When public relations meets militarisation

Special Task Force soldier blocks a Muslim man outside a vandalized mosque in Colombo. PHOTO: Reuters

By Alan Keenan (@akeenan23)

Some recent moves by Sri Lanka meant to show it was finally confronting the country’s entrenched culture of impunity have been dramatically undone by two incidents this month. On 1 August, soldiers shot unarmed Sinhalese protestors demanding clean drinking water in a village outside the capital, Colombo, and on 10 August police failed to prevent a mob attack on a Muslim mosque in the Grandpass area of Colombo or arrest those responsible. Both events illustrate the problems that have led to two critical resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC): the militarisation of governance, impunity for human rights violations and clear anti-minority bias in government policies.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, due to visit Sri Lanka at the end of August, and the Commonwealth heads of government, scheduled to meet in Colombo in November, should take note of Sri Lanka’s rising social tensions and press Colombo to end impunity, restore the rule of law and protect the rights of all ethnic and religious communities.

The government’s reform moves

In a series of announcements in June and July, the government attempted to paint a more positive picture in anticipation of the UN high commissioner’s visit. Pillay is due to report to the UNHRC in September on Sri Lanka’s progress in implementing the council’s March 2013 resolution calling for accountability and reconciliation. The government appeared to be hoping that, with proper stage-managing, Pillay’s visit, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) later this year, might be used to highlight what it claims are steps to tackle impunity.

On 4 July, the government announced it was adding 53 new recommendations from the 2011 Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to its 2012 National Plan of Action to implement the recommendations of the LLRC.

The next day, the government announced it had arrested twelve members of the police Special Task Force (STF) suspected of murdering five young unarmed Tamil men in the eastern city of Trincomalee in January 2006. The so-called Trinco 5 case has long been a focus of international human rights campaigning. It was mentioned specifically by the LLRC, and the government had promised action on the case in its national action plan.

On 26 July, the president’s office announced it would appoint a commission of inquiry into wartime disappearances, an issue highlighted by both the LLRC and the UNHRC. On 13 August, the names of the three commissioners – two of whom were also on the LLRC – and the commission’s terms of reference were released.

In late July, the attorney general’s department reportedly informed the British government that it would soon indict a number of people for the Christmas Eve 2011 murder of a British aid worker and the sexual assault of his girlfriend. Arrested for the murder, but now free on bail, are the chairman of the Tangalle town council and other members of the president’s ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Unfortunately, these latest gestures fit an established pattern of promises made for international consumption but unsupported by political will. There are many reasons for doubting the moves will provide justice in any of Sri Lanka’s many wartime and post-war atrocities.

The government’s actions in the Trinco 5 case, for example, were the most minimal action it could have taken: arrests at the stage of preliminary, non-summary, proceedings at a magistrate’s court. What the government did not do was issue indictments, despite the case having been investigated for years. It also chose not to establish an expedited trial-at-bar or arrest or indict any of the senior police commanders who are widely, and credibly, believed to have given the orders, including one person reportedly mentioned by the 2006-9 Udalagama commission of inquiry monitored by a group of international eminent persons. (The report of that commission has never been released.)

In the case of the murder of the vacationing British aid worker, his accused killers have remained free for eighteen months. Disciplinary action by the SLFP against the chief suspect, the town council chairman in Tangalle, was reversed within days, and he remains in office and politically influential in the area while free on bail.

Moreover, more than four years after the bloody end to Sri Lanka’s civil war, there have been no independent investigations into any of the thousands of cases of alleged atrocities, including extra-judicial executions of surrendered fighters, shelling of hospitals and “no-fire zones” packed with civilians, and mass-scale disappearances. The military’s own investigation into some of these allegations — which, in February 2013, the government claimed had found no evidence of any government violations — has never been released.

There is also little cause for optimism in the announcement of a new commission of inquiry to investigate the thousands of wartime disappearances. It is almost certain to become another on the long list of commissions that have brought no justice in the cases they have investigated over the past 30 years. The commission’s terms of reference exclude it from considering the many post-war disappearances, and presidential commissions of inquiry have no powers of arrest or indictment. In criminal cases, they duplicate and delay the efforts of the police and the attorney general. Under previous governments less actively hostile to truth and justice, commissions have proved unable to dent Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity. No administration has yet implemented the many recommendations of the four commissions on enforced disappearances appointed by President Kumaratunga in the mid-1990s.

Commissions of inquiry have become so frequent and so ignored under the Rajapaksa administration that they may soon begin to lose any political effectiveness. The president has still not made public the findings of a whole series of commissions he has appointed over the past seven years. This includes the Udalagama commission, at least two commissions on disappearances headed by retired judge Mahanama Tillekeratne, commissions on the police killing of a protestor in Katunayake in June 2011, and a host of others. The situation has reached such a point that even the General Secretary of the ruling SLFP recently expressed his frustration at the lack of information on past inquiries. To expect anything different in the case of the latest disappearances commission is naïve.

Finally, adding more LLRC recommendations to the national plan of action means little when the government continues to resist implementing the LLRC’s core recommendations. None of the newly added recommendations address the central questions of impunity and concentration of power, and the list even includes promises – such as issuing receipts for anyone arrested by the police – already made repeatedly by the government but never implemented.

The August events

The army rampage in the village of Weliweriya resulted in at least three unarmed protestors shot dead, scores injured, journalists searched out and assaulted and protestors shot at and beaten by soldiers while they sought refuge in the local Catholic church. The incident was a particular shock for the many Sinhalese who have been convinced by years of government propaganda, and the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers, to view the army as the unquestionable saviour of the nation. The full extent of casualties, and possibly of deaths, is still not known, as doctors and hospitals have reportedly been pressured by the military not to release details of the wounded. The Catholic archbishop of Colombo, generally reluctant to criticise the government, issued a strong statement condemning the “desecration” of the church.

The government responded according to its now typical pattern: a senior official suggested “external forces” had deliberately provoked the army, and the military announced an inquiry, to be headed by General Jagath Dias, against whose troops UN experts found credible allegations of serious violations of international law during the final months of the civil war. No arrests have been made to date, and it is doubtful the investigation will reveal who ordered the troops to fire. Few in Sri Lanka expect anyone to be held accountable.

The attack on the mosque in the Grandpass area of Colombo was less of a surprise, coming as it did after months of anti-Muslim campaigning by militant Buddhists whose violent attacks and acts of intimidation have proceeded with impunity and the clear support of important parts of the government. A controversy over the mosque had been simmering for months – fuelled by unfounded allegations that it was constructed illegally in a “Buddhist area” – but things appeared to be under control at the time of the attack. On the evening of Saturday 10 August, a mob of protestors, including Buddhist monks, attacked the mosque as prayers were being conducted, breaking windows and damaging the building. Police are accused of failing to stop the attack until significant damage had been done. Again, no-one has been arrested to date, despite the existence of photographs and video of the attacks. A number of Muslims and Sinhalese protestors were injured in the attack and in communal clashes that followed later that weekend.

Many have expressed suspicions about the timing of the Grandpass attack, coming as it did just after the Weliweriya killings, which were an unprecedented public relations disaster for the president, particularly among his core constituency of Sinhalese voters. Most independent observers believe the recent upsurge in anti-Muslim hate speech and political campaigning, which has involved earlier attacks on mosques, is being used by the Rajapaksas to shore up their political base among Sinhalese. The Grandpass attack prompted an unusual statement from senior Muslim politicians in the government. They condemned the inaction of the police and called for the perpetrators to be arrested and for the president to take action to halt the months-long anti-Muslim campaign.

The need for deeper change

The value of the steps announced by the government was always questionable, given the active efforts of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family to remove all independent checks on their power, as detailed in Crisis Group’s February report on Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn: The Need for International Action. The recent events in Weliweriya and Grandpass reveal more clearly than ever that what Sri Lanka needs is not more commissions, or even arrests. The country needs legal and institutional changes to the system of policing and justice designed to reverse the militarisation and concentration of power that has deepened so dangerously under the Rajapaksas. These changes would include many of the reforms recommended by the LLRC, as well as others outlined in Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn. At a minimum, the president should end his grant (renewed monthly) of police powers to the army and return soldiers to barracks in north and south, remove the police from the control of the ministry of defence and Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and restore the independence of the attorney general’s department by removing it from presidential control. The president should also agree to re-establish the independence of commissions that control the police, the judiciary, elections, and the civil service by reinstating the constitutional council.

Unfortunately, without increased international pressure, there is little chance the government will take these or any of the other necessary steps to restore the rule of law. Fed by the Rajapaksas’ attachment to centralised and militarised rule, Sri Lanka’s decades-long problem of impunity is getting worse, not better. While the government may have stepped up its public relations game in response to international pressure, the recent events at home show the risk of more serious violence, especially along religious and communal lines, is increasing.

An effective international response to Sri Lanka’s deepening crisis of governance should include the following steps:

  • Members of the UNHRC should support an international mechanism empowered to investigate the many credible allegations of violations of international law by both sides in Sri Lanka’s civil war and to monitor ongoing human rights violations and attacks on the rule of law. The human rights council should move to establish this mechanism during its March 2014 session.
  • Commonwealth leaders – both before and during the November heads of government meeting – should publicly challenge ongoing impunity for government abuses and for attacks on Muslims and the deliberate undermining of the rule of law, and assert the continued need for accountability for events at the end of the war. The government should not be allowed to use CHOGM to showcase a false picture of a democratic country at peace and on the road to reconciliation.
  • All governments and international organisations with significant relationships with Sri Lanka should send clear messages that to be accepted as a full member of the community of nations, the government must face up to the past, reform its damaged public institutions, and work actively to rebuild peaceful relations between all communities.

Author: Alan Keenan

Alan Keenan is the International Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Project Director and Senior Analyst, based in London. He coordinates and contributes to Crisis Group research, publications and advocacy on Sri Lanka. Alan has lived and worked in Sri Lanka for extended periods since first visiting in February 2000. He has a PhD in political theory and has taught at various US colleges and universities before joining Crisis Group in 2006.

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