This week has seen a series of political leaders congratulate Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, alleged war criminal Mahinda Rajapaksa, for his 50 years in parliament. His political career is marked by the entrenchment of a corrupt military establishment; virulent Sinhala Buddhist nationalism; and a genocidal campaign against the Tamil people.
Yet, these feats are not solely due to one man’s political aspiration but rather the results of an entire system which has consistently failed the Tamil people. The international community turned a blind eye to the genocide at Mullivaikkal; Sri Lankan parties of all stripes collaborate to protect war criminals; and supposed Tamil leaders legitimise the authoritarian rule of the government. Nevertheless, at the centre of all this carnage, Mahinda Rajapaksa stands.
"If the government is going to deny human rights, we should go not only go to Geneva, but to any place in the world, or to hell if necessary, and act against the government. The lamentation of this country’s innocents should be raised anywhere".
These are the words that Mahinda said on 25 October 1990. On this year he was arrested at Colombo airport as he attempted to smuggle documents on the “disappeared” to the UN in Geneva. It has been reported that over 16,000 people went missing during the JVP 1988-89 insurrection.
Rajapaksa claimed that it was necessary to seek support from the international community in pursuit of justice and advocated for conditions to be placed on aid to Sri Lanka. Yet in little over a decade this same man was leading a brutal war against the Tamil people which led to mass human rights violations. An estimated 20,000 people disappeared at the end of the war. Many were seen taken into military custody never to be seen again.
Despite over a decade of protests from family members desperate to know what happened to their loved ones, as well as outcries from the humanitarian organisations Rajapaksa claimed to appreciate, there has been no accountability for those forcibly disappeared. The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has consistently failed in its ability to follow up on leads as it does not have the power to challenge Sri Lanka’s military.
Reflecting on his visit to Jaffna, former British Prime Minister, David Cameron stated:
“I went to a refugee camp, whose existence the regime denied. I’ll never forget the crowds of women, holding up photos of young men, desperate to tell us their stories. We all had letters thrust towards us about these sons, husbands, fathers and brothers who had surrendered to the military and not been seen since. What had happened to them?”
Rajapaksa’s call for international support to improve Sri Lanka’s human right situation has vanished and there are now only accusations of institutional bias. In September 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa called on the Sirisena government to reject a UN report calling for a hybrid court to investigate war crimes.
“All the important staff positions in this body are held by Westerners who make up half the cadre of the OHCHR... Given the composition of the OHCHR, it would not be possible to expect an impartial inquiry from them", Rajapaksa claimed.
A Sinhala King
Contemporary supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa often draw a comparison of him to the ancient Sinhalese King, Dutugemunu, who defeated the Tamil king Ellalan. A distinction to be drawn however is that Dutugemunu made peace with the Tamils and honoured the memory of Ellalan, who was beloved by his people. Instead, the Rajapaksas have chosen a different path, occupying the Tamil homeland in their quest to eradicate Tamil claims to sovereignty.
This project was not invented by the Rajapaksas. On the contrary, it has been the cornerstone of Sri Lankan politics for generations. But the Rajapaksa regime is perhaps marked out by the brazenness with which the brothers carried out their abuses.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was first elected President on 17 November 2005, where he gained a narrow majority of 190,000 votes. Once he came into office, Rajapaksa willingly aligned with the most fervent Sinhala nationalist voices and gained the support of the majority of the Sinhala community. He was able to satiate concerns by the international community by maintaining the pretence that he supported peace.
Rajapaksa would manage this by setting strict timeframes for the LTTE to "renounce separatism, demilitarize, enter into the democratic process and discussion of a final solution and implementation of such a solution”.
All of this was premised on a fundamental rejection of the Tamil desire for self-determination and an insistence on a “unitary” state. Such a project would undeniably be accompanied by attempts to dilute Tamil claims to a traditional homeland through means of colonisation, ethnic cleansing and the redrawing of boundaries.
“almost every decade since the 1950’s has seen such state-aided colonization projects being implemented, supported by official and paramilitary violence against the Tamils […] But it is the first time it is being done with the international community in close attendance”.
Today such demographic engineering is managed through the overt seizure of land and undermining of Tamil fishing rights as well as covertly through the imposition of Buddhist shrines, heritage sites and archaeological ‘discoveries’.
Read more from Pearl: Sinhalization of Pulmoaddai
It is not only that Tamil land is being stolen and occupied but that the remaining land is heavily militarised. In Mullaitivu, there are an estimated two soldiers for every civilian. Rajapaksa has said he will leave “no room for extremism to surface again” and he means to enforce this through a brutal military occupation.
Rajapaksa’s legacy will forever be stained by the blood of those killed in Mullivaikkal. Whilst an exact figure on the number of deaths during the final months is not possible, the UN has estimated 70,000 whereas local census records indicate at least 146,679.
The final stages of the war were met with a litany of human rights violations. The shelling of hospitals; the execution of the surrendered; and rampant torture and sexual violence. The perpetrators of such crimes have not been held to account; instead, notorious figures such as Shavendra Silva command the army.
It is important to recognise that this is not solely the feat of one individual, but of successive governments. The massacres that took place during the final stages of the war demanded the collaboration of all main political parties and the country’s press so as to ensure that such crimes were never brought to justice.
During those final stages, despite overwhelming UN evidence of these atrocities the UNP and JVP rallied to support Rajapaksa’s regime and represented a united front against accountability for state war crimes - a united front of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.
Fifty years on and Sri Lankan politics has continued down a path of Sinhala nationalism.
Thousands have disappeared; war criminals command the government, and Rajapaksa stands again at the helm of it all with his brother.