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Why the world must stop Sri Lanka’s decline

Opinion: Increasing the presidential term hastens a dictatorship.

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.