Sri Lanka: Ban Comes Calling Again: Banking On, Or Banging At Govt. This Time?


Like in the past, Sampanthan’s Matara visit was not adequately covered by the self-styled national media, but then the post-war second Sri Lanka visit of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also deflected attention from the unprecedented peace-cum-political initiative by any moderate Tamil in his mould and leadership.

The Sri Lankan nation as a whole needs to admire and thank TNA’s Leader of the Opposition, R. Sampanthan, for breaking the ethnic impasse of the past decades and going South, in search of permanent peace that could emerge only with the blessings and participation of the majority Sinhala community.

Before Sampanthan, the party’s Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran had sent out positive signals to the larger Sinhala community by deprecating the self for not learning the language when he was young. The message from such Tamil political initiatives was/is clear for the larger Tamil community.

It’s that the ‘minority’ Tamils should learn to live with the Sinhala majority, both in terms of the people and their language, just as the Tamils want the Sinhalas to do. All of it means that it requires two hands to clap in ethnic celebration as much as it had required two hands to fight an ethnic war.

Yet, the halting TNA initiatives of the kind, post-war, have been off-tracked by other events and even other statements of the well-meaning initiators. The Ban visit and Sampanthan’s Matara visit, and his worshipping at the Kataragama temple have since been over-shadowed by the Kaula Lumpur airport attack on Sri Lankan Ambassador and his deputy.

Some Tamil groups were allegedly involved. Worse still, they were reportedly looking for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was in Malaysia at the time. A group of Tamils had also reportedly targeted a Buddhist monk in the Malaysian capital.

Ironically, such reportage gets wide(r) coverage in the Sri Lankan media, in all three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English – and that’s it. It was so during the pre-war years, and more so during the war years, and this one trend has not changed, post-war, either.

Confusing signals

It’s another matter that leadership of such initiatives also keep continuing to send out confusing signals, also of their own, pre-determined or otherwise. In his meeting with UN chief Ban, Sampanthan reportedly underscored the Tamil demand for ‘right to self-determination’. It gives the impression of going even beyond 13-A, is indeterminable in form and content just now.That Sampanthan, both in his meeting with Ban and also in his Matara public address, underscored the salient feature of a ‘united Sri Lanka’ could thus only fall on deaf ears. For his part, Wigneswaran, while commending the Sinhala language for Tamils to learn, still insisted on North-East merger, among other things.

These are non-starters of issues and solutions that the TNA leadership should cautiously and consciously avoid if they have to take their people to the ‘promised land’ of peace and prosperity, not the LTTE form of separation and isolation.  There are continuing apprehensions that moderate Sinhala leaderships, especially the artificial political union of the incumbents, could lose out if left to the wind and weather to decide the future course.

It’s no different in the case of the Tamil moderate leadership(s), too. They could charge the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala political leadership with intransigence at the end. Yet, the fact would still remain that they had failed their people, and their own extremists had overtaken them, at times for the long haul.

Embroiled embroidery

It’s anybody’s guess if Ban heard about Sampanthan’s Matara visit, or Wigneswaran’s ‘love’ for learning Sinhalese, but he did hear from their own mouths, their demands for a political solution. Sure enough, he would have heard the same and more demands from the TNA during his earlier, post-war visit when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President. Then at least, he would have heard the Sri Lankan State’s position on these and other issues.

There is nothing to suggest that he did take up the continuing Tamil demands with the present government leadership, but answers from their side are not unfathomable. Shorn of the embroidered verbiage, it could have been as much, and nothing more.

Yet, there is nothing to suggest that the UN chief could have achieved any more than what he did during his previous visit. What Rajapaksa had reportedly said without batting an eyelid in his time and circumstances, successor Maithripala Sirisena seems to have said in more convoluted terms.

In effect, Rajapaksa had reportedly promised to deliver the moon, when he met Ki-moon. Sirisena, in his turn, has sought time from Ki-moon and the rest of the international community for delivering the moon, on the latter’s terms. It cannot be an endless zero-sum game, but it would still remain a zero-sum game in the end.

Having acknowledged the Darusman Report as his own, the UN chief cannot walk away from it. Hence, during his recent visit to Jaffna and other war-torn areas, he did hear out the families of ‘missing persons’. Before leaving the country, he is also reported to have been ‘happy at the developments’ in Sri Lanka. Obviously, he was not referring (only) to economic development.

Timing in and timing out

Political developments that are of concern to the UN in general and its UNHRC arm otherwise remain as much a non-starter as they were at the commencement of the Sirisena-Ranil term in January 2015. They are unlikely to move as much forward as originally intended.

Signs, if any, from the international community are one of conceding the Sri Lankan Government’s position, and ever so very circuitously – and not the other way around. Provoking the other side is a game in which Rajapaksa excelled. Tiring out the other is where Sirisena showed that he could outwit Mahinda from within. His Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is a past-master in timing his game, and timing out the other.

In turn, Ban and Zeid in turn have to be clear if they were banking now on the Sirisena-Ranil duo to deliver on the promises that the Government had made since the post-war days of the Rajapaksa regime, or if their recent visit(s), coordinated but separate, were to bang at the Government of the day. In the case of former, the UN and the UNHRC ended up giving the feeling that they had banged their head on a hard surface. How soft the surface since has become, and how much of a banging that they in turn could now take on, is the question for which answers would unfold in the weeks and months, and at times years to come – and, go.

There can be no denying the linkages between the UN chief’s Sri Lanka visit, and the upcoming UNHRC session in Geneva. Prince Zeid as UNHRC chief too visited Sri Lanka recently, ahead of making an ‘oral statement’ on the progress made on the ‘co-sponsored’ resolution on ‘accountability issues’.

See, did not see…

The question is if either or both are going to say what they saw – or, did not see – or say what they heard – from the Tamils – but did not hear, from the Government, that is. Either way, the Government response, as already indicated by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, would be one of accomplishment and attempted sincerity – or, sincere attempts, nothing more, nothing less.

Minister Samaraweera is already talking about a ‘new Constitution’ for the nation by November, but would it include the demands of the TNA and the ‘legitimate aspirations’ of the larger Tamil community. The latter in turn has boiled down to ‘right to self-determination’ and re-merger, police and land powers, among others.

From a Sinhala political and Sri Lankan State perspective, some are not to be granted, others are already there and not to be implemented. Otherwise, having won the presidential polls with the ‘minority’ support of the Tamils and the Muslims, there was/is no reason why the ruling duo should at all go in for a new Constituent Assembly, without starting – or, even stopping – with the full implementation of 13-A, re-merger or not.

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University