Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, War Crimes


What is the definition of a traitor? A traitor is usually defined as someone who betrays his or her country. But this definition leaves out the question of what, exactly, constitutes betrayal. Recently, the term has been used of journalists and human rights defenders who talk or write about  human rights violations and war crimes in Sri Lanka, especially if they are accused of making these allegations to the international community. It was also used of Sarath Fonseka, because he offered to give evidence to an international war crimes tribunal about the last stages of the war against the LTTE.

The argument is that in attempting to defeat a dreaded terrorist organisation, a government needs to have full freedom of action. Therefore, criticising the government for any actions taken in pursuit of that goal amount to treachery, since they assist the dreaded terrorists to get away with their assault on the nation. This argument was used not only during the war against the LTTE, but even after it ended. It is not clear exactly what threat faces the nation today, but any criticism of the Rajapaksa regime or challenge to its power is seen as a threat to the nation which warrants strong action against the ‘traitors’ who are responsible for it.

If we go back approximately twenty years, we see a very similar scenario. The state was fighting the JVP, which was at that time a dreaded terrorist organisation. The government wanted full freedom of action in doing so, and the result was arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, and extra-judicial killings. Anyone who criticised the UNP government and president then in power suffered the same fate as thousands of innocent civilians picked up and killed without any judicial process. Media freedom, human rights and democracy were under lethal attack.

At that time too there were alleged ‘traitors’ who collected evidence of these war crimes, took them to the international community, and campaigned against the government that perpetrated them. One of them was Mahinda Rajapaksa, at that time an opposition politician, who submitted such evidence to the UN Human Rights Commission. He told parliament he was prepared to go to any lengths to defend human rights. He even called on donors to link aid to human rights! Was this a terrible attack on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty? A slimy act of ratting on the rulers who were fighting terrorism?

Mahinda Rajapaksa defended himself most eloquently from such charges. He claimed that he did what he was doing out of love for his country, and many of us sympathised with this claim. We agreed with him that establishing the truth and fighting for justice for innocent victims of state terror was a moral imperative for all of us who loved our country.

Back to the present. Those who support Mahinda Rajapaksa now need to get their story straight. If journalists who expose the truth and human rights defenders who try to get justice for innocent victims of state terror are ‘traitors’, if Sarath Fonseka is a ‘traitor’ for offering to ‘rat’ on his former commander-in-chief on the matter of war crimes, then Mahinda Rajapaksa too is a veteran ‘traitor’, and they should not be supporting him. Conversely, if Mahinda Rajapaksa’s battle for human rights and against war crimes twenty-odd years ago, both within Sri Lanka and in the international community, was an expression of his love for his country, then they must concede that the same love drives journalists and human rights defenders who risk their lives fighting for truth, justice and good governance in our country.

Sarath Fonseka is a special case, since there is good reason to believe that he too has committed war crimes. But that is not the charge on which he has been arrested and for which he is being tried, for the obvious reason that such a trial would unearth evidence of war crimes by his erstwhile bosses too. The baseless accusations hurled against him at the time of his arrest, which had to be dropped because there was no evidence for them, say more about the accusers than about him. Given that he (unlike the president) risked his life to lead his soldiers on the battlefield in the war against the LTTE, and (again unlike the president) sustained serious and permanent injuries inflicted by the LTTE, the charge that he is a ‘traitor’ seems particularly bizarre. Especially if his act of ‘betrayal’ is his offer to do what Mahinda Rajapksa has actually done in the past!

So who are the traitors? Those who fight for truth and justice? Or those who wield unaccountable power and the sycophants who lick their boots? Who are the people who love our country? Those who trample human rights and democracy underfoot? Or those who struggle for the democratic rights and freedoms guaranteed by our constitution? Whatever your definition, at least make sure it is consistent!

[Editors note: This article appears in Sinhala on Vikalpa here.]