On the surface, Sri Lanka and Nepal don’t have much in common except that they are both members of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a bloc of eight neighbours. The fact that the two are mere dots on the globe could be another similarity.
That’s about it. No more parallels.
But if you were a cunning political pundit watching South Asian affairs closely you would discern one more subtle but alarming similarity between these two fragile democracies. That the common people continue to suffer long after the conflicts between the government forces (Nepal Army, Sri Lankan Army) and rebels (Nepalese Maoists, LTTE) formally ended is a syndrome rather than a mere similarity between the two countries.
In Nepal, for a long time after the former rebels joined the national mainstream, the media was crying foul of the Maoists resisting the release of a number of civilian properties they had illegally seized during the war. Similarly, reports suggest the Sri Lankan Army is still holding onto the lands of ethnic Tamil minorities in the north and east of the island despite the end of the civil war in 2009.
Both nations are currently run by people who under any western democratic systems may well be rotting behind bars on charges of mass murder.
To make you believe this argument of similarity, you will need a crash-course in recent Nepalese political history.
On 21 November 2006, the Government of Nepal and Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) agreed to a ‘Comprehensive Peace Treaty’ amidst unprecedented national and international fanfare. For the straight-thinking millions, the Treaty was no less than the re-incarnation of Buddha Himself. They believed they had peace at long last. Sure enough, the Peace Treaty spoke of many constructive things and said what the world wanted to hear. It stated, among many other fine things, “Both sides agree to keep records and return immediately the government, public and private buildings, land and other properties seized, locked up or forbidden for use during the armed conflict.”
The Maoists later formed government following a landslide victory in the 2008 election. But lo and behold! They did not return the lands they had seized from the public during their armed rebellion. Its cadres did not stop terrorising the common people. The rebels were too addicted to a culture of threat and vandalism. In essence, the conflict didn’t really end for the teeming masses. But it had ended in terms of the Peace Treaty.
For a keen Nepal-watcher, the accounts of humanitarian crises currently coming out of Sri Lanka are somewhat similar. One would like to think that the departure of Mahinda Rajapaksa following his January 8 electoral defeat would herald an end to his decade-long draconian campaign of bullets and pave way for a new Sri Lanka.
But can there be a new Sri Lanka with the same old face? Take the case of Nepal again. Revolutions have happened many times over in the Himalayan nation but the same old faces fill the national television today and hence, the same old ways of running the state and the same old culture of not taking responsibility remain. So much so that the Nepalese people today are cowering in shame at the politicians they elected to draft New Nepal’s constitution.
So can things really be expected to change for better and safer in Sri Lanka under the new president? Probably not. Sirisena was but a portion of the UN-confirmed “war crimes” perpetrated against innocent Tamils. And towards the final hours of the rebellion, the government forces mowed down the dying, fleeing and surrendering LTTE cadres, evidence suggests. Common sense dictates that a leader who is a by-product of the same Rajapaksa culture which Tamil Refugee Council (TRC) terms as ‘Sinhalese chauvinism’ can hardly be expected to forge a more democratic path. Therefore, the organisation has urged the world to band together to force the new leadership to change the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka.
TRC has called on the new president to end ‘vicious military occupation’ and stop the persecution of the Tamils living in the north and east of the island nation. In a press statement released a day after Sirisena took over from his former boss, TRC convenor Trevor Grant said, “He also must allow the Tamils to determine their own future.”
He went on to add, “As acting minister of defence, he was also culpable in the 2009 atrocity, which saw, according to the UN, as many as 70,000 innocent Tamil civilian[s] deliberately slaughtered by government forces.” It is noteworthy that Sirisena is already continuing with Rajapaksa’s policy of blocking UN investigation into the illegal killings of Tamils during the 2009 operation against LTTE.
These are all serious crimes against any president but this is not just any president we are talking about. This is a president on whom the world has pinned its hope to redress the wounds of a nation torn by war for nearly three decades.
So far, the Sri Lankan government has somehow dodged being investigated by the international community for the crimes committed against humanity in the run up to the annihilation of Velupillai Prabhakaran’s LTTE in 2009. Surprisingly, despite Australia’s globally recognised stance on democracy and human rights, Sri Lanka has been spared of the grill by both Labour and Coalition governments, TRC maintains. Rights groups in the continent are seriously concerned. TRC’s press release blamed both the governments for having returned at least 1500 Tamil asylum-seekers back to ‘imprisonment’ and ‘torture’.
Grant’s claims of persecution and seizure of land were corroborated by the victims themselves when they met a visiting US diplomat on February 3. Leaders of the Tamil National Alliance told US Assistant Secretary Nisha Bishal that the new government was lagging in returning the seized lands as well as releasing prisoners who were being detained unlawfully – another parallel to the Nepali story!