Sri Lanka’s Electoral Dysfunction

Why the island nation’s upcoming election could be a choice between two oppressors.

by J. S. Tissainayagam, ‘Foreign Policy,’ Washington, DC, December 24, 2014

Sri Lanka’s Electoral Dysfunction

Maithripala Sirisena


On Jan. 8, two years ahead of schedule, Sri Lanka will hold a presidential election that could help restore democracy by scrapping the country’s authoritarian presidency and replacing it with a strong parliament. Real change, however, seems unlikely.

While the political opposition has campaigned on a platform of good governance and rule of law, it has also systematically undermined pluralism and minority rights, as well as justice and accountability for past crimes. Both the opposition parties and the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance of President Mahinda Rajapaksa — in power since Nov. 2005 — have effectively shut Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim minorities out of the upcoming election. Restoring democracy, it seems, will take the support of the international community.

Tamils and Muslims have long been underrepresented in Sri Lanka. In 1948, Tamils demanded federal autonomy in the northern and eastern provinces, where they are a majority, over grievances arising from discrimination in language rights that affected employment and education. But these requests have been denied by the 14 successive governments dominated by Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka. In 1976, Tamils called for secession, leading to a civil war in which over 100,000 died. The fighting finally came to an end in May 2009, when the Sri Lankan military crushed the main Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The human toll in the final stages of the war was staggering: 40,000 of Sri Lanka’s roughly 20 million people perished between August 2008 and May 2009. Most were Tamil civilians.

Since then, the international human rights community has accused both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE of war crimes and crimes against humanity. For the Tamils, bringing those responsible for these crimes to justice remains very important. But neither they nor the international community believe Sri Lanka’s judicial tribunals will deliver a fair trial.

The Muslims, too, have grievances against Rajapaksa. They have accused the government of failing to crack down extremists like Bodu Bala Sena, a Sinhalese-Buddhist group that has campaigned against the sale of halal food, and allegedly burned mosques and Muslim-owned businesses.

Rajapaksa’s record of nepotism and abuse of power is long. After he was elected in 2005, he appointed two of his brothers to head the ministries of economic development and defense; a third brother is the speaker of parliament. Soon after winning a second term in January 2010, he jailed his challenger, Sarath Fonseka. In September 2010, Rajapaksa’s party introduced a constitutional amendment that abolished the two-term limit of the presidency and negated parliament’s oversight of the independent elections commission, the police commission, and the human rights commission, among others. His government also illegally impeached the sitting chief justice and kept a heavy armed presence in northern Sri Lanka, which has resulted in ongoing human rights violations.Given the iron grip Rajapaksa holds over the country, his call for presidential elections two years before his term expired surprised many. But the decision was an act of political expediency.

In July, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) opened an investigation into “alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights” conducted during the war by Rajapaksa’s government and the LTTE. In March 2015, the OHCHR will present its findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which will then vote on a follow up action. Rajapaksa’s calculation: by calling for an election that he expects to win ahead of the OHCHR’s presentation, he hopes the council will pause before condemning a popular national leader to any legal action by an international court or tribunal.

At home, Rajapaksa fears his Sinhalese supporters may soon abandon him. After crushing the LTTE, he portrayed himself as a war hero, and the Sinhalese constituency accepted him as such. That burnish has since faded, as the Sinhalese have begun to turn on him as allegations of corruption and abuse of power surface. Rajapaksa hopes to keep his base together just long enough to ride to victory on his legacy as the man who crushed the Tamil rebellion.

But Rajapaksa’s hopes of retaining his Sinhalese base were unexpectedly thwarted when opposition parties came together and presented a presidential candidate with the credentials to chip away at his power base. Rajapaksa’s challenger, Maithripala Sirisena, is not only a Sinhalese and Buddhist — he also served as a minister in the current government, and is widely considered to be untainted by corruption. In November, Sirisena declared that he had abandoned Rajapaksa due to the large-scale corruption, abuse of power, and nepotism plaguing his government, and the joint opposition soon named him as their candidate. Their bloc includes several parties, including the United National Party and the ultranationalist Sinhalese-Buddhist party theJathika Hela Urumaya (JHU, or Sinhalese Heritage Party).

If elected, Sirisena has promised to present a new constitution within 100 days of assuming office. Under the new constitution, a prime minister would serve as the head of the government. He would be supported by a cabinet, all of whom would be members of parliament (the presidency would retain some powers, but would no longer resemble a near-dictatorship). The opposition also intends to restore the independence of the national human rights, police, and elections commissions, by removing them from the control of the president’s office and putting them under parliament. In sum, the opposition aims to dilute the power of the executive branch and enhance parliament’s authority.

But Sirisena’s vision is far from perfect. As the Associated Press reported in early December, he rejected a Tamil proposal to grant provinces more autonomy to resolve ongoing ethnic conflicts.

Sirisena also rejected calls for accountability or justice for the 40,000 civilians who died at the end of the war.In one of his first speeches after being named the joint opposition candidate in late November, Sirisena pledged that he “would not allow international forces or the Tamil diaspora” to bring Rajapaksa, his family, or any security officials before the International Criminal Court (ICC). While it would be difficult to take Rajapaksa immediately to the ICC because Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, the meaning was clear: Sirisena will not allow Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan military to sit trial by “international forces” over their allegedly criminal behavior.

The joint opposition has also endorsed Sirisena’s call to protect Rajapaksa and his government from international justice. Sajith Premadasa, deputy leader of the United National Party, the main opposition party, has echoed the challenger’s words. Sirisena even signed a memorandum of understanding with Jathika Hela Urumaya, another constituent member, stating that if he became president he would take “action against efforts to arraign the Commander-in-Chief and other military leaders with war crimes at international tribunals.”

International justice aside, Sirisena and the joint opposition naively believe that Sri Lanka can achieve peace and political stability without satisfying the political aspirations of the Tamils and the Muslims. The Muslims need a strong commitment to protect their lives, culture, and businesses. The Tamils aspire for self-government in the northern and eastern provinces, and bringing to justice those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The international community — all 47 voting members of the UNHRC, as well as non-voting members like Mexico and Austria that have long backed the cause of human rights in Sri Lanka — must support the restoration of true democracy. They should resume the investigation,started by a U.S.-sponsored resolution in March 2012, to bring those responsible for crimes in both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE before an international tribunal.

Whichever party comes to power at the forthcoming elections, the international community should demand that it pursue a dialogue with Tamils and Muslims to hammer out an inclusive constitution that allows for meaningful participation of all groups — Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim alike — in the country’s political process. They must not allow one oppressor to be replaced by another.

Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

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