Sri Lanka’s ‘illiberal peace’: implications for Western influence

The Washington Post has a very interesting article on Sri Lanka’s apparent slide ‘toward dictatorship’. Since the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has become increasingly autocratic, stifling opposition and silencing – sometimes violently, so the article suggests – those who speak out against it. Family members of the president are occupying influential  government positions and following his last electoral victory, Rajapaksa changed ‘the constitution not only to increase his powers over the police, judiciary and civil service, but also to end the two-term limit for the presidency’. All of this has been possible because of the surge in popularity experienced by Rajapaksa following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the apparent termination of the three-decade civil war.

There are some interesting implications here. First, the polarisation of this discussion – and over what happened in the final months of the war – is striking. Many Tamils in the diaspora cite ethnic cleansing, disappearances and dictatorship. Government and military spokespersons counter that the accusations are ginned up by LTTE remnants who, now out of military options, seek to gain advantage over Colombo by other means. The domains of information and narrative have become the new battlefield.

As one example of the contest over truth and messaging, the government in 2011 released a ‘Factual Analysis Report‘ – that is its title – intended to showcase its good deeds toward the Tamils and quash the ‘false allegations‘ made by ‘Tamil Diaspora together with the LTTE international network’. In the Washington Post story too, the government dismisses the alleged human rights abuses against journalists and critics ‘as a “cloud” thrown up by people who want to claim political asylum abroad’.

This type of fighting over facts is fairly typical in conflict situations, but highlights once again how narrative, information and international sympathies can have a powerful effect on developments on the ground (a topic dealt with by David Betz on this very blog, and in relation to Sri Lanka no less). At this point, it is critical for the Sri Lankan government to retain its mantle of respectability, lest sympathies shift to the Tamil minority, who could certainly do with a receptive audience when seeking political concessions from the central government.

Yet how important is this mantle of respectability really? Back in the day – loosely speaking the 1990s – adherence to Western standards of human rights, at least in rhetoric, mattered because it was felt that the US and the West held the power and would at some point punish those who all too flagrantly defied its emerging humanitarian norms. The causality here was never consistent but there existed a general sense that lip-service to human rights might reap its own rewards. In part this is also what justified Sri Lanka’s sustained tolerance of the Norwegian-brokered peace negotiations, despite their lack of progress.

At some point, the kowtowing to Western-imposed standards ended. Maybe it was 9/11 and its reframing of non-state armed groups as terrorists, the West’s own hypocrisy over human rights during the War on Terror, or the West’s perceived decline amid financial difficulties and strategic exhaustion in Iraq and Afghanistan – regardless, the need to play by the West’s (highly inconsistent) rules now appears far less pressing. Suddenly Norway was no longer the paragon of humanitarianism and liberal peace but a ‘nation of salmon-eaters’ turned ‘international busybodies’.

As Colombo readied itself for the final military solution to its problem with LTTE, it did not seek Western approval or assistance and nor did it concern itself with Western expectations and ‘standards’. The grizzly result is now well documented, though again accounts of what truly happened will differ depending on political sympathies. Channel 4 aired a graphic documentary on the assault that depicted it as exceptionally and exceedingly brutal; the government on the other hand blames LTTE for using the Tamil population as a human shield and characterises its response as ‘the biggest hostage rescue operation in the world’.

The broader point is that the West was not needed nor was its approval sought. Instead, rising powers – predominantly China – have stepped into the breach. As a sponsor and friend, China does not ask any awkward questions but provides a free hand in how to deal with pesky insurgents (or ‘splittists’, as Beijing may call them). Money flows, investment too and there are altogether fewer salmon-eating busy-bodies to contend with. So, while ‘diplomats and officials said the United States and India are determined to remain engaged with Sri Lanka’, what is Sri Lanka’s interest in remaining engaged with the US? Does the case of Sri Lanka show us, as David Lewis has convincingly argued, ‘a growing contestation of international peacebuilding norms, and the emergence of a legitimated “illiberal peace”‘? If so – and the case of Angola can certainly be added to the list – is this something the West can get used to?

The jury is probably still out (or more accurately, ‘I don’t know’), but while considering the effects of slashed defence budgets and financial decline, we ought also to consider the declining currency of our professed Western ‘values’ – not least through our own actions, but also because of the wide variety of viable alternatives. As Groucho Marx put it, those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.


9 thoughts on “Sri Lanka’s ‘illiberal peace’: implications for Western influence

  1. Pingback: Nouvelles et analyses – Année 2012 « Sri Lanka, l’île resplendissante ?

  2. Satyamhistory says:

    Indeed a slippery slope to even begin considering in Academia, “considering” options besides the hitherto staunch opposition to “illiberal peace”. Raising such “doubts” gives legitimacy of contention to humanizing prejudices, and in itself opens up for debate, the value and desirability of an open and free society (beginning with, “so long as it is not “ours””). Conciliation as a viable alternative, instead of forthwith and outright condemnation, to “illiberal peace” poses a mortal, moral threat to the society of nation-states. Philip Bobbitt, in his “The Shield of Achilles” sums it up quite well, “Thus when these men were discredited by the horrors they did not prevent, the society of nation-states that they represented (as appointees of the U.N., the E.U., etc.) was discredited also”. To further discredit and cast the society of nation-states into opprobrium, would be to raise doubts against the hitherto illegitimacy of “illiberal peace”. Pandora’s box should stay shut.

  3. We need to be careful here. While there is some truth to some of the arguments in this piece and in the Washington Post article that inspired it, it misses some crucial points. To wit:

    1. The trope of “Sri Lanka doesn’t need the West anymore, its support from China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, etc is enough” is now an old and tired one – first trotted out by the Sri Lankan government officials in 2007 when the brutality of their counterinsurgency strategy (e.g., hundreds of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of Tamil suspected of involvement with the LTTE and murders of journalists and dissenters) was first being challenged internationally. Unfortunately, too many western diplomats and lazy journalists believed it, thus making it to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, first, the Washington Post story is an old one, well-worn by now.

    2. The story is also not entirely true: it’s not true that “As Colombo readied itself for the final military solution to its problem with LTTE, it did not seek Western approval or assistance” or that “the West was not needed nor was its approval sought”. In fact, the Sri Lankan government’s military strategy, with its scorched-earth counter-insurgency policy and flagrant disregard for international humanitarian law, had significant support from those countries now supposedly worried by growing Chinese support to and involvement in Sri Lanka. US intelligence and naval support was crucial to the destruction of LTTE ships bringing in arms supplies and ammunition; India’s effective naval blockade of the northern coasts was also crucial to trapping the LTTE; western military equipment was sold to Sri Lanka throughout the war; the global crackdown on LTTE fundraising and other activities, a crackdown led by the US and implemented by a host of other western governments, was also a necessary part of the equation that ultimately destroyed the Tigers. And finally, the slowness of western governments, and of the UN Secretary-General and UN bodies, to react to the slaughter of thousands of civilians (ultimately likely to be on the order of 30-40,000 in a span of four months!) was in large part due to the desire they all shared to see the destruction of the LTTE and its leadership. As even former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes admitted after the fact, the “international community”, including western governments, gave the green light to the Sri Lankan government’s brutal defeat-0f-the-LTTE at all costs, even if some among them weren’t very happy with just how bloody the process ended up being. Collectively they looked the other way and knew they were doing so at the time.

    3. It is also simply not true that the Sri Lankan government, and in particular its ruling family, the Rajapaksas, doesn’t care what the West thinks now – or don’t desire that the west remains willing to prop up its flagging economy and fund its counter-productive and highly militarised “development” of the Tamil-majority northern province. This is true in numerous respects:

    a) The Sri Lankan has survived the past three years only because of $2.6 billion in IMF funding (much of it from western taxpayers) that has prevented it from running out of foreign currency needed to purchase the imported goods the country, and especially its elite, survives on (both imported oil, needed by all, and expensive consumer goods for the urban middles-classes and elite).

    b) The World Bank and Asian Development Bank are loaning the Sri Lankan government on the order of half a billion dollars each year – and constitute, together with the Indian government – as big a donor/lender as the Chinese.

    c) two of the President’s brothers are US citizens: Basil Rajapaksa, minister for economic development and defacto prime minister, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, secretary to the ministry of defence and chief architect and implementer of the military defeat of the LTTE and the tens of thousands of civilian deaths believed by many, and with good reason, to have been part and parcel of the LTTE’s destruction. Both Basil and Gotabaya are liable under US law for a range of possible violations of US and international law. Both continue to return regularly to the US and own properties in California. Both has a vested and very personal interest in maintaining decent relations with the US government. So, too, there are other high-ranking Sri Lankan officials with deep ties to western governments – e..g., the Australian citizen and Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the UN in New York, Palitha Kohona.

    What does all this add up to? The story of Sri Lanka as an example of the waning influence of the west has some truth. And to the extent that it is true, western government’s flagrant violation of basic international law in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo have contributed much to undermining its ability to restrain the Sri Lankan military in 2008-9 or to hold it account after the fact.

    But the story mustn’t be overblown. Should the west, and important international organisations, like the IMF, World Bank and various UN bodies that depend to a great degree on western money, decide to use their influence in a thoughtful, tough, and coordinated way in Sri Lanka, they could have some impact. They just have to decide to try. To be most effective, western governments and international bodies would have to work closely with the Indian government (and ideally also the Japanese, who are traditionally one of Sri Lanka’s biggest lenders). Tough, but not impossible.

    Indeed, the March 2012 passage by the UN Human Rights Council of a resolution critical of the continuing post-war human rights problems and lack of investigation into alleged war crimes was possible only because of a united western front supported by a number of African and Latin countries, and crucially, by India. The success of the resolution, signals that patience with the Sri Lankan government has begun to wear thin in Washington, Brussels, London and Delhi and that there are tools this set of governments can still use to pressure Colombo. A small step – but a step nonetheless, and a step that the Washington Post article and your treatment of it should have recognised and tried to make sense of.

    • Thank you Alan for adding critical insight and nuance to the blog post and, as you say, to the Washington Post article that inspired it. I think you are undoubtedly correct in your analysis, though I do not hold out much faith in the power of a UNHRCR resolution. Perhaps the conclusion that should have been drawn is that the West is itself far less liberal than it likes to present itself and therefore acquiesces with what David Lewis calls the ‘illiberal peace’ in Sri Lanka – barring token tutters and wags of the finger, that is. As you suggest, there are sources of leverage but they are not being used. Or maybe it is not a priority.

      Or MAYBE there is the suspicion that more pressure will only force Sri Lanka away from the Western fold, so an imperfect compromise is better than insisting on perfect ‘compliance’. Such a conclusion would go some way toward corroborating the central gist of the blog post.

      Regardless, thanks for reading and responding. Very helpful addition to the discussion.

    • The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

      Small, but not entirely irrelevant, point: we are speaking of a resolution from the Human Rights Council resolution (voted on by Member States), not the UNHCR (a specialised agency of the UN system).

  4. Rajesh Venugopal says:

    Thanks for posting this – I like many of the points made, but will take issue with the conflation between western influence and adherence to western values, which I do not find entirely unconvincing.

    1. There was a lot of ‘western influence’ in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, when the human rights situation was arguably at its worst – may even have been worse than at present. As Alan argues above, western influence comes in many shapes, sizes and forms – including military cooperation with the state.

    2. Human rights was in terrible shape before 1994, but improved significantly after that, not because the govt was under the influence of the west. It was because of domestic factors – Kumaratunga was voted into power in 1994 on an explicit mandate to end the violent authoritarianism, human rights abuses, and ethnic conflict of the previous 17 years. This doesn’t mean that bad things didn’t happen under her rule – but the west continued to support her. Although her govt constantly failed to deliver, and often reversed course, she did at least represent a rhetorical commitment of standards, and had the ability to converse with the ‘west’ and to explain her constraints. I think it’s misleading to say that the blessed ‘west’ (whatever that is), had influence on Kumaratunga and that led to improved human rights – it’s the other way around. Kumaratunga was a huge improvement w.r.t. human rights, and that led many western countries to support her.

    3. The key problem is not so much that Sri Lanka fails to meet international standards of human rights, etc., but that it fails to meet its own standards, subverts its own institutions, refuses to uphold its own laws. I think it’s worth pointing out that for all that’s gone wrong, Sri Lanka is not Afghanistan – this is after all, Asia’s oldest democracy, and respect for human rights does not amount to ‘kowtowing to western standards’.

    More importantly, there is a need to be much more circumspect about what influence outsiders can have at all in Sri Lanka. The easy convivial atmosphere that prevailed during the Chandrika and Ranil years (1994-05) and quick access to the top power circles led foreign powers and donors to assume that they had a lot of influence. The collapse of the 2002 peace process – largely due to domestic circumstances – has since led to a serious re-evaluation of whether there ever was any real influence in the first place.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this, and for allowing the space for a response.

    • Constructive responses such as yours are always welcome, Rajesh. Without going into the specifics of the case, or the argument, let me nonetheless clarify that by no means do I see Western influence abroad as synonymous with democratisation and greater adherence to human rights. As you say, influence comes in many shapes and sizes. Nonetheless, I struggle to find another bloc of nations that has been as intent on spreading these norms, albeit inconsistently, and pushing them onto other nations even at the expense of sovereignty. This has fuelled a self-perception and many false expectations and it was with those that I sought to engage in this blog post.

      Thank you for your comment.

  5. leon says:

    What all of you have missed is that 40% of Sri Lankan exports go to the US. The US has the leverage but are not using it as such a move might bring SL even closer to China. Rajapakse has used the China card and the “war on terror” inorder to wipe out the Tigers.

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