Mahinda Rajapaksa (center in white), president of Sri Lanka, at the World Economic Forum
Amid an American-led investigation probing allegations of war crimes, the government of Sri Lanka has arrested two human-rights activists, prompting even more disapproval from the international community. The initial allegations surrounding Sri Lanka’s government deal with its actions during their nation’s civil war, which began with the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who in 1983 demanded sovereign control over the Tamil Eelam territory. It was not until 2009 that the group dropped their demands for a separate state.
These arrests, however, occurring five years after the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, were apparently meant to demonstrate that “those alleging human rights abuses [are], in fact, sympathizers of violent extremists.” Instead of achieving this rather openly propagandistic goal, the arrests have only cemented the Sri Lankan government’s image as brutal and dictatorial. While many indicators suggest that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are equally guilty of committing various war crimes, the government has raised suspicion by deeming “anyone who co-operates with international organizations to investigate abuses is a ‘traitor’ or a ‘conspirator.’” Regardless of how sturdy the government’s moral footing in this situation, it certainly seems a bizarre move to publically condemn those involved with the investigation, not to mention arresting human-rights activists so soon before the United Nations sets parameters surrounding their inquiry.
It is crucial that these most recent comments made by the government, and its attempts to “crush dissent,” do not distract from the principle actions for which it must be held accountable, and the fact that the real victims in this situation are surely the civilians, who suffered and continue to suffer by the thousands. By some estimations, the brutal last months of the civil war resulted in the deaths of up to 40,000 civilians.
Now, some five years after the end of the war, questions still remain over the government’s treatment of its people. After all, in order to ensure that the mistakes of the past two decades are not repeated, a new precedent must be set. One in which the government is accountable to the electorate. For this to take place, the government must first accept responsibility for its previous actions; to date, it has failed to do so.
As a result, many Sri Lankans remain unconvinced that their civil rights are being respected. Despite, for instance, the official government line that it has drastically reduced military presence in the former conflict region, “the whole area is swarming with plain-clothed intelligence agents who intimidate the local population and keep them from discussing the war and anything else to do with past or present abuses.” Journalists are encountering increasing degrees of censorship, and the number of people willing to divulge information pertaining to the government’s behavior are few and far between. Even former president Chandrika Kumaratunga has complained of being under “constant surveillance,” and believes that she “has serious reason to be concerned about her own safety.”
The United Nations will surely begin some form of investigation in the near future, and one would imagine that the Sri Lankan government will be subject to various sanctions. This represents a disappointing moment in the country’s history, as there had been hope for maintaining a legitimate regime at the end of the civil war. As it turned out, the government has failed its people, choosing not to hold itself accountable for its actions. And, as usual, the victims have been innocent civilians.
Image Attribution: “WEF on the Middle East Arab and foreign Ministers” by Nader Daoud/World Economic Forum, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0