In Sri Lanka, the rule of law has been replaced by the law of the rulers.
The Uva Provincial Council election, held during the first week of August, marked the formal advent of the next generation of the ruling Rajapakse family into Sri Lankan politics. Shashindra Rajapakse, the new chief minister of Uva, is a nephew of President Mahinda Rajapakse, the son of the president’s older brother Chamal, the minister of irrigation and water management and ports and aviation. The manner of young Rajapakse’s political elevation was as portentous as the deed itself. In an unprecedented move, the former chief minister of Uva, the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) veteran Vijith Vijithamuni de Soyza, was denied nomination, thus clearing the way for the presidential nephew’s appointment. De Soyza was said to have been incensed about the unceremonious ousting, but neither he nor any other SLFP senior dared to speak out against the move. That silence is symbolic of the stranglehold the Rajapakses have over the SLFP and the government today.
Post-war Sri Lanka is in a state of flux. If Sri Lanka had had a strong opposition capable of winning elections, and a government less intent on preserving and enhancing its power, the country could have ambled along as a competitive multiparty democracy, perhaps in a less flawed and more vibrant state than during the war years. But with nearly all power now concentrated in the hands of a family nursing a dynastic project, and an opposition habituated to snatching electoral defeat from the jaws of victory, Sri Lanka may be denied such a normal future.
The outcome of the Uva election was a foregone conclusion. The government is still immensely popular among the Sinhalese due to its victory over the LTTE; the lacklustre leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe, meanwhile, has rendered the opposition United National Party (UNP) incapable of mounting an effective electoral challenge to the regime. Yet the Rajapakse administration used the full might of the Lankan state to win the election, pouring in money and men, and saturating this peripheral province with circuses and promises. For more than a month, politicians and officials flocked to Uva, clogging its roads and overflowing its sparse accommodations, industrious in their display of loyalty to the Rajapakses. Within this gargantuan campaign, the focus was naturally on the presidential nephew, to ensure for him an unsurpassable performance. The dynastic project needed an outstanding victory, not only by the ruling party but also by the Rajapakse scion.
Uva was a test case in another sense, as well: to test the regime’s capacity to win a two-third majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections, which must be held by next March. If President Rajapakse is to avoid the fate of his predecessor – retire at the end of his two terms and become a political nonentity – he needs to either amend the Constitution to remove presidential term limits, or to replace it altogether (to install a parliamentary system with an executive prime minister). However, neither option is realisable without both a two-third majority in Parliament and a simple majority in a national referendum. At a recent press conference, ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva and Maithripala Sirisena interpreted the Uva victory as proof of the regime’s capacity to win that majority. Perhaps the government is hoping to achieve this feat by replicating, nationally, the tactics that brought it an outstanding victory in Uva – the overwhelming use of state power and resources, the circumvention of election laws and the intervention of a popular president. If that fails, the Rajapakses may consider the Putin-Medvedev model, wherein term limits led the former Russian president to take up the post of prime minister – temporarily, in the eyes of many analysts.
An unencumbered evolution
The Rajapakses’ main power base is of course the Sinhalese. As President Rajapakse once put it baldly, he was voted in by them and not by the Tamils. Had the LTTE permitted the Tamils to vote freely, many suggest, Rajapakse would never have won the presidency in the first place. That memory would have been further augmented by the outcome of last month’s municipal elections in Jaffna and Vavuniya, both of which were managed elections, as distinct from free and fair polls. Opposition parties were prevented from campaigning freely, and most independent media were disallowed, on the pretext of security. Consequently there was little room for free expression, for voters to air their real concerns, including the uncertain fate of their displaced relatives and friends held in internment camps in the north. In such a context, voter apathy was to be expected, and many Tamil voters in particular chose not to vote. Interestingly, though, in Jaffna, with a very low voter turnout, the regime won marginally; while in Vavuniya, with a relatively higher voter turnout, the regime lost. This indicates that the regime’s performance was in inverse proportion to voter turnout.
The ruling coalition’s marginal victory in Jaffna and its humiliating defeat in Vavuniya came as a surprise to the president and to Douglas Devananda, a cabinet minister and leader of the anti-LTTE Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), who had been persuaded to join forces with the SLFP. Believing in their own propaganda about humanitarian operations and ‘welfare villages (as the government refers to the camps), the coalition members seemed to have expected the Tamils to vote for them voluntarily, out of gratitude. Yet in fact, the strong performance by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) may have been the result, at least in part, from a protest vote, since it was the only openly anti-government Tamil party in the fray. Meanwhile, the UNP’s resounding defeat can arguably be attributed to its post-war display of blatant opportunism, manifested in its acceptance of the unitary state. (On 17 July, the UNP submitted a report to its Political Affairs Committee stating that “the party stood for the unitary character of Sri Lanka when it came to the national question.” Senior constitutional lawyer and parliamentarian K N Choksy is quoted as saying that UNP stands for a unitary state with equal rights conferred on the minority communities.) Interestingly, the results seem to indicate that there is a space in Tamil politics for a new entity unencumbered by old baggage, be it support for the regime like the EPDP or for the Tamil Tigers like the TNA.
If this is the best the regime can do in a managed election, it is soon to lose massively in the north in a free and fair contest. This is a reality that President Rajapakse is unlikely to forget, particularly with a presidential poll in the offing, which most observers think will happen early next year. Consequently, he will undoubtedly be loath to take any step that could alienate or antagonise the Sinhalese base that is vital to his re-election, or the Sinhalese extremists who are his most loyal and vociferous defenders. This electoral compulsion, coupled with his own Sinhalese-supremacist notions, will make him unwilling to countenance a political solution to the ethnic problem based on devolution, including the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. No amount of Indian (or Western) pressure will make Rajapakse concede on this vital issue; it will merely make him seek refuge in evasive tactics. He will procrastinate the search for that elusive and amorphous ‘homegrown solution’ (distinct from the Indian-imposed 13th Amendment), using his Sinhalese hardline allies in the All Party Representative Committee (APRC). The fact that he has effectively euthanised the 17th Amendment, aimed at diluting presidential power via independent commissions, demonstrates the president’s extreme antipathy towards power-sharing.
Electoral compulsions may also delay the resettlement of displaced Tamils held in the internment camps in the north, under conditions made infinitelymore abysmal by the onset of the monsoons. Effectively imprisoned with no unmonitored access to the outside world, these displaced individuals represent a block vote that the government can hope to win through a combination of promises and threats. Given the manifest unwillingness of most northern Tamils to vote for the Rajapakses, the next electoral contest in the province is likely to be a very tightly managed exercise, leaving nothing to chance. Electoral compulsions will therefore make the government unwilling to permit any real democratisation in the north. (According to recent reports, 15,000 personnel were deployed in Jaffna during the war; this number has now gone up to 35,000.) A modicum of development and a slight easing of extraordinary security measures may be the only positives that northern Tamils can realistically expect in post-war Sri Lanka – certainly not democracy.
Soon after the defeat of the LTTE in May, President Rajapakse announced the ‘de-existence’ of minorities in Sri Lanka. In his formal address to the Parliament to announce the end of the war, the president said, “We have removed the word ‘minorities’ from our vocabulary three years ago. No longer are there Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays or any other minorities. There are only two peoples in this country. One is the people that love this country. The other comprises the small groups that have no love for the land of their birth.” The president has since repeated this statement several times. This Orwellian assertion, which seemed too absurd to be taken seriously, is assuming a sinister import in the context of a government plan to ban political parties with a racial or religious identity. A new law to be presented in Parliament in September will empower the Elections Commissioner to “de-recognise” political parties that bear the “name of a religion or race” if these parties do not re-register themselves under a different name within a year. Such a law will affect almost all of the minority parties, as their names naturally contain direct references to either a religion or a race. (Interestingly, none of the existing Sinhalese parties will be affected, as their names bear no reference to a race or a religion.) Furthermore, since, according to another presidential concept, the only division in Sri Lanka is the irreconcilable and hostile divide between those who love the country and those who do not, a party that represents minority interests, voices minority concerns and advocates minority demands can find itself labelled ‘unpatriotic’ and treated accordingly.
Sinhalese chauvinism accepts the ethno-religious pluralist nature of Sri Lanka, conditional on the axiomatic primacy of the Sinhalese race. According to this worldview, the true owners and rulers of Sri Lanka were, are and will be the Sinhalese – not only because of their numerical preponderance but also because, according to the Mahavamsa, the island was ‘chosen’ as the sole refuge for the Sinhalese race and Theravada Buddhism by the Buddha himself. This has been the ideological basis of every piece of legislation aimed at de-legitimising or illegalising minority identities and demands, from the Sinhala Only legislation of 1956 and onwards. The latest of such legislation, disallowing parties with ethnic or religious identities, belongs within this paradigm, which was abandoned in 1987 following the Indian intervention. Today, the regime’s willingness to create such a blatantly unjust and undemocratic law indicates that the retrogression to the 1956 certitude, which sees Sri Lanka as the land of the Sinhalese and the minorities as guests with no intrinsic and inalienable rights. The symbiotic relationship between the Rajapakses and Sinhalese chauvinism, augmented by electoral compulsion, may help reproduce in post-war Sri Lanka many of the existential conditions that gave birth to the Eelam Wars decades ago.
The story of how Mahinda Samarasinghe, the minister of human rights, came at long last to experience at close quarters the human-rights reality of Sri Lanka is almost a morality tale. On 4 August, Samarasinghe’s coordinating secretary, S A Jayasinghe, was abducted from his home by an what was thought to be an unknown gang. It then took the frantic minister several hours and many telephone calls to discover that he had been arrested by the police as part of the ongoing ‘war against the underworld’ (one that has notably spared several leading underworld figures connected to the ruling party). When Samarasinghe protested about the illegal means used in arresting his secretary, a police spokesman responded by stating that the abduction-arrest was made by a special police team, which had the power to arrest anyone anywhere in the country.
The minister’s predicament and the police reaction highlighted a disturbing trend that is gathering momentum – the replacement of the rule of law by the law of the rulers. This process commenced during the war years, with an outbreak of extrajudicial violence on the part of the state; yet as this was directed mostly at Tamils, it could be glossed over or excused by labelling the victims ‘Tigers’ or Tiger ‘supporters’. Most of the attacks on media personnel were justified on similar grounds. With the defeat of the LTTE, the regime has been compelled to look for other excuses in order to justify arbitrary and extra-judicial deeds – be it the arrest of an astrologer by the Crime Investigation Department for making predictions unfavourable to the government, or the abduction and assault of a student by the son of a senior police officer, using his father’s powers and facilities to settle a private quarrel.
For some years now, it has been the norm for arrested suspects (especially ones with ‘underworld connections’) to be killed while ‘attempting to escape’ or ‘trying to retrieve a hidden weapon’. The culture of impunity thus created is now beginning to intrude on southern society in general, which hitherto ignored the regime’s excesses in the belief that they affected only ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals’. When the corpses of two young men arrested by the police on 12 August in a small coastal town close to Colombo were found on the beach the following day, the residents erupted in anger, attacking the police station and disturbing rail traffic. Their impromptu protest was productive, six police personnel were arrested, and a promise of an impartial investigation made. The public reaction and the official response indicate a disturbing lesson: the only effective recourse left to citizens victimised by lawless rulers is to become lawless themselves. If this trend gains ground in the south, soft anarchy may become a normal way of life.
Despite the end of the war, most of the extraordinary measures of the war years are still in place. A recent statement by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse indicates that Sri Lanka will not experience substantial demilitarisation or democratisation in the foreseeable future. According to Gotabhaya, the war against the LTTE will continue “until its national and international operations are completely defeated”. He also stated that the LTTE had “30,000 trained cadres before the decisive phase of the war in May”. If his inference is that many of these ‘trained’ Tigers remain alive and in hiding, the regime has its excuse to justify a range of excesses, including the continued internment of Tamils.
As if to prove the defence secretary’s assertion of an ongoing war, the Defence Ministry website recently announced that the police had found “an explosive laden vehicle prepared for a suicide mission” in Mannar. This tale of a ‘foiled suicide mission’ took a surreal turn when a high-level official in the north, Nimal Lewke, told the media that the discovery was “suspicious and questionable”. The cabinet spokesperson, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, added to the confusion when he promised to punish the culprits if the explosives van turned out to be a fake. Was there a van full of explosives? Are there tens of thousands of trained Tiger cadres, waiting to wreak an awful revenge on the South? Does the war continue? Are these just absurd stories to be laughed at or ominous signs to be concerned about?
The regime is unwilling to deliver devolution to the north and unable to deliver the much-awaited peace dividend to the south, the latter due to the country’s precarious finances. These, meanwhile, cannot improve, given the regime’s decision not to cut down on military costs. Yet even if the government’s popularity wanes for these reasons, the opposition may not be able to benefit from it, simply because it cannot match the Rajapakses’ iron will to power and their determination to build a dynastic rule behind a democratic façade. The attempt to forcibly weld the minorities into a Sinhala-led Sri Lankan nation will further alienate the minorities in general and Tamils in particular. The lawlessness of the rulers may encourage lawlessness in the ruled, initially in self-defence. The twin and interrelated efforts to impose, at any cost, family rule on a democratic country and majoritarian control over a pluralist country may deprive post-war Sri Lanka of the peace and normalcy that it desperately needs.