When Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena unexpectedly replaced Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with strongman and former-President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Oct 26, the move was seen as the fallout from internal rivalry caused by domestic issues such as corruption, poor economic performance and political power play.
While this is undisputable, what should not be ignored is that the policy of western democracies – led by the United States – of over-emphasising military-to-military relations with Sri Lanka to the detriment of human rights accountability, has weakened their hand to play a constructive role in this crisis.
Electoral victories in 2015 by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe installed a national unity government that promised to usher good governance and address past human rights violations, including accountability for mass atrocities.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, which replaced the authoritarian Rajapaksa regime, pledged to neutralise his close ties to China with a policy of equidistance between Beijing and the West, led by the United States, and its South Asian ally India.
The new government and the international community agreed on a pathway to address past mass atrocities and ensure nonrecurrence through the adoption of UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1 in September 2015.
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The resolution, which rested on four transitional justice mechanisms, also called for the removal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and for a new constitution. The resolution was cosponsored by, among others, Sri Lanka and the US.
Expressing satisfaction at the turn of events following the adoption of the resolution, then US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “it lays out a path to provide truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence … while safeguarding the reputation of those, including within the military, who conducted themselves with honor and professionalism.”
The new government’s announcement that it would pursue a balanced foreign policy gave Washington a long-awaited opportunity to bring Sri Lanka within its broader military strategy of containing Beijing. Military collaboration burgeoned, mostly with Sri Lanka’s navy.
While training under IMET continued, new programs between the US Marine Corps and the Sri Lanka Navy that began in 2016 laid the foundations for a marine corps unit in the country.
More important, Sri Lanka became part of joint exercises in the Indian Ocean with regional navies to protect and keep sea routes open. Enhancing the scope of the Galle Dialogue from 2016 was one of them.
While Washington, with Europe and India were busy enhancing military relations, they lagged on persuading the Colombo to make good on its promises on human rights and democracy.
By the end of 2015 it was clear that the implementation of transitional justice was tardy and below the expectations of the victims. Further, the government that had pledged good governance was guilty of torture, militarisation and denials that mass atrocities had even taken place.
An opportunity for the international community to do right by the victims presented itself in March 2017 when the 2015 resolution came up for review before the UNHRC.
But rather than impose stricter conditions on Colombo on implementing the resolution, UNHRC member countries granted Sri Lanka another two years with no additional benchmarks or timelines to complete the task.
Among the countries in the UNHRC willing to let Colombo off the hook were the US and European democracies.
But if the US’s reticence at the UNHRC on human rights atrocities was a tactic to wean Colombo from China’s orbit, it failed. Because, despite Wickremesinghe’s promise to halt development of a Chinese financed and controlled Port City near Colombo, he later gave the green light for its resumption.
More problematic was giving to Chinese control the commercial port of Hambantota, which has geopolitical significance and can be used for military purposes. Finally, the country also enthusiastically endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative.
With the project of decoupling Colombo from Beijing sluggish at best, persuading Colombo to strengthen human rights would have enhanced Washington’s influence in Sri Lanka.
Take for instance the PTA. An important objective of the 2015 UNHRC resolution was rescinding PTA. Removing it was vital to facilitate a candid national conversation on the political roots of Sri Lanka’s conflicts and their terrible human cost.
But Sirisena and Wickremesinghe (as Rajapaksa before them) did not withdraw the PTA. This was because repealing the PTA would have encouraged diverse narratives – including the experiences of Tamil victims – about the civil war entering the public domain, thereby exposing not only the Rajapaksa government but Wickremesinghe-led previous regimes too of committing atrocities.
Also, a free public debate would have made clear to the Sinhalese that when Tamils demanded that the military be brought before an international court for justice, they meant only those who had command responsibility and not necessarily the rank and file.
By stifling free public debate, Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa were able to circulate fake narratives claiming that the entire military would be tried for war crimes.
This created the myth that the military comprising 90 percent Sinhalese, needed Sinhala saviors to protect them from the Tamils calling for justice. And each of the three leaders emblazoned their nationalist credentials by portraying themselves as these saviors.
Further, rescinding the PTA would have also restricted torture and exposed the charade of the government denying ongoing torture. Most important, it would have facilitated law enforcement procedures that are transparent, equitable and less corrupt, thereby benefiting citizens regardless of race or creed.
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Another problem in post-civil war Sri Lanka the resolution was supposed to address was militarisation. Although fighting ended in 2009, military saturation of North and East Sri Lanka continues, so much so that in one district at least, the ratio of military to civilians stands at 1:2.
Demilitarisation would not only have reduced the military’s presence from where it is concentrated now, but also its ownership of hotels, kiosks and farms, thereby distorting the market and depriving people emerging from war of productive livelihoods.
Militarisation also undermines the judiciary. In one of the few cases where legal action is ongoing on enforced disappearances, senior navy personnel associated with naval intelligence are being charged for 11 youth going missing in 2008.
In September, when it transpired that the incumbent commander of the navy Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne had aided a suspect to evade arrest, the magistrate ordered Wijegunaratne’s arrest.
However, Sirisena intervened promptly to prevent his detention and ordered the police that no arrests of senior military personnel could be conducted without his approval. Wijegunaratne remains free.
As a cosponsor of the UNHRC resolution and as countries promoting human rights and democracy western democracies under US leadership could have done much to either repeal entirely, or at least remove the sections of the PTA that stifled freedom of expression.
And, by pushing Colombo towards demobilisation the US and the Europeans could have reduced the military’s presence in Tamil civilian life. They were not prepared to ensure either.
Washington has not been able to achieve its goal of entirely unentangling Sri Lanka from China’s grip by forging a close military relationship with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. It also lost much of its standing with Sri Lanka’s citizens because it did not lend a strong support to the voices of those calling for democracy and human rights.
Going forward, whether it be Wickremesinghe or Rajapaksa that eventually consolidates power, balancing military relations with democracy promotion might be a more prudent way to go.