suggest the setting up of what are termed IASC Country Teams. The current decision makers at the Foreign Ministry are aware of the problem, and have tried to make some adjustments. However, despite what seems understanding on the part of current UN officials too, the International NGOs who are resentful of what they see as diminishing influence keep trying to flex their muscles. And this is not surprising, because the way OCHA works means that these NGOs benefit by funds that are raised in country, from bilateral or multilateral donors, in terms of UN prepared plans. Far from bringing in funds they have raised on their own, as happened initially during the tsunami, they can benefit from a large pot, on which they are able to lay claims more easily than local NGOs.

But to continue to derive these benefits, they have to claim that they are indispensable. Thus the ridiculous claim in Britain that, with the departure of Save the Children, education in the Vanni had collapsed - though thankfully then the Sri Lankan office issued a categorical statement that they only supplemented the work of the government. But, while some corrections might be made, as a matter of course they have, like Emily Dickinson's Somebody, to proclaim their importance to the surrounding bog.

Thus, a recent report by UN staff who took assistance into the Vanni was described as a report by an IASC team. The UN Resident Coordinator, who was extremely positive about the visit, to the extent of saying that Sri Lankan Health and Education authorities deserved prizes for the manner in which they had kept services going, could only grant that the introduction of the term IASC was a mistake. It could not have arisen purely out of carelessness however, since the government had made it crystal clear that, while it welcomed UN assistance and would facilitate UN personnel accompanying convoys, there could be no question of international NGOs being given similar concessions.

But it is not only in their own interest that the term IASC keeps recurring, that these NGOs are considered so vital to external involvement in what is presented as a continuing conflict situation. Very simply, the introduction of bodies that are not accountable in any way to the Sri Lankan government allows for an erosion of sovereignty, setting up what might be termed a parallel system of authority. Thus, two years ago, there were attempts to draft what was termed an agreement on Modes of Operation for assistance, which suggested that those providing assistance held the balance between government and terrorists. When the offending clauses were resumed, interest in this agreement seemed to lapse.

Again, what is termed the Common Humanitarian Action Plan has for the last few years not been monitored by government. The UN has now accepted that the clause suggesting the plan was to be monitored by the IASC should be removed but the very fact that, for several years, it was suggested by implication that the government was not in charge of all projects and programmes undertaken for the Sri Lankan people, is a measure of how dependent we had become.

All that now seems to have changed. But to ensure that insidious interference does not continue, we need to be firm about asserting the primacy of government in the relief operations that are essential. We have failed to give proper publicity to the magnificent work of the Commissioner General of Essential Services, who kept commercial supplies going up to Jaffna as well as to the Vanni despite desperate LTTE efforts to disrupt these, by attacking food ships, by withdrawing guarantees from the ICRC after their first stab at assistance, by restricting the number of days on which the A9 northward from Omanthai was kept open. We have failed to record the dedicated work of our Ministries of Health and Education that provided to areas under LTTE control better services than most countries at our economic level provide to citizens in their capital cities.

And above all we have allowed continuing slurs on our armed forces, who have a better record in terms of humanitarian commitment than any others in similar situations. The conditions for Internally Displaced Sri Lankans in centres that they have set up recently are much better than those in centres that are supposed to have benefited from international assistance for a decade and more. But we allowed the claim that these were not up to what were termed international standards, which allowed the LTTE to claim that the people they were forcibly holding back had other reasons too not to flee to the safety of government controlled areas. And we continue to be subject to sanctimonious pronouncements about proportionality when there has been no claim ever that anything other than that principle has been apparent.

Independence celebrations this year will I hope herald our ability to put a stop to all this nonsense. Of course this must be accompanied by clear indications that we can look after ourselves, and deal seriously with the real problems we have. Unsolved killings in the south, instances of torture, must be dealt with firmly, and we must welcome all assistance in the training, both in principles and in professionalism, that will help us to avoid such incidents. But we must not allow those deficiencies to be used to prevent us from eradicating terrorism and working together with our fellow Tamil citizens to promote a prosperous and pluralistic future for an independent sovereign united country.

Rajiva Wijesinha

Secretary General

Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process

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