Saturday, April 30, 2011
Truth and consequences - Nationalistic fury is good for the government - terrible for Sri Lanka
IN RECENT years the default mode for Sri Lankan diplomats has been a posture of affronted national dignity beneath a mask of outraged, sanctimonious innocence. This week, after the publication of a report by a panel of experts for the United Nations on the final stages of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, some were recalled to Colombo for “consultations”. Maybe they are brushing up their indignant-repudiation skills.
The war culminated in May 2009 with the army’s crushing of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Its climax was marked by ruthlessness and callous disregard for human life. The panel concluded that “there is a reasonable basis to believe that large-scale violations of international humanitarian and human-rights law were committed by both sides”. Since hardly any of the Tigers’ leaders outlived the war, it is the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president, that is in the dock.
It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.
Instead, it chose a third path: to lie, and to lie big. It insisted that it pursued a policy of “zero civilian casualties”. Even as its forces shelled the shrinking “no-fire zone” in which the Tigers held some 330,000 civilians as human shields, it either denied it was doing so, or promised to stop and did not. It kept foreign observers out and bullied the local press into silence. The UN report found that “tens of thousands” were killed in January-May 2009, with most civilian casualties caused by government shelling.
The report relates little that has not appeared in accounts by human-rights groups.
But it is unusually blunt, perhaps reflecting exasperation at the Sri Lankan government’s obstructive, aggressive tactics. The three-member panel is distinguished enough to shrug off Sri Lanka’s accusations of bias. The chair, Marzuki Darusman, is a former attorney-general of Indonesia. The report calls the conduct of the war “a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace”.
The government, however, is now too deeply wedded to its strategy of denial to back down even an inch. It lobbied hard against the publication of the UN report, arguing it would damage efforts at national reconciliation. Now that Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has ignored its objections, it has whipped up a frenzy of national resentment against the perceived calumnies. This goes down well at home.
Standing up to foreign bullying only enhances Mr Rajapaksa’s popularity among the ethnic-Sinhalese majority. Responding to the report, the president has said he would be happy to sit in the electric chair on behalf of his country. A huge turnout is expected for May Day rallies at which he has asked for a show of support for his government.
If the report has brought Mr Rajapaksa short-term political benefits at home, he may also conclude that the diplomatic fallout is easily manageable. Sri Lanka is not without supporters. Just days after the end of the war in 2009, the UN’s Human Rights Council passed a resolution praising its victory, condemning Tiger war crimes and overlooking altogether allegations against the Sri Lankan army. Of its diplomatic allies back then, India is now less staunch. But China and Russia remain firm defenders of the rights of sovereign governments to quell secessionist movements, and do not seem squeamish about the means.
They may be even keener, after the UN-authorised intervention in Libya, to show that was the exception to a rule of non-interference. So Sri Lanka will continue to resist calls for any formal inquiry into the war beyond the “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC) it established. Though due to report soon, the commission has failed to earn credibility.
In the long run, however, the semi-official status the UN report gives allegations of war crimes will haunt this government. The well-organised, far-flung Tamil diaspora will hound Sri Lanka’s leaders when they go abroad, and put pressure on foreign governments to demand accountability. Skilled at exploiting the rivalry between India and China, whose arms supplies helped win the war, Sri Lanka’s diplomats may argue that they no longer need the West. But, proud of Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions, they will smart at being seen as front men for a shoddy dictatorship, engaged in what now looks like a desperate cover-up.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
Though perceived foreign slights may enhance the government’s standing at home, it is there that the concealment of the truth about the war’s end will do most damage. It is not as if there were no witnesses. Some 300,000 people know first-hand parts of what happened. When the LLRC held hearings in the north, scene of the fighting, survivors told harrowing tales of loss and asked where missing loved ones were. Without answers, it is hard to see how they can be “reconciled”.
Nor does the government show any sign of moving towards a political settlement, to meet the grievances of the Tamil minority that fuelled the conflict. Gordon Weiss, the UN’s spokesman in Colombo during the end of the war, predicts in a forthcoming book (“The Cage”) that Tamil emigration will continue, “encouraged by political stagnation, a lack of rights and rule by fear”. And also by the government’s continued refusal to countenance any serious investigation into how it won the war. By Banyan for The Economist
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