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Sri Lanka: still difficult to ‘bell the cat’ February 23, 2013

Posted by auriolweigold in : Gordon, Sandy, Sri Lanka , trackback

Sandy Gordon

Commissioned by East Asia Forum and previously published in Future Directions International

Sri Lanka is a small country of about the population of Australia. Its location astride the major energy sea lanes of communication (SLOCS) of the Indian Ocean and just south of behemoth India, however, puts it in a strategic box seat for the forthcoming struggle for influence over the liquid energy requirements of the East Asian economic giants, including China.

Until about a decade ago, the island was a Western-leaning democracy, but one with a generational civil war involving human rights violations on both side. The denouement of the war in May 2009 saw the death of the head of the Tamil Tigers, Vellupillai Prabhakaran. Few who were not Tamil Tiger loyalists would have mourned the passing of the homicidal head of the feared organisation.  Fewer still would have regretted the ending of a civil war that had lasted since 1983 and caused an estimated 80,000 deaths.

But the war ended amidst concerns about serious human rights violations involving deaths of civilian Tamils that the Tigers had used as a ‘human shield’ against the final onslaught of the Sri Lankan army. The US and other Western powers sought a pause in the fighting, threatening to withhold a much-needed IMF loan. But President Rajapaksa was able to cock a snook at Washington because of support from China, Iran and Pakistan. China is also involved in developing a massive port at strategically-located Hambantota, on the southern tip of the island.  The ability of the Rajapaksa government to withstand Western blandishments signalled an important game-change, in which the West could no longer use its financial clout for human rights objectives.

But the human rights issues won’t go away. Channel Four, which had levelled the initial charges of a civilian massacre, recently published footage that seemed to suggest that the Sri Lankan army had executed Brabharakaran’s twelve year old son. The Financial Times also reports that at least 39 media workers have been killed or disappeared over the last seven years and that Reporters without Borders places Sri Lanka 163 of 179 countries assessed in terms of press freedom.

After the war, the head of the armed forces, General Sareth Fonseka, split from Rajapaksa and fought him in presidential elections. He lost heavily to the popular President, who was riding a wave of economic and military success and who had assumed many of the levers of democratic power. Fonseka was subsequently jailed but has now been released.

Recently Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice was also removed on alleged grounds of impropriety. She had challenged an important law designed to increase the hold of the central government over the provinces and seemingly entrench military rule of the Tamil areas. The new Chief Justice, a former Attorney General, is being boycotted by the Bar Association.

More seriously for the long-term, the government has shunned any peace and reconciliation process or any move toward autonomy for the Tamil minority, arguing that the best way forward is to reintegrate the Tamil majority areas into the Island’s general pattern of strong growth and development.

President Rajapaksa is meanwhile forging ahead to turn Sri Lanka into an ‘Asian tiger’ – a model that is not only being emulated on the economic front but also on the democratic, given the emerging authoritarian overtones. After a sharp fall during the GFC, economic growth, which had typically been in the region of 6% throughout the 2000s, rose to about 8% over 2010-11 (but has fallen to 4.8% in the latest quarter of 2012).

Sri Lanka’s human rights issues and its forthright approach to the Tamils have triggered a range of reactions.

India is struggling to contain China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean Region and New Delhi’s predilection would be to go soft on human rights. But it is also facing a national election, and the plight of the Tamils has triggered a political response in Tamil Nadu. This has caused India to vote against Sri Lanka on the human rights at the UNHCR.

The West, while its media might continue to seek to expose abuses, can do little, for reasons stated above. Australia’s dilemma is acute. Already in receipt of Tamil boat people fleeing alleged persecution, the last thing Canberra would want is a recrudescence of the guerrilla campaign, which would see rising human rights abuses and larger numbers of asylum seekers.  On the other hand, Australia needs the Sri Lankan government’s assistance to ensure that boats do not leave the Island.

So here we have it: the old Asian dilemma. How is growth and stability to be set against human rights and fully functioning democratic institutions? How should an ever-weakening West (at least in comparative terms) intervene in what has become the new great game – one in which it is no longer necessarily the central player?

Sri Lanka encapsulates all these issues and provides a fascinating glimpse into an otherwise opaque future.



1. Prof. Takenori Horimoto - March 2, 2013

Insightful observation of Sri Lankan situations! I have enjoyed reading this. Probably one of the key factors for stabilization of the country would be how it could regain higher economic growth rate in the years to come.

2. Andrew Hoban - April 3, 2013

Without permanent peace with Tamil minority and equitable justice awarded to the victims of Sri Lanka’s recent war crimes, the prosperous future for Sri Lanka will be elusive. Development and economic growth will not solve fundamental causes of ethnic conflicts. In additional the rise of authoritarian rule by the Sri Lankan government and dominance of oppressive military post war is alarming development for Sri Lanka.

CHOGM presents an ideal opportunity to put pressure on Sri Lanka to improve the continuing excruciating human rights abuses of Tamils.

3. James Smith - April 7, 2013

“excruciating human rights abuses of Tamils” sounds like an exaggeration given that it has been proven by a number of international agencies that the situation in the north and east of Sri Lanka has stabilised and is peaceful. Sorry, I cannot agree with such a sweeping statement on a number of levels.
It is also the responsibility of the Tamil political parties, as much it is Sinhalese parties, to engage in meaningful dialogue and not lobby for a separate state. Australia will thankfully not endorse any movement that will endanger India’s internal stability, nor endorse a movement that aims to undermine the region’s cohesion. South Asia is not South Sudan. Its important this be understood very clearly.