Recent weeks have once again seen the Sri Lankan military enjoying cordial ties with several members of the international community, including states that have led the call for accountability and justice, as well as been at the forefront of criticising the present militarisation that pervades the North-East and the island as a whole. The US military continues to provide training and hold joint military exercises, as well as engage in ‘development’ projects in the North-East with their Sri Lankan counterparts. Meanwhile, it recently emerged that the UK has approved over £8mn worth of arms sales to the country, including small arms and assault rifles. Current engagement by the West, far from yielding any progress, is only serving to legitimise, embolden and endorse Sri Lanka’s military. Four years of ‘engagement’ has not resulted in progress. The call for justice and accountability has not produced any meaningful results, militarisation is only becoming more pervasive and the military continue to act with impunity.
The evidence to support allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide by the Sri Lankan army is profound. Whilst the call for justice and accountability, through a truly independent investigation, is a welcome one, such a call becomes a farce when the very institutions accused of violations of international humanitarian law, are being trained by those making the call. Moreover, in the absence of any meaningful progress on accountability, the bilateral approach of condemnation and engagement is rendered not only morally untenable, but simply ineffective. Reports of disappearances, torture, rape and extra-judicial killings of Tamils by the Sri Lankan military, as well as attacks on peaceful protests by Tamil students, IDPs and political parties, facing military intimidation, continue to emerge four years after the end of the armed conflict. Nothing illustrates the Sri Lankan military’s current brazenness more than the Weliweriya incident: just weeks before the international spotlight turns on the island for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and days before the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visits, the Sri Lankan military opens fire at protesting Sinhala civilians.
Perhaps most concerning of all is the US military’s joint ‘development’ and ‘disaster management’ projects with the Sri Lankan military, supporting what are essentially civilian functions in the North-East, such as the renovating of schools in Jaffna. Such support by the US, although on the surface may appear to address the most immediate needs of those in the North-East, endorses and legitimises Sri Lanka’s programme of militarisation in the Tamil areas. Under the guise of ‘development’, the militarisation of the Tamil homeland in the North and East is expanding relentlessly. Land-grabs by the military continue, with thousands of Tamil families still unable to return to their original homes, which are occupied by the army. The dismantling of the Tamil economy through the military’s encroachment on civilian jobs and businesses continues. The increasing involvement of the military in health and education, particularly in that of Tamil children, through blood donations, free milk distributions, educational donations, and dental clinics, is deeply disturbing. The very same soldiers and senior commanders involved in the atrocities of the armed conflict are now involved in running kindergartens and ferrying Tamil-speaking school children to the cinema to watch Sinhala movies. In effect, the Sri Lankan military is systemically being made ubiquitous, embedding itself into the day-to-day lives of Tamils.
Sri Lanka, despite all its anti-imperialist and anti-western rhetoric, craves the legitimacy this type of engagement gives to the state, parading it with widespread coverage in the Sri Lankan press. It cannot sustain an isolationist foreign policy or economy. Whilst the US military continues such engagement, there is no incentive for Sri Lanka to heed international calls for justice or curtail its encroachment on civilian life. US actions within the UN Human Rights Council are directly undermined by those of its own military. States that claim to lead on human rights issues need to send a strong message that Sri Lanka’s conduct will not be tolerated and take decisive action such as the suspension of military aid and training as has recently taken place in other parts of the world such as Egypt. Purportedly addressing today’s needs of the Tamil people cannot be at the price of increasing tomorrow’s. So long as US military engagement with Sri Lankan security forces continues, the Sri Lankan state will be emboldened to continue its impunity and programme of militarisation. Thus today’s military engagement reduces the likelihood of ever seeing justice and accountability for the crimes committed by the Sri Lankan military, and consequently a lasting peace on the island.