Illustration by Aravinthan Gaesahn
Last Tuesday, the Canadian government broke historic ground with the sanctioning of two former Sri Lankan presidents, Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa. In this act, they shattered any lingering illusion that the crimes of the Sri Lankan military were simply the acts of rank-and-file soldiers. Instead, they were calculated, meticulously planned and executed by the head of Sri Lanka’s wartime administration and his right hand, the acting defense secretary. These were not the actions of rogue soldiers but “gross and systematic violations of human rights”. Thus, strengthening the case that the Rajapaksa must be brought before the Hague.
Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry has responded, predictably, by lashing out against the Canadian government for its “unilateral action” and of “polarising communities” on the island. The statement of the ministry is a pitiful attempt to prop up a mirage of communal harmony against a background of military occupation and continued human rights violations. For generations, Tamils have had to suffer under the thumb of the Sinhala Buddhist state. Their lives are punctuated by the threat of military violence; the prohibition on memorials; the memories of their loved ones abducted by the state; and the genocide they suffered.
The sanctions help to dispel the Sinhala nationalist mythos that has enveloped the island and which presents an image of false unity. It shows that the island’s revered Rajapaksa brothers, which the Sinhala public upheld as “war heroes”, are nothing more than despots.
And yet these brothers, who have brought the country to ruin, and have orchestrated the island’s most heinous crimes, not only walk freely but eagerly engage in politics. To hold rallies and claim confidence at the next election. Despite their crimes, despite being thrown out of office, the Rajapaksa stranglehold on the island has not weakened.
This points to a foundational weakness of the Aragalaya. Mobilised by economic anxiety, the protest movement did not confront the island’s sordid history or its bedrock principles of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy. There were no demands to demilitarise the Tamil North and East; no demands to hold human rights abusers to justice; and no demands to deliver justice for the Families of the Disappeared. The fractured nature of the island remained ever-present throughout these protests.
The failure to dispel this creed of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism or call out those responsible for war crimes committed against Tamils, throughout the protests explains the inertia of the island’s politics. Refusing to answer Tamil calls for justice and accountability, or indeed rewarding those who explicitly reject these demands, as the Sinhala public had through their overwhelming support of Gotabaya, has led the island to be ruled by war criminals and thieves. The island has descended into a kakistocracy – a government led by those least suitable.
The Canadian sanctions help expose the reality and would not be possible if not for the determination and grit of Eelam Tamils. Faced with a largely indifferent international community, which stood still as Tamils were relentlessly shelled, tortured and disappeared en mass; Eelam Tamils refused to give up on the struggle for justice. Over a decade on and the international community has begun to heed the calls of Eelam Tamils.
This would not be possible were it not for those in the diaspora who have worked tirelessly to to hold Sri Lanka war criminals accountable and those in the homeland continue to stand up against the Sinhala state. Despite the pervasive state surveillance, the overwhelming presence of the Sri Lankan military in Tamil land, and continued threats, their protests have not diminished.
Whilst these sanctions are a powerful first step, they are piecemeal toward justice. It is not enough to sanction the Rajapaksa brothers, as they are but a symptom of the toxic ideology that is deep-rooted in the island. For years Tamils have called for not just sanctions but a referral to the International Criminal Court. They have called for the immediate demilitarisation of their homeland. And, they have called for the right to self-determination. Anything short of this will be a betrayal of Eelam Tamils.