AFTER days of shelling during which untold numbers of diehard loyalists and unfortunate civilians were traumatised, maimed and killed, the despised dictator was cornered like an exhausted fox at the end of the hunt. How he took the bullet that killed him was disputed—in crossfire, the confusion of battle, or in what amounted to an execution. But so what? It was kinder than the lingering, agonising death he deserved and he was better dead than alive. Whoever pulled the trigger should be counted a hero, not investigated as a war-criminal. This was a time for rejoicing: a war over at last, and one of the great villains of the past half-century rendered incapable of causing further cruelty.
The death of Velupillai Prabhakaran in May 2009 marked the definitive victory of the Sri Lankan army in a war that had dragged on for 26 years and entailed the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. He ran his fief of “liberated” Sri Lanka with an iron fist, systematically wiping out his ethnic-Tamil opponents, as he commandeered a monopoly on Tamil resentment at rule by a Sri Lankan government dominated by ethnic Sinhalese. Prabhakaran’s Tamil Tigers were pioneers of suicide-bombing, and notorious for the cyanide pills they wore as an alternative to capture and torture. He waged terror overseas, notably in India, where his agents assassinated a former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991. And Tamil expatriates around the world were bullied and frightened into providing him with finance.
Yet the end of the war in Sri Lanka was marked by little of the celebratory tone that has marked some of the reporting of the death of Muammar Qaddafi this month. A few days before the Sri Lankan army’s final victory, President Barack Obama had called on it to stop using heavy weaponry in civilian areas. And when victory came, there was almost immediate condemnation of the tactics the Sri Lankan army had used in the final months of the war; calls for war-crimes inquiries predated the last battle, and persist to this day. Over Libya, there was no such call for restraint in the battle for Sirte, and on Qaddafi’s death, Mr Obama was quick to hail “the end of a long and painful chapter for the people of Libya”.
The assassination in Pakistan in May of Osama bin Laden, without the Pakistani government’s knowledge, let alone permission, and the Western-backed onslaught on Sirte which culminated in the death of Qaddafi leave an impression of double standards. Both men did great evil. Both deserved to face justice. But the way the American administration has, in one case, arranged their killing, and in both, reacted to their deaths, suggests that their crime was not to kill huge numbers of people. Rather, it was to kill—over Lockerbie, in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania—huge numbers of Americans. Of course, a different standard applies when you take on the superpower. But this superpower and its allies seek to assert their standards and values as universal.
Asia’s dictatorships have long taken this with a pinch of salt. In the most despotic of them all, North Korea, Kim Jong Il will have watched satellite footage, denied his people, of Qaddafi’s end, and thought: “There but for the grace of a minimal nuclear deterrent go I.” Whatever slim hope survived that Mr Kim might voluntarily dispose of his nuclear capability evaporated when the West swung its military might behind the anti-Qaddafi rebellion. Nor is Mr Kim likely to be tempted by ideas of political liberalisation. Why tinker with a formula—of utter repression—that has endured for more than six decades?
The generals in Myanmar, however, seem to have drawn the opposite lesson from the “Arab spring”. With a constitution in place that assures them of ultimate power—and that cannot be changed without their say-so—they are hastening to present at least the appearance of fundamental political change. They have relaxed some press restrictions, flouted the will of their ally China by suspending a big dam project, and charmed the leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, into contemplating the entry of her party into mainstream politics.
And the hypocrisy of the Western powers is not absolute. It is tempered by the accountability democracy brings. As Mr Perera notes, Western governments have been willing to have alleged abuses investigated. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary at the time, eventually took responsibility for American mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, calling it “inconsistent with the values of our nation”. Sri Lanka by contrast has tolerated no independent and credible inquiry into the end of its civil war. It matters far beyond the Middle East that the new order in Libya does so.