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October 17, 2010

A War Criminal concluding the Commonwealth Games is the best it could go!

Published in Sri Lanka Guardian-- Can be accessed at--
http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2010/10/war-criminal-concluding-cwg-is-best-it.html

[First published by the Asian Human Rights Commission.]

Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka was the guest of honour at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games 2010, New Delhi. He presided over the extravagant ceremony that would declare the arrival of India on the big stage, conclusively.

Presiding over something is nothing new for the President. He has presided over the last leg of the decades long civil war leading to the final victory of the Sri Lankan state over the rebels. In doing that, he has presided over countless cases of extrajudicial killings, of torture, of illegal abductions and of course disappearances. It goes without saying that the victims were almost all civilians, trying to run away from equally barbarous rebels - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The Organising Committee (OC) of the Commonwealth Games 2010(CWG), duly supported by the provincial and central levels, has presided over a similar exercise in quality even if not in degree. Forced to work and live under the most inhuman conditions, more than 60 workers have died at CWG worksites, a number not really incomparable to the Sri Lankan war if one looks at the numbers involved.

The war in Sri Lanka was fought on enormous costs, all of that unaudited, unaccounted. There have been reports that part of the money to wage the war came from the humanitarian relief the Sri Lankan government received from international agencies and governments.

CWG, the biggest games till date, have proved to be the costliest and most corrupt. The cost of the games has turned out to be 114 times higher than the original estimates, spending more than 7 billion USD. All in the name of 'national pride' in a country that does not feel ashamed of ranking 67th in the global hunger index released by the International Food Policy Research Institute. Think of the fact that the total budgetary allocation for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) is a mere INR 8,700 crore, a pittance as compared to the games.

Much before entering the last leg, the Civil War in Sri Lanka has resulted into the deaths of hundred thousand civilians. A decade before it got over, Sri Lanka earned the unenviable distinction of being second, next only to Iraq in the number of 'disappearances'(a euphemism for forcible abductions, torture and killing of civilian and combatants alike) according to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in 1999. A decade before that, it has had some 3000 people killed extrajudicially in just one district named Amparai.

Half a decade before that, around 10,000 to 60,000 (depending on contradictory estimates) Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group, had been butchered in the name of suppressing the Marxists revolutionary movement by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

Not one of these atrocities has been investigated into impartially. The perpetrators, instead of being brought to justice, have been rewarded by regimes after regimes. In the face of the JVP's insurgency followed by the civil war, justifications were not hard to come by. People kept seeing their rights getting trampled over by the state and the rebels alike.

Not a single death at CWG worksites has been investigated into either. The OC, the governments, the quasi-governmental human rights watchdogs, went beyond remaining quiet and actively tried to push the deaths under the carpet.

National pride comes at a price after all. So what if this price is always paid by the most vulnerable and not by the rich. It's just that, a chance encounter.

Barbarism, brutality and the utter disregard for life and dignity has become a 'normal' part of the life of ordinary Sri Lankans. In a much distorted sense of the word, ordinary Sri Lankans had learnt to live with all this. They believed that life could not get worse, that their country had reached the limits already.

Presiding over the deadliest phase of the war, Rajapaksa proved them wrong. The last two weeks of the war alone have resulted into deaths of 7000 civilians as per UN estimates. Other sources like The Times newspaper had put the figures at 20,000, adding that almost all of them were caused by the Sri Lankan army.

The Sri Lankan army resorted to shelling on civilian targets and arrested those who were trying to flee from the LTTE. It fired at civilians without warning, 'suspecting' them of being rebels or 'their' sympathisers. According to human rights organisations, it detained more than 10,000 civilians. Most seriously, it fired even on surrendering LTTE rebels. At the time of victory, Sri Lanka had 300,000 Tamils as Internally Displaced Persons(IDPs) living in the most inhuman conditions in rehabilitation camps in their own country.

The games, too, have resulted in serious violations of the human rights of the poor. In order to present a clean, shining face of Delhi (and India by implication) to the world, the government resorted to forced evictions of street vendors and closed down shelter homes. It demolished thousands of homes (tersely called slums in the official language) rendering a minimum of 2,00,000 people homeless. It chased street vendors out of the city and thus ensured the loss of livelihood opportunities for workers belonging to informal sectors like rag-pickers affecting a minimum of 300000 'citizens' of India.

Sri Lanka, a country of 20 million people chased 300,000 of its citizens out of their homes to win a war. Delhi, a city of 13 million, rendered 200,000 of its citizens homeless to salvage 'national pride'.

Rajapaksa led the war with complete control. The proof for his direct involvement in extrajudicial killings came from none other than General Sarath Fonseka, his commander in chief. He said, much before his arrest and consequent conviction for 'treason' that the orders to execute surrendering Tamil Tiger leaders in the final days of the war had come directly from the defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of the President. The claim was further substantiated by the fact that the general retracted his claim later and asserted that he had 'mis-spoken'.

The world has been asking for an impartial enquiry into the alleged human rights violations and the infringement of Geneva conventions. The UN secretary general has appointed a special panel to advise him on "accountability issues" regarding the alleged war crimes committed by both the government troops and the LTTE. The President kept doggedly refusing to hold any impartial enquiry, while appointing his own commission to hoodwink the international community. Does one need more proof for his complicity?

The war has brought an end to the armed hostilities. It has given rise to the hopes of reconciliation between communities, of the possibilities of rebuilding the nation. The only way to that reconciliation was restoring justice and rule of law to the island nation. It required the government to assuage the feelings of Tamils who had survived so much of loss, both human and material. It required the state to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes.

The president responded to all this by celebrating the first anniversary of LTTE's defeat in the most triumphalist tones, indeed almost humiliating the Tamils. The parade and the fanfare on the day was greater than that of Independence Day celebrations of Sri Lanka. Worse, this was nothing strange given the fact that Rajpaksa's government has started celebrating the day of collapse of JVP's insurgency as the day of "national victory", think whatever of almost 30000 innocent ones that perished to the bullets of the government.

The government of India too did the same. Instead of instituting impartial inquiries into the criminal negligence causing the death of the workers to the massive corruption by the OC, it decided to bail out the officials employing even the army to clear the mess. The political leadership of the country issued impassioned appeals to the citizenry to ensure the national pride remains intact. It was a macabre dance of patriotism, not very different from one in Sri Lanka.

It was not for nothing that the OC was compelled to issue a denial that it was advising staff to ignore one of its major founding principles - to protect human rights. It should have, in the same statement, also repented the fact that it had suspended Pakistan from the membership of Commonwealth in November 2007 on similar grounds. However bad it could be, after all, Pakistan's record in ensuring human rights would certainly not be worse than Sri Lanka.

Maybe the preparation for the games and the most serious violations of the rights of the urban poor in India were a dry run for the upcoming 'projects' of the Indian state to enhance national 'pride'. Maybe India has decided to learn a few lessons from President Rajapaksa. He is presiding over the dismantling of democracy in Sri Lanka. Maybe India is looking forward to the Rajapaksin solution for Kashmir and the North East.

It has got the best teacher available then. Welcome Mr Rajapaksa!

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