18 February 2014

March of folly or opportunity

March is about ‘Geneva’ and has been for the past several years.  March is also time for opinions from all quarters about how to handle ‘Geneva’.  Naturally policy decisions and choices will be called ‘correct’ by some while others would use the word ‘folly’.  The word in the street regarding ‘Geneva’ (which is, for those who might wonder, about human rights and violations thereof, allegedly, by Sri Lanka, along with candy-words such as reconciliation and accountability) is ‘negotiation’, i.e. finding a way to work the voting arithmetic in Sri Lanka’s favor.  Let’s consider the word. 

Negotiation is only necessitated by recognition that one of two (or more) warring parties believes that comprehensive victory is not possible.  That kind of ‘recognition’ can be manufactured, as we saw for at least two decades vis-à-vis the LTTE.  Easy words and arguments rolled off ready tongues: ‘invincible’, ‘cannot be militarily overcome,’ ‘too costly,’ and ‘politically injudicious’.  On the other hand, just because Sri Lanka un-manufactured or dismantled that lie, it doesn’t mean the principle does not hold elsewhere. 

We are talking about Geneva, the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), and the power of key players such as the USA, European Union and India.  In this case, there are two factors that need to be addressed.  First, there is the claimed poverty of Sri Lanka to prevail. Secondly, we are not talking about winning a war.  We are talking about defending fact over fiction.  That makes a difference.

There are those who argue that appeasement would work; appeasing India that is. The assumption that underlies this argument is that India (or anyone else for that matter) cannot be contained if not brought around to stand with Sri Lanka.  Now it goes without saying that one-on-one or head-to-head, Sri Lanka cannot best either India or the USA and as such it is a tall order to take on a ‘coalition’ made of these two countries, be it in Geneva or the beaches of Colombo or the air over the city.  On the other hand, negotiating such issues is not a simple matter of comparing and contrasting military might. 

Sri Lanka proved that there are moments when the composition of the UNHRC voting group makes it possible to turn things around; that and of course effective diplomacy.  By and large, however, the odds are stacked against countries such as Sri Lanka whenever big name nations decide that it is in their interests to censure.  It is not about right or wrong, not about truth and falsehood.  It is about power. Geneva, plain and simple, is not ‘home turf’. It’s a game where the rules are skewed against Sri Lanka.  It is a fight that’s scripted to yield victory to the powerful. Sri Lanka cannot change the venue.  Sri Lanka can, however, play with the players in ways that can bring balance (not ‘fair play’ for that’s a nonsense-term that’s good for diplo-speak but for little else) into the equation.  

In this instance, those ‘balancing out’ forces are principally Russia and China. Gaddafi played appeasement and lost, let us not forget; Assad has prevailed, so far.  It is not whether or not these were ‘bad’ guys, for no bad guy can hold a candle to the mother of all bad guys, Washington.  It is about playing the cards right. The options, whether we like it or not, therefore, are about defence and trade pacts with China and Russia (and perhaps ASEAN) for the simple reason that the mala fides of India and the USA (and it’s European client states) are established beyond a shadow of doubt. 

There are other ‘soft’ ways of dealing with these ‘forces beyond our strength’.  If ‘Geneve’ is a theater with the purpose of turning Sri Lanka into audience that takes away a sense of guilt for crimes uncommitted, then the guilt card can be tossed back.  In India’s case, there’s a four-letter ‘word’ that can shut up Manmohan Singh: IPKF.  There, we would be talking not of ‘allegation’ but proven crimes against humanity.

We can remind India that on Deepavali day, October 21, 1987, soldiers of the Indian Peace Keeping Force went on a killing spree that left over 70 dead, including three leading medical specialists, Dr.A.Sivapathasuntharam, Dr.K.Parimelalahar and Dr.K.Ganesharatnam, as well as nurses, attendants, patients and other civilians.  They were shot in cold blood; Dr Sivapathasuntharam was helping an injured worker and was shot even as he pleaded that he was a doctor.  The same day the building that housed the OPD was shelled by the IPKF, killing 7 people. The victims were all Tamils.   
That’s Indian regard and concern for equality, dignity, justice and self-respect for Sri Lankan Tamils, spoken with such fervor by Indian Foreign Secretary Shrimati Sujatha Singh, who seems to be Geographically-challenged and quite myopic considering she doesn’t know what her countrymen in Tamil Nadu think about such sentiments when it comes to Sri Lankan Tamil fisherfolk and their livelihoods.

Sri Lanka, thanks to meticulous documentation by the LTTE during the ‘IPKF times’ of such atrocities (note that neither the LTTE nor its apologists abroad came up with anything close to such horrible crimes with respect to the Sri Lankan security forces, giving further credence to the claim of manufacturing such crimes post-2009), is in possession of a massive dossier of Indian brutality in Sri Lanka.  That’s ‘usable’ material in ‘negotiations’. Anything in any document that India puts her signature on will, potentially, be ‘usable’ against India herself.  Today’s friend can be tomorrow’s enemy. Diplomacy is not a one-day match, history is long and India knows that while it can talk down to Sri Lanka, it cannot do the same to certain other nations. 

There’s also the fact that in the long run, India might not last.  It is a country that is made for break-up.  India would do well not to provide would-be enemies with extra ammunition.  India must take the longer view. 

Then there is the issue, the second one, of fact over fiction.  It is important to know the truth.  It is important, also, to market the truth.  There’s this figure of 40,000 being bandied about by persons, organization and countries with abysmal track records when it comes to political chicanery.  The circumstantial evidence rebels against any systematic push to kill civilians.  The large number (inflated to 75-150,00 by Tamil National Alliance MP M Sumanthiran) of bodies, moreover, would have had to be disposed of.  The question ‘how?’ has not been answered. Instead, there is ‘evidence’ in the form of testimonies of people who are politically compromised or are plain and simple untrustworthy.  The ICRC which was ‘on the spot’ until very close to the end, tellingly, has not come out in support of these claims. 

The conundrum has been commented on, editorially, in The Nation:

“A ‘curious’ individual has offered a ‘solution’ to explain the vexed numbers problem.  A simple question has been asked: ‘Eta katu ko?’ (where are the bones—read, ‘remains’).  The contention is that if indeed 40,000 were massacred by the troops in Mullivaikkal, the remains, if piled up, would make a tower that puts Pisa to shame.  No bodies have been found there.  Were the remains vaporized, the writer asks. 

“Let’s remember that there’s satellite footage available of the LTTE shooting at Tamil civilians fleeing into Government controlled areas.  That place was watched from above.  It is also clear that there are many who want to hang this Government over war crimes.  As of now their ‘best’ has been cleverly edited videos that is good as ‘collage’ but thin if they want to paint ‘systematic’, never mind the fact that the sources of the sources of the sources cited are hardly reliable given their loyalties.  If these people really, really, really, want to get the job done, they’ve had ample time (more than 4 years) to mine the relevant aerial footage.   It is, after all, a thin strip of land that we are talking about. 

“The fact remains that getting rid of 150,000 corpses is not easy.  Not in the 21st Century.  Forget 150,000 or even the 40,000 that is being waved these days; ‘disappearing’ even 100 would be messy.  We are told, after all, that soldiers themselves were clicking away on their mobile devices to capture ‘trophy photos’.”

Logic, however, does not have ‘enough legs’ to see Sri Lanka past the winning post, in Geneva or elsewhere on matters of what is unadulterated harassment by bullies who don’t have the moral authority to ask questions or demand answers.  Truth doesn’t purchase in Geneva.  This has to be recognized. 

It will boil down to how Sri Lanka builds relations with China and Russian, both countries which, unlike India and the USA, have not back-stabbed.  Sri Lanka has walked long enough along the appeasement road to understand that it is going to a place called ‘Nowhere’, not forgetting that this appeasement business includes a caveat where Sri Lanka is required to confess to crimes uncommitted, with important implications for national dignity and sovereignty.  So when some argue ‘appeasement’ they are either Indian agents, downright cowards or clearly incompetent in analyzing realities. 

Sri Lanka has not played all her cards, that much is true. Diplomacy has not been robust enough, this is also true.  It is time that the right choices are made and the right signals sent to both enemy and friend.  For starters, Sri Lanka can make a policy decision on coal power plants.  Nothing for India and all future plants to be located in the Western part of the island, for security reasons.  That might amount to ‘signal’ enough.