Menik Farm, Sri Lanka, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, UN Photo by Eskinder Debebe

Why Isn’t Sri Lanka Important Enough?

September 30, 2009 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

“Sri Lanka isn’t important enough” is one of the comments we hear from decision-makers when they are being honest about why they are putting so little effort into pushing a just resolution. Crikey.com – the leading Australian blog – carries today an article explaining why this approach is so short-sighted.

In what’s surely one of the more remarkable fact-finding missions in recent years, Sri Lanka’s attorney-general Mohan Peiris is heading to Washington for meetings with the US defence establishment. His goal? Learning to emulate the US’ treatment of captured Islamic militants!

Now, there’s not too many contexts in which anyone would point to Guantanamo Bay and say, gosh, we’d like one of those. Then again, there’s not too many nations that currently keep a quarter of a million people detained indefinitely in camps.

In Sri Lanka, an appalling human rights tragedy continues to play out. After the wake of the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers (an organisation undoubtedly responsible for its own atrocities), 250,000 Tamils have been herded into detention. Here’s how the Guardian describes one such internment facility:

“The camp, say former inhabitants, is packed, with two or three families sharing a tent or tin shack. There are complaints of stinking, overflowing toilets, water shortages and inadequate healthcare. Journalists are rarely given access and those inside Manik Farm are not allowed to cross its fortified perimeter.”

Speaking on a phone that had been smuggled into the camp, one civilian being held in Manik Farm, who did not want to be named, said two families had “been taken away and not seen again after saying some wrong things” to a reporter last month.

“People are scared to tell anyone of the problems we are facing. But it is a prison here. There are not enough health facilities for the problems in the camp and we don’t have enough water.”

Doctors in the main hospital in Vavuniya, the largest town near the camp, say that more 1000 people have died since May, mainly due to “malnutrition-related complications”, and warn of an impending disaster if conditions do not improve.

That was a few weeks back. A couple of days ago, troops in the same camp opened fire with live ammunition on protesting detainees.

Imagine, as a crazy thought experiment, that Iran had, under the pretext of internal security, herded hundreds of thousands of civilians into internment. Do you think you might have heard a little bit about it?

Ah, but Sri Lanka’s not part of the Axis of Evil or the Nexus of New Hitlers or whatever term is now current for those countries we officially condemn. Nor, despite some tut-tutting from the UN, will it be sent to the League of the Loathsome any time soon. For, as the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, counterinsurgency has come back into fashion — and no one knows as much about that particular topic as Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa. That, one assumes, is one reason the Americans are happy to share techniques with Mohan Peiris.

Handily, the Indian Defence Review has condensed what it grandiosely calls the “Rajapaksa Model of fighting terror” into dot points. These include, inter alia:
. Unwavering political will
. Disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal
. No negotiations with the forces of terror
. Absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the LTTE
. Complete operational freedom for the security forces.

More pithily, the whole doctrine might be encapsulated in two words: “Repression works”. Keep the media out, fend off human rights groups while you unleash the troops — and there’s your insurgency solved.

That’s why the situation in Sri Lanka matters so much. It’s not simply because there’s something fundamentally wrong about mass collective punishment. It’s because if the world doesn’t speak out, you can expect see the Rajapaksa model put into action elsewhere.