Why the world must stop Sri Lanka’s decline

NEW YORK, NY. — On Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s Parliament overwhelmingly passed an urgent bill removing term limits for the president. The constitutional amendment also gave the president unlimited power over judicial, police and other public service appointments and removed constitutional safeguards over the electoral process.

The amendments abolished the Constitutional Council established to ensure the independence of appointments, transfers and removal of persons to the Judiciary and to the police, bribery, finance, elections and human rights commissions. The independent oversight body has been replaced by a toothless Parliamentary Council whose observations the President must seek but need not act upon in making these key appointments.

Sri Lanka is a country rapidly in decline. After the conclusion of its 27-year-long civil war in May last year, President Mahinda Rajapakse was handed a second term in office by a grateful and war-weary electorate. It might have been the turning of a new page. It wasn’t. Instead the country has hurtled towards a dictatorship that has now been constitutionalised, and it seems that the incumbent president has missed the message.

Riding on a wave of popularity and a rare two-thirds majority in parliament – which he obtained with the help of a weak opposition and wily political maneuvering — Rajapakse has now acted swiftly to constitutionalize and consolidate his power. Hence, this week's urgent bill.

Indeed Rajapakse, who as president enjoys immunity from prosecution, has been nothing if not timely and opportune in his politics. In 2005, he came in on a platform of war promising to eradicate Tamil Tiger terrorism. By May 2009 he had done that. Despite clamping down on human rights and achieving only modest economic growth, Rajapakse’s re-election victory in January 2010 — an election held almost two years ahead of schedule and just eight months after his military victory — was not surprising.

Thousands of civilians died in the military offensive. Video evidence emerged of soldiers summarily executing detainees, amid strenuous denials of such action by the government. Sri Lanka’s former army commander, Gen. Sarath Fonseka — the man who led Sri Lanka’s army to victory — went on record saying orders were given to shoot Tiger leaders attempting to surrender, a statement he later retracted.

Fonseka challenged Rajapakse in the January election, alleging blatant nepotism in Rajapakse's first term and citing the fact that after assuming office in 2005 the president appointed three of his brothers to high office. Sri Lanka is now governed by the Rajapakse brothers and their offspring who hold powerful cabinet positions. Other Rajapakse relatives also control large numbers of important offices, including diplomatic missions and state owned businesses.

Just six days after Rajapakse's re-election, Fonseka was arrested and court martialled, presumably for fear he would turn whistle-blower.

The government’s justification of the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of the north and east during the last stages of the military offensive and the resulting civilian death toll was that it was necessary to end the war. However, this May the International Crisis Group called for a U.N. investigation into the final bloody months of the war, stating in a report it had “reasonable grounds to believe that the Sri Lankan Security Forces committed war crimes.”

Sri Lanka has fiercely resisted any inquiry led by foreign authorities, stating that it would conduct its own investigations under a "Reconciliation and Lessons Learned" commission. Many have no faith in such homegrown inquiries that have been more about the reinforcement of the government viewpoint, denial, botching evidence and creating confusion rather than genuine investigation. Sri Lanka has yet to seriously investigate the murder of 15 journalists since Rajapakse’s government took office.

Meanwhile, Rajapakse’s supporters maintain that the removal of the two-term limit this week will shore up a number of choices as candidates in a presidential poll. Yet the repeal of provisions ensuring an independent elections commission will only serve to undermine free and fair elections and make the incumbent president more powerful. With the elections commission no longer having power to issue directions preventing political parties from exploiting state resources to run their campaigns, the incumbent president will have unfettered access to public property to the exclusion of all other candidates. The new amendments also place a duty on both the public and private media to comply with directions issued by the elections commission — a commission over which the incumbent president has absolute control.

Under the new amendments, Rajapakse must attend parliament every three months, a provision his supporters argue will increase accountability. In fact, such a move will only serve to increase presidential power, manipulation and interference in the parliamentary process and remove any semblance of the independence of parliament and the separation of powers.

Certainly for a country that has seen some of the bloodiest years of its 27-year civil war under the present regime, the culture of impunity, the fear propaganda, the persecution intimidation, murder and muzzling of the press is nothing new.

Why must the world take action now?

Because the subversion of democratic mechanisms and violence against democratic institutions continues unabated in a time of peace. Inventive in its attacks it has employed blogs, websites and mass emails to personally vilify any journalist, political opponent or human rights activist it sees as a threat to its rule. This government promised change once the war ended. Instead, nothing has changed.

Rajapakse has now aligned his formerly westward-looking country with China, Iran, Pakistan and Libya, and repeatedly lashed out at the West for criticizing his shameful human-rights record. And, despite the successful end of the civil war, the Rajapakse regime has offered nothing to the Tamil minority. Their aspirations and grievances have once more been swept under the carpet.

His government has demonstrated that it has neither the vision nor the empathy to bring about a just and lasting solution to the Tamil question. Instead, Sri Lankans have become inured to the pervasive Sinhala Buddhist supremacist racism the Rajapakse government brought to the country in order to win over the majority.

If Sri Lanka does not reach out to that section of the population that has been deeply wounded — if there is no accountability — it will only serve to breed a new generation of sullen youths with sympathetic and considerably more active operatives amongst the Tamil Diaspora. A future war may not be confined by Sri Lanka’s borders.

Rajapakse’s priorities are now to attract foreign investment and increase trade while defending his army and his political family against allegations of war crimes. He is using his large majority and the enormous powers vested in his administration for just that — to perpetuate authoritarianism and the culture of impunity while obliterating any remnants of a free media. He has relegated civil and political rights to the realm of irrelevant at best or subversive at worst.

Apart from losing European Union trade concessions this August until the country makes progress on human rights, Sri Lanka has been able to avoid U.N. scrutiny and cleverly stave off any international pressure, using its diplomatic influence with countries like China.

Sri Lanka's government recently announced that it would invite outside investors to its Chinese assisted multi-billion-dollar post-war infrastructure program. China is Sri Lanka’s largest infrastructure lender.

Geopolitics is playing its part. With its many trade and military interests now concentrated in the Indian Ocean, the U.S. too is keen to see strategically placed Sri Lanka not slip entirely into China’s arms.

Here’s the caveat. Sri Lanka’s handling of its civil war must not be seen as a model of success for combating terrorism or a perfect model of counter insurgency but rather a harsh lesson like Hiroshima or Agent Orange. If the ruling regime is allowed to go on unabated, it will soon have a far more deadly, more organized and inevitably more global terrorist movement on its hands.

For this alone the world must act now.

Sonali Samarasinghe is an award winning investigative reporter and editor, and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She fled Sri Lanka after her late husband, Lasantha Wickrematunge, with whom she worked, was killed and she was subjected to death threats.