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Be it Shavendra Silva or Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s love for ‘war criminals’ runs deep

Sirisena’s appointment of Shavendra Silva as Army commander looks like a well-timed political manoeuvre ahead of presidential vote.

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Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has appointed Shavendra Silva as commander of the Sri Lanka Army. Silva is a tarnished character and an alleged war criminal who led an army division against the rebel Tamil Tigers. The move is merely the latest reminder that the island nation is a land of impunity where perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions.

Major General Silva was also promoted in January this year, when he became the Sri Lanka Army’s Chief of Staff. The move rightfully drew significant international criticism.

Widespread, justified condemnation

Shavendra Silva’s latest appointment has sparked sharp disapproval. In a press release, the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) said that the Sri Lankan President’s decision “is immensely damaging to the country and marks the end of any reconciliation process”.

In a detailed dossier published earlier this year, the ITJP noted that “Shavendra Silva was arguably the most important frontline ground Commander in the 2008-9 War in Sri Lanka, in which a United Nations investigation found reasonable grounds to say international crimes were committed”.

In a statement, the US embassy in Colombo noted that Washington was “deeply concerned” about the appointment, which “undermines Sri Lanka’s international reputation and its commitments to promote justice and accountability, especially at a time when the need for reconciliation and social unity is paramount”.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has also criticised the decision.

Also read: Why ‘war criminal’ Silva as army chief has the world riled up but Sri Lanka isn’t bothered

Domestic political imperatives

Silva’s appointment comes as Sri Lanka gears for its next set of national elections. While the presidential vote is expected in November or December, the parliamentary election is due in 2020.

Sirisena has been politically weak virtually throughout his presidency. After the last year’s attempted coup – when he tried to unconstitutionally install Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister – his reputation has been further tainted. The president tried to align with Rajapaksa because he was thinking about what he’ll do after his presidency.

Sirisena would like to contest for the presidency this year, but there’s little space for him to do so. And, even if he were to run again, he would have no chance of winning. It would make more sense for his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to align with the Rajapaksa-backed Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP). Gotabaya Rajapaksa, also an alleged war criminal, was officially announced as the SLPP’s presidential candidate on 11 August and remains the favourite to win the election. The SLPP has been in talks with Sirisena’s SLFP about forming an alliance. But let’s be clear, it’s an alliance that Sirisena and his party need far more than the SLPP.

Also read: A Rajapaksa for President. For Sri Lanka that has seen so much tragedy, it’s time to panic

Sirisena’s calculated move

Maithripala Sirisena betrayed the Rajapaksas when he contested for the presidency in 2015. The president may fear for his own safety if the Rajapaksas return to power, considering how he hasn’t really made amends. Even if it seems the president has truly repaired his relationship with the Rajapaksas, Sirisena still has good reason to worry. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his allies haven’t forgotten about Sirisena’s colossal betrayal about five years ago.

On the one hand, Sirisena’s appointment of Silva as the army commander looks like a well-timed political manoeuvre. On the other hand, promoting alleged war criminals since the conclusion of the civil war is just something that the Sri Lankan government does. Appointments of this nature are widely popular with Sinhalese people, the country’s overwhelming ethnic majority. The Tamil National Alliance has, quite unsurprisingly, criticised the appointment.

The US statement rings especially hollow since Washington has spent the past several years ramping up bilateral security cooperation with Colombo while failing to pressure the coalition government to undertake meaningful security sector reform. The US has unwittingly encouraged these promotions by sending clear signals to Sirisena and company that Sri Lanka need not reform its security sector urgently, if at all.

Also read: By giving a ‘war criminal’ the top Army post, Sri Lanka proves Tamil lives don’t matter

Less hope of change

The Sri Lankan military is a rotten institution that will remain shrouded in highly credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the foreseeable future. To be sure, undertaking comprehensive security sector reform would be a significant endeavour that would take some time. However, ten years after the conclusion of a brutal civil war, the social and political atmosphere in Sri Lanka are obviously headed in the wrong direction.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa – who served as secretary to the Ministry of Defence from 2005 to 2015 – is the favourite to win the country’s forthcoming presidential election. The military’s rank and file would love to see the return of the Rajapaksas. Yet, even if Gotabaya doesn’t ascend to the presidency, Sri Lanka won’t stop pampering its alleged war criminals anytime soon.

The author is an Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert. Views are personal.

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