Illustration: Keera Ratnam
The prospect of a Biden-Harris administration at the White House has brought both hope and trepidation around the world. In Sri Lanka, some in Colombo’s polity are nervous. Amongst the Tamils, there is both wariness and tempered optimism about what the new administration may bring. A hope that come January, there will be opportunities to help address past failures.
As Joe Biden laid out his foreign policy vision earlier this year, he warned of the “rapid advance of authoritarianism, nationalism, and illiberalism” and that “demagogues around the world are leaning into these forces for their own personal and political gain”. That has certainly been the case in Sri Lanka. Recent months alone have seen the Rajapaksa regime quash dissent by locking up critics and form a near-absolute presidency under the 20th amendment. As a global pandemic raged, state institutions were swallowed up by the military, whilst Sinhala colonisation projects were given the overt backing of the armed forces. Over the past year, Sri Lanka has become more autocratic, more militarised, and more openly Sinhala chauvinist than almost ever before.
The island continues to present a foreign policy challenge that Washington has effectively failed for decades. Paramount among these failures was the deliberate backing of Sri Lanka’s military offensive during the last phase of the armed conflict, which led to the genocidal slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamils that still festers unaccounted for. When then-President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Biden took office in January 2009, their administration failed to take decisive action to stop the killings. In May 2009, Obama spoke on the White House lawn and called for the government’s shelling of hospitals to stop, but Sri Lanka’s disregarded his words. The US, alongside the United Nations and other members of the international community, failed to uphold the responsibility to protect doctrine they had adopted 15 years prior following the Rwandan genocide.
Though the Obama administration subsequently led moves on accountability at the UN Human Rights Council, any prospects for a meaningful transitional justice process were scuttled by the administration’s premature embrace of the Sirisena regime in 2015. Moves for international justice processes were scrapped in favour of domestically-led initiatives, and a transition was welcomed without any close scrutiny to see if any meaningful reform had occurred. Unsurprisingly for Tamils, who had warned against the positive overtures being made, the ‘new’ Sirisena-led regime started turning away from the human rights commitments it had made to the US and the international community almost immediately. The toxic Sinhala ethnic supremacy at the core of the state had not been tackled. The regime slid on its international commitments, stoked up more racist antagonism and the island fell back into the clutches of an authoritarian, brazenly racist rule. The pressure that once helped prise open a small space for human rights defenders to speak out on rights violations, for journalists to report on state crimes and brought about concerted international action, stopped. And to this day, it has not returned.
This coddling of Colombo cannot continue. Any approach that looks to reform and build a partnership with Sri Lanka, but skirts around the Tamil national question, will ultimately be unsuccessful. This is true even from a narrow economic lens. As Washington looks to pursue greater trade with the island, Colombo will continue to resist all attempts to open up the Tamil North-East. Even as debts pile, the logical ream of benefits that burgeoning Indian and diaspora investment would bring will always be opposed by Sri Lanka’s Mahavamsa mindset. Open markets can never be pursued, when a racist state continues to occupy and militarise the daily life of the Tamil people and isolate them from the world.
Continuing to ignore Sri Lanka’s tyranny, even if in order to push back against Chinese influence, is thus not only fiscally illogical, but a strategy that will only strengthen Sinhala supremacist forces even further. It ultimately fuels the island’s chronic instability and would mean continued complicity with the regime’s abuses. Attempts to curb Beijing’s influence globally, cannot emulate its practices. The newly elected Biden-Harris administration has made bold pledges to uphold democratic values, respect freedom of the press, further racial justice and promote liberalism over autocracy, both at home and abroad. It must practise what it preaches and provide a decisive leadership.
“American leadership is not infallible,” wrote Biden. “We have made missteps and mistakes.” Many close to the new administration will be personally well aware of those failures in Sri Lanka - a point that Tamil victims have not forgotten. For more than a decade, it is those Tamils who have been at the forefront of resisting the systemic racism and illiberalism in Sri Lanka that the new administration says it will push back against worldwide. At the ballot boxes, in the parliament and on the streets, the Tamil nation has fought against Sri Lanka’s descent into authoritarianism and ethnic supremacy. Indeed, it is the Tamil mothers on the roadsides of the North-East who have been most unrelenting in their calls for justice. If Biden and Harris are to champion liberty and democracy on the global stage, it is the voices of those Tamil women that they should heed.