After three decades of war, Sri Lanka is still a mess. President Mahinda Rajapaksa could not care less about national reconciliation. Here is a president that did not hesitate to assert his authority at the end of the war. Yet now, he is afraid to be a strong and thoughtful leader, reluctant to take a stand.
The widespread human rights violations that occurred during final phases of the war (by both government forces and the LTTE) have been well-documented. Unfortunately, nothing has been done to address this, as government security forces continue to harass civilians in the country’s predominantly Tamil north and east. What members of the international community have failed to understand is that a lack of accountability for what transpired in 2009 has only encouraged further human rights violations, which are still widespread.
Impunity in Sri Lanka is not sporadic, but systemic. It is a cancer that will continue to grow as long as the current regime faces no repercussions for its actions. The Sri Lankan military’s intrusion into virtually all aspects of civilian life is appalling. State security forces should not promulgate the idea that the words “ethnic minority” and “inferior citizen” are synonymous. When it comes to the media, Sri Lanka is one of the least free places in the world.
The Tamil people do not need a separate state, although they do need a political settlement, a matter that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has proven that they are ready to discuss. But Rajapaksa and his cronies are dragging their feet and avoiding the issue. Perhaps Rajapaksa’s aversion to a political dialogue with the TNA stems from his fear of dethronement.
As Barack Obama has recently indicated, US foreign policy priorities in East Asia will only become more important in the coming decades.
He recently gave a speech in Canberra, Australia that a Financial Times columnist referred to as “one of the most significant foreign policy statements of Mr. Obama’s presidency.” The speech “brought together several important shifts in US strategy that have been taking shape over the past two years and are aimed at addressing the rise of China.” That is fine. But getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan does not mean that the US should ignore South Asia.
And just because China’s rise sits atop America’s foreign policy agenda does not mean that the promotion of international human rights should be placed on the back burner. Obama is not well-positioned to lecture China on human rights for obvious reasons. Sri Lanka, however, is a different story.
The Obama team must rethink their strategy when it comes to Sri Lanka, getting away from the empty rhetoric and prevarications that observers have seen thus far.
Libya and Uganda were hardly foreign policy priorities and yet the US devoted resources to both causes.
“Quiet diplomacy” should not mean dormant diplomacy. The idea of strengthening US-Sri Lankan military relations must be taken off the table.
The 2009 WikiLeaks cable which reveals that current Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake asked the Sri Lankan government to contribute troops to Afghanistan is disappointing. Although it is not all that surprising since it has recently become clear to many people that Robert Blake is a member of a growing contingent in Washington who are part of the problem. After all, the man recently went to Jaffna and did not seem all that concerned with the increased military presence there. Blake saw what he wanted to see—nothing. The seasoned diplomat holds degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Intelligence is not what he lacks, but courage.
Real, sustained pressure needs to be put on Rajapaksa to reform. It is all too easy to peel back the regime’s thin layer of vacuous, self-congratulatory propaganda.
President Obama has had some notable foreign policy successes during his first term, for which he deserves credit. However, the man’s inability to lead on certain issues (both domestic and foreign) is disconcerting. Between now and next November, Obama will be fighting for his political life. In spite of this, he should not ignore Sri Lanka.
Have we not recently seen that the choice between stability and true democracy is a false dichotomy anyway? When will policymakers learn that nearsighted diplomacy and the embrace of aspiring autocrats like Rajapaksa are inimical to long-term US interests? If the Obama administration (and to a lesser extent India) does not care, nothing will happen. Rajapaksa will continue to revel in his “Executive Presidency” and quietly turn this island nation into a full-blown dictatorship.
The US and other nations are waiting for the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)—yet another Sri Lankan commission of inquiry purportedly designed to ensure accountability and help the country move forward—to be made public. Once this happens, people will see if the “Sri Lanka fatigue” that appears to have set in was fleeting or a sign of more permanent diplomatic inaction.
Of course most knowledgeable people expect that the LLRC’s report will be a joke.
But perhaps the scarier scenario is the publication of a mediocre report that will allow other countries to look the other way on human rights in Sri Lanka. If this happens, authoritarianism will be consolidated. Tyranny will become institutionalized. And any hope for national reconciliation in the next several decades will turn into a pipe dream. Talk of minority rights and good governance will be esoteric water cooler banter discussed only by thoughtful academics and human rights activists.
Over the coming decades, the United States will have a much different role in world affairs, but for now American primacy remains vibrant. For better or worse, the world still looks to American leadership to solve global collective action problems, not perpetuate them. Barack Obama does not need another black mark on his presidential résumé; his first three years have been disappointing enough. Hopefully, the inspirational figure who campaigned on a platform of hope and change will heed his own words.
A version of this article was previously published in the Journal of Foreign Relations.