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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Death and Rebirth of the Sri Lanka Model

In the early part of this decade the phrase “the Sri Lanka model” gained popularity among both Sri Lanka watchers and influential figures in the security forces of nefarious regimes. It doesn’t get thrown around as much these days, but nor has it entirely disappeared. Meanwhile the ideas that inspired the term have certainly not gone away. In fact, they have developed in an unsavoury direction.

The Sri Lanka model is a powerful and dangerous template for counter-insurgency and conflict resolution, the profound wrongness of which has very serious consequences for human rights, peace, and security far beyond Sri Lanka’s borders.

Plaque water tank Killi

Defining the Sri Lanka model

The Sri Lanka model was most clearly defined by V.K. Shashikumar in an article in the Indian Defence Review, but various other formulations also exist. At its heart is the idea of using purely military means to defeat an armed insurgency, without any attempt at dialogue or a parallel track political process. It also approves of ruthlessness in the pursuit of that goal: the utter destruction of an armed opponent regardless of the cost to civilian life. In this respect the Sri Lanka model is neither new nor particularly sophisticated – Arnaud Amalric dealt with the Cathars in broadly the same fashion. However what differentiates the Sri Lanka model is that it seeks to accomplish this end whilst simultaneously escaping the opprobrium of the international community.

This is no easy task, and explaining how the Rajapaksa regime achieved it is beyond the scope of this article. In brief some of the aspects of the model included: co-opting the language of – and Western sympathy for – the ‘war on terror’; exploiting anti-Western feeling among sympathetic partners in the global South; demonising and de-legitimising the opponent (with an opponent who made that job easy); blurring the boundaries between armed combatants and the civilian population; ruthlessly controlling information and suppressing the media; and – above all – an astute public relations campaign based around the idea that Sri Lanka, a popular cultural and holiday destination to this day, just wasn’t “that sort of a place”.

A beach Sri Lanka

The Sri Lanka model was sold in a number of ways: in visits and briefings to representatives of countries such as Burma, Libya, Bangladesh, Thailand, Turkey, Nepal, Indonesia, and the Philippines, as well as via a series of defence seminars held in Galle and Colombo from 2011 onwards. These events would involve delegates from up to fifty countries. Much of the western world sent delegates. Those invited included the United States Defence Attaché in Colombo Lawrence Smith who used the occasion to give a speech about how the fog of war might excuse war crimes.

This was the most concerning facet of the Sri Lanka model. It did not consist entirely of geopolitical black sheep looking to touch up their reputation but also of those with a reputation to protect looking for tips on how to tackle insurgencies more robustly without taking the accompanying reputational hit. In other words, looking for a way in which they could behave more as the pariah states do, but without becoming pariah themselves.

The waning of the Sri Lanka model

The classic Sri Lanka model took three heavy blows over the last three years.

The first was a consequence of the series of documentary films by Channel 4 News (and later by filmmaker Callum Macrae in an independent capacity) which exposed to a global public the scale and nature of the mass atrocities perpetrated by the Sri Lankan Government. These films also derailed Sri Lanka’s public relations campaign. Hubris and miscalculation led the Sri Lankan Government to believe they could win a reputational slugging match with Channel 4. This also meant that they brought in the sluggers: the spotlight moved away from the Government’s urbane and sophisticated advocates, such as Dayan Jayatilleka, Chris Nonis, and Mahinda Samarasinghe with their nuanced (and mendacious) approach to public relations, and in their place thugs such as Sajin Vaas, Bandula Jayasekara and Rajpal Abeynayake were allowed free rein to use their bully tactics.

This went about as well as one would expect and led to the public relations disaster of the Commonwealth Summit. And the Government did not change course. Indeed, perhaps taking the view that public relations no longer mattered they started to develop a seeming blindness to public perception. They impeached the Chief Justice of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court on the day of Sri Lanka’s peer review at the UN Human Rights Council, and they arrested human rights activists in the middle of a session which was to discuss Sri Lanka.

The end result is that the public perception of Sri Lanka, which remained relatively favourable in the immediate aftermath of the war, has degraded considerably over the last few years.

The second blow was more subtle. It was driven by the UN Internal Review into Sri Lanka, the “Petrie” report, and continued in the many conversations that it triggered.

UN and Sri Lanka

The United Nations realised, belatedly, that it had fallen short in their handling of the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. In an eventually futile attempt to maintain agency access to the war-zone, most parts of the UN system held back on any significant criticism of the Sri Lankan Government’s conduct to the point where they became complicit in the tragedies that followed. This error was acknowledged in the report which led to the Secretary-General launching the “Human Rights Up Front” initiative. Sri Lanka has become one of the watchwords in the organisation for what not to do in conflict situations.

Of course it was not just the UN that sacrificed principle for access (and eventually ended up losing both). Some non-governmental and humanitarian organisations active in northern Sri Lanka made similar tradeoffs. There is evidence to suggest that here too Sri Lanka has become the case study for the pitfalls this can create.

Finally, while the path to justice for victims of war crimes has been slow and tortuous with no certainty that there is any end in sight, the Sri Lankan Government has been under a degree of international scrutiny for the last several years. From the report of Ban Ki-moon’s Panel of Experts, through three contested resolutions at the United Nations Human Rights Council (and the three subsequent High Commissioner’s reports), through to the UN “OISL” investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka, which will report in September, Sri Lanka has been pretty much constantly battling credible allegations of war crimes for over four years. Thus far it has avoided serious consequences for its actions, but the constant international scrutiny has started to have an effect on Sri Lanka’s international reputation.

Casualties in a typical day in Sri Lanka

A new Sri Lanka model

As a result some of the sheen has been taken off the Sri Lanka model. Sri Lanka still runs its defence seminars, but after a number of high profile campaigns they have become low key affairs, barely advertised and sparsely attended. The Sri Lankan military in general has adopted a far less rambunctious approach to public relations, and as very few bashful missionaries attract converts this has limited the further spread of the Sri Lanka model.

Defence seminar 2014

Occasionally the classic Sri Lanka model still rears its head. In a truly dreadful article for The Diplomat in April of this year Peter Layton, a former Group Captain in the Australian Air Force, rehashed Shashikumar’s argument, and went further still: arguing that utilitarian arguments can be invoked to permit war crimes and crimes against humanity.

However this piece was the exception. What is far more common is to see a new formulation of the model. The purpose now is no longer attempting to get away with human rights violations completely in the court of international public opinion, but rather to blur the lines of international human rights law to the point where the consequences lack bite and do not extend to legal action.

The main facet of this model is a fuzzing of the distinction between civilians and combatants, and a plea for a greater tolerance of collateral damage in the context of a messy asymmetric war against an enemy willing to use human shields. The doctrine of proportionality comes under particularly concentrated attack with an attempt to claim less and less proportional actions as being acceptable.

Vanni debris

This appeared to be the objective of a series of reports allegedly written by international legal experts and leaked by the Island newspaper early this year. Lawyers who have looked at these reports have been scathing of the arguments within, and were they ever to be published openly they would doubtless be torn apart by the academic legal community. But the aim of these arguments is not necessarily to convince entirely, certainly not to convince lawyers, but simply to muddy the waters a little. For, as we have seen on previous occasions, even the slightest lack of clarity will be eagerly seized upon as an excuse for inaction by an audience desperate for a reason not to act.

The future Sri Lanka model

This is very bad news anyone who has the misfortune to live in close proximity to an armed insurgency. The first 15 years of the 21st century suggest that this will be an era of many highly dispersed and fragmented wars. If these wars are fought with no regard for the distinction between civilian and combatant, and with an “anything goes” approach to proportionality, then it will be a bloody century indeed.

But this new Sri Lanka Model could well end up doing sovereign nations no favours either. We have yet to touch on the manner in which the Sri Lanka model has been applied to peacetime, and the Orwellian re-appropriation of terms such as “reconciliation” (with or without an accompanying “truth and”). However, few objective observers could listen to the views of the survivors of Sri Lanka’s civil war and conclude that Sri Lanka has found a sustainable peace.

The bloodshed of 2009 sits within a cyclical pattern of violence within Sri Lankan society with mass atrocities committed in 1958, 1971, 1977, 1983, 1987, and 1990 (twice), sitting alongside the four distinct stages of the Government-LTTE war. Nothing about what has happened since 2009 suggest that these cycles of violence have been broken, or that the root causes have been addressed.

The question of how long Sri Lanka’s conflict can remain frozen remains unanswered – and we must hope the timespan will be measured in decades rather than years – but when we have an answer, we may then know when to expect recurring explosions of violence in any other country self destructive enough to emulate the Sri Lanka Model.


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