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Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: Risks and Opportunities
Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: Risks and Opportunities
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
Briefing 145 / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: Risks and Opportunities

Sri Lanka’s upcoming presidential election promises more competition than was initially anticipated. But with that comes a great risk of violence. Long-term stability and post-war reconciliation can only be achieved through a peaceful election resulting in a government committed to serving the interests of all Sri Lankans.

I. Overview

Sri Lanka’s presidential election, scheduled for 8 January 2015, looks set to defy the predictions of many and be a true competition. As such, the polls threaten risks and promise opportunities for long-term stability and post-war reconciliation. The sudden emergence of a strong opposition candidate caught many, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, by surprise. Running on a platform of constitutional reforms to limit executive power and restore independent oversight bodies, the opposition coalition led by former Rajapaksa colleague Maithripala Sirisena seems set to pose the first strong challenge to Rajapaksa in nearly a decade. Amid a restrictive climate for civil society, for Tamils and for religious minorities, the risk of serious election-related violence merits close international attention and active efforts to prevent political instability, including the possibility of extra-constitutional means by Rajapaksa to retain power.

Reacting to disappointing results for his coalition in a series of recent provincial polls, Rajapaksa’s 20 November announcement of an early election for a third term was designed in part to strike while the opposition was still divided. To the surprise of many, a coalition of opposition parties announced that its common candidate would be Maithripala Sirisena, the general secretary of Rajapaksa’s own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). A number of key SLFP members joined Sirisena and more defections have followed, dealing a major blow to the president. While he is still the frontrunner, for the first time since the end of the war in 2009 it can no longer be taken for granted that Rajapaksa – and with him his powerful brothers and other family members – will remain in power indefinitely. Should additional senior members of the SLFP or other constituents of the ruling coalition abandon the government, the pressure will mount. For the first time in years, the opposition, together with critical voices among Sri Lanka’s beleaguered civil society, are sensing that political change is a real possibility.

At the same time, the sudden emergence of a viable joint opposition increases the chances of severe election-related violence and other malpractices. The Rajapaksas are almost certain to deploy the full resources of the state – money, vehicles, state-owned radio, TV and newspapers, civil servants and the police – in support of Mahinda’s re-election, and are widely expected to do whatever is needed to try to maintain their power. The tighter the race, the more violent it will be.

Many fear that the radical Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, or BBS) may be used to produce a violent incident designed to distract from other malpractices, or to lower Muslim turnout, or to provoke a Muslim backlash that the government would use to solidify its Sinhala base. Some suspect BBS could also be used to destabilise a new government should Sirisena win.

With the northern and eastern provinces still under tight military control, security forces could, as in last year’s provincial election, be used to restrict campaigning by opposition parties and intimidate Tamil and Muslim voters to reduce turnout. Restrictions on travel by foreigners to the northern province, re-imposed in September 2014, will make it harder for media, diplomats and international organisations or aid workers to monitor and report on any violations.

Should Sirisena win the vote, the president and his brothers could find other means to retain power, including resorting to the politically compliant Supreme Court to invalidate the result, or using the military as a last resort. In this volatile pre-election context, foreign governments and international institutions concerned with Sri Lanka’s long-term stability – among them, China, India, Japan, U.S., the UN, European Union (EU), World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) – should seek to limit the risks of serious political violence, before, during and after the election; and help create as level an electoral playing field as possible, to increase the chances for real debate and fair competition. To these ends, they should:

  • support a significant election-monitoring presence – from the Commonwealth and the EU – as early as possible, insist it have full freedom of movement and provide funding to local election monitoring groups;
  • deliver pre-election warnings to all political leaders to avoid serious fraud and election-related violence, including support for militant Buddhist attacks on Muslims and Christians.

Amid Sri Lanka’s authoritarian drift and institutionalised impunity, that a real political competition is in the offing provides unexpected hope for the future. Within the current opening, however, lies potential for serious conflict given how much is at stake for all involved. The opportunity should be seized to make sure that the next government has the broad national credibility, internationally endorsed, to begin the process of knitting together the Sri Lankan society battered by its recent traumatic history. Whoever wins in January, core questions around national identity – issues of devolution of power, of accountability and reconciliation, and of the equal status of Tamils and Muslims in a Sinhala majority state – will remain contentious. They will require deft handling if greater instability is not to result.

Colombo/Brussels, 9 December 2014

Op-Ed / Asia

Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka

Originally published in Inside Story

The bloody end of Sri Lanka’s long civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has been marked across the country this month in very different ways, highlighting both the tentative progress made over the past year and the profound divisions still be overcome seven years into peacetime.

Across the north and east, Tamils held public events to remember the victims killed during the final weeks of the government offensive in May 2009. While officially sanctioned on a much wider scale than last year, these commemorations often took place under the watchful, often intimidating, eyes of the military or police.

In Colombo, meanwhile, president Maithripala Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sponsored a War Hero commemoration alongside the armed forces, police and civil security. But the commemoration’s cultural program, the Reminiscence of Reconciliation, represented a notable shift from the triumphalist, military-led Victory Day celebrations presided over by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose administration criminalised all Tamil remembrance activities.

Despite the welcome change in tone and moves to improve relations between the majority Sinhalese community and Tamils, who represent 15 per cent of the country’s population, the “national unity” government needs to redouble its efforts to promote reconciliation. In fact, much more work remains to reverse the damage done to all communities in Sri Lanka by the decade of Rajapaksa’s authoritarian rule.

Addressing the painful legacy of the war is just one aspect of an extremely ambitious agenda that includes drafting a new constitution, strengthening the rule of law and rebuilding democratic institutions. But it remains unclear how far the government is willing and able to go to tackle the hardest reforms, particularly justice for wartime abuses and greater devolution of political power to deal with the ethnic conflict.

Worryingly, the government appears to be backtracking on vital plans for transitional justice. The enormity of the crimes committed makes them impossible to ignore, yet difficult for the military, and most Sinhalese, to accept responsibility for.

Both sides committed atrocities throughout the many years of war, which lasted from 1983 to 2009. In September 2015, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented a detailed report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, documenting a “horrific level of violations and abuses” by government forces, pro-government paramilitaries and the separatist Tamil Tigers. The long list of crimes included indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children, and denial of humanitarian assistance. The report confirmed victim and survivor accounts of systematic war crimes committed during the final months and immediate aftermath of the civil war.  

The new government – brought to power by elections in January and August 2015 – was prepared for these explosive findings, and announced its ambitious reform agenda at the start of the Human Rights Council session. It agreed to the Council’s groundbreaking resolution on promoting reconciliation and accountability, which was adopted by consensus. Key commitments included the creation of a truth commission, reparations and missing persons offices and, most controversially, an independent special court for war crimes with “participation of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.”

The resolution was potentially transformative, yet the government has missed a series of deadlines for its implementation and is sending mixed messages about its overall strategy for justice and reconciliation. Doubts about the government’s political will are growing domestically and internationally.

Dealing honestly with the legacy of the civil war is hard and painful work, complicated by Sri Lanka’s internecine political rivalries. President Sirisena is struggling to counter a faction of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party that remains loyal to his predecessor. Meanwhile, strains are growing within the unity government coalition.

The government is also fearful of angering the military and security services, which maintain a dangerous degree of autonomy. Recent arrests of Tamils under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act – which the government promised the UN it would repeal – and continued reports of the torture of detainees have sown concern about the government’s ability to rein in abuses. Many Tamils and rights activists are growing increasingly discouraged by what they see as slow progress.

Changing attitudes on all sides will be difficult. Sinhala nationalism remains entrenched within the state and society, and this in turn feeds Tamil nationalism and, for some, continued dreams of a separate state. Frustrated by the slow pace of reform, there is little public acknowledgement by Tamil political activists of the lasting pain caused by Tamil Tiger atrocities.

Despite the deep obstacles, though, now is the best opportunity in Sri Lanka’s recent history for the country to work together to build a lasting peace. To seize the moment, the government must reinvigorate the “good governance” agenda that won it popular support in the first place.

Measures to address the war’s legacy need to be pursued and presented as an essential aspect of the broader agenda to strengthen the rule of law, end impunity and tackle corruption and abuse of power. These issues resonate across the country, from the Tamil-majority areas of the north to the Sinhalese heartland in the south. The government should launch a coordinated outreach campaign to educate communities about the value of transitional justice and its links to other reforms, while giving stronger backing to the nationwide public consultations on designing reconciliation and justice measures.

Continued international support is essential to keep the reform process on track – both by building Sri Lanka’s technical capacity for reforms and reminding the government of its promises when politics threaten to win out over principle.

In the end, though, it is Sri Lankans who will lead the ongoing effort to make a more durable peace. There is no better place to start than by acknowledging the suffering and injustice experienced by all communities – and the equal right to remember and mourn.