Hailed as a war hero at home, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa received a hostile reception this week in Britain from Tamil protesters incensed by alleged war crimes during last year’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers.
The uproar in Britain comes amid the release of secret US State Department cables from its embassy in Colombo, as part of the recent WikiLeaks document dump, that reveal deep US skepticism over Sri Lanka’s pledge to hold its own forces accountable for any battlefield abuses.
Fending off calls for an international tribunal, Rajapaksa has appointed a “truth commission” that many critics say is hamstrung by a weak mandate.
In the January cable, Patricia Butenis, the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, described the war crimes allegations as “the most difficult issue on our bilateral agenda” and complicated by the fact that responsibility “rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and … General Fonseka.”
Sri Lanka's ruling elite is largely inured to outside pressure and will push back against all claims of war crimes, says Lal Wickrematunge, chairman of Leader Publications, whose newspaper, the Sunday Leader, is fiercely critical of the Rajapaksas. Last year, unknown gunmen shot dead the paper’s editor, Mr. Wickrematunge’s brother Lasantha, during his morning commute, sowing fear among local journalists.
“The government is strong within the country. They will market this [cable] in a manner that the US is interfering in internal affairs,” he says.
Adding to Rajapaksa’s discomfort, Britain’s Channel 4 aired footage during his private visit of alleged abuses by troops during the war. The government has described this and other gruesome videos provided to foreign broadcasters as propaganda of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the Tigers are known.
Wimal Weerawansa, an outspoken nationalist minister, said Thursday that Britain was a “failed state” that couldn’t safeguard a visiting foreign dignitary. He held a small protest Friday outside Britain’s mission in Colombo. “We condemn anti Sri Lankan act of British,” read a large banner.
A civil society activist, who requested anonymity, said the backlash could increase and warned that the opposition and nongovernmental groups might become targets. Opposition lawmakers have been accused of treason for raising sensitive issues on overseas trips. “The government is getting very nervous. They’re trying to figure out whom they can blame for this,” he says.
Sri Lankan push back
Sri Lankan officials have accused Oxford Union, which had invited Rajapaksa to speak, of bowing to pressure from LTTE activists in Britain and failing to respect free speech. In a statement, Rajapaksa said he regretted the cancellation. “I will continue to seek venues in the UK and elsewhere where I can talk about my future vision for Sri Lanka,” he said.
Sri Lanka’s 23-year civil war ended in May 2009. Several thousand Tamil civilians died in the final months of the conflict, according to an internal United Nations assessment. Other estimates of the death toll run much higher. The government has denied targeting civilians in the war zone and accused Western governments of ignoring widespread LTTE atrocities. The UN has appointed a panel of experts to report to the secretary-general but there has been no push for a full investigation into the claims.
In a separate leaked 2009 cable, the US embassy in London cited a British diplomat’s assessment that then-Foreign Minister David Milliband was pushing for a cease-fire in Sri Lanka, in part to shore up Tamil votes at home ahead of a general election. Sri Lankans voiced similar complaints at the time during a visit by Mr. Milliband, who was reelected in May as a lawmaker, though the ruling Labour Party was defeated.
The Jan. 15 cable from Colombo is titled "Sri Lanka War-Crimes Accountability: The Tamil Perspective." It points out that the LTTE’s leadership was wiped out in the war and can’t be put on trial for their actions. It also notes that Tamils in Sri Lanka, in contrast to overseas activists, believed that pushing too hard for accountability would make them “vulnerable” and were more concerned about immediate economic and social hardships.
“Accountability is clearly an issue of importance for the ultimate political and moral health of Sri Lankan society. There is an obvious split, however, between the Tamil diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka on how and when to address this issue,” Ms. Butenis wrote.
The cable was sent 11 days before Rajapaksa defeated his opponent, former Army chief Sarath Fonseka in a presidential election. Mr. Fonseka was subsequently arrested and tried by a military court for corruption. His arrest came after he threatened to cooperate with any war crimes tribunal on Sri Lanka, potentially ensnaring the president and his brother, the defense minister. Fonseka led the Army during the final phase of the war.