Regime change

The Rajapaksa government will fall and several in it will have to answer allegations of war crimes. There are many who will disagree with both assertions, indeed, violently and with the usual rhetoric. The animating logic behind regime longevity, seen from within government, is that the international community will forget Nandikadal in May 2009.

This is unlikely.

Phaidon’s colossal ‘Decade’ is the sequel to ‘Century’. It’s not available in Sri Lanka, but at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble there is usually a display copy one can peruse. Sri Lanka is featured, from memory, twice in the tome. One photo features the LTTE’s attack on Katunayake Airport. The other is a far more interesting photo. It is one taken when Prabhakaran’s freshly killed body is being taken on a stretcher across a ditch in May 2009, with dozens of soldiers looking on.  The photo in and of itself is a revealing frame, but if one looks closely, there are over 13 cameras – including camera phones – captured in that single shot. It is improbable that the soldiers, after the zenith of war, rushed back to their homes and returned after picking up their cameras or mobile phones to capture this moment.  It is logical to assume they had these cameras and mobile phones with them throughout the final weeks of war. What are personal digital trophies of war are in fact records of intent, orders and action in the frontlines. They will go public.

Former BBC correspondent Frances Harrison has just released a book with harrowing testimonies by those trapped in and around Nandikadal. It will be progressively released globally, and with each launch, add to scrutiny on Sri Lanka. With each review of the book – good, bad or indifferent – attention on Sri Lanka’s bloody secrets increases. Channel 4, it was noted on Twitter recently, is working on yet another documentary on the end of the war. High-resolution satellite imagery that can be commercially acquired based on initial scoping, for zero cost, via Google Earth can highlight instances of shelling, and through more rigorous analysis, direction of fire. Inferring by extension which party shelled where, when and how often is possible. The UN Human Rights Council is not going to forget its March Resolution. The real nature and extent to which cluster munitions on the ground have been discovered, though obscure and very contested now, will in the months and years to come, invariably filter out. One reason why some openly supportive of and close to the former Army Commander haven’t met with fatal accidents post-war is possibly because in the event of their death or disappearance, it has been made known that content will be released to international and domestic fora, including media, which can put the government in an uncomfortable and untenable position. It is unlikely all the information submitted to and acquired by the UN Panel of Experts was reflected in its final report and released publicly. This information can months and years hence, by strategic design or sheer carelessness, leak. Individuals who have not been paid for their work and never travelled to Sri Lanka have interviewed those on the ground in the final weeks of war in duty stations like Haiti, beyond Government scrutiny. The resulting reports again highlight horrific ground conditions at the end of war. With every single international event Sri Lanka hosts – be it cultural, film, sports, literary or political – sections of the diaspora will raise the volume on human rights abuses. The more Sri Lanka engages with the international community on bilateral and multilateral issues and agreements, the more these alternative narratives will persist, pique and propagate.

Several staples bind these disparate information release points over an extended temporal arc that weaves through many capitals. One, they will be predominantly against government. LTTE atrocities will be noted in passing, at best. Two, there is no one left in Sri Lanka the government can kill to thwart the release of this information or analysis. In fact, such moves may accelerate their release and dissemination. Three, each release or leak will be increasingly graphic and therefore more telegenic. Four, released predominantly online, this content will have a long-tail – that is, it cannot be erased and will be used and useful long after first publication or release. Five, accountability will take the form of domestic and international public shaming long before any IHL is brought to bear. Five, regime instability can be fermented from within. The discussion and release of inconvenient truths can over time and cumulatively become a body of evidence too hard to defend publicly or be associated with. After all, regime apparatchiks also have a basic survival instinct.

In the fullness of time, whether the underlying mechanics of illiberal governance and not just government is changed remains the only open question.


Published in The Nation newspaper, 14 October 2012.


One thought on “Regime change

  1. Celerati Editorial says:

    Excellent analysis and admirable courage. Well done! Sri Lanka needs desperately a voice like yours. The Sinhalese must wake up and realize that it’s not just about the Tamil: they are falling in a hell of brutality with their fellows.And it is a duty of the international community to help them discovering what happened. The world will face dire consequences if it allows plain genocide like this to occur.

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