Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka’s Reign of Terror

The island nation’s president is set to take the reins of the Commonwealth of Nations—but critics say he’s presided over a reign of terror at home.

Pool photo by Lefteris Pitarakis

Sri Lanka’s civil war, having raged with varying intensity for over four decades, ended four years ago. The outcome was absolute: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had led the military struggle for a sovereign Tamil homeland, were chased to their bunkers on the northernmost beaches of the island and decimated in relentless air raids. On May 18, 2009, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the unsparingly ruthless leader of the LTTE, was intercepted and executed by Sri Lankan armed forces as he attempted to flee to safety. Prabhakaran had come to personify the movement, and his end, so wretched, became the emblem of Tamil defeat and Sinhalese triumph. The government declared victory and many thousands of ordinary Sinhalese, radiating ethnic pride, poured into the streets of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, to celebrate.

Since then, Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has tirelessly touted his country as a tropical Eden “full of promise, with an economy poised to take off.” But the message belies the squalid reality of Sri Lanka under his rule. The former Tamil bastions in the north and east continue to be exposed to arbitrary violence by Sri Lankan authorities. Journalists are prevented from entering the region; non-government organizations have been uprooted on short notice. In the south, many of the president’s opponents and transparency activists have been “disappeared”—abruptly bundled away in the ubiquitous “white vans” that have become a source of dread throughout Sri Lanka. After touring Sri Lanka in August this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, issued an unusually strong statement. “Sri Lanka,” she said, “is a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced.” Term limits on the presidency have been lifted, currency bills bear the president’s image, and the last vestiges of constitutional constraints on executive power were removed earlier this year when the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka was impeached on trumped up charges of corruption and replaced with the president’s own attorney general. Several of the state’s highest offices are now occupied by members of the Rajapaksa family. Democracy is on a ventilator in Sri Lanka, and an atmosphere of fear pervades the country.

At the end of the war in 2009, Sinhalese soldiers, long accustomed to imagining Tamils, with whom they’d had no meaningful interaction, as indomitable agents of mass murder, erupted with an uncontainable fury after vanquishing them. The videos of uniformed soldiers summarily executing Tamil men, and the clips showing trucks piled high with naked corpses of raped Tamil women, cannot easily be erased from the minds of those who survived the fighting but remain captive to its experience.

As many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were reportedly killed and another 70,000 unaccounted for as the Sri Lankan military concluded its final assault on the Tamil strongholds in the early months of 2009. International observers have since accused Rajapaksa of presiding over a catalogue of war crimes. He has contested the figures, rejected the charges, and resisted repeated calls for independent inquiries. At the same time, his government has paid millions of dollars to PR agencies in London and Washington to help slicken Sri Lanka’s post-war image.

Their efforts are poised to yield dividends as Sri Lanka prepares to host more than 50 heads of states of the Commonwealth of Nations over the weekend. The purpose of this powerful congregation is to hand over the rotating chairmanship of the Commonwealth—a grouping of former British colonies and dominions—to Rajapaksa. Colombo has been spruced up in anticipation of the visitors: shantytowns have been razed, poorer residents evacuated, and gigantic green screens erected along roadsides to hide the unbeautiful parts of the city from the visitors’ gaze. The government has imported a fleet of super-luxury limousines at an undisclosed price to ferry the foreign leaders from event to event. Even the spouses of the dignitaries can expect to be spoiled: Sri Lanka has lavished a small fortune on personalised jewellery for each of them.

And yet for all the seductive allure of the summit, Rajapaksa’s impending investiture has prompted some members of the Commonwealth to recoil. Canada, the largest nation in the Commonwealth, is boycotting the meeting. India, its most powerful Asian member, has downgraded its delegation. Mauritius, which will host the next biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2015, has turned down the invitation with a terse declaration: “Human rights are more important than anything else.”

The decision of the remaining members—including, crucially, Britain, the parent nation of the Commonwealth—to attend the summit has been accompanied in most cases by assurances that concerns about human rights will be raised directly with Sri Lankan authorities. Yet, far from nudging Rajapaksa toward greater accountability, their presence in Sri Lanka is likely only to abet his rise. By making Rajapaksa the public face of a widely respected organization that claims to represent 2 billion people across six continents—and which once made illustrious contributions to the international effort to end apartheid rule in South Africa—the Commonwealth is sanctifying rather than stymying Sri Lanka’s alarming slide into authoritarian rule. The worldwide attention, instead of disconcerting Rajapaksa—as opponents of a proposed international boycott of the summit said it would—has already emboldened him: his hooligans have openly harassed foreign reporters covering the summit; journalists from Britain’s Channel4 have been trailed by Sri Lankan authorities; and Tamils have been prevented from entering Colombo. It’s chilling to imagine the fate of Rajapaksa’s domestic critics after his extravagant coronation is complete and the foreign guests have packed up and left.

To Tamils, the continuing reluctance of the world to recognize their suffering is an extension of the torment they endured on the battlefield. But even many Sinhalese are distraught by the turn their country has taken under Rajapaksa, and puzzled by the silence beyond Sri Lanka. Earlier this year, I spoke to a Sri Lankan lawyer who has helped Tamil families flee the island. He had initially supported the war effort, he told me. “After all the fighting, we thought we were finally going to have a sincere reconciliation and peace,” he said. “Instead, we got a dictator. First he ‘took care’ of the Tamils. Now it’s everyone else’s turn.”