An already testy relationship between the United Nations and the Sri Lankan government came under greater strain this week after a firebrand government minister's hunger strike at the gates of the main U.N. office here prompted the U.N.'s resident representative to be recalled.
The tough action by the world body seems, if anything, to have only hardened the resolve of the angry protesters who are vowing to press on. The power behind the protests, Wimal Weeravansha, the 40-year-old leader of the protesters' National Freedom Front (NFF), resigned from his post as minister of national housing Thursday to continue his fast until U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rescinds an advisory panel he appointed on Sri Lanka on June 22. The panel, due to give its first report by October, is seen by many in Sri Lanka as the first move toward a possible war crimes investigation into the conduct of the final phase of a bloody civil war that ended in May 2009.
"This is not against the U.N.," Achala Jagoda, a parliamentarian from the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and representing the NFF told TIME. "This is against the advisory panel that has been set up to decide on a sovereign government. We call that [action] supporting the division of the country and terrorism."
The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has not in any way officially sanctioned the protests. But it has not condemned them either. Soon after the demonstration began on Tuesday, Colombo said that it respected people's right to voice their opposition. In his resignation letter to the president, Weeravansha said that he did not want to give any impression of official sanction of his action by remaining in the Cabinet. (President Rajapaksa's office later said that he had refused to accept the letter.)
Political observers in Colombo say the government did not bank on such a tough reaction from the U.N. "I think the government probably expected the U.N. to back down," says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, a Colombo based advocacy group. "This is the first time that a U.N. resident rep has been recalled from Sri Lanka," a senior U.N. official, who requested anonymity because he did not have the authority to speak about the recall, told TIME.
Initially, the U.N. reaction to the protest was lukewarm. When the protest began at the gates of its Colombo office, the U.N. said that the government had given security assurances and that U.N. work would not be disrupted. Two days later, however, there was a swift shift and Ban recalled the U.N. resident representative in Sri Lanka, Neil Buhne. His office said on Thursday that the U.N. head found the disruption of U.N. functions in Colombo unacceptable. (Ironically, it was also on Thursday that some U.N. staff returned to the blocked compound after staying away on Wednesday, and staff continued to work there Friday.) The U.N. also said it was closing down the UNDP South Asia office functioning from the besieged compound. That closure was planned months earlier, but had not been announced until Thursday's sudden recall of the country rep.
When Ban went ahead with appointing the advisory panel on Sri Lanka despite objections from President Rajapaksa and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), there were sure signs that trouble would erupt. But the build-up was gradual: First, there was a protest in front of the U.N. compound in Colombo last week. Protesters dispersed after about an hour, but not before Weeravansha first made his threat to besiege the U.N. compound. The government quickly reassured the U.N. that the siege was not part of official plans, and the U.N. continued its work, but according to some staff members, there was a security assessment carried out.
On Tuesday morning, Weeravansha turned up at the compound again with a crowd of over 500. They quickly erected a makeshift stage at the entrance to the compound and began a sit-in protest. The U.N. staff inside the compound were unable to leave. "Some of us knew that there was a protest, but we did not think it would be indefinite," the U.N. staffer said. By early evening, a large contingent of police moved in. Scuffles ensued between police and the protesters before Weeravansha arrived back at the scene and soon got the police removed. On Thursday morning, Weeravansha himself got on to the stage, vowing to stay on a continuous death fast.
The current flare-up is the latest in long-running tensions between supporters of Rajapaksa and those outside Sri Lanka calling for an international probe into the conduct of the last phase of the country's civil war. In May, Colombo reacted strongly to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) that implicated the Sri Lankan military in rights violations. In the report, "War Crimes in Sri Lanka," the ICG calls for an international inquiry into violations by Sri Lankan security forces, describing several incidents in which civilian targets, including hospitals and humanitarian aid shelters, were shelled. The group also claims to have evidence suggesting that civilian casualties in the last months of the war were much higher than earlier estimates. The Sri Lankan Army defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an ethnic Tamil separatist group, after 26 years of conflict. May 18, 2009, marked the official end of the war, when the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed.The Rajapaksa government has thus far staved off action at the U.N. Security Council and the Human Rights Council with the help of India, China and members of NAM. China and Russia have also been critical of the Secretary General's panel. But Perera of the National Peace Council warns that continuation of the siege-like blockade targeting the U.N. could erode that support. It might have already: NAM members were planning to write to Ban expressing their displeasure at the panel, but so far there has been no word whether such a letter has been ratified or not. By contrast, the appointment of the panel has drawn support from other heavyweights like the U.S. and the European Union. "The longer these hardcore protests continue, the more the country will look idiosyncratic," Perera says.
As of Friday evening, however, the protesters however gave no indication that they were backing off. "No chance," Jagoda said. "We will not stop till Ki-moon backs down."