Last week the US State Department decided to sanction yet another Sri Lanka war criminal, former Naval Commander, Wasantha Karannagoda. For decades Karannagoda has enjoyed complete impunity for the crimes he committed against Tamil civilians. Despite his alleged involvement in the abduction and disappearance of eleven individuals, as a close ally of the Rajapaksa clan, Karannagoda appeared almost untouchable.
Under the Sinhala state, Karannagoda was not held to account for the atrocities perpetrated against Eelam Tamil people but instead appointed as governor of the Tamil majority North-Western province - a role which abetted militarisation and increased surveillance of the Tamil polity. Decades on from the armed conflict, he retained his role as a captor.
The US sanctions have shattered this illusion of invincibility. While Karannagoda may roam the streets of Sri Lanka freely, however, he and his wife may not enter the US. Internationally he, alongside several other Sri Lankan war criminals, are marked by their “gross human rights violations”.
This is a significant step towards a semblance of international justice, however, it is by no means far enough. The lone sanctioning of yet another individual for crimes committed on behalf of the Sinhala state fails to reckon with the gravity of the crisis. Karannagoda is not simply one rotten apple; the very roots of the Sri Lankan State are rancid. The underlying ideology of Buddhist Sinhala supremacy must be torn out, root and stem.
The response of the Sri Lankan State has been to predictably bemoan the sanctions and hide behind the fig leaf of a domestic mechanism. Yet, under the Sri Lanka system, the UN has noted an active reversal in progress towards accountability, “in the form of acquittals on appeal and presidential pardon granted to those accused or convicted of grave violations”. In the case of Karannagoda, Sri Lanka Attorney General refused to proceed with the charges of torture, extortion, abduction and conspiracy to murder against him. Despite the numerous reports by NGOs of Karannagoda’s crimes, it has taken years for the international community to act. Whilst the sanctions are a positive first step, it must be recognised that Karannagoda is but a symptom of a wider disease.
As the International Truth and Justice Project has documented in detail, the crimes of the Sri Lankan military are not isolated incidents but form a wider pattern of systemic torture that has occurred over several years, across the island. Despite, or indeed because of their, brutal records of violence against Tamil civilians, war criminals such as Jayanath Colombage and Kamal Gunaratne, were able to elevate themselves to the highest posts within Sri Lanka’s civil administration.
For too long the response from Western government has been to condemn the actions of individual actors within the Sri Lankan military, whilst also continuing engagement and exercises with these war crimes accused militaries. This duplicity serves only to exacerbate Sri Lanka’s accountability deficit and to uphold the inflated role of Sri Lanka’s military in running the island. The international community must depart from these tactics and instead heed the demands of Eelam Tamils for the immediate demilitarisation of their homeland. In the face of obstinate Sri Lankan state, hell-bent on preserving the privilege of Sinhala military, the international community must work in concert with the global Eelam Tamil community to deliver justice. Furthermore, there must be a recognition that the perpetual cycles of violence are not the misdeeds of singular rogue actors but rather an inevitable consequence of the island’s unitary structure. Only through a recognition of the inalienable rights of Tamils to self-determination will Sri Lanka be free of individuals such as Wasantha Karannagoda.