With all the horrors taking place in Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria, Sri Lanka has understandably fallen off the international radar. However, what you must know is that this suits Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, just fine.
Yet the brutal methods he has used to defeat the Tamil Tigers — which ignore the cost of civilian casualties and frequently trample on human rights — are very similar to the ones used by those currently fighting in the spotlight. They are even being admired from afar: within the last two months army and police officers in Nigeria and Pakistan have expressed interest in learning from Sri Lanka’s example.
When the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was held in Sri Lanka last November, it brought much unwelcome publicity, and led to an international investigation of war crimes being set up by the UN Human Rights Council. That decision was obviously a victory for the government’s critics. Yet the government behaved almost as if that was what it wanted, making a series of overt and heavy-handed attempts to silence dissent at home even while the Council was in session in Geneva.
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In particular, at least 60 Tamils, mainly women, were arrested in and around the northern town of Kilinochchi, which had been the Tigers’ de facto capital during the war. Two well-known Catholic activists, Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesan, went to investigate these arrests, and were themselves arrested as part of a massive security clampdown.
This led to a significant but brief international outcry: brief because Fernando and Mahesan were released unharmed after two days, followed by many (but not all) of the other detainees. Two days later, however, both were banned from leaving the country or speaking to the media. They were also forced to hand over their mobile phones and personal computers, and Fernando was roughly confronted by armed police in a Colombo street.
This time there was no international outcry, indeed no publicity at all, because friends of the pair were afraid any public move might put them in greater danger. Nor has there been any sustained campaign on behalf of the other Tamil detainees.