WASHINGTON — With great pomp and amid massive government-sponsored celebrations, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka just started his second term. In the coming months, he and his many relatives in senior government posts will no doubt trumpet Rajapaksa's re-election as proof of his popular appeal and democratic credentials.
But while Rajapaksa may enjoy the support of the country’s large Sinhalese majority, he is leading his country in anything but a democratic, rights-respecting direction.
Rajapaksa’s domestic popularity is largely based on what he presents as his success in ending Sri Lanka’s long-running internal war. What he repeatedly denies is the brutal manner in which Sri Lanka’s military, in mid-2009, brutally crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgency, with attacks on hospitals, shelling of civilian areas, and extrajudicial killings. The United Nations has estimated that thousands of civilians were killed.
Outside the country, Rajapaksa is much less popular. Recently, while Rajapaksa was visiting the United Kingdom, lawyers sought warrants for his arrest for alleged war crimes. In a cable made available on WikiLeaks, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis, notes that the lack of progress on investigations of war crimes within Sri Lanka is connected to “the fact that responsibility for many alleged crimes rests with the country's senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa.”
Yet foreign donors, for the most part, feel there is little they can do to influence Sri Lanka, either to promote accountability or to stop its slide into increasingly autocratic government.
Rajapaksa is rapidly concentrating power, eliminating any meaningful opposition to his rule, and wiping out checks on his government.
Shortly after Rajapaksa's re-election in February, authorities arrested the main opposition candidate, the former army chief Sarath Fonseka, on charges of engaging in politics while in active military service. He is now serving a three-year prison sentence.
In September, Rajapaksa quickly pushed through a constitutional amendment that eliminated presidential term limits. It also wiped out limits on his ability to appoint members of the judiciary, police, election commission and national human rights commission, among other institutions, stripping them of any semblance of independence. The ease with which he got the amendments through has raised fears in some circles that further constitutional changes might be in the works — including centralizing power that is now granted to provincial governments.
Rajapaksa’s three brothers (the secretary of defense, economic development minister and speaker of parliament) and other family members have assumed direct control over the country’s most powerful institutions. A survey by one of the few remaining independent Sri Lankan newspapers in May counted 94 government departments under the direct control of the Rajapaksa brothers.
Rajapaksa has vastly expanded the authority of the Defense Ministry, placing it in charge of, among other activities, regulation and oversight of NGOs. Most groups I interviewed during a recent visit, particularly those that are critical of the government, believe they are under constant surveillance, making communication with them difficult.
It is particularly hard to communicate with organizations and people in the northern part of the country, where most of the worst abuses occurred during the war. The military keeps tight control there, and international media and monitors need Defense Ministry permission to visit. Even with such permission, it would be extremely difficult to speak freely with the local Tamil population, the minority to which the secessionist LTTE belonged. Foreign journalists who have been to the north report having been openly followed by members of military intelligence.
Little independent media remains: most independent journalists fled the country due to threats and the assassinations and disappearances of colleagues during the war. They have yet to return.
These difficulties are compounded, many groups say, by the dwindling funding for civil and political rights work in the country. With the end of the war, and facing economic difficulties at home, foreign donors have slashed their overall assistance. Unfortunately, those cuts included funding for several of the country's leading civil society organizations.
The United States Agency for International Development, for example, is focusing much of its limited assistance on funding development projects in the eastern part of the country, as well as some police training and governance programs. While some of these programs may be important, what is urgently needed now, when independent voices are so few and under so much pressure, is international assistance to press for freedom of expression, and projects to promote independent media.
Butenis’ cable is consistent with the frustration U.S. officials often express over what they view as their lack of influence in Sri Lanka. Indeed, in the final months of the war, the Rajapaksa government thumbed its nose at governments that called on it to stop military abuses. It relied on its friendship with China and the quiet acquiescence of India for cover. And the government has aggressively resisted international inquiries into alleged war crimes.
In fact, beyond maintaining pressure for such an international inquiry, there may not be much the United States can do now directly to influence the Rajapaksa government's policies and decisions. But what it can do is invest for the long term, by protecting and assisting those few who remain in Sri Lanka who are struggling to report the truth about what is happening, and has happened, in that country.
Maria McFarland is deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch.