Authoritarianism Is on the Rise in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have been implicated in egregious human rights violations against Tamils in the country, including accusations of crimes against humanity and genocide. Yet rather than being held accountable, the Rajapaksas are actually consolidating their ethno-nationalist agenda.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2015. (Buddhika Weerasinghe / Getty Images)

Sri Lanka’s August 2020 parliamentary elections secured a decisive victory of the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, yielding Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister alongside his brother, Gotabaya, as president. The consolidation of power between government bodies confirms a staunch Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-nationalist agenda to rule the island.

Only eleven years prior, Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa presided as president and defense minister, respectively, ordering and overseeing the genocide that killed an estimated 70,000–140,000 Tamils in 2009. They stand implicated in egregious human rights violations, including accusations of crimes against humanity and genocide. Over a decade of impunity has engendered their autocratic reign today.

Nearly a month after the shift in Parliament, the Rajapaksas have confirmed plans to abolish the Nineteenth Amendment, which limits presidential powers by imposing term limits, eliminating presidential immunity from prosecution, and requiring parliamentary oversight of presidential appointments. What was once lauded as a revolutionary reform to the Sri Lankan constitution in 2015 is anticipated to be completely undone in a matter of weeks.

In recent days, the Sri Lankan cabinet has endorsed a Twentieth Amendment to the constitution, which expands the role of the presidential office and scales back constitutional checks and balances on executive powers. Moreover, it removes the duty of the president in “promoting national reconciliation and integration,” and grants to the president the power to “assign to himself any subject of function” — in essence, unrestrained executive control.

To fully understand the conditions of the reversal of the Nineteenth Amendment, one must understand several things: the aftermath of the 2015 presidential election of Maithripala Sirisena, the comparatively more moderate candidate under the United National Party (UNP); the collective and self-serving amnesia of the Tamil genocide by the international community following the emergence of a seemingly “progressive” leader in Sri Lanka; and above all, the profound failure of transitional justice mechanisms to deliver justice in a “post-conflict” setting.

Tamil victim-survivors are living out the daily consequence of this failure in the North East, where they live under military occupation and endure state-sponsored colonization of their lands, and are seeking answers for their disappeared loved ones.

The marginal victory of Sirisena in 2015 on a platform of “good governance” defeated the long-standing rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, ushering in renewed faith from the international community following Sri Lanka’s period of isolation post-2009. It also brought forward promises of reform and reconciliation.

At the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in 2015, the UNP government cosponsored Resolution 30/1, which included a series of mechanisms that would address the legacy of the war. Sirisena pledged to establish four mechanisms to actualize Resolution 30/1, which included a hybrid judicial mechanism with foreign participation to try persons accused of committing war crimes, an Office for Missing Persons (OMP), an Office for Reparations, and a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence.

In the years that followed the enactment of 30/1, little progress was achieved in establishing these mechanisms, with only the OMP becoming operationalized — albeit with significant criticism from the victim-survivor community. Senior Sri Lankan officials repeatedly and resolutely rejected international justice mechanisms while Tamil activists in the North East and diaspora demanded accountability.

In 2017,  Sirisena stated that he was “not a traitor” and that there will be no “international war crimes tribunals or foreign judges.” In the same year he was shortlisted by the Peace Research Institute Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize for his “insistence of inclusive reconciliation.” It is this outright dismissal of Tamil victim-survivors that led to demands for a wholly international process for justice accountability, such as at the International Criminal Court.

Unsurprisingly, in 2020, shortly after the presidential election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka formally withdrew from Resolution 30/1. In a similar pattern to the Nineteenth Amendment, what was hailed by the international community in 2015 holds no merit merely five years later. The parade of progress in Sri Lanka has revealed itself to be nothing more than a catalyst into authoritarianism. The transitional justice mechanisms outlined in 30/1 are meaningless words that have left Tamil victim-survivors more vulnerable to violence.

It is in this context that Tamil families of the disappeared marked 1,289 days of protest on the International Day of the Disappeared last month. Gathered en masse in Batticaloa, Jaffna, and Mullaitivu, they decried the OMP, a post-2015 entity that has failed to center the families’ demands for justice and call for international accountability mechanisms.

Their resistance occurs against extreme state surveillance, and threats and harassment by the state. International state actors and politicians that once voiced their enthusiastic support for the OMP remain noticeably silent. A 2020 report by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reads: “the recurrence of disappearances following the change in Government has raised serious questions about the ability and willingness to end the practice all together.”

Achieving justice in Sri Lanka depends on mechanisms that understand and address the stain of impunity that has propelled war criminals into parliament. Tamil victim-survivors continue to stage protests calling for accountability rather than “peacebuilding” and “reconciliation.”

International governments must take heed and end bilateral military cooperation with the Sri Lankan army. The UN Security Council must refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court and UN Member States should bring a case against Sri Lanka at the International Court of Justice. Justice is the only thing that can interrupt Sri Lanka’s cycles of violence.  Anything less will fuel Sri Lanka’s autocracy.

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Abarna Selvarajah is a Canadian advocacy officer with People for Equality And Relief in Lanka. She is a MA student in the Social Justice Education program at the Ontario Institute for Social Education, University of Toronto.

Brannavy Jeyasundaram is the operations officer for the Washington, DC–based People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL).

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