Myanmar is on a Sri Lankan path to impunity
Myanmar is following Sri Lanka's dark example of decimating resistance, rejecting criticism and avoiding accountability for mass crimes against humanity
In the northern town of Kilinochchi, the former political headquarters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is now the base for the Sri Lankan army’s 57th Infantry Division.
A water tower, felled by the LTTE as they relinquished control of the town in the last months of the devastating 26-year war in 2009, and which lay as a grim memorial since, was only recently destroyed to clear the ground for development.
The war shrine on the outskirts of town, a slab of concrete with an artillery shell slammed into its center and a lotus flower symbolizing peace blooming from its top, says in the inscription the “humanitarian operation…paved the way to eradicate terrorism.”
The Vanni region of northern Sri Lanka still has over 100,000 security forces in place nine years after the brutal dénouement to the 26-year civil war. Off the main road are numerous divisional and special task force bases.
And while post-war development is evident, many people claim the Sri Lankan army is taking the most lucrative development projects and much of the land as the spoils of war, while resettled internally displaced civilians still express fears of government soldiers and unexploded ordnance.
But in economically booming Colombo, the national capital, the war seems a distant past. As it does internationally, where calls for accountability for the crimes against humanity committed during the war’s final stages have still gone largely unanswered.
Myanmar now excites more international condemnation for the brutal expulsion of over 670,000 Rohingya Muslims since last August into Bangladesh. But what are the lessons to be learned from what some analysts have called the “Sri Lanka Model”?
This model is often seen as a combination of total military autonomy to pursue a violent end to armed resistance, a political strategy that rejects international pressure, an appeal to growing international narratives of counterterrorism, and a post-war pantomime of postponing accountability.
It isn’t an easy model to replicate, given the many differences between Sri Lanka and Myanmar geographically, historically, militarily and diplomatically. But Myanmar is now pursuing some of the dark lessons from that example following the forced deportation of the Rohingya and its ongoing wars against ethnic rebels in the north.
The two nations’ armed conflicts could not be more different. Sri Lanka is an island; Myanmar has borders with Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh, long a sanctuary with access to arms and finances. Insurgents in Myanmar find sanctuary in jungle-covered mountains, not the scrubland and lagoons of the Vanni.
While not the only ethnic armed organization (EAO) in Sri Lanka, the Tigers were the largest and most efficient, whereas Myanmar has an inexhaustible range of armed groups across the country, many ethno-nationalist, now vanquished communist and some mercantile pocket-armies. Many have been fighting since independence in 1948.
There are currently four main armed groups fighting the central state in Myanmar, but there are a dozen more in various stages of uneasy ceasefire. The EAO’s in Myanmar have chosen for the most part an insurgency approach that attempts to build civilian support, base areas, and a balance of domestic and international legitimacy and in so doing have avoided direct targeting of civilians.
The LTTE were a notoriously ruthless army which routinely engaged in extreme terror tactics: suicide bombings, targeted assassinations (killing a Sri Lankan president and the former prime minister of India), use of human shields, child soldiers and a ‘Black Tiger’ navy and a rudimentary air force to attack Colombo airport.
LTTE rebel financing was a mixture of diaspora “donations” and involvement in the transnational heroin smuggling trade. In Myanmar, rebels are financed by a mix of mining, logging, drug revenues and “revolutionary” taxation from formal business.
The LTTE also simply doesn’t compare to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which staged attacks against government forces in October 2016 and August 2017, killing dozens of police and officials in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state.
Those attacks were more an agrarian uprising against state repression directed by a small nucleus of émigré Rohingya than a fearsome terrorist organization. ARSA was an appeal to international attention bolstered by a Twitter account to release statements for sympathetic rights activists and journalists.
For the Myanmar government to continue to justify the massively disproportionate response to the attacks on “terrorist” threats holds no credibility, including vague claims recently made by the former parliament speaker and ex-top ranking military officer Thura Shwe Mann that ARSA has Islamic State links.
International support has been a factor in both conflicts. Indian military assistance for the Sri Lankan military campaign was crucial, especially in the final stages of the conflict, often called “Eelam War Four.”
Indian intelligence support allowed Sri Lankan forces to interdict LTTE supply ships far offshore and isolate the LTTE in a series of kill corridors with no escape along the area’s northeastern coastline, assaults that were bolstered by air strikes from Israel-supplied jets.
The Sri Lankan army eventually boxed in over 200,000 civilians being used as human shields by the LTTE and pounded them with heavy artillery: over 40,000 civilians were believed killed by both sides during this bloody end.
The Myanmar army has gradually introduced more Russian-supplied helicopter gunships and foreign-acquired heavy artillery, increasing the firepower directed at rebels, but often also affecting civilians and the many internally displaced people (IDP) settlements in vulnerable positions.
Heavy firepower was not deployed against the Rohingya, however: that “clearance operation” was labor intensive, with widespread reports of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, torture and arson by troops and paramilitary police and auxiliaries, rather than the use of artillery and airpower. Still, some aid groups estimate several thousand civilians were killed over the period of just a few months.
Another lesson from Sri Lanka is the military twisting of humanitarian terminology. At Orr’s Military Museum in the coastal town of Trincomalee, huge information billboards cast the final months of the conflict as “humanitarian operations” against “terrorists.” They purposefully avoid any mention of mass civilian casualties, in the cynically termed “no fire zones” of Mullaitivu.
In the ongoing fighting in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state, the armed forces, or Tatmadaw, have distributed leaflets calling on civilians to return so they can be assisted to rebuild their homes.
The flyers state that their “clearance operation” is only aimed at the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and that officials wanted to help IDPs trapped by the conflict. Military officials have claimed credit in state media for rescuing trapped IDPs that the Tatmadaw themselves trapped.
This hasn’t in any way fooled Myanmar and international aid workers. Calls have intensified for an end to the hostilities and a resumption of unfettered humanitarian assistance to conflict areas.
Like Sri Lanka, Myanmar is increasingly invoking counterterrorism rhetoric to justify its security response in Rakhine. It has formally designated ARSA a terrorist organization (the only group to be so officially termed under the 2014 Anti-Terrorism Law) and selectively uses labels of “terrorists” against long-standing EAO’s to generate public fear against rebels and drive civilian support for the Tatmadaw.
The final stage of Sri Lanka’s war saw government troops and police more highly trained and better equipped than ever before, while the LTTE had become more brutal in its forced recruitment and repression of the ethnic Tamil population (and against minority Muslims in a series of murderous pogroms).
The media and aid organizations, including the United Nations, were forced out of the Vanni to ensure as few international eye witnesses as possible. The UN’s controversial role in standing by during the final months of Sri Lanka’s war now has echoes in Myanmar.
An investigation by former UN official Charles Petrie, who was expelled from Myanmar in late 2007 after several years as the head of the country team, reported numerous failings of the UN in Sri Lanka at senior levels.
The report’s findings led to the “Rights Up Front” policy of the UN, a rights-based approach that was useful for dealing with growing tensions in Rakhine state after the communal violence of 2012.
Instead, the UN leadership in Myanmar ignored multiple warnings amid shrinking humanitarian space in Rakhine state, and in the aftermath of the August 25 attacks were denounced by the government as being sympathetic supporters of terrorism.
The diplomatic lessons learnt is to either ignore the West, or in the case of the United States in Sri Lanka, give a tacit nod to pursuing a violent military endgame strategy. The rapid downward spiral of relations with the US, UK and UN over the Rakhine violence and perceived betrayal of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi as a human rights icon radically transformed Naypyidaw’s worldview.
An unspoken pact between civilian and military governments rejected all rights based reports, diplomatic pressure and calls for accountability, mounting a neo-populist campaign of jingoistic rejection of all Western criticism.
One significant lesson is the role played by China. Sri Lanka, unable to pay back the massive loans it borrowed from Chinese state-owned enterprises, recently signed a deal to lease the Chinese constructed southern port of Hambantota to China for 99 years.
Northern Colombo is now being transformed by a new Chinese land reclamation project for a port extension. The bill for China’s diplomatic, economic and military support for Naypyidaw after the Rohingya crisis will undoubtedly be steep. Future Myanmar generations will likely be in debt to China’s ambitious and expensive infrastructure expansion plans and probably persistent isolation from the West.
Sri Lanka also illustrates how pressure from the UN may continue but its intense attention dissipates with time and how the internal dynamics of the UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC) can be cynically manipulated to demonstrate some progress on addressing past abuses as actual promises to do more.
Recently, 3,500 rehabilitated LTTE cadres employed by the government’s Civil Security Department appealed to President Maithripala Sirisena to visit them, saying they had the answer to continued pressure from the UN’s HRC in Geneva to demonstrate their reintegration into Sinhalese society.
Efforts since 2009 to investigate the crimes on both sides resulted in the HRC’S Sri Lanka Report in September 2015, which found a “horrific level of violations and abuses” by both sides between 2002 to 2011, and rejected any argument that a purely domestic investigation could address these abuses. It called for a hybrid court to be established.
Over two years later, the Sirisena government’s commitment to a good governance and reconciliation agenda has cooled as political infighting has intensified, with the imminent political return of the unpunished architect of the 2009 Sri Lanka endgame, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
For those calling for investigations into abuses in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and its small number of low-level prosecutions for war crimes, while the main perpetrators enjoy total impunity, should be a reality check on just how daunting it is to achieve real justice after mass crimes.
Sri Lanka is not studied much among Myanmar’s “peace-industrial complex” as a comparative case study. But it should be, especially as fighting in Kachin state intensifies, more civilians are displaced and the West, especially the international media, seems concerned only with Rohingya Muslim-related stories.
This was evident in the recent visit by the UN Security Council to Bangladesh and Myanmar, a visit which failed to publicly mention any concern for civilians displaced in Myanmar’s northern and eastern fighting. That silence came despite recent concerns about the plight of IDPs aired by UN resident coordinator Knut Osby, the US Embassy in Yangon, the European Union ambassador and the UN’s own Special Rapporteur to Myanmar Yanghee Lee.
The UN Security Council worryingly gave Myanmar two options for accountability for recent rights abuses: either an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation or a domestic inquiry, which would be limited considering the official narrative is still one of denial.
The council’s permanent representatives also failed to publicly mention the HRC’s mandated Fact Finding Mission (FFM), which will present its report on the Rakhine violence, and other reports of abuses in northern Myanmar since 2011, in September.
Meanwhile, the same squalid playbook of repression used by Sri Lanka is now being used in Myanmar. That includes the use of colonial era laws to target dissent, although in Sri Lanka during the war journalists were murdered, in Myanmar they’re arrested and charged to intimidate others, seen in the case of the the two detained Reuters’ journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
Facebook has been a facilitator for spreading religious and ethnic hatred and incitement to violence, and there are large Buddhist monk-led anti-Muslim movements in both countries, as seen recently in violence against Muslims in the town of Kandy in highland Sri Lanka and for several years throughout Myanmar.
Covering up mass crimes has a brutally simplistic checklist: Consistent denials wedded to patience and tied to promises of development, ideally facilitated by Chinese diplomatic cover and financial largesse. Those are the main ingredients of the Sri Lanka Model, though they come at a huge cost and the reek of mass crimes never really goes away.
That is the path to impunity Sri Lanka traveled and the one Myanmar appears to be following.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst