Sri Lanka is demanding international aid whilst at the same railing against foreign ‘interference’ in its ‘internal affairs’ and hurling abuse at those who speak of human rights and political solutions. The latter include the very donors Colombo is pressing. The paradox is striking. In addition to the acute suffering it is consciously inflicting on hundreds of thousands of Tamils incarcerated in militarized prison camps, the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse is systematically wearing down those stumps of liberal governance still standing after sixty years of ascendant Sinhala-Buddhist rule in the island. Democracy, political pluralism, the rule of law and press freedom - long distorted so as to entrench Sinhala dominance over the other communities - are under further violent attack. Yet Sri Lanka is brazenly justifying its demands for international assistance – sought mainly from Western donors - on the grounds it is a fledgling market democracy. The international community must challenge this fiction. Sri Lanka must be subject to international isolation and sanctions until the state complies – in concrete steps –with international humanitarian and human rights norms.
Six weeks ago the Sinhala-dominated state declared it had totally defeated the Liberation Tigers and ended the war. It then embarked on a protracted victory dance, spending lavishly on celebrations which emphasized how the Sinhala had (again) defeated the Tamils. International observers who thought Sri Lanka a multi-ethnic democracy may have found this behaviour bizarre, but those familiar with the racism institutionalized in state, polity and society in Sri Lanka would have understood, even anticipated this. Some liberal commentators optimistically saw President Rajapakse’s inclusion of a few Tamil words in his victory speech as signs of him ‘reaching out’ to the Tamils. If such simplistic thinking need be taken seriously, the government’s ongoing brutality towards the Tamil population and the Sinhala triumphalism engulfing state action and rhetoric speaks for itself and provides adequate response.
Firstly, despite international entreaties and demands, the government continues to intern almost 300,000 Tamils in militarized, barbed-wire ringed camps where they are openly subject to ‘disappearance’, torture, extortion and rape. Amid government restrictions on adequate food and medicine into the camps, disease has broken out. These are not mere ‘Tamil claims’. Human Rights Watch and international media investigations have detailed and condemned the ongoing horrors. Visiting international officials, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Japan’s Special Envoy, Yasushi Akashi, have highlighted the acute suffering in the camps. The Sri Lankan government’s response to international criticism – mild as it is - has been to further restrict aid agencies’ access and accuse them of telling lies. At least two UN agency staff have been abducted by gunmen and later turned up in government custody.
The international community is therefore right to insist that international aid agencies must have unfettered access to these horrific camps. Sri Lanka has long exploited international trust and sympathy to acquire and appropriate external humanitarian aid. The intended beneficiaries have rarely been helped, but the state, its corrupt leadership and bureaucracy (both civil and military) and recipients of its political patronage have done exceedingly well. The flood of tsunami aid into the island after 2005 is a case in point. There is nothing in Sri Lanka’s conduct vis-à-vis the Tamils and, especially, the inhabitants of these camps, to give cause for optimism. Quite the contrary. The watchwords of transparency and accountability must henceforth condition - in substance, not rhetoric - every penny of external humanitarian assistance for the Tamils.
It has long been axiomatic of donor thinking that post-conflict countries must receive swift and substantial aid if a relapse into armed conflict is to be avoided. Sri Lanka is not transitioning between war and peace, but between war and anarchy. The state plans further militarization. The Sri Lankan army is to be expanded to a staggering 300,000 soldiers – three times the size of Britain’s army. The police and other security forces are recruiting. So, as international rights observers point out, are the Army’s murderous paramilitary groups. Meanwhile, despite its smug assurances to the contrary, the government plans to keep the many hundreds of thousands indefinitely in the camps. The only construction taking place in the North is that of new military installations and Sinhala colonies. This, as any scholar of insurgency would attest, is grist to the mill of renewed Tamil militancy.
The Rajapske regime may be indignant that donors – mainly Western liberal states and associated multilateral organizations – are seeking to link respect for human rights to their financial aid. Colombo’s histrionics about infringements of sovereignty are being tacitly or overtly supported by states such as China – which, incidentally, are in no hurry to provide any substantive financial assistance of their own. But sanctions and conditionalities are sine quo non if there is to be a change from dynamics of the past two decades. Having inflicted suffering on the Tamil populace through indiscriminate force and deliberate, scorched earth tactics, the Sinhala-dominated state has then held forth the Tamils’ plight as justification for further demands on international largess.
The Sri Lankan state is institutionally racist and corrupt. Aid destined for the Tamils will simply not reach the suffering without close international supervision. It is no accident that the state is seeking to keep international observers blind and away from the camps, both by official restrictions and the violent silencing of domestic critics. Donors’ past trust and faith in Sri Lanka has resulted in international aid subsidizing the state’s pursuit of Sinhala victory over the Tamils – as the state itself continues to celebrate. If the people in the camps are to be helped, the Sri Lankan state must be compelled to allow international humanitarians, human rights workers, and media ready access to them. Aid must follow, not precede, Sri Lanka’s compliance with international humanitarian and human rights norms.