Sri Lanka: Sirisena promotes war criminals as Tamils suffer new injustices

March 11, 2016


Protest against visit of Maithripala Sirisena to Britain, March 2015.

The elaborate public facade carefully constructed by Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, with the hidden assistance of India and the US, is crumbling by the day. Instead, the discomforting truth is revealed that despite Sirisena becoming president last year, Sri Lanka remains a brutal regime dominated by a military mindset.

The civil war may have ended seven years ago, with the chilling state-sanctioned slaughter of up to 70,000 innocent people on the blood-soaked beach of Mullivaikal in the predominantly Tamil north-east of the island. But there is no end in sight to the war on Tamils, who still suffer under the boot of Sinhalese military occupation in their homeland.

In fact, contrary to Sirisena's deceptive words about justice and reconciliation, military might is clearly as important to the government as it was when its army, air force and navy combined in early 2009 to massacre innocent refugees from the war.

War criminals

Nothing could be more obvious after the recent elevation in the country's public life of two men who, if the world was a place where justice served us all rather than a powerful elite, would be now be in a cell at The Hague.

The two are Major-General Jagath Dias, who was recently promoted to chief-of-staff of the army, and war-time army commander General Sarath Fonseka, who was promoted to field marshal, the highest rank in the military. Last month, Fonseka was also appointed by the government to a parliamentary seat and a cabinet post.

Dias and Fonseka are two of the Sri Lankan army's most notorious accused war criminals. The evidence against them can be found in many international investigations that find them responsible for the calculated attacks on the 300,000 civilians cynically herded into so-called “no fire zones” in 2009 and then set upon by the army's powerful array of weaponry.

Dias is a particularly unsavoury character. This veteran of the 57th division was fingered by the international community soon after the war and chased out of his post-war diplomatic job in Germany after being threatened with a war crimes' prosecution. He was also refused visas by the US, British and Australian governments because of his reputation.

What set him apart from your garden-variety war criminal and elevated him to pre-eminence among extremists from Sri Lanka's Sinhalese ethnic majority, was a stunning allegation about his role in the death of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Not long after the war, the Sri Lanka Guardian's defence investigator laid before his readers a grisly story of wild-eyed, primeval revenge after Prabhakaran had surrendered to the army in the final days of the war.

He wrote: “The LTTE leader was said to have suffered the sadistic attack of having a hot metal rod shoved up his anal tunnel, and he met his ultimate death by having the upper portion of his skull chopped with an axe while he was alive and struggling with the pain of anal penetration.

“Major General Jagath Dias personally undertook the gruesome task after verbally abusing him in filth and manhandling him in anger.”

While Dias was a hero to fellow Sinhalese chauvinists, Fonseka had a more chequered post-war path. He challenged former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, under whose regime the LTTE were finally defeated, at the 2010 elections. For his troubles, he was stripped of his rank, his medals and jailed for more than two years.

He had three years added to the sentence for stating in an interview that the defence secretary and president's brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had ordered the execution of Tamil prisoners of war. He later retracted the statement under pressure and was let out of jail early.

Now Fonseka sits in a comfortable padded seat in parliament, gleaning all the material benefits of a cabinet post as minister for regional development. He gives statesman-like interviews to overseas publications that mostly fail to mention that he has the blood of 70,000 murdered Tamils on his hands.

Of course, the same is true for the new president who, in an attempt to woo the Sinhalese vote, boasted during his presidential campaign that he was acting defence minister during the closing months of the war. He thus bears self-declared command responsibility for these war crimes.

Little wonder that Sirisena has been working so assiduously to stop international judges being admitted to any war crimes panel. Indeed only this week, he was reported to have hauled his foreign minister over the coals for suggesting to the US that Sri Lanka was open to the idea of allowing international involvement.

Everything you need to know about Sirisena is there for all to see as he brazenly reneges on his own government's pledge in a UN resolution a few months ago to allow international input on the panel.

Facade crumbling

The façade is crumbling and Sirisena is now running for any rabbit hole he can find. However, he cannot hide the reality that nothing has changed in Sri Lanka, except the name of the president.

Yet the most shameful behaviour in all of this comes from major Western powers. This includes the US and Britain, as well as middle powers such as Australia, who continue to lie to the world about change for the better in the island nation to further their own geo-political aims.

For the US, it is about reducing Chinese influence in the country and region. For Australia, it is primarily about stopping Tamils fleeing persecution in boats that end up in our waters.

These governments do not care that they are actively protecting accused war criminals. Indeed, it is just another glaring example of the international complicity that continues to aid and abet a genocide that has been perpetrated against the Tamils for almost 70 years.

[Slightly abridged from Tamil Fightback.]

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