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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 49, November 29, 2014

Sri Lanka: A Serious Challenge for Rajapaksa

Monday 1 December 2014, by Apratim Mukarji

For the first time since 2009, when Sri Lanka’s prolonged and bloody civil war ended with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the triumphant President Mahinda Rajapaksa has run into a substantive blockade in his quest for unbridled executive power for himself and his extended family.

It is obvious that irrespective of the popularity of a Head of State and Government, a democratically elected political leader is expected to abide by the Constitution and laws and regulations of the country he represents. Not so President Rajapaksa.

Raajapaksa is simply not inclined to honour the constitutional requirement that he steps down from the presidency at the end of his second consecutive term in office. He wants to continue to be the President of Sri Lanka, and since the Constitution barred him from doing so, he chose the path of amending it.

With a captive parliament at his beck and call, which is presided over by an obliging brother, this was no hard task at all. Another subservient institution, the Supreme Court, honoured his wish sooner than later, and thereafter Rajapaksa graciously announced that he would be the presidential candidate for his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the coalition it leads in the parliament, for the January 8, 2015 election.

However, senior members of the party, most of whom are also in his government, appear to have realised that it is time the President was checkmated if the country had to be prevented from degenerating into a dictatorship.

On November 21, the Health Minister in his Ministry and the number two in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP, the chief constituent of the ruling coalition), Maithripala Sririsena, declared himself as a common Opposition presidential candidate challenging Rajapaksa. Along with him also quit three other Ministers, including a vocal supporter of the devolution of powers to the Northern Province and a Member of Parliament. There are reports that more defections from the SLFP are in the making.

The sudden emergence of a common Opposition candidate challenging Rajapaksa’s planned and unprecedented third term presidency is clearly the outcome of a strong stand taken by an important section of Sri Lankan politicians, academics, lawyers and activists not to allow the President a further free run to subvert the constitutional executive presidency into a tool to serve his and his family’s interests.

As his increasingly authoritarian regime, suppressing and even physically eliminating declared and suspected detractors and subverting the judiciary and the media, had grown enormously powerful, his successful move to amend the Constitution for legitimising an otherwise unconstitutional third term appears to have been the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, and the long dispirited and disunited Opposition finally gathered enough courage to throw a challenge to him.

However, the move of the Opposition, no less daring in the Sri Lankan context though perfectly normal in a democracy, has clearly been made possible by an equally unexpected return of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to electoral politics.

Kumaratunga said that she was returning to active politics after having voluntarily retired nine years ago. Her decision to resume her political career was an outcome of her resolve to rescue the SLFP—a party founded by her father, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, and led for many years by her mother, Sirimavo, and herself—from destruction by the Rajapaksas. Her son had warned her against her desire to rejoin politics because “Mahinda will kill you”. However, it would be a betrayal of the people if she did not support the Opposition in challenging the President.

In any democracy it would be an absolute shock to hear a former President publicly express such fears but it is a reality in Sri Lanka that the physical elimination of a political rival is never an improbability.

Basically, the Opposition move is to attempt its utmost to prevent an outright victory for Rajapaksa. That the President is generally expected to win the election is fairly certain but the result of the recent provincial elections in Uva province, part of the Sinhala-majority and pro-Rajapaksa South, has obviously provided some badly needed optimism to an otherwise listless Opposition. The ruling party managed to win but with a significantly reduced margin.

The united Opposition’s target clearly is the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which has legitimised a third term for the incumbent President and empowers him with further sweeping powers in governing the country. Sirisena said that if elected in January, he would move to abolish the amendment. However, the Opposition is aiming much higher and has called for an abolition of the executive presidency introduced by the Constitution of 1978 and for a return to the Westminster system of government, with which the independent Sri Lanka began its journey.

Not unexpectedly, the government and ruling party has sought to counter the Opposition challenge by alleging that foreign powers are behind the common Opposition candidate and that the whole affair is being masterminded by Kumaratunga.

A Minister said on November 22 that “What happened yesterday (the announcement by Siri-sena) is a link in the chain of foreign conspiracies that seek to destabilise this country. There have been some countries that have pumped money into this scheme through their embassies to establish a puppet regime in Sri Lanka. We warn them to put a stop to these activities.” He also notified that the identity of these forces would be revealed in the near future.

Clearly, the Rajapaksa administration, in office since 2005 and now seeking to perpetuate its rule by another presidential term, has begun to feel the combined pressure of the international community in matters of human rights and a resurgent Opposition throwing up a serious challenge at home.

However, winning the January 8 election is imperative for Rajapaksa not only because of the serious domestic challenge but also because of the ongoing tussle with the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) over the question of the killings of civilians towards the end of the civil war. While by winning the election the President can hope to checkmate the domestic challenge for the time being, tackling the human rights issue has already proved to be troublesome.

Ever since the UNHRC ordered an inter-national probe into the last days of the war last year, the Rajapaksa regime has resorted to all sorts of measures to ensure that no information is leaked out to the probe body. The matter has come to such a pass that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has been forced to accuse the Sri Lankan Government of deliberately thwarting the enquiry.

“A wall of fear has been created that has undoubtedly served to deter people from submitting evidence,” he said on November 7. “Since the end of the conflict in 2009 Sri Lanka has continued to obstruct any investigation despite the persistent, compelling and widespread allegations that possible serious inter-national crimes were committed by both sides (the government forces and the LTTE).”

He said that Sri Lanka was not only not cooperating with the investigation ordered by the UNHRC but was also “continuing (a) campaign of distortion and disinformation”. The government was also trying “to prevent possible bona fide witnesses from submitting information to the investigating team”.

Describing Colombo’s attitude as “an affront” he pointed out: “The government of Sri Lanka has refused point-blank to cooperate with the investigation despite being explicitly requested by the Human Rights Council to do so.” While this had not undermined the enquiry, this behaviour “raises concerns about the integrity of the government in question. Why would governments with nothing to hide go to such extraordinary lengths to sabotage an impartial international investigation?”

Human rights activists, lawyers and journalists have been regularly harassed, physically assaulted and even murdered or forced to flee the country over the last few years as Rajapaksa’s intolerance of public criticism and political opposition grew. Collecting and submitting evidence which would be potentially adversarial to the government in such a claustrophobic atmosphere would be naturally difficult, but obviously the situation had worsened to such an extent that the UN body has been forced to come out publicly against Colombo’s attitude and actions.

As the tug-of-war between one of South Asia’s smaller countries and the world body unfolds, it is not difficult to predict that Colombo would continue to have the upper hand in the matter. But the equations may change if the January 8 election throws up a surprise.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.