A news report published week suggests a novel approach by the Sri Lankan government to thwart allegations of war crimes and is anchored to Damilvani Gnanakumar, a British Tamil present in the Vanni during the final bloody weeks of war, was subsequently interned in Menik Camp. Upon her release from Menik Camp, she left to the UK. Once safely at home, she recounted damning first hand accounts of government atrocities during war and appalling conditions in Menik Camp, receiving wide coverage in the British press and broadcast media. Unable to contain or censor her by other means, the news report notes that the government “arrested members of the family that provided lodging to her while she was in Vavuniya”, effectively silencing Damilvani. The report also suggests that the government has decided to delay the release of Tamil nationals who are citizens of Australia and Canada from IDP camps, for fear of more Damilvani’s amongst them.
So what has the government achieved here? It has effectively silenced Damilvani, obviously its intended goal. After her initial outbursts on the Guardian and Channel 4, she has not appeared again in the media, obviously for fear of endangering the lives of relatives now in custody. But by doing so, the government has given her account, which as I noted last in my previous column is deeply partial and biased, new legitimacy, greater appeal and vigour. Precisely because of government attempts to silence her, Damilvani’s narrative strengthens the argument that allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both government forces and the LTTE can only be verified or denied by independent inquiry. By attempting to blackmail her into silence, the government guarantees more domestic and international media scrutiny on the fate of a quarter of a million Tamil IDPs, especially those with foreign citizenship, still interned in Menik Camp. Diplomatic pressure and censure will not be far behind, at a time when the government is trying its utmost to retain the EU’s GSP Plus trade concessions. And with this inescapable international pressure will be growing calls for accountability, precisely what the Government is so violently opposed to and seeks to avoid. The Sinhala adage “uda balan kela gahanewa” comes to mind.
Based on this incident alone, it’s remarkable how such a victorious government, enjoying unprecedented adulation, has lost so comprehensively the post-war plot. Braggadocio of the Executive to stand trial on behalf of the armed forces over any investigations into war crimes does nothing whatsoever to prevent punitive sanctions and whether we like it or not, the possibility of Washington backed, UN mandated war crimes investigations in the future. This glass jawed patriotism is at best silly for it ignores, at great peril, vital domestic and international post-war realities. Functioning as if it still commanded the services of glib gentlemen in peace secretariats and at the UN to defend Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses, the government’s continuing offensives against human decency and democracy are without reason. Worse, it is self-defeating.
For example, the JHU loudly proclaimed last week that it would start a campaign to generate a million signatures to hold the US accountable for its own war crimes, forgetting momentarily perhaps, inter alia, the sheer absurdity of challenging the moral authority and popularity the incumbent US President commands. Columnists and commentators, in print, broadcast and increasingly online, have gone on the offensive, offended at what they see is the chutzpah of the US and West to rain on our parade after the LTTE’s decisive defeat. New enemies are being created apace by the regime and its apparatchiks to cover up for the lack of post-war democracy. From the UN to the IMF, from the US to the EU and all their domestic agents, this is a conspiracy of such power, reach and complexity that it would put Dan Brown’s imagination to shame. In a bizarre twist, there is even now the demonization of the ICRC on the Ministry of Defence website. Yet it is the UN that is helping with post-war demining, development and the existential needs of interned IDPs. Government media record that in July, Sri Lanka’s U.S. Envoy, Jaliya Wickramasuriya at a meeting with Robert M. Scher, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South & Southeast Asia at the US Department of Defense thanked the United States for providing support, especially in terms of curbing the funding and logistical network in the effort to eliminate the LTTE. We need the money from the IMF just as much as we need the GSP Plus extension. Leave aside GSP Plus – the EU in 2006 alone gave Sri Lanka over one hundred and seventy million Euros as post-tsunami development and reconstruction aid. As noted on its website, over the coming years, the EC will spend an average in grants to Sri Lanka of around two billion rupees a year. And finally the ICRC, that lost three aid workers this year alone, continues to care for those displaced and affected by war it has access to. Quite simply, without the aid and assistance of these governments and agencies, Sri Lanka would tank.
While for some an affront to national pride, this is a reality that one cannot erase through bitter invective and silly posturing. To speak out in favour of domestic conditions that encourage the continued engagement of these actors is not, as it is often simplistically made out to be, uncritical of Western assistance or to be a lackey of some foreign agenda. On the contrary, our ability to negotiate favourably loans, grants and trade concessions is inextricably pegged to real change in our post-war democratic institutions. To my knowledge, Sri Lanka is being judged today against rights enshrined in its own constitution and UN declarations and treaties it has ratified as a State. It is being judged on the basis of official statements to the international community by the Executive, promising the resettlement of IDPs in Menik Camp within 180 days and the full enactment of the 13th Amendment. These are not promises made by and statements crafted by NGOs or an operative in Langley hell-bent on regime change. Why then viciously blame it on NGOs and the West when the divide between promises and reality stands exposed?
Our best chance at international respect and recognition post-war will not come from photo-ops with pariahs like Ahmadinejad, Chavez and Gaddafi, or for that matter through supine subservience to bi-lateral and multi-lateral donors. It can only ever be achieved through the restoration of the dignity of all our peoples, a return to democracy, the Rule of Law and a country all its citizens are proud to be associated with and part of.
Celebrating 60 years of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2009, the President noted that “we in Sri Lanka renew and reaffirm our commitment to upholding the values and goals proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which also requires the elimination of terrorism in all its forms”.
Damilvani and others may wonder if the President was thinking of his own government’s policies and practices when he said that.
Published in The Sunday Leader, 27th September 2009