Inconvenient truths: international accountability and domestic politics in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan regime needs to be intellectually and electorally defeated. But in this task, the spectre of international intervention is not merely a distraction, but a hindrance.
Asanga Welikala
19 August 2011

Earlier this year, the panel set up by the UN Secretary General to advise him on issues relating to possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka published its report. Soon after, I wrote that success in the pursuit of any subsequent international action would depend on the extent that the Sir Lankan political context, and in particular the democratic opinion of Sri Lankans, had been taken into account. These are critical political factors bearing on post-war reconciliation and democracy in Sri Lanka. At the level of norms, my argument concerns the tension between international justice and national democracy. Immediate accountability for egregious human rights violations through some international mechanism cannot supersede all other considerations. In the past few months, international civil society and media have taken up the campaign for accountability in the light of the UN panel’s recommendations – the most celebrated intervention being the UK’s Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. This is a point, therefore, that I believe needs re-emphasis. 

Given the terrible nature of the allegations, this is not an argument that is either easily or flippantly made. Nor are matters made easier by the Sri Lankan regime’s absence of magnanimity in victory in regard to the accommodation of Tamil aspirations in a new constitutional settlement; or the irascible, insensitive and deplorable comments senior government figures, notably presidential sibling and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, are regularly in the habit of making. But in terms of the political consequences single-track campaigns for international justice are likely to have within Sri Lanka, advocates of international action would do well to pay attention to the nuances of the local political context.

Context and consequences

Even as the UN panel report was published, it was clear to any discerning observer of Sri Lankan politics and public opinion that hostility to any form of international intervention went deeper than the histrionics of the regime’s representatives. If anything, since then this trend has only turned sharply upwards. True, a disintegrating parliamentary opposition has been wholly unable to provide either an alternative policy or democratic leadership. But the issue itself transcends party loyalties. It taps into more fundamental patriotic sentiments concerned with national sovereignty, dignity and unfair treatment. Even those sections of the electorate who are not the ruling coalition’s traditional constituency, inspired by these sentiments, are turning to the regime. For anecdotal evidence, one need only look at the vehemence and strength of feeling that the Channel 4 documentary elicited on internet message boards. More solid evidence of the regime’s democratic popularity is to be found in the results of several electoral cycles since 2005, and in the latest available independent quantitative data, such as the survey Democracy in Post-War Sri Lanka, released by the Centre for Policy Alternatives this week.  

Two aspects of the regime’s popularity need highlighting. Firstly, it is a popularity that is enjoyed in spite of its patent authoritarianism. From constitutional manipulation to the politicisation of public administration; from draconian national security laws and militarisation, to contempt for civic institutions and civil society; from incredulous levels of nepotism to rampant corruption; from the undermining of judicial independence to the devaluation of liberty and the rule of law, the regime’s contribution to the culture of governance has been decidedly insalubrious. Yet, according to the CPA survey, ‘58.8% of Sri Lankans think that the country has been the most democratic under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s period [sic].’ In short, what we have in Sri Lanka is a classic example of an illiberal democracy, in which in any democratic disagreement, majoritarian arguments, buttressed by populist nationalism, trump all others.   

Secondly, when it comes to the relationship citizens have with the state, both the electoral results and the opinion data reveal the deep ethnic divisions that characterise post-war Sri Lanka. Only the Tamils of the North have defied the regime’s post-war electoral juggernaut, repeatedly reaffirming their commitment to a distinctive identity and desire for territorial autonomy in preference to the regime’s offer of economic development without autonomy. Within that 58.8% of those who think the country has never been more democratic than under Rajapaksa, 69.9% are Sinhalese, whereas only 23.6% of Tamil respondents concur. This only confirms what the ideologically Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist nature of the regime tells us. The political privileging of the majority nationalism is by definition a denial of the societal pluralism that ought to be the foundation of an inclusive Sri Lankan constitutional order, and the Tamils’ and other minorities’ alienation from the state is reflected in this empirical material. 

Lessons to be drawn 

What lessons are to be drawn from these two factors? The nationalist ideology of the Sri Lankan state-regime is the source of its democratic strength, at the same time as it is deeply divisive and normatively unjust in a pluralistic society. The fragmentation that results is contained by military force and political repression, and in this way ethnic division and authoritarianism have become the self-perpetuating dynamic that animates post-war democracy in Sri Lanka. For those concerned about a more liberal and pluralistic Sri Lanka, therefore, this constitutes the fundamental post-war political challenge. The longer the regime continues in power, the greater the damage it will do to Sri Lanka’s traditions of constitutional democracy and any hope of a settlement embracing its diversity. The regime needs to be intellectually and electorally defeated, and in this task, the spectre of international intervention is not merely a distraction, but a definite hindrance, to the extent that it unintentionally creates the space for the regime to burnish its anti-terrorism, anti-western and ‘patriotic’ credentials, and thereby shield itself from democratic scrutiny and normal politics. 

As I argued in greater detail and with illustrative comparisons in my previous article, this is not to appease hard-line recalcitrance, nor is it a ‘do nothing’ argument. The affirmation of the universalism of human rights is one thing, but in selecting the best methods of their realisation in challenging situations like Sri Lanka, there is surely the need for both a perceptive understanding of the complexities of the political context, and the capacity to take the longer historical view. Without this, human rights advocacy risks not only failure, but also strengthening the very illiberal forces it seeks to combat.


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