Sri Lanka's Ominous Authoritarian Turn

The Mahinda Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka, more than three years after the end of the devastating civil war that paralyzed the country for 22 years, has instituted a virtual reign of terror against not only its defeated Tamil minority but against many of its own citizens in the south, critics say.

The government's repressive nature is hardly news. Virtually since the defeat of the Tamil separatists in 2009, the government has continued to crack down on any dissent. In January, the parliament, dominated by Rajapaksa's followers, impeached chief justice Shiran Bandaranayake, eliminating the last institutional check on the executive branch.

The government consistently denies any wrongdoing. However, according to a report released this week by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), the Rajapaksa regime "has crossed a threshold into new and dangerous terrain, threatening prospects for the eventual peaceful transfer of power through free and fair elections."

ICG called for international action to halt the slide to tyranny: "Strong international action should begin with Sri Lanka's immediate referral to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and a new resolution from the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for concrete, time-bound actions to restore the rule of law, investigate rights abuses and alleged war crimes by government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and devolve power to Tamil and Muslim areas of the north and east."

That is unlikely to happen. Human rights groups say the Rajapaksa government, now that its power base is unthreatened, has systematically annulled a wide range of human rights, including turning a blind eye to the murder of dissidents and independent journalists. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, "Sri Lanka remains a highly restrictive and dangerous nation for the press." As many as 20 journalists have gone into exile over the past five years, with nine killed since the end of hostilities in 2009.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch, in an earlier report, called attention to similar human rights abuses, including the beating with iron bars of Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan, editor of a Jaffna-based newspaper. The report also pointed out that there has been no government accounting for the deaths of tens of thousands of ethnic Tamils in the wake of the surrender by the Tigers.

Sri Lanka is faced with two worsening and inter-connected governance crises, the ICG said. "The dismantling of the independent judiciary and other democratic checks on the executive and military will inevitably feed the growing ethnic tension resulting from the absence of power sharing and the denial of minority rights. Both crises have deepened with the Rajapaksa government's refusal to comply with the United Nations Human Rights Council's March 2012 resolution on reconciliation and accountability."

Although the government claims to have implemented many of the recommendations of a truth and reconciliation commission established at the urging of the Human Rights Council, there has been no meaningful progress on the most critical issues, the ICG says.

"The government has conducted no credible investigations into allegations of war crimes, disappearances or other serious human rights violations," the report said. "There has been no progress toward a lasting and fair constitutional settlement of the ethnic conflict through devolution of power, the military still controls virtually all aspects of life in the north, intimidating and sidelining the civilian administration, more than 90,000 people remain displaced in the north and east, amid continued land seizures by the military, with no effective right of appeal and no fair process for handling land disputes."

Government security forces have broken up peaceful Tamil protests in the north, detained students on questionable charges of working with the defeated Tamil Tigers and actively harassed Tamil politicians, the report says, responding with force to protest and dissent on the part of its own citizens in the south as well, deploying troops to prevent the newly impeached chief justice and supporters from visiting the Supreme Court while pro-government groups have attacked lawyers protesting the impeachment.

"Analysts and government critics have warned of Sri Lanka's growing authoritarianism since the final years of the civil war, but developments over the last year have worsened the situation," the report says. "The president's willingness and ability to push through the impeachment - in the face of contrary court rulings, unprecedented opposition from civil society and serious international concern - confirms his commanding political position."

The impeachment completes what the ICG called a "constitutional coup" initiated in September 2010 by the 18th amendment, which removed presidential term limits and the independence of government oversight bodies. The government in 2010 jailed Saranath Fonseca, the commanding general who defeated the Tamil Tigers, when he sought to declare his candidacy to run against Rajapaksa.

"The consolidation of power paves the way for moves that could further set back chances of sustainable peace." The report continues. "The president and his two most powerful brothers - Defense Secretary Gotabaya and Economic Development Minister Basil - have signaled their intention to weaken or repeal the provinces' already minimal powers. As the government makes explicit its hostility to meaningful power sharing between the center and the Tamil-speaking north and east, Tamil identity and political power are being systematically undermined by the military-led political and economic transformation of the northern province."

Ominously, sectarian violence has also begun to spread, with a recent upsurge in attacks by militant Buddhists on Muslim religious sites and businesses. The government has done little to discourage these attacks.

"Should such provocations continue, the remarkable moderation of Sri Lanka's Muslims could face serious tests," the report notes. "Given the country's history of violent resistance to state power perceived as unjust, the authoritarian drift can only increase the risk of an eventual outbreak of political violence."

Sri Lankans of all ethnicities who have struggled to preserve their democracy deserve stronger international support. The Human Rights Commission's 2012 resolution was an important first step, but more is needed, the report continues.

"This should begin with a stronger HRC resolution in March 2013, which must demand concrete reforms to end impunity and restore the rule of law; mandate the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor violations and investigate the many credible allegations of war crimes committed in the final months of the war by both sides; and, where possible, identify individuals most responsible."

The ICG published a list of specific demands on the government including implementing core recommendations of the truth commission, strengthening the rule of law, greater accountability, devolution of power and national reconciliation, through a process that includes opposition political parties and independent civil society representatives of all ethnic communities, meaningful reconciliation and others.

However, given the overwhelming sway of the Sri Lankan government, it is unlikely that any of the recommendations will be heeded. Likewise, recommendations to the Human Rights Council to attempt to deal with the situation are likely to be ignored by the government if they are put in place, as are recommendations to the Commonwealth Secretariat.