What next for the West?

Whatever the reason and justification, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s declaration that his party was ready to support the Government on the sanctions front has more questions for the international community than answers. Conditions, if any, for the party to continue in this position may have more to do with the anticipated findings of the LLRC than anything else. Yet, Wickremesinghe is believed to have taken the same stand when he called on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, recently.

First, there is the question if sanctions would hurt the Tamils more, or not. Experience has shown that the West’s efforts at democratisation of nations like Vietnam and Korea in the past, and Iraq and Afghanistan more recently, have left victims of their purported beneficiary class.

On Sri Lanka, at present, the East-West divide of the Cold War era is back to the fore. The UNP is considered pro-West still. The ruling SLFP, and many of its partners in the UPFA, have traditionally tilted towards the socialist bloc in global affairs. Wckremesinghe’s UNP had remained the darling of the West. In this background, the West has to ask itself as to what it should make out of Wickremesinghe’s declaration, particularly on allegations of ‘war crimes’.

The UNP’s views have become important for more than one reason. One, it is the only possible contender to elected office in the country after the incumbent SLFP. Two, despite the poor showing in the presidential, parliamentary and local government polls since the conclusion of the ethnic war in 2009, the UNP still retains some potential, both within and outside Parliament. Such potential goes beyond shouting matches and street protests.

Even without the current declaration, there is little that the UNP can do, even if it were to return to power in the foreseeable future, in terms of avoiding sanctions, if the ‘war crimes’ probe were the issue. To expect a future government in Colombo to say or do anything different from what the incumbent dispensation of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been saying and doing – or, not doing — would be unrealistic.

Any ‘war crimes’ probe would involve mentioning names from the armed forces, and hauling them up before a tribunal, nearer home or elsewhere. Sri Lanka cannot afford it, the Tamil population in the country cannot afford it and the international community cannot afford it. The West, if unaware of these realities, will have to do a re-think. It should happen sooner than later.

Delayed realisation of the kind, on the part of the international community could jeopardise the current, limited processes at restoring normalcy. Worse still, it could revive false hopes in the larger Tamil Diaspora and the residual Tamil community back home. They could then begin blaming the international community one more time. It’s the frustration of the kind – much more limited than at present – that had fed Tamil militancy in the first place.

On specifics, the international community may have its list of suspects on ‘war crimes’. It cannot escape naming Sarath Fonseka. The commander of the armed forces during the conclusive ‘Eelam War-IV’ later contested the presidential polls of 2010, rather unsuccessfully. Certain western nations were believed to have preferred him to incumbent Rajapaksa at the time. Yet, leaving out his name from the ‘war crimes’ list might make the whole exercise more farcical than may have been intended.

Today, the UNP is in as unenviable position as it had been in the past, on many occasions. Political reality dictates that the party sounds shriller than its SLFP adversary if it has to have continued electoral relevance. Independent of the ‘failed’ Wickremesinghe leadership, the younger generation of voters, for decades now, have been moving away from the ‘elitist approach’ of the party.  The ’shifting sands’ in the party is an additional factor.

Senior Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake has since said that the “Tamils should discuss their issues with the Government, not the international community”. Considered a hard-liner who quit as the head of the Government negotiations team with the TNA not long after it was formed, this former Prime Minister also had this to say: “  Tamil issue has developed into one where the Tamil community  is demanding  viable solution to their concerns through constitutional amendments…If the demands of the Tamil community were neglected, foreign elements would attempt to take advantage of that situation….”

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