A lot of international coverage about the election is about the war. One narrative seems to seek prosecuting the victors and dividing the country along racial lines. Thankfully, these commentators are not (generally) Sri Lankan voters.
Rolling back the war through international courts and dividing the country are not things this government will do.
Rolling Back The War? No
To me, as a person living here, this is madness. The war was terrible, I’ve seen the carnage first-hand, the broken bodies and the shattered lives. What people seem to forget, certainly people with only a cursory interest in Sri Lanka, is that the war was 30 years long. It wasn’t just Mahinda. They forget the murder of Tamil opposition, the Central Bank bombing, the Anuradhapura attacks, the attack on the Temple of The Tooth the countless bus bombings and murders of villagers and civilians. They also forget the destabilization of an (admittedly shitty) elected government by dictatorial terrorists. That was going on for 30 years.
Imagine you had the Islamic State camped out in Spain and blowing stuff up for 30 years. That might incur a proportional military response. If a military advance can end a war and eliminate a terrorist threat once and for all, it would most likely be considered proportional under international humanitarian law.
Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality).
Ending a 30 year old terrorist threat – the first and worst in the world at the time – is clearly a proportional military objective. The military was not targeting civilians, they were finishing the LTTE. When their leadership was eliminated, the war was over. This was no genocidal campaign. There was definitely a war here, a terrible and brutal thing, but the broad conduct was not a war crime.
While there are shameful incidents – the unexplained deaths of Prabhakaran’s children, disappearances, etc – the idea that the broad conduct of the war was somehow a crime is just false. It was brutal and terrible, but also proportional to the military objective – ending a 30 year war and eliminating an existential threat to this country and its neighbors.
In the post-election debate, however, you see the LTTE’s cynical human shield resurrected as a body count. People forget that the LTTE committed obvious war crimes by forcibly transporting and conscripting civilians (a crime against humanity) – under threat of murder or torture – using them as forced labor and a human shield. Their goal was to get the international community to force a cease-fire, thus saving their leadership to regroup and continue the war some more. That ploy didn’t work, but the civilians that the LTTE took hostage are still being exploited by LTTE/Eelam supporters abroad. This narrative is also being picked up by more well-meaning people.
It was a cynical and despicable ploy by the LTTE in the first place and it continues to be cynical now, misguided as best. And it actually doesn’t have support in international law. Nevermind that Sri Lanka, like the US, isn’t actually under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Even under the terms of the ICC, the whole war would never be deemed criminal, given the terms of proportionality.
Resurrecting Eelam? No
Eelam is a failed idea. The idea of a racially based territory should be prima facie dubious. What happens to minorities in there? What about mixed couples? Given the LTTE’s record of deporting Muslims from Jaffna and murdering Sinhalese villages, were they to be trusted to run such a state?
The LTTE (and many moderate Tamils) believe in a ‘Tamil nation’, but modern states (beyond Israel and the Middle East) are not based on races but on individual rights and liberties. Tamil Eelam would be by definition a racist state and a mirror rather than a improvement on the racist Sinhalese governments that caused so much polarization.
The only idea with an moral weight, IMHO, is equal rights, regardless of race. An Eelam doesn’t address the 30% of Tamils living in the south, especially Colombo. It also would reduce Muslims in the East and North to second-class citizens at best, and would have reduced Sinhalese there to dead.
Equal rights isn’t a regional issue to be solved simply by devolving power across certain lines. Equal rights need to be for everyone across the country. Of course the North and East need less and less military presence and more control over their own police and land. A Tamil in Colombo and a Muslim in Vavuniya also deserves equal rights as well. That can only come from a democratic national government, not from drawing racial lines in the sand.
What This Government Is Doing
Thankfully, these are narratives that mostly exist in the international media, they don’t actually determine politics here, and certainly not elections. This government was elected with Sinhala and minority support, and it’s is producing balanced polices, as a representative government should – balancing the interests of all of us.
What this government is doing is, firstly acknowledging and mourning civilian casualties in the war. They are also committing to a domestic investigation of individual war crimes without rolling back the whole thing or prosecuting the military and civilian leadership.
They are also taking real steps towards equal rights of all citizens, with special attention to Tamil issues. This government works with the Tamil leadership on its Executive Council, there is a Tamil Minister of Resettlement, a Tamil Chief Justice and Reconciliation is in the portfolio of the Prime Minister. There are now civilian governors in the North and East and the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt And Reconciliation Commission are slowly being implemented. On a political level, Tamil votes A) happened and B) mattered in this election which gives Tamil citizens more stable power than the dictatorial LTTE ever did.
In short, this government is consolidating the gains of war (no more terrorism, territorial integrity) and also addressing the causes of conflict (unequal rights). This is good policy driven by our own democracy, unlike the ghosts of LTTE ideas whispering from across the ocean.