Civil liberties in times of war – the American experience Part 1
Posted on April 11th, 2014

H. L. D. Mahindapala

“I’ll keep them in prison for a while to keep them from killing  the Government” ” Abraham Lincoln, the greatest maker of American history, commenting on the imprisoned Coles County rioters (not to mention 13,000 other dissenters) during the American Civil War (1861 -1865).

The American Ambassadress, Michele Sisson, has come out fighting, throwing punches with both fists, at press conferences in particular, to defend America’s moves against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. Initially Sri Lanka was accused of failing to combat terrorism on the norms that would please “the international community” (read: the West dominated by USA). In the third successive resolution moved in  2014 against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, America has piled up new charges questioning the conduct of the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) in the post-war period.

America entered the ring to lead the attack on Sri Lanka after the EU-led resolution against Sri Lanka failed in 2009. The war ended in May 18, 2009 and following the lead set by EU, the UNHRC High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, made her move to charge Sri Lanka with violations of international humanitarian and  human rights law in fighting terrorism.

She moved in hastily even before the smoke of gun fire in Nandikadal evaporated. Her move astounded the Sri Lankans who had hardly any time to pick up the pieces and put their lives together again at the end of a 33-year-old war. Sri Lankans were at the receiving end of the longest war in Asia and when the UNHRC attacked them in the very first days of peace they felt like the proverbial man who was gored by a silly cow the minute after he fell from a tree. It was the last thing that the war-weary Sri Lankans expected. The totally unwarranted attack  on the Sri Lankans was puzzling. They were wondering how Pillay managed to launch a frontal attack on Sri Lankan within eight days of ending a 33-year-old war without any official report, study, survey, substantial evidence, etc., available to justify her one-sided attack. She came roaring in to the UNHRC chamber plucking accusations from the air.

Some aspects of the story of Navi Pillay’s anti-Sri Lankan role have been highlighted by me earlier and more will be examined later. Right now the focus is on Michelle Sisson who is making a desperate bid to justify America’s move against Sri Lanka. She argues, quite blithely, that it was done for the good of Sri Lanka. Her kind of benevolence makes Sri Lankans feel that Cinderella had a bett4r deal from her cruel step-mother than from the self-proclaimed fairy god-mother heading the American diplomatic mission in Colombo. Her idea that the anti-Sri Lankan resolution was done for the good of Sri Lankans is comparable to the good that is done to the millions of turkeys on America’s Thanksgiving Day.

Consider, for instance, the scenario confronting Sri Lanka as a result of America’s largesse. First America goes all out to hammer Sri Lanka at the UNHRC with all its might and then claims that the beating was for  the good of Sri Lanka. If there is one  nation in the world that should understand and empathize with the historical circumstances facing Sri Lanka  it is America. Both nations share a common history in combatting secessionist violence. A comparative study will reveal that the historical events ran on parallel lines confirming the threadbare maxim that history, wherever it happens, is a never-ending cycle running in the same groove.

The secessionist war was the bloodiest war fought by Americans. Historians estimate that 625,000 American died in the five-year war between the North and South. No other war fought by Americans has claimed that many lives. As in any other war Abraham Lincoln had no alternative but to fight it with either curbing and/or violating civil liberties. On one critical occasion he even defied and ignored a ruling given by the Chief Justice, Roger Taney. At the height of the raging war, Republican Abraham Lincoln, the illustrious icon of American history, was even branded as “Dictator Lincoln” by his Democratic opponents.

There are, of course, some variations in the two secessionist wars. In America it was the South that wanted to break away from the North. In Sri Lanka it was the North that took up arms to break away from the South. In America it was the established 11 Southern states that broke away from the national Union of states. In Sri Lanka it was a group of mono-ethnic extremists who took up arms  against the democratically elected nation-state of Sri Lanka. On one occasion the old colonial master, Britain, threatened to intervene in the American Civil War but it didn’t. In Sri Lanka Indian interventions were direct and disastrous. They trained. equipped and financed the Tamil terrorists to destabilize Sri Lanka.  The Civil War lasted five years, from 1861 ” 1865. The North-South conflict in Sri Lankan, seen as the longest running war in Asia, lasted 33-years, starting from the declaration of war in the Vadukoddai Resolution, May 14, 1976 to May 18, 2009, when it ended on the banks of Nandikadal.

Despite these and other differences, in the main the two secessionist wars ran on surprisingly parallel lines raising the identical issues that plagued both nations. The initial defeats, the failure of the first crop of generals, collapse of peace talks, the fascist oppressive ideology of Southern slave owners, the initial move to secede and their provocative violence, etc., resonate in the North-South conflict in Sri Lanka.

Lincoln also faced the issue of fighting a separatist war within a democratic framework without violating civil liberties, if possible. Civilized democratic societies threatened by secessionist violence are not supposed to defend the nations and their historical values using the same tactics of the secessionists who resort to excessive terrorist violence. As stated in the American-led UNHRC resolution, the accusation was not leveled against Sri Lanka because she fought a war against terrorism. The UNHRC  had no qualms about it whatsoever. In fact, the West and India helped to some extent in crushing the Tamil Tiger terrorists. Sri Lanka. however, was accused of using the wrong methodologies to crush the terrorists.

This accusation is a bit rich coming from nations which, when threatened by terrorist violence, proclaimed loudly to the world that in the fight against terror “the rules of the game have changed” — Tony Blair, Prime Minister of UK,  reacting viscerally to the terrorists blowing up double-decker buses in London in 7/7/2005.. “Changing  the rules of the game” President George Bush not only introduced the Patriot Act that curtailed liberties but also invented a new legal vocabulary to legitimize the suppression of civil liberties in post-9/11 period. Rendition and Guantanamo Bay in USA and the killing of an innocent Brazilian by the Police in the streets of London were some of the consequences of the rules changed in the West.

In combatting perceived or real threats to their national security the West has never failed to justify their extreme and excessive violence in the name of defending their security and democratic values. They dropped WMDs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Agent Orange in Vietnam, or unleashed drones in Afghanistan, all in the name of protecting the “free world” and its democratic values. Dates like 9/11 in America and 7/7 in UK were used hysterically to introduce draconian measures to protect national security and preserve traditional values. ” Changing the rules” ” a euphemism for curbing and/or denying civil liberties — were hailed as legitimate and democratic responses to terrorist violence. There is no doubt that the rules had to be changed. The irony is that the West was given the right to “change the rules” and act on those rules to defend historical necessities but not Sri Lanka.

What comes to mind instantly is the double standards which have been hacked ad nauseam. I prefer to look at it from a slightly different angle. What should be taken note of is the failure of the plethora of political pundits, think-tanks, media and other outlets of the West to measure, understand and judge violence arising from their own historical circumstances  before imposing their self-serving standards to other nations going through similar/identical historical processes. The West tends to dictate terms to the rest by invoking pure and puritanical standards derived from the higher values in the desirable “ought” of the future, brushing aside conveniently the bitter and bloody passage of “realities” through which they emerged to shape and determine the destinies of their nations. What “ought” to be always contain an appeal to those who are repelled by the grim “realities” of the past. But history which gives the illusion of perpetually moving away from its antecedents into a new and pure future is always sucked in by the unrelenting gravity of the bloody past. George Bush reacted to 9/11 by curbing and denying fundamental rights in very much the same way as Abraham Lincoln fought the American Civil War. And President Obama who promised to create a new path in the exercise of American power has killed more civilians than his immediate predecessor, Bush.

What is less known about Abraham (“the government of the people, by the people and for the people”) Lincoln is that he suspended habeas corpus, allowed the army to open fire on dissenters, allowed his army to imprison anyone, including the Mayor of Baltimore for any length of time without trial,  jailed newspaper editors, some newspapers were shut down, taken over or intimidated, disregarded and overruled the judiciary, used military tribunals to try civilians even though civil courts were open, etc. The Editor of Dubuque Herald was arrested for publishing an article against the draft. The Union and Confederate armies both engaged in scorched earth policies against in each other’s territories.

What would UNHRC say about Abraham Lincoln if it was functioning in the 19th Century? If, for instance, an ambassador of Confederate Southern states, visited the North like the way Michelle Sisson visited the North and posed beside a slogan of the North would Lincoln’s administration have reacted as if it was a friendly act of trying to help the nation? Would a Navy Pillay looking at the corpses of 625,000 dead on both sides say that though Lincoln had the right to suppress separatism he shouldn’t have used the tactics that violated international humanitarian law? If the former colonial master, Britain, decided to intervene saying that Lincoln was exceeding acceptable norms would Michelle Sisson say that it was a move to help America as a friend?

This is not a factor raised to diminish the achievements and stature of Abraham Lincoln. I admire him and understand the political circumstances that pressured him to reduce the civil liberties of his people. Like any other great leader he was a creature of the historical circumstances of his time. Despite his idealism he did what any leader of a nation committed to protect the national boundaries within a democratic framework would do. His argument was simple but compelling: “I’ll keep them (dissenters) in prison for a while to keep them from killing  the Government.” His commitment was to prevent the dissolution of the Union. And his argument against Chief Justice, Roger, was that if the Union was dissolving “are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted and the government itself to go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”

To Lincoln the greatest law was in saving the borders of the Union. Every other law was a lesser law. He was prepared to suspend, ignore or deny the lesser laws for the greater law. He was not propounding a revolutionary doctrine in saying this, He was merely recognizing, articulating and executing the inescapable law that governs other nations. What Abraham Lincoln did in his time is continued by President Obama on a larger scale. He sits down every Tuesday in his operations room with his apparatchiks and decides who should live and should die without due process. He even orders drones to hunt down his perceived enemies in pursuit of the security of Americans.

The difference is this: If Sri Lanka defends its borders using the Lincolnist /Obamaist principles she will be  hauled up before UNHRC by America. If America pursues Lincolnist / Obamaist principles it is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

America achieved its greatness only because Abraham Lincoln was a benevolent “dictator”. It was his decision to curtail the civil liberties that liberated the slaves and made America the land of the free. He was even elected for the second term in the middle of the war after he was branded as the “dictator”. People trusted him than his carping critics who went into the dustbin while Abraham Lincoln moved up the scale of public opinion to capture the center stage in the evolving history of America.

Is there a lesson in all this for Ambassadress Michelle Sisson to report back to Washington?


(To be continued)


11 Responses to “Civil liberties in times of war – the American experience Part 1”

  1. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    Minor correction: 625 thousand Soldiers (not Americans) and a further estimated 400 thousand civilians. The infamous “General Sherman’s march to the Sea” when the Union General Sherman and his battalion of soldiers created a swath of total destruction that was 20 miles wide and 200 miles long. During that “scorch earth” policy not a single Southern city, town, farm land, people, livestock were spared. The infamous “burning of Atlanta” highlighted in the Hollywood movie “Gone with the Wind” is but one of many Confederate cities leveled to the ground.

  2. Lorenzo Says:

    SL badly needs a Lincoln type dictator who would destroy the minority racism and impose majority rule.

    MR is NOT the one.

  3. R.M.W Says:

    How about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who incrassated Patriotic Americans of Japanese ethnicity during WWII and mind you; not Americans of Germen dissent!

  4. Lorenzo Says:


    “Top LTTE suspects Kajeepan Ponniah Selvanayagam alias Gopi and Sundaralingam Kajeepan alias Thevian have been confirmed as being among those killed in the clash between armed forces and suspected LTTE operatives last night in Nedunkerny area of Vavuniya.

    The suspected LTTE suspects were attempting to escape from an Army cordon at the time of the clash, the Army Spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya stated.

    Defence authorities have been searching for Kajeepan Ponniah Selvanayagam alias Gopi which culminated in the clash in which three LTTE suspects were killed. While two of them have been confirmed as Gopi and Thevian the third victim is suspected to be LTTE operative Appan.

    Gopi was suspected by armed forces to be heading an attempt to revive the LTTE in Sri Lanka while search operations were being implemented to locate him.”


  5. Christie Says:

    Come on, wake up and see who is behind all these. It is India, Indian colonial parasites and vermin behind all these. The West itself are victims.

  6. Fran Diaz Says:

    India like any other country, will protect itself. India’s Faultlines of Caste & the North/South Dravidian divide are being USED by outside sources for their own gains (see book ‘Breaking India’ : Malhotra/Neelakandan).

    Same with Sri Lanka : Any inherent fault lines within Lanka will be used by outside elements for their own gains. To grow peacefully, Sri Lankans have to close ranks.

    Sri Lanka, India & America were all Colonies of Britain. In addition, Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese and the Dutch.

    Re America’s Civil War : The American South used Black Slavery to gain high economic power. The Civil War there was to unify the States of America, and on high moral grounds to liberate the Black slaves.

    In the Sri Lanka issue, didn’t the Tamils of the North (and Tamils and others in the rest of the country as well) gain liberation from LTTE terrorism ? This fact has gone unrecognized and unacknowledged by the UN and the powers that be in the world.

  7. AnuD Says:

    USA has a Debt of Hundred billion dollar (at kennedy reign) to Indonesia. (in gold bullion)

    USA ensure Indonesia secure in asia, even they put
    indonesian as their president (Obama aka Barry Soetoro)

    If indonesia by any chance want their gold back USA will be broke

  8. Ananda-USA Says:


    One correction to your comment: Sri Lanka was never colonized in its ENTIRETY by any European country other than Britain.

    The Portuguese and the Dutch controlled only areas dominated largely by coastal forts that could be supplied by their ships. Every attempt they made to invade and occupy the interior, especially the Kanda Uda Rata rajadhaniya, failed disastrously with entire armies 5000 to 10,000 strong annihilated. It did not matter whether they were Portuguese (1505-1656), Dutch (1656-1796) or even the British (1796-1818) … they suffered the same fate. The roll call of battlefield victories are a myriad: Danture’, Ambatenna, Randeniwela, Gannoruwa, Mulleriyawa, Mahanuwara, The message was: you can come here but you will not leave, your blood and your bones will enrich the soil of our motherland.

    Only the British succeeded in gaining control of the entire country (on that Day of Infamy, March 4, 1815), largely due to the treachery of Sinhala Chiefs who were unhappy serving a king of Tamil descent. Prior to that, even the British lost several armies that attempted to conquer the Kanda Uda Rata rajadhaniya, founded by the military and organizational genius Konappu Bandara, later to be crowned as King Wimala Dharma Suriya.

    For 310 years (1505-1815) since the arrival of the Portuguese at Kotte, the tiny Sovereign Nation of Sri Lanka somehow survived through its military genius and political skills without having a Navy to permanently defeat the invaders and carry the war to their enemies’ homes, as in the days of kings Vijayabhahu and Maha Parakramabahu.

    This 400 years of resistance is WITHOUT PARALLEL in the record of Modern Colonialism. No other country has successfully resisted the voracious greed of the European Colonialsts so successfully, for so long.

    It is not without reason that the Portuguese Viceroy of Portugal’s Colonies in the East wrote from Goa in India to the King of Portugal recommending abandonment of Sri Lanka and requesting military withdrawal from Sri Lanka because it was UNPROFITABLE and was costing Portugal more in blood and treasure than all of Portugal’s other colonial possessions COMBINED. This document is in the Royal Archives in Lisbon, Portugal.

    Those Sri Lankan leaders who confronted the European Colonialists from Konappu Bandara onwards, coped with insurmountable odds, and developed a largely GUERILLA strategy to cope with the superior firepower of the invaders. Their kingdom was at the mercy of an enemy who was supplied from abroad. The enemy’s own safe havens were beyond reach for victories gained in the battlefield to be of lasting benefit, while our people were ousted from their homes and livelihoods every few years, their homes burnt, livestock killed, farmland devastated, fruit and coconut trees cut down .. it was total war sustained over 3 centuries.

    Sri Lanka’s struggle against Tamil Terrorists supported by foreigners over the last 30 years, and the continuing political/economic struggle against them today, while they remain beyond reach in safe havens in Western countries, to my mind, is CONTINUATION of Sri Lanka’s fight for survival over that 400 year period against European invader, having some similar characteristics of fighting an enemy not completely within our reach, and having to establish alliances with foreign countries to offset foreign enemies. In doing so, we should bear in mind King Rajasingha’s experience in “exchanging ginger for pepper” when he used the Dutch to oust the Portuguese from Lanka.

  9. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    Just a correction German Americans were also put in concentration camps. Not to the level of the Japanese. So were Italian Americans. The biggest lynching that occurred in US history was in New Orleans when 11 Italians were lynched in 1891.

    What happened to the Japanese that made it stand out was not only were they put in concentration camps but all their property was stolen by the neighbors. their lands were expropriated. When they were taken to the camps they were given short notice and only allowed to bring the basic necessities. When they were released from the camps they had nothing to go back to. Their homes were occupied, their personal artifacts stolen, their lands taken.

    My supervisor when I worked at U.C Berkeley was a Japanese woman who when she was a girl was incarcerated in those camps. Under President Reagan all surviving Japanese from those camps were compensated 20 thousand each. Japanese who were not put in camps (there were many who also served in the military during that time) did not get any compensation. My supervisor got that compensation. But one thing that happened to her mindset due to that. she never partook in any elections in her life.

  10. Fran Diaz Says:


    Agree with you that the British imposed colonial rule over all of Lanka whilst the other colonists occupied mainly the coastal areas.


    Re what happened in the last days of the Kingdom of Kandy :

    In Punchibanda Dolapihilla’s book “Last days of Kandy” in the ‘Mathaka Katha’ of the Upcountry area, it is revealed that the actual treachery came from Chief Adigar Pilimathalawe who was very ambitious to ascend the Throne, one way or another. He consorted with the same Tamil courtesan as the King. The small boy the courtesan had called Pilimathalawe ‘Atha’. When King Rajasingha II died in an ‘accident’ when riding his horse, Pilimathalawe put the boy on the Throne pretending he was the king’s son. This boy king grew up tutored by Pilimathalawe. The British sent to the Pretender king ‘gifts’ of whisky and in his drunken rages, the boy king ordered many cruel acts such as the killing of the Ehelepola family. These acts made him feared and unpopular among the court members and brought about the betrayal of the Pretender king to the British.

    The ripple effect of this act of treachery by Pilimathalawe is felt to this day in Sri Lanka.

  11. Fran Diaz Says:

    Colonisation, Cold War,and Tamil Caste Wars have proved to be the ‘enemy’ of Lanka to this day. Closing ranks within Lanka a must. The masses of Lanka have to realize that we have to stand together, all Sri Lankans, to make life and survival work out well for all Sri Lankans.

    Make sure that the law of the land is upheld. Why is it that all the trashy elements, drug lords, terrorists, of the region are allowed to end up in Sri Lanka, coming mainly from Tamil Nadu, Maldives and Pakistan ?

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