Sri Lanka’s ‘illiberal peace’: Implications for Western influence

June 2007: President Mahinda Rajapaksa meets Norwegian International Development Minister and former special peace envoy Eric Solheim in Geneva Pic by Sudath Silva

by David Ucko

The Washington Post has a very interesting article on Sri Lanka’s apparent slide ‘toward dictatorship’.

Since the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has become increasingly autocratic, stifling opposition and silencing – sometimes violently, so the article suggests – those who speak out against it.

Family members of the president are occupying influential government positions and following his last electoral victory, Rajapaksa changed ‘the constitution not only to increase his powers over the police, judiciary and civil service, but also to end the two-term limit for the presidency’.

All of this has been possible because of the surge in popularity experienced by Rajapaksa following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the apparent termination of the three-decade civil war.

There are some interesting implications here. First, the polarisation of this discussion – and over what happened in the final months of the war – is striking. Many Tamils in the diaspora cite ethnic cleansing, disappearances and dictatorship. Government and military spokespersons counter that the accusations are ginned up by LTTE remnants who, now out of military options, seek to gain advantage over Colombo by other means. The domains of information and narrative have become the new battlefield.

As one example of the contest over truth and messaging, the government in 2011 released a ‘Factual Analysis Report‘ – that is its title – intended to showcase its good deeds toward the Tamils and quash the ‘false allegations‘ made by ‘Tamil Diaspora together with the LTTE international network’. In the Washington Post story too, the government dismisses the alleged human rights abuses against journalists and critics ‘as a “cloud” thrown up by people who want to claim political asylum abroad’.

This type of fighting over facts is fairly typical in conflict situations, but highlights once again how narrative, information and international sympathies can have a powerful effect on developments on the ground (a topic dealt with by David Betz on this very blog, and in relation to Sri Lanka no less). At this point, it is critical for the Sri Lankan government to retain its mantle of respectability, lest sympathies shift to the Tamil minority, who could certainly do with a receptive audience when seeking political concessions from the central government.

Yet how important is this mantle of respectability really? Back in the day – loosely speaking the 1990s – adherence to Western standards of human rights, at least in rhetoric, mattered because it was felt that the US and the West held the power and would at some point punish those who all too flagrantly defied its emerging humanitarian norms. The causality here was never consistent but there existed a general sense that lip-service to human rights might reap its own rewards. In part this is also what justified Sri Lanka’s sustained tolerance of the Norwegian-brokered peace negotiations, despite their lack of progress.

At some point, the kowtowing to Western-imposed standards ended. Maybe it was 9/11 and its reframing of non-state armed groups as terrorists, the West’s own hypocrisy over human rights during the War on Terror, or the West’s perceived decline amid financial difficulties and strategic exhaustion in Iraq and Afghanistan – regardless, the need to play by the West’s (highly inconsistent) rules now appears far less pressing. Suddenly Norway was no longer the paragon of humanitarianism and liberal peace but a ‘nation of salmon-eaters’ turned ‘international busybodies’.

As Colombo readied itself for the final military solution to its problem with LTTE, it did not seek Western approval or assistance and nor did it concern itself with Western expectations and ‘standards’. The grizzly result is now well documented, though again accounts of what truly happened will differ depending on political sympathies. Channel 4 aired a graphic documentary on the assault that depicted it as exceptionally and exceedingly brutal; the government on the other hand blames LTTE for using the Tamil population as a human shield and characterises its response as ‘the biggest hostage rescue operation in the world’.

The broader point is that the West was not needed nor was its approval sought. Instead, rising powers – predominantly China – have stepped into the breach. As a sponsor and friend, China does not ask any awkward questions but provides a free hand in how to deal with pesky insurgents (or ‘splittists’, as Beijing may call them). Money flows, investment too and there are altogether fewer salmon-eating busy-bodies to contend with.

So, while ‘diplomats and officials said the United States and India are determined to remain engaged with Sri Lanka’, what is Sri Lanka’s interest in remaining engaged with the US? Does the case of Sri Lanka show us, as David Lewis has convincingly argued, ‘a growing contestation of international peacebuilding norms, and the emergence of a legitimated “illiberal peace”‘? If so – and the case of Angola can certainly be added to the list – is this something the West can get used to?

The jury is probably still out (or more accurately, ‘I don’t know’), but while considering the effects of slashed defence budgets and financial decline, we ought also to consider the declining currency of our professed Western ‘values’ – not least through our own actions, but also because of the wide variety of viable alternatives.

As Groucho Marx put it, those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others. courtesy: Kings of War