clock menu more-arrow no yes

I’ve seen what happens when a president puts his opponent in jail. It’s bad.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

At Sunday night’s debate, Donald Trump twice threatened to throw Hillary Clinton in jail should he win the election. Putting Clinton in jail has been a recurring theme in Trump’s campaign: For months, lock her up has been a popular chant at Trump events — most notably at the Republican National Convention this summer.

Besides being illegal, that’s a really, really bad idea. I should know: I saw the same thing happen up close in Sri Lanka in 2010, when I was working as a reporter for a local English-language newspaper, the Sunday Leader.

I arrived in Sri Lanka in August 2009, just three months after the Sri Lankan government declared victory in its bloody, 26-year-long counterinsurgency against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a Tamil separatist group that pioneered the use of suicide bombers in the 1980s. Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was being hailed across the country as a national hero for finally crushing the much-hated separatists.

Although he had several years left in his term, Rajapaksa called an early presidential election shortly after I joined the paper, confident that he could cruise to an easy victory. That’s when an unexpected challenger emerged — Gen. Sarath Fonseka, Sri Lanka’s top military leader, who nursed a personal vendetta against the president for, as he saw it, hogging all the credit for the victory.

The election turned into a mudslinging campaign every bit as vicious as the current US presidential contest. Gen. Fonseka accused President Rajapaksa of corruption, of murdering journalists, and of aspiring to dictatorship. Rajapaksa accused Fonseka of treason, even worse corruption, and of himself murdering journalists. (There were plenty of dead journalists to go around at the time, unfortunately, including the former editor of my own paper, whose murder was almost certainly ordered by the Rajapaksa government). Mobs were rallied. Supporters clashed, sometimes violently.

As it turned out, my own paper would play a pivotal role in the outcome of the election. Having decided to endorse Fonseka, the editor in chief, Frederica Jansz, sat down for an in-depth interview with the general, during which Fonseka dropped a stunning bombshell allegation, accusing the president’s brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, of personally ordering the execution of surrendering separatist officers. The Sri Lankan government had already endured intense international criticism for killing tens of thousands of civilians during the final stages of the war, and this new allegation of war crimes threatened to put the Rajapaksa family directly in the Hague’s crosshairs.

The next day’s paper blared the headline “Gota Ordered Them to Be Shot.” But instead of helping Fonseka, this allegation ended up being his downfall. Rajapaksa used it to paint Fonseka as a traitor who betrayed his own troops by accusing them of war crimes, and on January 26, 2010, Rajapaksa was reelected to another six-year term.

Mahinda Rajapaksa waves to supporters during his swearing-in ceremony in Colombo on November 19, 2010.
S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

Rajapaksa didn’t wait to take revenge on his former ally. On the afternoon of Election Day, he announced to the country that Fonseka was planning an armed coup to thwart the will of the people, and ordered Sri Lankan troops to surround the luxury hotel where the general and his entourage were staying. (There was never any evidence of a coup.) Fonseka was eventually allowed to leave, but two weeks later he was arrested at his office by military police and charged with revealing state secrets to the newspaper — an implicit admission that the war crimes he described had actually taken place.

Fonseka, however, lived to have the last laugh. Overnight, he became an international martyr, proof that Sri Lanka had lost its democratic legitimacy. Amnesty International condemned his arrest, saying it “continues the Rajapaksa government’s post-election crackdown on political opposition.” The Obama administration designated him a political prisoner. The arrest did wonders for his domestic reputation as well — four months later, still in prison, Fonseka was elected to the Sri Lankan parliament, which forced the government to transport him to and from legislative sessions in a prison van. Although he was sentenced to three years in prison, he was released in 2012 amid continuing international pressure.

President Rajapaksa, his reputation in tatters, was defeated in 2015 by another erstwhile ally from his own party, Maithripala Sirisena; one of the new president’s first acts was to grant Fonseka a full pardon. And in the ultimate indignity, Rajapaksa and his family now find themselves in legal jeopardy. One of Rajapaksa’s brothers has been charged with misappropriation of funds, and his son is under investigation for money laundering. Rajapaksa himself has been widely accused of committing, and then covering up, war crimes.

What lessons for American democracy does Sri Lanka’s sordid experience hold? First: The best way to improve the reputation of your opponent is to make him or her into a martyr. Second: Persecuting and jailing a political opponent only makes it more likely that you and your allies will be persecuted in turn. And third: There’s no surer way of diminishing your country’s international standing than by flouting democratic norms. America will lose all moral authority if we follow Sri Lanka, and so many other developing countries, down the path of authoritarianism.

Sri Lanka’s economy, like its international reputation, is still recovering from the Rajapaksa era. In 2011, the European Union refused to renew a major trade deal, the GSP Plus, because of the country’s human rights record, a hammer blow to its garment exporting industry. Under economic pressure from the West, Sri Lanka turned east to China, which happily poured billions of dollars into the country as part of its “String of Pearls” strategy to spread its economic and military influence in the Indian Ocean. To this day, China arguably wields more influence in Sri Lanka than any Western nation.

Donald Trump likes to say that, under Obama, America has become a “third-world country.” As someone who’s actually lived in such a country, he couldn’t be further off the mark. But the surest way to make that ludicrous charge come true is to jail Hillary Clinton.

Michael Hardy is a Houston-based journalist whose writing has appeared in the New Republic, the American Scholar, and Texas Monthly. He spent nine months in 2009-2010 in Sri Lanka, working as a reporter for the Sunday Leader.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.