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Sri Lanka veers off course

With China’s backing, the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led government does not appear worried about either its dismal human rights record or about irking its traditional allies

Image Credit: AFP
President Mahinda Rajapaksa feeds a pineapple to an elephant during an annual Buddhist festival in the hill resort of Kandy
Gulf News

The defeat of one of the world’s largest and most lethal terrorist organisations — and the end of a three decade civil war — should have heralded a bright new dawn for the tropical Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka. The economy is one of Asia’s fastest growing, and tourism is booming. But three years after the war ended, human rights groups and opposition leaders are warning that the country is descending towards dictatorship, with dissent brutally crushed, the news media cowed and the minority Tamils, whose insurrection caused the war in the first place, still treated as second-class citizens.

The United States and India, Sri Lanka’s two main trading partners, had largely looked the other way as the government crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels three years ago in a campaign that left between 7,721 and 40,000 people dead, according to UN estimates. But the two countries have expressed frustration at the lack of postwar reconciliation and urged Sri Lanka to do more to protect human rights. At the same time, Washington and New Delhi have found themselves increasingly marginalised, their leverage limited as the government in Colombo has forged close economic and diplomatic links with China and Iran.

“The Sri Lanka government has the wind in its sails, and it wants to define the future of the country on its own terms,” said Harsh V. Pant, who teaches at the Defence Studies Department at King’s College in London. “It is going to be very difficult for outsiders such as India and America to influence anything domestically. And if Sri Lanka has problems in international institutions, it knows it can rely on China.”

At the height of its power, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ran vast swaths of Tamil-dominated northern and eastern Sri Lanka as a virtual ministate. But they had also turned a struggle for the rights of the island’s Hindu and Christian Tamils into a terrorist campaign involving suicide bombers and child soldiers — assassinating anyone who stood in their way, including thousands of moderate Tamils, a Sri Lankan president and, in 1991, former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. But after a long stalemate, the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the war to the Tigers with unprecedented ruthlessness and single-mindedness. As the scorched-earth campaign entered its final stages in 2009, it cost tens of thousands of lives. A UN report called for an investigation into war crimes by both sides, accusing the Tigers of using civilians as human shields and the Sri Lankan military of indiscriminate shelling and denying civilians access to humanitarian aid.

Rajapaksa is enormously popular among the island’s Sinhala Buddhist majority for ridding this country of 21 million of the spectre of terrorism and war. But critics say he is in danger of squandering the peace. The military runs northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and local residents complain that its control of every aspect of daily life is deeply intrusive and humiliating, and that anyone who challenges it risks deadly retribution. But the disappearances of government opponents are perhaps the most obvious manifestation of a regime gone wrong, human rights groups say.

This year, 52 people have gone missing in the country’s south. Most who have disappeared since the end of the war are Tamils, but also at risk are moderate Sinhalese who speak out. In 2009, a prominent newspaper editor was shot and killed; in January 2010, a cartoonist and political analyst, Prageeth Eknaligoda, left his office and was never seen again. A few months before, Eknaligoda had been handcuffed and bundled into one of the white vans that have become the symbol of the disappearances. He was released the next day but subsequently faced death threats for his denunciation of rampant government corruption, his wife, Sandhya, said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says that 23 journalists have been forced into exile since 2007 and that only three have returned. Although self-censorship is widespread, the intimidation continues. The Sri Lankan police recently raided the offices of two websites and arrested nine journalists for “propagating false and unethical news on Sri Lanka”. The US Embassy in Colombo expressed its “deep concern over efforts to suppress independent news media” and called for the harassment to end. Reporters Without Borders ranks Sri Lanka 163 out of 179 nations on its global Press Freedom Index.

Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris said accusations of disappearances and intimidation are overblown, a “cloud” thrown up by people who want to claim political asylum abroad. “Whatever happens, the finger is pointed at the government,” he said.

There was a flicker of hope after the war, when Rajapaksa set up the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, though human rights groups had low expectations of the handpicked tribunal. After an 18-month inquiry, the commission cleared the army of systematic human rights abuses but called for a few individual incidents to be investigated. More forcefully, it recommended measures to promote postwar reconciliation, including the demilitarisation of the north and the investigation of disappearances. But even those limited recommendations have proved beyond the capability of a Sri Lankan government with a tight grip on the reins of power.

After a thumping election victory in 2010, Rajapaksa changed the constitution to increase his authority over the police, judiciary and civil service, and end the two-term limit for the presidency. He then arrested his election opponent, Sarath Fonseka, and jailed him for two years. The president’s brother Gotabhaya runs the security apparatus and parts of the economy through the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development; another brother, Basil, heads the Ministry of Economic Development and a third is speaker of Parliament. Other close family members serve as ambassadors or chief ministers, and a nephew runs the state airline. Corruption, business leaders and lawyers say, is at an all-time high.

In March, the US, with India’s backing, sponsored a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council urging Sri Lanka to act on the recommendations of its reconciliation commission. Sri Lanka reacted with anger, organising almost daily protests outside the US Embassy in Colombo and using state-run media to denounce those Sri Lankans who had testified against the government in Geneva as “traitors”. Indian attempts to prod Sri Lanka were also rebuffed. India’s foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, emerged from a meeting with Rajapaksa in January saying the president had promised to honour a 15-year-old amendment to the country’s constitution that would give limited autonomy to the Tamil-dominated north. No sooner had Krishna left the country than Rajapaksa denied having ever made such a commitment, to India’s fury.

Peiris, the Sri Lankan foreign minister, said the government was eager to implement the commission’s recommendations but not under “duress” from abroad. But in Rajapaksa’s home constituency of Hambantota, a brand-new deep-sea port offers a clue to the government’s attitude. The port is just one of many infrastructure projects underway here that is being built and funded by the Chinese, and one that has deeply irked India’s government as an unwelcome Chinese intrusion into its Indian Ocean “backyard”. Chinese weapons were instrumental in helping the Sri Lankan government end the war. Now, Chinese support is allowing the government to design its future. But despite the challenges, diplomats and officials said the US and India are determined to remain engaged with Sri Lanka. Neither country wants it to follow Myanmar’s path into increasing isolation from the West, these officials say, or to push it more deeply into China’s embrace.

–Washington Post