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Sri Lanka’s dead and missing: the need for an accounting
Sri Lanka’s dead and missing: the need for an accounting
Sri Lanka: Stepping Back from a Constitutional Crisis
Sri Lanka: Stepping Back from a Constitutional Crisis
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka’s dead and missing: the need for an accounting

Nearly three years since the end of the war, there’s a growing need for an accounting of – and for – those killed and missing in the final months of fighting in northern Sri Lanka in 2009. Members of the UN Human Rights Council, opening its 19th session in Geneva today, should be ready to press the Sri Lankan government for real answers.

Instead of grappling with the many credible sources of information suggesting tens of thousands of civilians were killed between January and May 2009 – including the UN’s real-time data collection, international satellite imagery, and the government’s own population figures – the government is rewriting history on its own terms. In the lead up to the Human Rights Council session, the government released an “Enumeration of Vital Events” for the Northern Province. It finds the total death toll during the five bloody months of fighting in 2009 to be under 7,000 with another 2,500 missing, but it doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants or assign responsibility for any death to either the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or to government forces.

These findings fall far short of the UN Secretary-General’s panel of experts’ estimate that as many as 40,000 civilians died in those last months and even higher estimates based on the government’s own prior census figures. This “enumeration” also runs counter to an important recommendation of the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) calling on the government to “conduct a professionally designed household survey covering all affected families in all parts of the island to ascertain first-hand the scale and the circumstances of death and injury to civilians, as well as damage to property during the period of the conflict”. The LLRC made this recommendation at the end of November 2011, well after the “enumeration” project was conducted from June to August 2011.

The LLRC’s report has serious shortcomings in its treatment of allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by government forces, but it also acknowledges important realities, including breaking with years of government claims of “zero civilian casualties” and accepting that “considerable civilian casualties had in fact occurred during the final phase of the conflict”. While it then goes to lengths to absolve the government of responsibility for those casualties, its recommendation of a professionally designed survey could help clarify the fate of the dead and missing in the north – if done credibly and independently. Unfortunately, there are no signs of such a credible and independent process emerging.

Just days after the LLRC delivered its report to the president on 20 November, his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, delivered a speech to the “Inaugural National Conference on Reconciliation” in which he said that the government had “conducted a complete census” in the north, which was “in the process of finalisation”. He said a “questionnaire” had been used which included seven categories of dead or missing persons: “those who died of natural causes; those who died of accidents; those who left th[e] country through illegal means, particularly by boat to India or to South East Asia, and from there to the West; those who died whilst fighting as members of the LTTE; those who died as a result of being coerced to fight by the LTTE; those who died as a result of resisting the LTTE … ; [and deaths] that occurred due to military action”.

Without explaining how those categories were determined or what the government had done to avoid bias in its questionnaire and information gathering, the defence secretary concluded that “as a result of the census, we already know that the real number of dead and missing is far too small to provide any substance to the absurd allegations of genocide and war crimes that have been made against our military by the rump LTTE and their cronies”. On 8 February at an event hosted by the Swiss mission to the UN in New York, Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the UN repeated the claim that the government has carried out “a comprehensive census in the Northern Province which will enable firm and verifiable conclusions to be derived at on issues involving disappearances, deaths, etc”.

The “enumeration” released soon after this statement doesn’t deliver the details promised. Instead it appears to be little more than another attempt to short-circuit what Sri Lanka’s people really need and what the global community – and even the LLRC – have been asking for: an independent, credible assessment of who and how many died and under what circumstances (i.e., who and what caused the deaths or disappearances).

The process by which this supposed count has happened is not at all clear, but the conditions under which any census would have been conducted in the north – an area under effective military occupation by a victorious army accused of the crimes in question – are not conducive to a fair and accurate count. The risk that the government has now politicised the department of census and statistics, as it already has politicised the police, judiciary and human rights commission, should be deeply worrying to Sri Lanka’s international partners.

As member states of the Human Rights Council prepare for the upcoming session, they should ask the government for a full explanation of how this purported census was conducted, what safeguards were in place to ensure independence, who (by name and by civilian or combatant) was killed or went missing and how, and whether UN agencies and independent civil society organisations will be allowed to verify the findings. Equally important, Council members should ask the government to reconcile its “enumeration” with the now-extensive information available suggesting that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the final stages of the war, most as a result of government fire into heavily populated civilian areas.

The precise number and identities of all civilians killed in those last bloody months will likely never be known, especially if the government persists in its resistance to an independent, international inquiry. Nonetheless, several sources of information regarding civilian casualties need to be addressed – fully and transparently.

Sources of information suggesting civilian deaths in the tens of thousands

The UN’s real-time, on the ground survey of deaths and injuries

There are, first of all, the casualty figures gathered by the UN and humanitarian staff trapped in the fighting, which recorded 7,721 civilians killed and 18,479 injured between August 2008 and 13 May 2009, after which information collection became too difficult. These numbers were not estimates, but actual counts based on eyewitness sightings verified by two additional sources. The vast majority of those included in the UN count were killed between late January and late April 2009, before the escalation in fighting in the final three weeks.

The Secretary-General’s panel of experts noted strong grounds to believe these numbers understate actual casualties during that period. These include the conservative methodology used to collect the figures, suspected underreporting by UN agencies (in response to pressure from the Sri Lankan government), the location of many casualties in areas inaccessible to observers, and the fact that following 13 May, the number of civilian casualties likely increased significantly as many civilians died from their injuries with no functioning hospital or humanitarian facilities in the warzone to register casualties or treat the wounded.

The government, including the LLRC, has frequently dismissed these figures because the UN failed to publish them, without acknowledging that the UN raised them with the government in private discussions. The UN’s failure to speak out about its casualty estimates and the scale of the humanitarian crisis, and the government’s willingness to castigate the UN for even attempting to assess the civilian toll, are both matters of serious continuing concern.

Casualty estimates for the final week of fighting

Multiple eyewitnesses who were in the warzone during the final week estimate that thousands of civilians were killed in those days. Many describe walking past hundreds of bodies as they exited the final “no-fire zone” and seeing entire families buried in collapsed bunkers. A U.S. embassy cable on 18 May 2009, the day the government declared the war over, said a UN contact thought the LTTE’s claims of 25,000 civilians wounded or killed in the last few days were exaggerated, but that based on a 10 May shelter analysis and estimates of 70,000 to 80,000 people in the “no-fire zone” before the final assault, the number unaccounted for could be as high as 7,000 to 17,000. The UN contact also reportedly said the UN doubted the LTTE’s claims on the night of 17 May that it still had 1,000 to 2,000 cadres.

Contemporary population figures from senior government officials

There is also information from the government’s own officials working in the north suggesting that as many as 70,000 or even 140,000 civilians who were surveyed in the warzone just before or during the final months of fighting never made it to the government internment camps at the end of the war.

At least three separate figures need to be compared against the number of civilians in the camps as of late May 2009, which the government reported to be approximately 290,000. First, the former district secretary for Mullaitivu and current district secretary for Jaffna, Imelda Sukumar, testified to the LLRC on 4 November 2010 that there were 360,000 people caught in the fighting in the Puttumatalan “no-fire zone” established in February 2009.

Second, the UN panel of experts reported that her assistant, the former additional government agent (AGA) of Mullaitivu, and his staff who were in the “no-fire zone” counted some 330,000 people still trapped in the fighting in early February 2009. At that time, government figures showed that 35,000 were already in government camps. After the AGA advised officials in Colombo of the 330,000 figure, they wrote to him that the figure was “arbitrary and baseless” and that the government would be “reluctantly compelled” to discipline him for providing “wrong information to any source especially in regard to IDP figures”.

Finally, documents from the local government offices in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts, dated 30 September and 1 October 2008, show a total population of 429,000. These figures were cited in the LLRC testimony of the Catholic Bishop of Mannar, who asked for clarification as to what happened to the more than 140,000 people apparently missing given the much smaller population corralled into government camps.

Corroborating the government’s contemporary population figures

This last estimate of the number of those still unaccounted for may seem high. Indeed, the central government has long argued that local population figures were inflated under pressure from the LTTE, in order to exaggerate the humanitarian crisis and to generate greater quantities of humanitarian supplies, which the LTTE could steal. While some inflation in the figures is possible, it is unlikely to have been large enough to explain all, or even most, of the discrepancies. There is also some corroborating evidence that argues for taking seriously even large estimates of the missing and demanding a full and independent accounting.

For example, if one takes the total population figures for residents of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts from the 30 September and 1 October 2008 local government documents, they match almost exactly the central government’s estimated 2008 population figures for those districts, which can still be found on the department of census and statistics website in its estimated mid-year population by sex and district, 2000-2010.

The combined total of Kilinochchi residents counted by local officials in late 2008 was 146,700 (121,900 then living in Kilinochchi and 24,800 displaced to Mullaitivu), while the central government estimate for Kilinochchi residents was 140,000 in 2006, 143,000 in 2007 and 147,000 in 2008 (and provisionally 154,000 in 2009 and 156,000 in 2010).

Similarly, the combined total for Mullaitivu residents counted by local officials in late 2008 came to 126,350 (100,600 still living in Mullaitivu and 25,745 displaced to Kilinochchi), while the central government figures for Mullaitivu show 129,000 in 2006, 132,000 in 2007 and 135,000 in 2008 (and provisionally 154,000 in 2009 and 148,000 in 2010).

Because local government officials’ figures for Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu residents in late 2008 are almost exactly what the government had officially accepted for years, the government should explain why so many fewer people ended up in government camps in mid-2009. It should also explain why its most recent “enumeration”, which says there are now only 103,717 people in Kilinochchi and only 66,526 people in Mullaitivu – a drop of over 100,000, doesn’t raise many more questions than it answers.

A UN survey in the internment camps

Another intriguing statistic can be found in a UN Survey of 100 randomly selected shelters in zone 3 of Menik Farm in early May 2009 – prior to the worst fighting of the final two weeks. This small survey found that “22 per cent of the families” interviewed “reported that an immediate family member had died”. Extending this percentage to the approximately 90,000 families who ended up in camps after the end of the war, it suggests a minimum of 18,000 killed. Sample bias and other potential problems with this survey – including the possible inclusion of some combatants or deaths in earlier stages of the war – need to be examined, yet given the timeframe (prior to the deadliest weeks) and the possibility of multiple deaths within (or complete destruction of) some families, it could in fact be a generous minimum.

Estimates of war widows and female-headed households

Finally, there are other estimates available – including from the government – that appear to be consistent with large-scale loss of life. For example, multiple sources have claimed that there are now 40,000 “war widows” in the north. In September 2010, the ministry for child development and women’s affairs said it had lists of 40,000 war widows in the north, though it reduced this number without explanation in August 2011, to only 16,936. A separate media report cites government and donor figures of 30,000 out of 110,000 households in the former warzone that are headed by women. And a survey by the Jaffna-based Center for Women and Development reportedly estimated 40,000 female-headed households in the north, half of those in Jaffna. Not all of these women would have lost their husbands in the final months of the war, nor would all those men killed have been civilians – but many would have. And to the number of non-combatant husbands killed, one would have to add the women, children and unmarried men who died in the fighting, as well as those cases where both members of a married couple – and even whole families – were killed.

What the LLRC said about civilian casualties

The LLRC reported that the scale of civilian casualties, especially from January to May 2009, was a key question for the commission. Yet it accepted what the defence ministry told it – that “an estimate of civilian deaths was not available”. At the same time, the ministry had no problem providing an estimate of LTTE deaths – 22,247 for July 2006 to May 2009, with 4,264 confirmed by name for the period January to May 2009; or an estimate of security force deaths – 5,556 for July 2006 to May 2009.

Separately, the LLRC noted that the defence ministry had estimated the total number of LTTE cadres in the north to be 21,500. Given that approximately 11,700 suspected cadres were detained for “rehabilitation” at the end of the fighting, there are serious questions as to (1) how the government reconciles its 21,500 cadre estimate with its total of 34,000 killed or detained; (2) whether the 22,247 LTTE deaths were combatant deaths; and (2) whether the 11,700 detained for “rehabilitation” were in fact combatants. Unfortunately, the LLRC did not acknowledge, let alone answer, any of these questions.

Instead, the defence ministry told the LLRC that “it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between LTTE and civilian casualties”. The LLRC expressed its “regret” at the absence of any official record or post-conflict estimate of civilian casualties while at the same time concluding that “considerable civilian casualties had in fact occurred”, but placed the blame primarily on unexplained “crossfire” and on the LTTE – just as the government and military officials who testified before it did.

The LLRC’s recommendation of a professionally designed island-wide household survey regarding civilian deaths and injuries – if done independently and credibly – could make up in part for its unwillingness to challenge the government’s narrative. Such a survey could also provide all Sri Lankans more clarity regarding how many and whose lives were lost in the war, including thousands of missing soldiers and people killed or disappeared outside of the north through decades of counter insurgency operations.

Sri Lankan newspapers are pictured in Colombo on October 27, 2018, showing front page headlines of Sri Lanka's former president Mahinda Rajapakse being sworn in as the new prime minister. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP
Briefing 152 / Asia

Sri Lanka: Stepping Back from a Constitutional Crisis

The return to power of controversial former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka's prime minister is unconstitutional and destabilising. International actors should make future security and economic cooperation contingent on parliament reconvening immediately to select a prime minister through legal channels. 

What’s new? On 26 October, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly dismissed the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and appointed controversial former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the premier’s post, in a move that contravenes the constitution and threatens to destabilise the country.

Why does it matter? Rajapaksa’s appointment has already emboldened his supporters, with their actions provoking violence. More unrest is likely as the president and the new prime minister seek to consolidate support. The struggle for power jeopardises progress on reforms, ethnic reconciliation, and prospects for peaceful and fair elections in 2019.

What should be done? The U.S., EU and other international actors should continue to urge Sirisena to reconvene parliament to select a prime minister through legal channels. They should back these calls by making clear that Rajapaksa’s appointment, if it stands, threatens the future of security and economic cooperation.

I. Overview

President Maithripala Sirisena’s unexpected decision on 26 October to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replace him with the former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, could seriously destabilise and set back Sri Lanka. In failing to follow established legal procedures, Rajapaksa’s appointment, should it stand, would be the country’s first ever unconstitutional transfer of power. The power struggle now underway between Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe has already turned violent, with the new prime minister’s supporters attempting to stop a recently ousted minister from entering his office and clashing with his security detail. Risks of further bloodshed are high, particularly if mass protests by Wickremesinghe loyalists continue over the coming days. Questions over the legitimacy of Rajapaksa’s administration could heighten tensions in the run-up to local and national elections scheduled over the next year.

The U.S., EU, India and other governments with influence should press for parliament to be immediately convened so that Sri Lanka’s elected representatives can choose a prime minister through constitutional procedures. The U.S., EU and European governments should stress to President Sirisena that retaining Rajapaksa without parliamentary approval jeopardises the future of economic support and security cooperation.

II. An Unconstitutional Change of Power

The current crisis carries many contradictions. Sirisena was elected president in January 2015 after he left then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet and challenged him with the backing of Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), a wide network of civil society groups, and a small number from Sirisena’s – and Rajapaksa’s – Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Sirisena was elected on a platform of democratic renewal and reconciliation, and backed by an unusual coalition of Tamil, Muslim and more liberal Sinhalese voters. He promised to hold members of the Rajapaksa administration and family accountable for alleged corruption and assassinations, and to deliver justice for war crimes committed during the military campaign against the Tamil Tigers. He also pledged to end the executive powers of the presidency, which long have been criticised as anti-democratic and have contributed to Sri Lanka’s history of political instability and grave human rights abuses.[fn]For an analysis of Sirisena’s original reform agenda and the initial months of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition, see Crisis Group Commentary, A New Sri Lanka?, 18 May 2015 and Crisis Group Asia Report N°272, Sri Lanka Between Elections, 12 August 2015.Hide Footnote

Within months of taking office, Sirisena won parliamentary approval for the 19th amendment to the constitution, which weakened – but did not remove – the president’s executive powers, restored the independence of several government oversight bodies, and reimposed the two-term limit on the presidency, which Rajapaksa had lifted in 2010.[fn]On the 19th amendment, see Crisis Group Report, Sri Lanka Between Elections, op. cit., pp. 8-9.Hide Footnote In the August 2015 parliamentary elections, the UNP won a strong plurality of votes and formed a national unity government with the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the coalition headed by Sirisena’s party.

The president and the prime minister have never formed a strong working relationship. Each has taken steps to undermine the trust and respect of the other.

The national unity government, headed jointly by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, succeeded in restoring media freedoms and the independence of the police and judiciary, at least as compared to the situation under Rajapaksa. But its failure to improve the economy for most Sir Lankans, widely publicised reports of ongoing corruption by senior UNP figures – which they strenuously deny – and the lack of prosecutions for high-profile crimes committed during the Rajapaksa presidency have severely damaged its credibility as an engine of reform. The government has grown increasingly unpopular over the past year, as the population contends with rising oil prices and a falling rupee, and as Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have regularly and publicly reversed each other’s policies – notably on the economy and ethnic reconciliation. The president and the prime minister have never formed a strong working relationship. Each has taken steps to undermine the trust and respect of the other.

The divisions and mistrust between the two men grew sharper after elections in February 2018 when Rajapaksa’s newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won a large majority of local councils and humiliated both Sirisena’s and Wickremesinghe’s parties, which campaigned more against each other than against the SLPP. With the SLPP widely expected to win the next presidential and parliamentary elections, Sirisena has struggled to find a way to remain in power after his term expires at the end of 2019. Blaming the prime minister and the UNP for his precarious situation, Sirisena has been actively searching for ways to remove Wickremesinghe. With the failure of a parliamentary no-confidence vote against Wickremesinghe in March, which Sirisena was widely believed to support – he made little secret of his desire to see the prime minister defeated – the president was known to be in discussions with Rajapaksa and the SLPP about a new governing coalition. Given Wickremesinghe’s ability to retain majority support in parliament, however, it seemed Sirisena would be forced to maintain the status quo until the presidential election due by November 2019.

The timing and the procedure used to remove Wickremesinghe as prime minister on 26 October thus came as a surprise. Sirisena and supporters argue that the president’s formal withdrawal of the SLFP-led UPFA from the national unity government meant the cabinet was dissolved – and this in turn meant that the prime minister’s position was vacated.[fn]GL explains how PM was removed and why Parliament was prorogued”, Adaderana.lk, 27 October 2018Hide Footnote Few independent constitutional experts accept this reasoning, pointing to clear provisions in the constitution stipulating that the prime minister can be removed only if the government has been defeated at the formal statement of its policy during the first sitting of a new parliamentary session, at the presentation of the budget or through a no-confidence vote.[fn]Articles 46 and 48, 19th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution; Crisis Group interviews, constitutional scholars, October 2018. For an extended analysis of these questions, see Asanga Welikala, “Paradise lost? Preliminary notes on a constitutional coup”, Groundviews, 27 October 2018.Hide Footnote

Sirisena’s decision on 27 October to suspend parliament for three weeks suggests that he and Rajapaksa do not believe that they have the votes yet to defeat Wickremesinghe in the legislature. Suspending parliament further undermines the legality of Wickremesinghe’s dismissal, who has from the beginning claimed he retains majority support and demanded a chance to prove it in a vote. Sirisena’s and Rajapaksa’s strategy seems to assume that they have a better chance of gaining a majority in parliament once the latter is installed alongside new cabinet ministers who control all levers of state power, a process that began on 29 October. Sri Lanka has a long tradition of parliamentary crossovers from one party to another, which in the past allegedly have been induced by offers of money and perks, and sometimes by threats.[fn]Crisis Group phone interviews, politicians, lawyers and journalists, October 2018.Hide Footnote

Rajapaksa’s appointment has generated resistance among parliamentarians. The speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, a veteran of the UNP but a man respected for his non-partisan approach, has written to Sirisena challenging the prime minister’s removal and calling on him to reconvene parliament. The head of the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, who is also the official leader of the opposition, has written to the speaker and urged him to “uphold the rule of law by summoning parliament forthwith”.[fn]“Hon. Sampanthan Writes to the Speaker to Summon the Parliament”, Tamil National Alliance, 28 October 2018; “Sri Lanka parliament speaker recognises Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister”, PTI, 28 October; “JVP, too, asks Speaker to reconvene parliament immediately”, Island, 30 October 2018.Hide Footnote The leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a bitter critic of both Rajapaksa and the UNP, has also called for parliament to be recalled immediately.

The levels of support Wickremsinghe and Rajapaksa currently enjoy in parliament are uncertain. Prior to Wickremesinghe’s dismissal, the UNP had the backing of 106 parliamentarians, while Sirisena’s UPFA, now fully behind Rajapaksa, had 95. Were the 225-member parliament to choose a new premier (likely through a vote of no confidence in Rakapaksa), then 113 votes would carry the day. That said, were the JVP’s six parliamentarians to abstain in their anger at both candidates, as most observers expect, 110 votes would be enough. In the days since Rajapaksa claimed the prime minister’s office, he appears to have won the support of at least six additional members, leaving him with nine more to win over.[fn]“Wijeyadasa, three other UNPers get portfolios”, Island, 30 October 2018.Hide Footnote For Wickremesinghe to survive, he will almost certainly require the backing of all sixteen votes from the Tamil party, the TNA, which are not guaranteed.

An appeal by Wickremesinghe or others to the Supreme Court is possible. But the Court is unlikely to intervene or to rule against Sirisena’s appointment of Rajapaksa. That appointment has generated a great deal of criticism within politically engaged circles in the capital Colombo and among UNP supporters, but there is as yet no sign of widespread public resistance, in part because Rajapaksa remains popular among many Sinhalese who make up three quarters of the population, and even more so when contrasted with the increasingly dysfunctional Sirisena-Wickremesinghe “unity government”.

III. The Risks Ahead

Should Sirisena stick to his guns, as appears likely, Sri Lanka’s political stability will be at risk. As the president and Rajapaksa spend the next three weeks jockeying for support and buying votes in parliament, the struggle for power could easily turn violent as both sides try to prove they have support on the streets. While Rajapaksa may not yet have the votes in parliament, he is believed to have the backing of much of the military, police and key supporters with a track record of using threats and violence.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°253, Sri Lanka’s Potemkin Peace: Democracy Under Fire, 13 November 2013.Hide Footnote

One person died and two others were wounded when pro-Rajapaksa crowds attempted to prevent the dismissed petroleum minister, Arjuna Ranatunga, from entering his ministry on 28 October and Ranatunga’s bodyguard opened fire (the bodyguard and Ranatunga have both been arrested in connection with the shooting).[fn]Ranatunga was reportedly arrested for trespassing and was released on bail; his bodyguard was arrested for the shooting itself. “MP Arjuna released on bail, MSD officer remanded”, Daily Mirror Online, 29 October 2018.Hide Footnote Crowds of government employees from pro-Rajapaksa unions forcibly occupied government TV stations after Wickremsinghe’s dismissal. Former minister and close Rajapaksa ally Wimal Weerawansa has threatened that his supporters will remove Wickremesinghe by force if he fails to leave his official residence.[fn]“JO warns it will storm Temple Trees if Ranil stays”, Colombo Gazette, 26 October 2018.Hide Footnote The UNP’s large public protest to support the ousted prime minister in Colombo on 30 October passed peacefully, but future protests could turn violent, with many fearing that the security forces will use a heavy hand or fail to prevent attacks on those opposing Wickremesinghe’s removal.[fn]Crisis Group phone interviews, politicians and lawyers, October 2018; “UNP holds massive rally in the vicinity of Temple Trees”, Colombo Telegraph, 30 October 2018.Hide Footnote

If Rajapaksa succeeds in establishing himself and a new government in power on the basis of an unconstitutional manoeuvre, Sri Lanka will face other dangers. In a context of heightened tensions and political polarisation, the provincial and parliamentary elections Rajapaksa has said he is committed to holding as soon as possible could also see violence, with pro-Rajapaksa SLPP supporters feeling empowered to attack UNP candidates and supporters, many of whom may already be primed to avenge their loss of power.

Should Rajapaksa’s position as prime minister be ratified in parliament, his return to power will likely end Sri Lanka’s flagging efforts at ethnic reconciliation.

Should Rajapaksa’s position as prime minister be ratified in parliament, his return to power will likely end Sri Lanka’s flagging efforts at ethnic reconciliation. He will almost certainly try to weaken or abolish the recently established Office of Missing Persons, tasked with determining the fate of thousands missing or forcibly disappeared during the war, and the Reparations Office, which is designed to compensate those who suffered damages from the war, both of which Rajapaksa and the SLPP campaigned against. He is likely to maintain or strengthen the heavy presence and activities of the military in Tamil-majority areas in the north and east. Tamil activists and journalists, who already face intense police and military surveillance, as well as threats of violence, will be at risk of increased harassment or worse. So, too, will critics of the Rajapaksa family and dissenters throughout the country.

Tamils are already frustrated at the failure of the current government to deliver on its most important promises. These include drafting a new constitution with greater devolution of power to the provinces, establishing a hybrid court to prosecute war crimes, demilitarising and reforming the security sector, repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act and releasing Tamils detained under its harsh provisions. A strong Sinhala nationalist, Rajapaksa will only accelerate the spread of political alienation among Tamils and bolster those in the security services who favour tough measures to suppress dissent.

Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who suffered four days of violent attacks on mosques, businesses and homes by militant Buddhist nationalists in March, could also be at greater risk under a resurgent Rajapaksa administration. A key suspect in the anti-Muslim violence was released on bail from prison on 29 October, following a concerted campaign by Sinhala nationalists with connections to the military and to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s powerful brother, formerly in charge of the police and military.[fn]“Mahason Balakaya leader granted bail”, Island, 30 October 2018.Hide Footnote Two days earlier, Gotabaya held a press conference to defend Wickremesinghe’s removal in the company of the Buddhist monk Ittakande Saddhatissa, who has been arrested multiple times for his involvement in violent protests.[fn]Ittakande Sadhatissa denies the charges. “Ven. Ittakande Sadhatissa, Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka, two other monks granted bail”, Daily News, 4 September 2018; “Leaders of extremist Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka surrender to police”, Colombopage.com, 15 February 2016.Hide Footnote

Rajapaksa’s government also can be expected to reverse the growing independence of the judiciary, police, Human Rights Commission and other bodies. Police investigations and prosecutions of crimes allegedly committed by members of Rajapaksa’s family and close associates when they held power have been proceeding, albeit slowly. They will almost certainly be halted, with many believing that a desire to hamstring the judicial process was one of the Rajapaksas’ main motivations to return to power now, rather than wait for elections in 2019 and 2020. The small remaining window of opportunity to challenge the culture of impunity for grave human rights violations, which has plagued Sri Lanka for decades, will likely close.

IV. What Can Be Done

While Sirisena and Rajapaksa may currently have the upper hand, the outcome of the power struggle is still undecided. Influential governments and international institutions should support those who are peacefully challenging Rajapaksa’s appointment from within the country by sending strong messages that the unconstitutional move will bring significant costs for Sirisena, Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan state. They should continue to call on Sirisena to reverse his decision and allow parliament to reconvene with immediate effect, follow the constitutionally sanctioned process and allow the two sides to test their support through a vote of no confidence.

The U.S., EU, UK, Australia, India and all governments with influence should urge the military and police to enforce the law fairly and without bias and refrain from cracking down on peaceful protest by the UNP or citizens’ groups, as many fear is possible. They should make clear that they will reduce or end training programs and other forms of cooperation with Sri Lanka’s military and police if those bodies actively back Rajapaksa’s power grab.

Foreign governments and organisations also should reconsider any economic support linked to democratic governance. The EU should make clear that preferential trade benefits, only restored to Sri Lanka in 2017 thanks to its improved compliance with human rights treaties, could be lost again should Rajapaksa retain the premiership on the basis of an unconstitutional change of power. The U.S. should immediately suspend the process for final approval of $450 million in economic development funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a program designed in part to reward good governance. Governments should also begin to consider applying targeted sanctions against Sirisena, Rajapaksa, their families and their close associates should Sri Lanka’s constitutional coup proceed.

An unconstitutional change of power puts at risk Sri Lanka’s democracy itself.

A reborn Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance with illegitimate beginnings will increase concern among some member states of the UN Human Rights Council when it considers Sri Lanka’s situation in March 2019. Many governments on the council are already unhappy with the limited progress Sri Lanka has made in implementing the reforms stipulated in the Council’s 2015 resolution on reconciliation and accountability. This is particularly true with regard to Sri Lanka’s failure to investigate credible allegations of war crimes and grave human rights abuses that took place during Rajapaksa’s presidency, including by both government forces and the Tamil Tigers, whose separatist military campaign was defeated in May 2009. With a Rajapaksa-led government likely to scrap most, if not all, of the reforms the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government initiated, Council member states should commit to working toward a new resolution that will maintain its oversight role and continued reporting by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which will otherwise expire in March 2019.

Domestic and international resistance to Sri Lanka’s change of government is not about rescuing Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP. Their many mistakes over the past three and a half years have directly contributed to the difficult situation they face. But much more is at stake than the relative power of Sri Lanka’s different political parties. An unconstitutional change of power puts at risk Sri Lanka’s democracy itself, which, while deeply flawed and regularly failing to represent and protect ethnic and religious minorities, nonetheless has provided an important safety valve for conflict over the decades. To prevent Sri Lanka’s descent into a darker future, and to limit the risks of violence and lasting political instability this would bring, urgent action from within and outside the island is needed.

Brussels, 31 October 2018