Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa has made a grave miscalculation in insisting that only his own country is competent to investigate allegations of war crimes in the final days of the Tamil Tiger insurrection in May 2009, when it is estimated that some 40,000 civilians died.
He has denied UN investigators entry visas and refused to cooperate with the organization’s Human Rights Council inquiry. Nothing could have been better calculated to indicate that the Sri Lankan military, on the brink of victory after a long and bitter war that had seen it humiliated countless times by a ruthless enemy, did indeed abandon the normal rules of war.
Monstrous though the army’s behavior may have been, it is far from unusual. Little told, for example, are the instances of robbery, rape and plunder carried out by Allied soldiers as they pressed on into Nazi Germany. The victors get to write history. Only during the ensuing Cold War were the depravities of the Soviet forces publicized with their apparently almost standardized rape and brutalization of civilians in the German territory that they had overrun.
Had Rajapaksa been better advised, he could have admitted that crimes had been committed and sought to investigate them. One stratagem could have been to blame General Sarath Fonseka, the army commander at the time, for much of what occurred. Fonseka went on to challenge Rajapaksa unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2010 and was subsequently arrested for “military offenses” and given a three-year prison sentence of which he served more than two years.
Yet it was always clear that in Rajapaksa’s eyes, Fonseka’s principle crime was to take on the status quo. In an election, the fairness of which was always dubious, the sitting president showed himself unprepared to be challenged by a man seen by many Singhalese as a hero, rather than a war criminal.
Thus Rajapaksa has left himself no political cover for his outright rejection of the UN investigation. In telling the international community to mind its own business, he is effectively substantiating the terrible allegations that have been leveled against his administration. This will not bode well for his country’s economic future. Though foreign investors are anxious to win themselves new business and, as in Burma with its rising persecution of the Muslim minority are little concerned with the niceties of human rights, the long-term reality remains that Sri Lanka is in danger of acquiring international pariah status.
The UN investigators say that they are unfazed by being refused visas. They will go ahead with their inquiry using video conferencing and social media. Although this is hardly a precise tool to find out what really happened, having recourse to this expedient throws down a further challenge to the Sri Lankan president. Will he endeavor to cut communication links or seek out and arrest potential witnesses? Whatever happens next, it is almost certain to impact badly on his own position.
It is surely not too late to retreat and cooperate with an entirely legitimate inquiry. Sri Lanka defeated a 29-year insurgency and, on the face of it, has restored peace, if not yet harmony. The seeds of the minority Tamil rebellion were sown in discrimination. The growth of a united and prosperous island rests entirely on the rectification of past injustices. Defying the UN inquiry will not simply alienate the international community. It will also prepare the ground for future conflict. Rajapaksa is not wise. (Saudi Gazette)