The Sri Lankan government is on the defensive again over human rights. It is hoping to ride out a diplomatic storm after failing to thwart a UN Human Rights Council vote approving an international investigation of alleged war crimes.
The US-sponsored resolution targeted both the Tamil Tigers and government troops, but such objectivity failed to impress a Sri Lanka bristling with indignation.
The brutality of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is beyond doubt. The massacre of civilians in border villages, large-scale bombings, political assassinations and the alleged use of civilians as human shields during the final stages of the war have been well-documented by analysts, academics and observers for decades.
But the prima facie evidence seeping out of the government’s tightly censored and controlled battle zone – be it satellite images showing no-fire zones pockmarked by artillery fire, or grainy video of troops executing Tamil Tiger prisoners – also casts a potential war crimes shadow over the military’s so-called “decisive victory over terrorism”.
In the face of international criticism, Sri Lanka recycles its “ends justifies the means” argument. It underscores its defence with repeated reminders about LTTE brutality.
Sri Lanka’s dismissive attitude to a long record of war crimes is more than just political arrogance. It should be viewed through the prism of four decades of political violence. This includes the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgencies (1971 and 1987-90), Tamil militancy (1975-2009) and the systemic failure to bring perpetrators to justice.
Righting human rights wrongs has never been high on the Sri Lankan agenda. Until recently, Sri Lanka’s human rights record was also not high on the international agenda.
The JVP insurgencies
The 1971 insurgency staged by the predominantly Sinhala Marxist JVP rebels and the extrajudicial reprisal strategy adopted by prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike’s government irrevocably changed the political landscape of Sri Lanka. It created a culture of state-sponsored abductions, torture and killing. This first foray into broad-scale political violence resulted in the slaying of between 6000 and 15,000 insurgents.
The United National Party (UNP) governments of J. R. Jayawardena and Ranasinghe Premadasa used even greater force to crush the JVP’s second and more violent insurrection in the late 1980s. As many as 60,000 people were killed or “disappeared”. JVP leaders Rohana Wijeweera and Upatissa Gamanayake were summarily executed.
This insurrection saw the rise of state-sponsored paramilitaries and of illicit government-backed torture chambers. These included the Batalanda Detention Centre operated by the government’s Counter Subversive Unit.
Chandrika Kumaratunga set up a presidential commission into Batalanda mass graves in the late 1990s. The findings implicated senior police and even then opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. In 2013, president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, was linked to a JVP-era grave in Matale containing the remains of more than 200 people.
No alleged perpetrators have ever been held to account.
Tamil rebels and state paramilitaries
Fuelled by the first JVP insurrection, Tamil youth in the country’s north formed a number of fledgling militant groups. These included the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the LTTE.
In 1975, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who would become the leader of the lethal LTTE, committed his first assassination when he gunned down pro-government Jaffna mayor Alfred Duriayappah.
From these beginnings the LTTE emerged as the dominant militant group in the north. It eliminated rivals though absorption or violent eradication. Those who survived the purge found refuges or niches of convenience operating within government-sponsored paramilitaries in the Tamil-speaking north and east.
While EPDP paramilitants abducted and allegedly killed scores of civilians at the government’s bidding, their leader, Douglas Devananda, comfortably slipped onto the front bench of both the Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa governments.
Successive government were also quick to collude with Karuna Amman, the LTTE’s once-feared eastern commander. He now sits as a cabinet minister and a party leader. The man implicated in the massacre of 113 police officers who had surrendered to the LTTE and in many terrorist attacks, including the Temple of the Tooth bombing, now tours those same temple grounds as a government minister inspecting the restoration.
Riding out the storm
Rajapaksa is no political dunce. He knows the UN call for “justice” lacks commitment and the threat of investigation is hollow. He has seen similar gestures before in a domestic setting and nothing he has seen of the UN suggests things will be different internationally.
Rajapaksa knows China and Russia will shield Sri Lanka, as they have done previously. He also knows that some allegiances can be bought with the right domestic bait – in Australia’s case, with a promise to stem the flow of refugees.
Yet as long as the threat of intervention hangs over Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa can tug at his countrymen’s nationalist heart strings, rally ultra-nationalists and galvanise support for a government seemingly under attack from foreign interests. His government can deploy an “us-and-them” framework and brand broader anti-government views as anti-nationalist.
This, coupled with the glacial pace of international justice and an almost pathological ability by mainstream Sri Lanka to overlook violent abuses of power, means Rajapaksa’s political opponents will gain little traction for a campaign based on alleged war crimes.
Rajapaksa, like so many before him, enjoys an impunity no international bellowing is likely to overcome.