A (un) Constitutional Coup d'Etat in Sri Lanka

 by Raveen S. Nathan

Sri Lanka throughout its postcolonial history has had the distinction of being a democracy that has maintained the rule of its (majority ethnic) people's will albeit with two minor interruptions. But never in its modern history has it suffered any military or constitutional coup like its neighbors namely Bangladesh and Pakistan have throughout their checkered political history.

The current situation has come about because the President has taken power away from a duly elected Prime Minister and the Parliament by constitutional means only meant to be used in dire circumstances. She has also tried to proclaim a draconian emergency regulations that has the potential to throttle free speech and arrest and detain political dissidents as well as any Tamil civilian for years without due trial. Under previous emergency regulations Tamil civilians suffered grievously as they were targeted for mass arrests, torture and rape by the state security agencies. Further proclamation of the emergency requires that it needs to be verified by the parliament within 10 days but the parliament is prorogued for 2 weeks thus making this an unconstitutional proclamation of emergency if were to be gazetted.

But what are the circumstances that prompted the President to take this precipitous action. The choices facing the country were simple but stark. War or peace? Prosperity or economic ruin? International isolation or engagement? Given these choices, it is interesting that a leader would take a decision that could potentially turn the wheels of progress backwards.

What she has done in the short term is to panic the stock market, destabilize the tourism industry and foreign investments and has delayed potential windfall Sri Lanka was hoping in the form of International aid. She has also boosted the morale of the small but influential right wing and racist elements both in Sri Lanka and India who are opposed to any form of peaceful settlement with Tamils in Sri Lanka.

In the long run, it has the potential to strengthen the hands of hard-liners within the Tamil community that want nothing to do with a united Sri Lanka. It also has the potential to shore up international support for a de facto division of the country because Sri Lankan political leaders are unable to solve the long-standing grievances of the Tamil minority community. Many political observers believe that strategically this drastic decision has strengthened the LTTE's position in any future negotiations.

The reason used by the President for this coup d'


Posted November 17, 2003