Conflict Weekly 11

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Conflict Weekly 11
Releasing a former soldier convicted of a war crime in Sri Lanka, Deepening of internal conflicts in Myanmar and the Taliban’s Deal is a smokescreen in Afghanistan

  IPRI Team

IPRI Conflict Weekly, 01 April 2020, Vol.1, No. 11

D Suba Chandran, Aparupa Bhattacherjee, and Sukanya Bali


Sri Lanka: The President pardons a soldier convicted of war crimes

In the news

During the last week of March, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka, used his constitutional powers to pardon a former soldier, who was a Staff Sergeant. The latter was convicted by the judiciary.

Though the pardoning power was his constitutional right, the President’s act of releasing a convict, who was sentenced to death by the Supreme Court has invited severe international criticisms. A press release from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said: “This was one of the rare human rights cases from the decades long conflict that had ever reached conviction. The Presidential pardon is an affront to victims and yet another example of the failure of Sri Lanka to fulfil its international human rights obligations to provide meaningful accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other gross violations of human rights. Victims of such violations and crimes have the right to a remedy.” 

The Amnesty International, in a statement, said, “Where accountability is so rare for serious human rights violations in Sri Lanka, the government’s arbitrary decision to release Sergeant Rathnayaka sends an extremely worrying message.”


Issues at large

The primary issue is not about the power of the President to pardon a convict. In February 2020, President Rajapaksa used the same power to pardon more 500 prisoners, on the eve of Sri Lanka’s independence day. In 2019, the former President Sirisena used this power, to pardon a killer of a Swedish girl. Facing criticism for his act of releasing a single prisoner belonging to a wealthy family, President Sirisena, also released 260 plus prisoners, citing they were above 65 years old.

The issue at the core is the release of a former soldier, who was sentenced by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka following a ten years old trial, for killing eight Tamils near Jaffna. The victims were internally displaced, who returned to check their property. The soldier, a former Sergeant, was amongst the five, who were accused of torturing, and murdering eight innocent civilians, including a five-year-old child. While the others were not found guilty, the Sergeant was; the Supreme Courted sentenced him to death in May 2019.

The primary fear both amongst the minority community in Sri Lanka and the rest of the international community is the larger message that the President is seen as sending, with his latest act. During his Presidential campaign, Gotabaya Rajapaksa referred to releasing the “war heroes” who were languishing in the jails on baseless charges. While a section thought it was a mere political campaign, his latest action is seen as giving shape to what he said. 

Internally, the minority community is apprehensive about, what would he do further, when the society is yet to heal from the decades' long civil war. Externally, the international community is upset and angry with the Sri Lankan state not following up with war crimes during the last phase of the civil war.

In perspective

The Tamil minorities and the international community has been expecting the Sri Lankan state to investigate abuses during the last phases of the civil war. Human rights activists within Sri Lanka and the organizations outside the country has been pressurizing the State to do more. The President’s latest act sends a wrong signal to both.

While the minorities and the rest of the international community may find it unacceptable, perhaps, a section within Sri Lanka within the majority community has been looking forward to it. This would pose a more substantial threat to the future of political harmony in Sri Lanka. 

In a conflict environment, perceptions are important. The State has to address the perceptions. Even if they are not true. And it should avoid sending wrong signals.


Myanmar: Economic dependence on China will deepen the internal conflicts

In the news

A new report titled, “Commerce and Conflict: Navigating Myanmar’s China Relationship,” published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) focusses on Myanmar’s economic dependence on China and its impact on the on-going conflicts within the country. 

The report elaborates the recent strengthening of the Sino-Myanmar bonhomie due to Naypyitaw's strained relations with the West and the global South. Nevertheless, the Chinese investments and projects can embolden the armed actors, intensify the local grievances, and magnify the anti-China sentiment within Myanmar. The report intricately discusses the reasons and consequences of Myanmar’s China dependency. It also provides policy recommendations.

Issues at large

The Sino-Myanmar relationship has been seen as fraternal. In 2020, the Chinese President Xi Jingping visited Myanmar to enhance the relations. This was followed by multi-billion dollar Chinese investments in Myanmar under the Belt and Road Initiative, and, other private investments in several sectors from commercial property to agriculture. These investments have made China the largest foreign direct investor in Myanmar. 

Apart from the economic relation, the robust nature of the diplomatic ties between the two is evident through the protective role played by China to save Myanmar from any UN-led investigations on the atrocities within Myanmar. The Chinese veto in the UN Security Council has restricted any adverse action against Myanmar. 

Since 2017, Tatmadaw’s efforts to fight pro-Rohingya insurgent group has led to atrocities on the community, which has resulted in a mass exodus to neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh. Myanmar’s claim of no intentional atrocities or crime against the Rohingyas has been vehemently criticised by the international communities to the extent that the West and the ‘global South’ have eschewed Myanmar. Myanmar has been taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by the Gambia for the same reason. Hence given this Chinese support, Myanmar has become increasingly dependent on it.

The report also asserts an interesting point. The deterioration of the Sino-Myanmar relation in phases, during bilateral history. The report also underlines on how China has been pressurizing for a long period to reassert its relationship with Myanmar. For example, the Chinese funding to the Communist Party of Burma in the 1970s and currently the funding and equation with the Northern Myanmar Armed groups. China has used investments and pressure as leverage against successive Myanmar governments. 

In perspective

The report emphasises that even though the bilateral diplomatic relation is claimed to be good, the government in Myanmar has always been cautious. For example, Xi’s visit to Myanmar in January 2020 did not have many outcomes. 

Second, the NLD led government is also wary of its over-dependence on China. There is an anti-China sentiment which is growing among the people in Myanmar; with the elections scheduled in November 2020, the NLD is cautious. The anti-Chinese sentiment has grown due to the lack of transparency, consultation and from a belief that none of the projects will benefit the country. 

The report also highlights the fact that these Chinese investments have the capability to accelerate the conflict within Myanmar. The big projects like CMEC (China Myanmar Economic Corridor) pass through most of the states that are zones of conflict between different armed groups and the Tatmadaw. China has claimed the economic development will restore peace in these conflict-torn states. Nevertheless, the report disagrees and claims this approach to be naïve, as each conflict has its own history and context. 

Not only the big project, but the private commercial ventures and investments in an agricultural crop such as banana and watermelon have also made its way in strengthening the militia and thereby propelling the anti-China sentiment among the people. This is unique to this report. 


Afghanistan: Deal is a smokescreen for the Taliban, says an international report

In the news

On 31 March, in a series of Briefing Notes analysing the nascent peace process in Afghanistan, the International Crisis Group assessed two primary reasons for the Taliban's interest to come to the negotiating table. First, the Taliban’s interest in ending the war in the region and second, the Taliban’s regret for missing out on foreign aid to Afghanistan post-2001. The briefings question Taliban’s seriousness toward the US-Taliban peace deal which was signed after 19 months of negotiation on 29 February in Doha. 

Issues at large 

First, for the Taliban, the deal between the US and Taliban may be a smokescreen as the group still resist the Afghan security forces and showcase the agreement as a victory against the US forces in the region. Recently, the Taliban refused to negotiate with the 21-member team made by the Afghan government on intra-Afghan talks. The reaction has thus raised concern among many Afghans on the sincerity of the Taliban’s commitment.

Second, the Taliban lack a clear path to military victory. The report has argued that it is mere speculation that after the complete withdrawal of the US, the Taliban may launch a full-fledged military operation to take over Kabul. As the Taliban recognises that its opponents are better armed, negotiations over military conquest are more likely chosen by the group. 

Some in the Taliban also believe that the growing seriousness of the US on withdrawing from Afghanistan is the right opportunity for them to achieve their goals and establish an ‘Islamic system' and claim victory. After the negotiation, foreign aid could be used by all factions, which may help in building intra-Afghan governances.

Third, the Taliban seem to have got everything it wanted. The US-Taliban talks indicate that the US approved of the Taliban’s sequence for negotiations. In turn, the Taliban followed the ‘America first strategy’, to conclude a deal before negotiating with the Afghan government. The deal gave what the Taliban have been demanding for long: the withdrawal of foreign troops. Additionally, the deal also gives the Taliban legitimacy in the international order. However, if it fails to express its interest in the intra-Afghan talks and continues with the attacks, the US may retract support and the Taliban may lose its newly held position.

In perspective

First, the absence of commitment by the Taliban has been vivid. Till now the Taliban has not violated any measures signed in the peace deal, but the continuous refusal to negotiate and attacks on the Afghan security forces raise doubt over the Taliban’s commitments in maintaining a peaceful negotiation. Both the Taliban and the Afghan government seem underprepared and lack the trust in bringing out a common ground to negotiate.

Second, the report concludes by weighing on the actions of the Taliban since the US-Taliban deal and charts out the possibility of fruitful intra-Afghan talks. Truly, there is an ambiguity surrounding, Taliban’s intention in the wake of continuous attacks in the region. However, little is lost, in making an attempt to test the Taliban’s potential to negotiate. It also suggests that the rapprochement with a common goal is vital to bring stability in the country.

Third, the central argument in the report solely revolves around the Taliban’s position but is less focused on how the Taliban will function in a power-sharing model within the existing structure, social norms, and institutions of Afghanistan. 

Last, even if the Taliban leadership successfully negotiates with the Afghan government, the hardline factions in the Taliban may disagree and defect to other extremists’ groups.

Though the report highlights the need for patience in making the deal a success, with the rising attacks on Afghan security forces, it is likely the government will step back from the negotiations. 

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