Today in Political Phenomena I Don’t Really Get…

A couple of days ago my “Death, Destruction, and Unflattering Pants” google alert turned up the news that Sri Lanka has been holding “government-backed protests” against the draft UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for accountability for war crimes committed in the suppression of the Tamil insurgency.

My first thought was “wha…?” followed quickly by “‘government backed protests…’ what are those, exactly?” And then I learned that in addition to the thousands-strong turn out for the protests, Sri Lanka’s Banks Association has released a statement opposing the resolution.

This was all a bit confusing for me, because my understanding of the UN Human Rights Council’s process for consideration of draft resolutions suggests that it is not exactly responsive to protests (popular or bank-based) within violator states. So I put on my incipient-political-scientist hat (it’s green, thanks for asking) and thought, “Well, the Sri Lankan government must know that this isn’t likely to influence the policy of international actors, so they must have some other goal in mind.”

The most plausible explanation is that the protests are aimed at domestic, not international, audiences, but I don’t know enough about Sri Lankan politics to take this analysis any further. So, someone with more country expertise, help a girl out?

I see from the AP article reporting the protests that rising fuel prices have led to civil unrest and clashes between civilians and security forces. Is this an effort to diffuse that tension and convince the public to “rally ’round the flag” against an external threat? I also see that domestic opposition figures have criticized the government for failing to stand up to the US and the UN. The objections to international interference have all been framed in terms of sovereignty incursions. Given that Sri Lanka is a post-colonial state, is this an important enough issue to the electorate that the government feels it needs to bolster its sovereignty credentials through a public display?

Anyone know what gives?

Kate Cronin-Furman


  1. The Sri Lankan government’s unofficial agenda appears to be the complete extermination of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. Although I cannot speak on behalf of the government nor those Tamil people that unfortunately remain in that country; it appears to me as if the purpose of these protests are to reunite the country with one united culture. Given the situation, a majority of the Tamils have left Sri Lanka and have spread throughout the world to re-establish themselves. The Tamil diaspora has expanded to the point where it is generally within the first two generations, since fleeing Sri Lanka. Considered foreigners at this point by those inhabiting our ancestral homelands, there is nothing left for the Sri Lankan Tamil community. The government continues to push further into Tamil territory to confiscate properties and the Tamil culture is left to become extinct. The few Tamils remaining in Sri Lanka are regrettably in situations identical to those of the most precious of endangered animal species. They are the last of a dieing breed and Sri Lanka will have soon prevailed, living in a country where one religion, one culture dominates over all.

  2. Christ, you really can’t post about Sri Lanka on the internet without the wingnuts for one side or the other popping up, can you… I’d make a pro-forma response to the previous comment except that I wearied of arguing with diaspora nutjobs of either ethnicity decades ago.

    In short, yes, your take is correct: the hilarious state-sponsored protests are aimed entirely at the domestic audience. The Rajapakse administration have a running gag -I can’t think of a more appropriate term- that there is an “international conspiracy” of Western powers, the United Nations, NGOs and other such terrorist-supporting evil masterminds out to “tarnish Sri Lanka’s image” and violate sovereignty. This was part of the domestic propaganda campaign during the last war years, and has been stepped up post-war. It serves as a rallying point to maintain the nationalist fervour of the war years which might otherwise have faded, what with the rising cost of living and such inconveniences.

    This “international conspiracy” stuff is not exactly subtle: it’s front-page material in newspapers, for example, and directly and indirectly referenced on state-sponsored propaganda material (billboards with nationalist slogans, etc.) It’s the Rajapakse administration’s preferred framing of all discussions about the kind of allegations made in the draft resolution, presumably because it’s a tried and tested formula that generally has worked quite well for them in the last half-decade or so.

    The main opposition party has been so severely weakened in the last decade -after their failed peace process in the early 00s, they have been completely unable to muster a rhetorical defense, while the Rajapakse administration has happily equated the peace process with appeasement at best and outright collaboration at worst. Right now the opposition seems to be sufficiently defeated that they can only frame their criticisms in Rajapaksian terms.

    Of course, while it’s not exactly a cartoonish “conspiracy”, there really have been regular, unsuccessful attempts (naturally, of varying levels of plausibility) to hold the Rajapakse administration responsible for the (bloody) conduct of the war or its (discriminatory and unethical) aftermath or its general abuses of democracy (imprisoned journalists, killings, abductions, etc) during that time. The R2P debates of 2007-ish, if memory serves; diplomats and NGOs taking strong positions against these various ills at various points, representations made to the UNHRC, that sort of thing. So the conspiracy rhetoric provides them with a readymade counterargument to maintain their extremely strong local political support without needing to genuinely engage with allegations of human rights abuses or undemocratic activities: they can simply claim all of these things to be vile, terrible fabrications. There was even a campaign -a semi-slogan by the administration- immediately after the war, claiming that “not one drop of civilian blood was spilled” in the final push to end the war, as a counterpoint to the various numbers thrown around by the international media, UN agencies and INGOs, which generally numbered in the thousands or tens of thousands. The problem with this claim, I’ve always felt, is that despite its blatant untruth, most Sinhalese would have liked to believe it to be true, or at least to tell each other that it was true. And apparently, that was enough.

  3. Found your blog today through the KONY drinking game and love the irreverence of it! It’s the darkest, funniest thing I’ve read in a while 🙂 Your blog as a whole I really enjoy! This post made me a bit sad though, because it seemed a little thoughtless and ill researched, and I feel like when you’re posting about war crimes, at least a bit of background helps, especially since it’s a divisive and intense issue. You seemed to gloss over “war crimes” though… so I think you may have just misread. The essence is: The UN resolution is calling for the Sri Lankan government to be held accountable for war crimes they committed in “suppressing the Tamil insurgency.” (A short Wiki search would have led you to info on the conflict that led up to these protests: a brutal 25 year long civil war in Sri Lanka between the government and Tamil insurgents.) Hence, the Sri Lankan government sponsored protests to combat this negative portrayal of themselves as war criminals and to deny that they committed war crimes. The Sri Lankan banks likely issued a similar statement to the state because they are part of the same power structure. The conflict pitted the Tamil people, a minority population in Sri Lanka, a faction of whom began using terrorist tactics to demand a separate Tamil state in the north of the country during the civil war, again the Sinhalese, who account for the majority of Sri Lankans, and have more or less held all the governmental power in the country since its inception. In the end, it was and still is a conflict rife with war crimes by both sides, dehumanization, and tragic conflict politics that have claimed about 80,000-100,000 lives. The state defeated the Tamil rebels in 2009, but war crimes accusations from the conflict remain, along with all the blatant posturing and misinformation that typically characterizes such conflicts, but now with the state having won the war, the prostests are basically a desperately attempt to cover their asses in regards to being held accountable for war crimes they committed against a population that can hardly be held accountable anymore because the civil war has more or less dispersed and/or decimated the Tamil population. In a struggle like this, it’s hard to blame the state completely… no, i take that back, always question and blame the state, but get the issue down first 🙂 Anyways, I’m pretty sure that’s what was happening… it’s a big messy conflict, like Ireland, or Israel/Palestine, but it’s in SE Asia so nobody cares as much… what I wrote here kinda doesn’t even begin to describe what went down, check it out.

    • “against a population that can hardly be held accountable anymore because the civil war has more or less dispersed and/or decimated the Tamil population.”

      Are you claiming that the majority of Tamils have been either driven out of Sri Lanka or have been killed? If so, I’d really like to know what information you’re basing this comment on.

  4. @domuci

    I do not want to seem as if I am a radical; however, the accumulating video evidence of what really occurred in Sri Lanka, seems to support the charges previously made against the government. Whether the government’s plan was to directly eradicate the Sri Lankan Tamils or not is not the topic of concern. By committing atrocious war crimes, killing civilians, and retained thousands of souls into camps; the Sri Lankan government has successfully divided the culture. Sinhala is already being integrated as the primary language in most institutions throughout Sri Lanka. It is also common tendency to discover Sri Lankan tamils living in Sri Lanka who have not been taught the language for fear of discriminate consequences. To conclude I present to you a documentary called Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields and is a collection of videos taken by people living in Sri Lanka at the time of conflict.

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