Sri Lanka’s Downward Spiral
ASIA--PACIFIC, 21 Jul 2014
The U.S. Congressional Caucus on Ethnic and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka held a hearing on July 9  in Washington, D.C. The caucus, created in 2013, is co-chaired by Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio). It remains to be seen how effective this newly created group will be but — given the recent developments in Sri Lanka — there is no question that there was plenty to discuss at the gathering.
Aside from the persistent ethnic and religious violence that plagues the country, the war-torn island nation is still grappling with a bunch of problems as it struggles to make the transition from a postwar country to a post-conflict one.
Recent anti-Muslim violence outside Colombo last month resulted in the death of several people and the injury of many more — as mobs attacked Muslim homes, places of business, and mosques. The police have been widely criticized for failing to prevent the violence. These developments serve as another reminder that Sri Lanka remains a country in crisis. Indeed, extremist Sinhalese-Buddhist groups operate with impunity while ordinary community members have basic human rights repressed under the deepening authoritarianism of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
As mandated by the March 2014 U.N. Human Rights Council resolution passed on Sri Lanka, the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will undertake an investigation into wartime atrocities on the island. The office will examine events that took place from the 2002 cease-fire until the war’s end in 2009.
The OHCHR team includes three prominent experts and 12 staff members. The group will produce a detailed report, which will be presented at the Human Rights Council’s 28th session next March. The report is expected to add to a quantum of evidence that suggests that both government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — the group fighting for a separate Tamil state in the northern and eastern parts of the country — committed serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
The Rajapaksa regime is doing everything it can to ensure that the investigation does not go smoothly. In addition to the regime publicly stating that it won’t cooperate, myriad cordon-and-search operations, numerous cases of arbitrary arrest, and the government’s proscription of certain Tamil individuals and organizations — that are allegedly supporting terrorism and the LTTE — all fit into this broader strategy.
The government continues to use international pressure to rally its Sinhalese base (Sinhalese people are the overwhelming ethnic majority in Sri Lanka), and the recent rise in repression in the country’s Northern Province, coupled with baseless claims that the LTTE is regrouping within Sri Lanka, are designed to serve those ends.
The ban against Tamil diaspora groups is a calculated move by the regime. Even though several countries will not recognize it, this move will make it harder for Tamils residing in Sri Lanka to receive financial assistance from those in the diaspora. It also means that anyone living in Sri Lanka who collaborates with proscribed individuals or organizations could be imprisoned for extended periods according to the Prevention of Terrorism Act — an undemocratic piece of legislation that gives the security forces wide-ranging powers to arrest and detain people, without their being charged or tried. (The law has had a disproportionately negative effect on Sri Lanka’s Tamil community).
The diaspora ban is undoubtedly supposed to discourage community members residing in Sri Lanka from sharing information with local human rights activists, diplomats, or anyone who may use evidence of past or ongoing human rights abuses for documentation, advocacy, or accountability purposes. While some shrewd analysts have suggested that the ban has been designed specifically in light of the U.N. investigation, it’s likely that the regime in Colombo is playing a much longer game. The regime understands the deleterious effects that efficient, timely information-sharing is having on its (dubious) claims of progress and postwar recovery. In this context, it appears that Rajapaksa and his collaborators are attempting to silence people indefinitely.
For a variety of reasons, many donors have been downsizing their budgets vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. On the diplomatic front, a palpable sense of fatigue has undoubtedly set in across Washington, London, Brussels, and elsewhere. To make matters worse, genuine accountability for wartime atrocities won’t be happening anytime soon. Furthermore, Washington has not indicated the steps it’s contemplating after the war crimes investigation has been completed, but another resolution on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council remains unlikely.
For several reasons, including religiously motivated violence and controversial development projects, a few cracks have appeared in the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance, the political grouping led by Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party. The recent anti-Muslim attacks have further damaged the government’s credibility, but Rajapaksa still appears safe for some time yet. And, as the recent violence outside Colombo has reiterated, institutionalized impunity, an erosion of governance, and rising ethnic tensions remain hallmarks of the regime since the conclusion of war.
As we’ve seen in places such as Rwanda, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and — most recently- – Syria, intervening on behalf of civilians during wartime isn’t easy. Indeed, the international community’s failure to intervene in a host of global hot spots has had devastating consequences. However, when it comes to Sri Lanka, the current situation would likely be even worse if it weren’t for sustained international pressure regarding war crimes and ongoing human rights violations since the war’s end.
Let’s not let Sri Lanka become an example for authoritarian regimes across the global south. Right now — in the eyes of an ambitious authoritarian leader — Sri Lanka’s path may look like a decent way to crush an insurgency and completely disregard human rights and civil liberties more than five years after the fighting.
Disturbingly, Nigerian military officials have even suggested that they may seek to emulate Sri Lankan-style counterinsurgency tactics to take on Boko Haram. This is a worrisome development and could portend an egregious disregard for civilian life and a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.
While it’s understandable that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and company want to thwart further terrorist attacks on their soil, the “Sri Lanka model” is a bad example to follow and deserves the highest degree of opprobrium.
As Sri Lanka’s prospects for genuine reconciliation continue to worsen, now is the time for the international community to redouble its efforts and look beyond resolutions passed and statements made at the Human Rights Council. The Rajapaksa regime’s ruthless end-of-war tactics, like its postwar governance scorecard, are models that shouldn’t be overlooked or even tolerated. For all of these reasons, the way things play out in Sri Lanka has ramifications that extend well beyond a small island nation.
Sometimes it takes time, but the truth has a way of finding people. Let’s hope it findsRajapaksa — sooner rather than later.
Taylor Dibbert is an international consultant based in Washington, D.C., and the author of the book Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth.
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