Sri Lanka: Canada sanctions a major setback for Rajapaksas

The Rajapaksas have not personally reacted yet, but they will be certainly wondering if Canada’s move will trigger similar effect in the Western world

Sri Lanka political unrest, Canadian sanctions and economic crisis
Most Sri Lankans across the ethnic and linguistic divides in the island nation blame the once all-powerful Rajapaksa clan for pauperizing Sri Lanka

Canada’s decision to sanction former Sri Lankan Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa over gross rights abuses in the war against the Tamil Tigers is a huge blow to the two men who were once the darling of the country’s majority Sinhalese community.

If Canada had acted a year ago, the Rajapaksas, firmly in power, would have brazened it out by arguing that they were being targeted by the West because they saved Buddhist Sri Lanka from “Tamil terrorism”.

Hated Rajapaksas

Their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (Sri Lanka People’s Front), now part of the government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, has taken that line again. But this will have fewer takers among the Sinhalese because the Rajapaksas are now hated figures on the streets although not completely politically isolated.

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Most Sri Lankans across the ethnic and linguistic divides in the island nation blame the once all-powerful Rajapaksa clan for pauperizing Sri Lanka and for forcing Colombo to virtually beg for economic survival.

The Rajapaksas have not personally reacted yet, but they will be certainly wondering if Canada’s move will trigger similar effect in the Western world.

Canadian move

In a dramatic decision, Canada on Tuesday announced sanctions against the Rajapaksa brothers as well as two former army officers for widespread rights abuses during the war against the now vanquished Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

According to human rights groups, thousands of innocent Tamil civilians besides combatants were slaughtered towards the end stages of the war that finally ended a quarter century of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka.

While Sri Lanka kept denying rights violations initially, there has been mounting evidence that government troops indulged in summary killings, even of Tamil Tigers who showed the white flag and surrendered, and indiscriminately bombed even the so-called safe zones and hospitals. Many others who surrendered or were arrested disappeared without trace.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President when the war against the LTTE ended while his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, formerly from the army, was the defence minister and the man who presided over the brutal offensive that crushed the LTTE.

LTTE founder leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed on May 18, 2009.

Joly’s statement

Canadian Foreign Minister Melaine Joly said on Tuesday that the other two Sri Lankans sanctioned were Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake and Lt Commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi.

Joly said the step was taken over the “gross and systematic violations of human rights during the armed conflict in Sri Lanka”.

The sanctions will effectively freeze any assets the four may hold in Canada, bar them from financial or related services and deem them inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Joly stated: “Over the past four decades, the people of Sri Lanka have suffered a great deal due to the armed conflict, economic and political instability, and gross violations of human rights.

“Canada is steadfast in its support to attain peace, reconciliation, justice and accountability on the island. Canada has taken decisive action today to end international impunity against violators of international law.”

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The minister said Canada was ready to support Sri Lanka’s path to peace, inclusion and prosperity through a process of accountability, reconciliation and human rights, including international assistance to address the domestic economic crisis.

Sunil Ratnayake was sentenced to death in 2015 for the murder of eight Tamils, including three children, in Mirusuvil town. But he was released in 2020 following a presidential pardon.

Hettiarachchi, alias ‘Navy Sampath’, has been blamed for the abduction and forced disappearance of 11 people, mainly Tamil. He was released on bail. All 11 were believed to have been murdered.

The Canadian foreign ministry accused Sri Lanka of taking “limited meaningful and concrete action to uphold its human rights obligations”.

Tamil diaspora welcomes move

While the Rajapaksas’ SLPP party denounced Ottawa, the Canadian move was predictably hailed by the Tamil diaspora.

Garry Anandasangaree, a Canadian MP, said the sanctions “were a clear sign that those who are responsible for violations of international human rights law will be held accountable”.

The US-based advocacy group People for Equality and Relief Lanka (PEARL) said the sanctions were a measure of public accountability “for the endemic impunity in Sri Lanka”.

The House of Commons in Canada, home to a mammoth number of Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, had last year unanimously passed a resolution declaring May 18 (the day Prabhakaran was killed) as Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day.

Eyes on US, UK

The Tamil diaspora is bound to put pressure on Western governments to follow up on Canada’s decision. It will be interesting to watch how the United States and Europe react.

The UK foreign ministry had a meeting with sections of the Tamil diaspora in London on January 5. Although there is no sympathy in the West for what the LTTE stood for, there is growing disgust over Colombo’s hesitancy to take meaningful action against those who waged war with absolute contempt for human rights.

Canada’s sanctions will indirectly strengthen the hands of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is dependent on the SLPP to remain in power. While the SLPP may fume over Ottawa, it will have to tread carefully vis-à-vis Wickremesinghe, who has announced his intention to pursue a path of reconciliation with the Tamils.

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