War Crimes and War Heroes: Horns of Sri Lanka’s dilemma

article_imageFinal stage of the war

by Rajan Philips

Even for those of us who are not (western) classists, it would makes sense to know that the resolution of a dilemma in logic and rhetoric involves either taking the left horn, the right horn, or going in between the two, not to mention (rhetorically) distracting the proverbial bull. Transcending from the ‘precocious’ world of ancient Greece to the pernicious world of contemporary Sri Lankan politics (where good things can still happen from time to time – as Professor Carlo Fonseka realized and reminded us last week), we could identify the vested interests hanging on to one or the other of the two horns of our country’s dilemma, as well as hanging on to both. The Rajapaksa forces have hung on to the horn of war heroes ever since 2009 and won two (2010) and lost two elections (2015). The Wickremasinghe forces were impaled on the heroic horn twice in 2010, and have now caught the horn of war crimes after their double resurrection in 2015. President Sirisena, although it requires some research to see if he commands any (political) forces, is by far the only player of consequence today who has been on the winning side in all the four contests in 2010 and in 2015. Reduced to being less than insignificant in the Rajapaksa universe in 2010, Sirisena emerged as more than a hero for the common opposition in 2015. He is now trying to hang on to the two horns of the nation’s dilemma.

The politics of war heroes

Underlying the antics of political bull fighting are serious political issues that are pregnant with precarious outcomes for the country and its people. The fact of the matter is that the Sinhalese electorate, the electorate that matters in Sri Lankan politics, first overwhelmingly endorsed Rajapaksa’s identification with war heroes, in 2010, but became decisively indifferent to it the second time around in 2015. Even after their two defeats last year, the Rajapaksa forces are still pushing the war-heroes wedge to demarcate their political space and the divisive message that goes with it. It is now the only plank in their platform and it is also becoming their main mode of defence as they try to take their case to the court of public from the courts of law where the Rajapaksa family members and close supporters are increasingly coming under police and prosecutorial squeeze.

secret-camps-620x264The arrest of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second son is a serious matter and anyone who reads the reported, and prima facie illegal, activities of the Carlton Sports Network (CSN) will know how serious a matter it is. With the courts and police acting independently, and without the control they once exercised over them, the Rajapaksas appear to be in dire straits, legally speaking. While accusing the government of political vendetta, it is the Rajapaksas and their supporters who are doing everything to politicise the legal case against their scion and his associates. What business a navy officer has in running a sports network involving loads of unexplained cash is a matter that the courts will have to finally determine. But the case cannot be pushed under the carpet merely because it involves the son of a former president. The best that the parents can now do is to arrange for their son the best possible legal defence in court. Minister Arjuna Ranatunga whose younger brother is also in custody over the CSN affair has shown the right attitude in the circumstances, saying that he will stand by his brother in sibling solidarity while acknowledging that the brother has to go through the drill for what he has done in the bad company of others.

isaipriya_0021The public has certainly not bitten the bait of war heroes to support the Rajapaksas in their legal battles. And the kite that the former first family offered their second son to the navy to boost military recruitment did not fly at all. The young man was far too pampered and protected from danger to become a war hero. The only people who took the bait are the joint opposition MPs, and they have not been able to do much other than making themselves fools by breaking coconuts in a temple. The desperation can be seen in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s comparison of the UNHRC resolution to the 19th century Kandyan Convention. But nothing is sticking. The government, or the Wickremasinghe forces, knows that the Rajapaksas are in a bind and that seems to be giving them encouragement to proceed with implementing the UNHRC resolution. The risk in this approach is that while the Sinhalese by and large are fed up with the Rajapaksas exploiting the war-heroes goodwill to serve their own political and legal purposes, it does not necessarily follow that the same people will readily and vocally support a war crimes investigation. The government can ignore this difference only at its peril.

The risks of war crimes

A purely legalistic approach to war crimes investigation ignoring the specificities of local contexts is fraught with significant political risks. And war crimes investigations and trials are not the ‘secular’ legal process that people are ordinarily accustomed to seeing in the courtrooms of a country. Nothing is black and white in war, just as it is in ordinary life, but a fundamental difference between the two is in the strong collective emotions that wars create, and the emotional investments during a war cannot be easily swept aside in dealing with postwar consequences. The emotional stakes are all the graver in the context of an internal war in which the state army exclusively comprising the majority ethnic group defeated the armed group of a politically aggrieved minority group.

There is no denying that the insistence on war crimes investigation is a direct derivative of the postwar intransigence of the Rajapaksas and their flagrant refusal to honour the commitments they made to other governments in return for their support during the final stages of the war. The Rajapaksas had the political option, let alone international obligations, to preside over postwar reparations and reunite the country, but instead they chose a mode of divisive politics that became the continuation of war by other means. They lost credibility among the Sinhalese when it became apparent that their narrow nationalism was no more than a ruse to serve the interests of their families and their cronies. The minorities did not need much convincing to add their votes when it mattered to bring them down.

The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government had no option but to do what it did in Geneva and co-sponsor the UNHRC resolution. The government leaders deserve due credit for being open and honest about revisiting the prosecution of the war to address the consequences of the war. What is of concern is that as in many other areas, the government is taking steps to implement the UNHRC resolution without adequately, if not at all, apprising the people about what it is doing and why. The lightning point in the UNHRC resolution is of course the involvement of foreign experts and judges in the process of investigating alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. It is also the main cudgel for the government’s critics. This is an area to which government leaders could have and should have given much thought and articulated a coherent and consistent position based not only on principles, but also practical possibilities. Instead, the government and its tandem leaders, the President and the Prime Minister, to put it inelegantly but bluntly, are all over the Sri Lankan map on this sensitive issue.

Equally, there have been no formal announcements but only leaked information about the steps that the government is taking to implement the UNHRC resolution. The steps are reportedly included in an “Action Plan” that is being confidentially circulated among western and Indian governments. Why is the government not being transparent and informing the people of the steps that are being taken? There appear to be too many disturbing parallels between the current efforts and the failed peace process of 2001-02. The intentions are laudable and defensible, but the methods are questionable and even indefensible. The government and, more importantly, the country cannot afford a repeat failure.

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