Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was once a human rights activist, campaigning with the mothers of the “disappeared”. Now, he is accused of presiding over war crimes and crimes against humanity, and his government actively prevents the families of the “disappeared” from protesting.
To his supporters, Mr Rajapaksa is still a Sinhala Buddhist hero. Larger than life-sized posters that appeared after the government’s victory in the civil war in 2009 consciously play on ancient historical heroes.
Frequent comparisons are made between the triumphant President and Dutugemunu, the ancient Sinhala King who defeated “invading Tamils” more than 2,000 years ago. “It took 13 years for Dutugemunu to regain lost territory and establish total sovereignty over Sri Lanka. But it took less than three years for Mr Rajapaksa to achieve the same goal,” boasts Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence website, adding rather ruefully that kings were “not restrained by issues of human rights”.
After the war ended, Mr Rajapaksa boasted that his “troops went to the battlefront carrying a gun in one hand, the Human Rights Charter in the other”. That is not, however, the conclusion of legal experts at the United Nations, who said in a 2011 report that, “the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law” and accused the government – and the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels – of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The UN said up to 40,000 civilians may have died in the last months of the civil war; and possibly up to 70,000, according to a 2012 UN Internal Inquiry. The majority of the killings were attributed to government forces, directly under the control of the President’s much-feared brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary.
Many say “Gota”, as he’s referred to for short, was the real brain behind the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers, not the shy, affable President. Some even question how much Mr Rajapaksa knew about what was being done in his name. But four-and-a-half-years later he has yet to hold a single person accountable for war crimes and ongoing human rights abuses, including allegations of rape and torture committed by the security forces against their opponents this year.
There’s no question that Sri Lanka is run by a family dynasty now, with a third brother, Basil, as the minister for economic development, a son being groomed as the heir apparent and many other relatives in key positions of power. Allegations of corruption, nepotism and concentration of power have begun to erode some of the popular support for Mr Rajapaksa among the Sinhala majority on the island. However, the Rajapaksa clan knows it has domestic support, so long as it’s valiantly defending mother Lanka against its powerful enemies, be they Tamil separatists or meddling foreign journalists in the pay of the terrorists. In short, it needs an enemy to stay in power.
Judging by their reception in Sri Lanka, one might think the Channel 4 News team is now public enemy number one. The journalists were greeted by protesters at the airport and their hotel and were mobbed in a train trying to go to the north of the island.
It looks as if there’s some disappointment that the Sinhala people didn’t spontaneously come out to show their opposition, but it’s hard to say if that’s a sign of decreasing support on the war issue. Most Sinhalese are still in denial about what happened at the end of the war; few human rights reports are translated into the local language and many ordinary people, who have relatives who served in the army, understandably don’t want to know the full extent of the horror.