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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
Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka
Unfinished Business 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

Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka

Originally published in Inside Story

When UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon touched down in Sri Lanka yesterday, he arrived in a very different country from the one he last saw, immediately following the end of the civil war. Back then, in May 2009, he was shocked by the physical devastation and human toll of the final months of war, when as many as 40,000 civilians are believed to have been killed in the north and east. The internal review he ordered faulted the United Nations for its “systemic failure” to protect human rights and civilian lives at the war’s end.

Today, much of the physical damage has been repaired. Since 2015, a new government led by president Maithripala Sirisena has championed a reform agenda that includes important commitments to end impunity, promote the rule of law, and encourage reconciliation. Yet political, social and psychological wounds run deep throughout the country, threatening the fragile progress made so far.

The UN has a mixed history in Sri Lanka. On Ban’s last visit, the country was ruled by president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful family, riding high on the wave of triumphalism and Sinhala nationalism that followed the military’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers. A panel of experts Ban appointed in 2010 found credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides. Although it was denounced by the government and its nationalist supporters, the panel’s report contributed to the series of increasingly strong resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council calling for accountability and reconciliation.

The defeat of Rajapaksa and election of Sirisena as president in January 2015 opened unexpected space in Sri Lanka for the Human Rights Council’s resolutions to be acted on. It also marked a growing acceptance that reconciliation required accountability for war crimes and for corruption and the abuse of power.

Sirisena’s new government co-sponsored a landmark resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in October 2015, which committed his administration to establishing offices on missing persons and reparations, a truth commission, and a special court to hear cases of alleged crimes during the war – including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and sexual violence. The government also promised to investigate other human rights cases, restore the independence of the judiciary and police, reduce the role of the military and agree on constitutional reforms to address the political marginalisation of Sri Lankan Tamils, which gave birth to the years of war and terror.

UN agencies are actively supporting the Sirisena government’s reform agenda, but government efforts have been under-resourcedand weakened by mixed messages and confused lines of authority. Clear direction from the president and from prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been lacking. While there is much greater space for dissent, some improvement in rights protections, and progress towards a new constitution, there has been no decisive break with the culture of impunity. Meanwhile, key sectors within the government are actively undermining reforms.

Take, for example, the government’s pledge to the Human Rights Council that it would replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act with new laws consistent with human rights standards. Despite that undertaking, police continue to make arrests under this repressive legislation, and some 200 Tamils are still detained under its provisions, many held for years without charge.

Security officials have reportedly interfered with police investigations that implicate military intelligence units in murders and abductions during the Rajapaksa years. Defence budgets have grown and the military remains a powerful presence in Tamil majority regions, running hotels and other businesses and occupying large amounts of private land. Tamils are increasingly angry at the government’s failure to live up to its promises on all these issues.

Ban should urge that the military cooperate with the police and judiciary. He should also offer UN assistance for the Sri Lankan military’s transition to peacetime duties in two ways: by helping to assess its landholdings and assisting families returning to previously occupied land, and by assisting with job training for retiring soldiers and psycho-social support to veterans and families.

While parliament’s approval earlier this month of a bill to establish the Office on Missing Persons is a welcome first step, Ban must press the president and prime minister to implement all of its promises to the Human Rights Council. A key element of these commitments is a special court for war-related crimes, with the “participation… of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.” With nationalists arguing this is an infringement on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, the president and prime minister have reversed position and rejected foreign judges.

Although the Sirisena government co-sponsored the Human Rights Council resolution last year, it now seems to be dragging its feet. It appears increasingly that the government does not intend to pass the legislation needed to establish the special court before the Council meets in March 2017, a move that could help to evade further international scrutiny.

Ban must make clear his support for continued oversight by the UN Human Rights Council until the government has passed the legislation needed to establish a strong court with the legal basis and the expertise – including international participation – to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even if the government succeeds in winning approval for a constitution that reflects Sri Lanka’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, that will not be enough to ensure reconciliation in the absence of accountability.

Ban should encourage Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to make a much stronger public case – especially to Sinhalese communities – in support of their transitional justice and constitutional initiatives. While resistance from Sinhala nationalists and the Rajapaksa-led opposition is real, strong public outreach and the government’s two-thirds parliamentary majority provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address both the causes and consequences of Sri Lanka’s thirty years of war. As part of this, Ban should also urge that the design of the court and the truth commission take into account the recommendations of public consultations now under way across the island.

Finally, Ban should acknowledge the UN’s failure to protect Sri Lankans during the final months of the war and its immediate aftermath, and commit the UN to an active role defending rights through its ongoing work in Sri Lanka. This should include an expanded presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and improved vetting of the human rights record of military personnel who serve in UN missions – particularly with respect to allegations of sexual abuse.

Above all, UN member states must back up Ban’s words with the right combination of encouragement and pressure needed to deepen and sustain the potentially historic transformation now under way in Sri Lanka. With the UN’s help, Sri Lanka could yet build a state that respects the rule of law and protects the rights of all its citizens.