WikiLeaks XI: Release of Sri Lankan Cables Timed to Shine Light on Government and Tamil Tigers Savagery

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the eleventh in the series.

The beginning of 2009 brought an end to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelaam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. Government forces crushed the rebel movement in a final push that imperiled the lives of nearly 200,000 civilians, and ultimately left thousands dead. In January, the Sri Lankan military seized the LTTE stronghold of Killonichi, trapping untold numbers of innocent civilians between the Sri Lankan military and the rebel Tiger fighters facing their last stand. Neither side, according to humanitarian groups, exercised much regard for the safety of locals in their fighting, a situation that grew so alarming that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights accused both sides of committing war crimes. By May of that year, the Sri Lankan government had claimed victory, but at no small cost. Human rights groups and Tamil activists abroad, who had raised the alarm during the worst of the fighting, began demanding a public investigation into claims that the Sri Lankan military had committed war crimes en route to defeating the LTTE. 

And yet, nothing much happened. 

A new cable released by WikiLeaks suggests a very good reason why there’s been so little movement on the investigation. Writing in January of this year, US Ambassador Patricia Butenis writes that

There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power.

But in Sri Lanka

this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President [Mahinda] Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General Fonseka.

Not only that, it’s not clear that surviving Tamils are eager to reopen a door to the past. In the first place, it stands to reason that they wouldn’t want to draw too much attention to the fact that the Tigers were themselves guilty of some heinous crimes against humanity in the final months of battle. But Butenis also points out some other, less obvious reasons for Tamil reticence on the matter.

While Tamils have told us they would like to see some form of accountability, they have been pragmatic in what they can expect and have focused instead on securing greater rights and freedoms, resolving the IDP question, and improving economic prospects in the war-ravaged and former LTTE-occupied areas.

In addition,

while they wanted to keep the issue alive for possible future action, Tamil leaders with whom we spoke in Colombo, Jaffna, and elsewhere said now was not time and that pushing hard on the issue would make them “vulnerable.”

The question that remains, then, is when the time will ever be ripe for investigation. On this, Butenis is clear.

Accountability is clearly an issue of importance for the ultimate political and moral health of Sri Lankan society… A few have suggested to us that while they cannot address the issue, they would like to see the international community push it. Such an approach, however, would seem to play into the super-heated campaign rhetoric of Rajapaksa and his allies that there is an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka and its “war heroes.”

This may be, but any investigation into the first months of fighting in 2009 would also shine light on American—indeed, international—inaction despite full awareness of events on the ground. It bears reminding that the United States did little more than express “disappointment†during the crisis, and only began taking more serious action when the fighting had more or less concluded. At the same time, the issue was never raised at the UN Security Council and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shamefully never demanded that it be placed on the council’s agenda. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, the timing of this cable suggests some clever marketing strategy. The Sri Lankan president arrived in England on Monday and had been scheduled to speak at a high-profile Oxford gathering today. The appearance has been cancelled on the grounds that security concerns threaten Rajapaksa’s safety.