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Why the world should be worried about Sri Lanka's deepening ties with China.
LOS ANGELES — When the voters of war-torn Sri Lanka cast their ballots in last January’s presidential election, little did they realize that the winner, incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, would take such an expansive view of his victory.
Eight months into his second term, Rajapaksa is engaged in an unprecedented power grab that is marginalizing religious and ethnic groups and endangering the island’s fragile democracy. Earlier this month, the country’s parliament abolished presidential term limits, effectively creating an imperial presidency.
No doubt Rajapaksa figures he deserves some spoils for being the leader who finally liquidated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after a 26-year civil war. But he has given himself the portfolios of defense, finance and planning, ports, aviation and highways, and he has appointed one brother economic development minister and another defense secretary. Add a third brother as Speaker of Parliament, a cousin as deputy minister of water and drainage, and a son in the family’s seat in parliament — and it’s clear this is dynasty-building run amok.
People around the world greeted the end of Sri Lanka’s war with relief. But it is time for Western governments and businesses to recognize the rising threat to freedom and use whatever leverage they have to stop Rajapaksa’s divisive and anti-democratic policies, which are dovetailing with island’s ever tighter embrace of China.
Dynastic politics is nothing new in South Asia, but the creation of this family juggernaut is particularly troubling. It comes after Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan military achieved a decisive — and needlessly bloody — end to Sri Lanka’s long war, killing as many as 40,000 people in the final weeks of fighting. Most were unarmed Tamil civilians.
In the wake of that campaign, Rajapaksa called an early election and coasted to an easy win, pledging to heal the wounds and divisions that left the country so devastated for so long. Tamils were skeptical, but hopeful.
Two weeks after his re-election, Rajapaksa’s government arrested his defeated presidential opponent, who remains in custody on politically motivated charges. As part of a broad campaign to silence opponents, independent organizations report that press intimidation and human rights violations remain rampant.
Instead of embracing democracy, Rajapaksa and his supporters in parliament — where brother Chamal, as Speaker, sets the agenda — have launched a frontal assault on the constitution. In addition to abolishing term limits, other changes have ended independent oversight of appointments to the country’s Supreme Court, human rights and electoral commissions — moves that vastly expand presidential powers and leave them unchecked by other branches of government.
The problems with these changes are numerous: Election promises to decentralize authority and grant more autonomy to Tamil areas in the north and east have been tossed out the window. Vital development aid is being poured into building beach resorts for foreigners and new military bases, while Tamil communities destroyed by warfare go without vitally needed new housing, hospitals, schools and churches. Tens of thousands of Tamils are still detained in camps, unable to return to their homes, while the government conducts a campaign to colonize Tamil areas with Sinhalese families, many with ties to the military. Tamil communities, and indeed the entire culture, are threatened with annihilation.