Will the Sri Lankan government be able to shrug off the persistent allegations that war crimes were committed, in its successful assault on the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in 2009? I have always assumed that the answer to that question was – probably Yes. But now I’m beginning to wonder.
My reasons for thinking that the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa would probably shrug off the human-rights charges against it, were various. First, the LTTE’s own record of human-rights abuses and terrorism had hardly endeared it to most of the rest of the world. Second, it was clear to most outsiders that the Sri Lankan civil was had exacted a terrible toll, over decades – so a government offensive that definitively ended the conflict would gain approval, even if it involved excessive brutality to civilians. Finally, Sri Lanka is a small country. If India, its own vast neighbour was prepared to turn a blind eye to accusations of human-rights abuses, the West would probably follow the Indian lead.
However, calls for an international inquiry into the events of 2009 have not gone away – in fact they have been renewed, in Britain at least, following the screening of a widely-viewed television documentary with new footage of the fighting. These calls now seem to be getting some resonance with a wider public. Mike Atherton, a former England cricket captain, has just suggested that England might reconsider plans to tour Sri Lanka.
The kind of Sri Lankan government that has emerged in the aftermath of the military victory – intolerant of the free press and dominated by the Rajapaksa family – has also damaged the country’s image. Certainly the Rajapaksas present an awful face to this world. Take a look at this memorable clip from the BBC Hardtalk interview with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defence minister, in which he threatens to hang a Sri Lankan general who had fallen out of favour with the government.