COLOMBO: In a sharp departure from the policy of his government since it came to power in January 2015, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena on Tuesday appealed to the powerful nations of the world to let Sri Lankans solve their problems themselves.

“With respect, I request to let us solve our problems. Independence of a country is very important.” Sirisena told the UN General Assembly in New York.

“As a sovereign state, we need no foreign influence or threats. As such, I reiterate my request to all, as a strong nation, that allow us to sort out our problems as a sovereign nation, that moves forward while protecting our rights.”

“I respectfully request the support of everybody as we will solve the problems that need to be solved as Sri Lankans. We also need your cooperation in my government's mission to erase doubt, fear and mistrust among communities living in my beloved motherland, while nurturing lasting peace among all communities.”

“I request the assistance and cooperation of all of you to carry out our humane mission to strengthen our democracy and achieve our noble mission while protecting our national independence,” the President pleaded most humbly.

Respect Sought For Armed Forces

Seeking international recognition for the role of the much maligned Sri Lankan armed forces in defeating terrorism and separatism, Sirisena said: “It was one of the world's strongest terrorism groups that the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka eradicated. It is thanks to that achievement that Sri Lanka remains an unbroken, non-divided country with permanent peace.”

“Our armed forces have contributed immensely to building lasting peace in Sri Lanka by defeating a strong terrorism organization. I mention this achievement with respect and thank Sri Lanka's armed forces for their dedication to bring lasting peace and protect the unitary state of Sri Lanka.”

Sought Helping Hand

Seeking a helping hand from the UN but rejecting dictation, Sirisena said: “As ten years have gone by since the end of the armed conflict, I request from the international community to look at Sri Lanka in a new perspective and with new ideas. I appeal to all of you to adopt such new ideas and perspectives to help the economic development and prosperity of my beloved country Sri Lanka, that has experienced a distressing armed conflict, and where now peace and national reconciliation are fostered, where human rights are strongly protected, where everything is done to ensure non-recurrence of an armed conflict.”

Clear Departure

What the Lankan President said at UNGA is a clear departure from the policy of his government announced when it came to power in January 2015.

From 2015 till Wednesday September 2018, Colombo’s stated policy had been to go along with two resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), namely, resolution 30(1) of September 2015 and resolution 34(1) of March 2017.

These had called for the following:

The establishment of a Judicial Mechanism with a special counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, as applicable.

The institution of a credible justice process to include independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for their integrity and impartiality.

The participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers, and authorized prosecutors and investigators.

While resolution 30(1) had the tacit support of Sri Lanka, resolution (34(1) was co-sponsored by it. Sri Lanka was thus committed to implementing both.

However, as the Provincial Council of the Tamil-majority Northern Province pointed out it in its resolution of September 11, the Sri Lankan government has done little to establish the transitional justice mechanisms it had promised the UNHRC except the Office of Missing Persons. That too was established only very recently.

The President, Prime Minister and other Ministers have been openly defending the armed forces and promising to the Sinhalese majority that their heroic armed forces personnel will never be sent to any international judicial body to be punished.

President Sirisena went a step further and complained that armed forces personnel were unnecessarily detained by the police and the courts in war-time cases of abduction or killing. This has created a rift between Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe whose party controls the police in the coalition government.

Political Pressure

Sirisena’s changed stand is mainly due to growing nationalism among the majority Sinhalese triggered by the re-emergence of former nationalistic President Mahinda Rajapaksa as a political force in 2018.

The gross under performance of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition regime in the last three and half years contributed to Rajapaksa’s argument that a weak and inefficient government has been giving in to the demands of the “imperialist and interfering” Western powers which want Sri Lanka to be divided on ethnic lines and weakened militarily.

The Tamils too have been mounting pressure on Sirisena and the UNHRC.

To press the Tamil case hard, the Tamil-dominated Northern Provincial Council (NPC) passed a resolution on September 11 asking the UN to refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court (ICC); apply targeted sanction on Sri Lankan military personnel; and conduct a referendum among Sri Lankan Tamils to ascertain the kind of political system they would like to live under.

Ethnic Chasm Widens

The hyperbolic NPC resolution has inadvertently widened the chasm between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. The majority Sinhalese have began to see the Tamils again as being anti-national and feel that the West is aiding and abetting Tamil extremists and preventing ethnic reconciliation with an ulterior motive to weaken their country.

Unlike the liberals in Sri Lanka, who welcome and see the necessity for international intervention and pressure to move the reconciliation process forward, President Sirisena, like other Sinhalese nationalists, feels that foreign intervention has only resulted in the widening of the gulf between the Sinhalese and the Tamils and the undermining of local and indigenously developed efforts to bring about reconciliation.

Recently, the President promised to present before the UN a program which will promote ethnic reconciliation without dividing the country and damaging the interest and reputation of the armed forces.

Sirisena’s speech at the UNGA reveals the basic structural and ideological contours of his reconciliation project.