Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa government has initiated fundamental changes to policies on ethnic relations and the rule of law. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to continue its pressure on Colombo to strengthen rights-respecting governance while making it clear that it will not support programs which encourage political repression or discrimination.
Amid high-level visits from Russian, Chinese and U.S. officials, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continued to consolidate his power while new arrest of United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian undermined political opposition. President Rajapaksa 3 Jan reiterated his commitment to constitutional reforms to increase presidential mandate under stronger executive system; announcement followed 1 Jan tabling of private member’s bills by pro-govt MP proposing changes to 19th amendment increase presidential powers; govt hoping parliamentary elections expected in April will give it two-thirds majority required to amend constitution. Authorities 4 Jan arrested opposition UNP member Ranjan Ramanayake over possession of unlicensed firearm; in search of his home, police discovered recorded conversations of Ramanayake discussing ongoing legal cases with police and judges, urging strong action against former Rajapaksa govt officials. Subsequent leaking of recordings to media undermined public credibility of UNP and used to support new govt claims its key members were victims of unjust investigations; President Rajapaksa 9 Jan appointed commission of inquiry to investigate cases of “political victimisation” by various anti-corruption units under former UNP-led govt. Cabinet 2 Jan withdrew draft Counter Terrorism Act which previous govt had submitted to parliament in order to replace controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act with more human rights compliant legislation. In official visit to Sri Lanka, Chinese FM Wang Yi 13 Jan encouraged greater economic ties between two countries, highlighted desire for increased cooperation on Belt and Road initiative and Colombo Port City projects. Russian FM Sergei Lavrov 14 Jan announced support to improve Sri Lanka’s defence capacity against “threats posed by terrorism, violent extremism, illicit drugs trafficking and other transnational organised crimes” during visit to Colombo. U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells also visited Sri Lanka 13-14 Jan, said negotiations over Millennium Challenge Corporation funding would resume after committee appointed by Rajapaksa reviews earlier draft agreed with UNP-led govt.
The devastating ISIS-inspired attacks last Easter targeting Sri Lanka’s Christians have triggered a dangerous backlash against the country’s Muslims. Colombo urgently needs to correct the intelligence failures that led to the Easter attacks and curb discriminatory practices and policies that further harm innocent Muslim communities.
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.
Tamil-speaking women in Sri Lanka’s north and east pushed for accountability and truth during the country’s civil war but have been marginalised during the transitional justice process. The government and international actors must include their voices and address their injustices and difficult economic situation to ensure lasting peace.
Fragile hopes for lasting peace and cooperation across party and ethnic lines are imperilled. To avoid leaders of the corrupt and violent former regime taking back control of the country, President Sirisena’s two-year-old “unity government” should put aside short-term calculations and return to reform.
Seven years after its civil war ended, Sri Lanka’s democratic space has reopened but strains are building from a powerful opposition, institutional overlaps and a weakened economy. To make reforms a real success, the prime minister and president should cooperate with openness and redouble efforts to tackle legacies of war like impunity, Tamil detainees and military-occupied land.
Sri Lanka’s 17 August parliamentary elections will test the country’s fragile democratic opening. With the hardline Sinhala nationalism of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa challenging the “good governance” agenda of the United National Party and President Sirisena, the outcome will affect chances for reconciliation and lasting resolution of the country’s long-running conflicts.
The president has tried to weaken [Sri Lanka's Prime Minister] in many ways, including taking the police under his control. So it's entirely possible that the police wouldn't share information with ministers not aligned with the president.
It is particularly damaging that the reasons the U.S. Government gave for leaving the Human Rights Council – for being hypocritical and biased, echo so closely criticisms that the previous Sri Lankan Government and many Lankan politicians in opposition and in the current Government have made about the Council’s engagement with and resolutions on Sri Lanka. The U.S. withdrawal will have lasting damage and will strengthen governments and politicians across the globe who prefer to be left to their own devices, even when this involves violating the fundamental rights of their own citizens.
There is good reason to believe [the Sinhala Buddhists attacks in Sri Lanka] are partly designed to provoke a Muslim response, which would then justify more violence against Muslims.
Many Sinhalese and Buddhists have [the sense] that Sri Lanka [is a] Sinhala and Buddhist island, and [that] other communities are here on the sufferance of the majority.
The [Sri Lankan] government will need to figure out how to come together. They need to go back to the drawing board and return to their fundamental principles and start to deliver.
[Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa] has a strong core constituency and a good set of issues, whereas the government has to pull together a range of minority constituents.
The lethal Easter bombings in Sri Lanka have stunned a country still recovering from decades of internal war. Political and religious leaders alike should reject the rhetoric of collective blame and reaffirm the island’s strained but living tradition of intercommunal amity.
Crisis Group’s first update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on Burundi’s dangerous referendum, militant Buddhists and anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, the impact of the Venezuelan crisis on the region, and the situation in Yemen. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.
An upsurge of attacks against Muslims by Sinhala Buddhist militants in Sri Lanka has raised fears of a new round of communal violence. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Senior Analyst Alan Keenan says the government needs to act urgently to prevent the violence from spinning out of control, by enforcing laws against hate speech and arresting and prosecuting those involved in organising the violence.