23 May, 2022


A Decisive Blow At The Ballot Box

By Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

For too long, the international news focus on Sri Lanka had been overwhelmingly negative. A relentless civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and majority Sinhalese governments transformed this small island nation balancing precariously off the tip of Southern India from being the pride of South Asia at the time of shaking off its colonial fetters to the British Raj in 1948, to a land of profound agony.

Sri Lanka was able to foster an independent judiciary, a critical media and a strong public service for only a few decades after independence. Ethnic conflict was not the sole reason for this regression. In the 1970’s and more radically in the 1980’s, Southern Sinhala Marxist revolutionaries were brutally crushed by government forces which carried out reprisals against entire villages.

The State militarily combated (majority) Sinhalese revolutionaries and (minority) Tamil separatists without rationally identifying causes of unrest for either. Constitutional protection of civil liberties by a judiciary once respected throughout the Commonwealth yielded to political expediency. The consequences were devastating.

In the war ravaged North and East inhabited by predominantly Tamil speaking civilians, state forces targeted LTTE and innocent Tamils alike. In other parts of the country, the majority Sinhalese were targeted by LTTE suicide squads. The Muslims constituting Sri Lanka’s other minority were ruthlessly evicted by the LTTE from what they termed as Tamil homelands in the East. Sri Lanka brought itself under emergency rule amidst unprecedented human rights abuses by state and non-state actors. Journalists, human rights defenders and public interest lawyers began fighting to protect the few precious freedoms left, with their backs metaphorically – and sometimes literally – to the wall.

Mahinda MaithriFollowing the defeat of the LTTE by government forces in May 2009 amidst serious loss of civilian lives, fractured communities still could not unite. Instead, an ominous state-military apparatus spread its tentacles as directed by a single political family; the Rajapaksas. One brother (Mahinda) was the all-powerful Executive President, the other (Gotabaya) was the feared Secretary, Defence, another (Basil) was the Minister of Economic Development and yet another brother (Chamal), became the Speaker of Parliament.

This was unprecedented family aggrandizement in a country with a long standing albeit flawed democratic record. Positing themselves as Sinhalese Buddhist saviours of the nation, rank racism flavoured the Rajapaksa rhetoric to an extent not seen even at the height of war. Physical development of the Northern peninsula was thought to compel the ‘vanquished’ Tamil citizenry to succumb to the State. Meanwhile, the ‘taming’ of the Muslim community was attempted by systematic attacks on mosques and business establishments. The Rule of Law was further undermined by the dismissal of a Chief Justice through a farcical parliamentary impeachment and the arbitrary jailing of a former Army Commander for daring to contest the Rajapaksas.

But sickened by grossly corrupt familial rule, the people fought back. In a January 2015 presidential election prematurely called by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the hope of perpetuating his family dynasty, the oppressed worm turned with a vengeance. Voting to oust him, Sri Lankans opted for a surprising choice; Rajapaksa’s own Minister of Health and the General Secretary of the party, Maithripala Sirisena who had left the President’s ranks in a surgically swift and sudden strike, uniting Sri Lanka’s main opposition party, the United National Party UNP), other disparate opposition forces and civil society behind him.

This mild mannered and unassuming son of a farmer from the Rajarata (a historic capital of Sri Lanka’s ancient kings) had been ridiculed by his opponents for not possessing the habitually arrogant machismo of national political leaders. Yet he proved his detractors wrong. During the eight months that followed, President Sirisena and the interim UNP minority government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pushed through a progressive constitutional amendment but were blocked at every turn by former President Rajapaksa and his party faithful. Extraordinarily thereafter, the former President decided to contest the parliamentary poll declared on August 17th 2015 with the aim of becoming the Prime Minister.

It was precisely at this point that the Sri Lankan citizenry delivered their second and most decisive blow to Rajapaksa hopes. In accordance with President Sirisena’s repeated cautions, they declined to give Rajapaksa the required Parliamentary majority to claim the Prime Minister-ship opting instead to continue the UNP government through a coalition with other parties.

In truth, the President’s straight-from-the-shoulder identification of a deplorably divisive Rajapaksa agenda had captured the hearts and minds of Sinhalese voters. While the January Presidential victory had been scornfully dismissed by Rajapaksa supporters as ‘engineered’ by minority votes, the August Parliamentary victory could not be categorized as such by any stretch of the imagination. Large swathes of the Sinhalese Buddhist heartland in the Central, North-Central and other provinces rejected the Rajapaksa appeal. Even in the North-Western Province, home to great numbers of Sinhala-soldier families from which Mahinda Rajapaksa had deliberately decided to contest by exploiting the war victory, he performed only lackadaisically, winning large preferences votes but not sweeping the boards against the rival opposition as widely expected. In fact, the anti-Rajapaksa factor motivated some voters to opt for the UNP despite the perception of elitism which clings to that party.

Indeed, the direct rejection of racism was a major seismic shift evident in Sri Lanka’s August polls. Racist parties in the North as well as in the South, including a party of xenophobic Buddhist monks, were comprehensively routed. The public mood was supportive of good governance. The impeccable conducting of the poll testified to this. As an eerily quiet polling day drew to a close, there were only a few crackers that went off sporadically when the results were being announced. To Sri Lankans accustomed to elections more similar to carnivals with boisterously quarrelsome revelry and bouts of violence thrown in for good measure, this was a new experience. So too was rigorous implementation of strict instructions issued by Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya.

That said, the reform agenda remains daunting. Paralyzed by decades of political interference, restoration of an independent media, judiciary and public service will doubtless be difficult. In a book on Sri Lanka’s Embattled Media (Sage, January 2015) co-edited by Drs David Page, William Crawley of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and myself, it was argued that enabling media freedom in Sri Lanka is arduous and many faceted. Structural and policy reform including the enactment of a Right to Information (RTI) Act and codifying restrictive common law practice on contempt of court is imperative.

To some extent, political will to ensure reforms is evidenced. The Wickremesinghe government prepared a draft RTI Act in conformity with international best practice but was unable to proceed further due to hostile parliamentary pressure. Yet worryingly the government resorted to parliamentary privilege to stop discussion of a draft interim parliamentary report highlighting a financial scandal within its ranks. Further, President Sirisena’s reactivation of a politically compromised Press Council some months ago does not bode well for constitutional governance.

These hiccups aside, the August parliamentary poll represents the best chance that Sri Lanka has to democratically rebuild, ensuring state accountability for war time excesses as well as justice to those who have suffered. A pending inquiry report before the United Nations Human Rights Council in September makes this task imperative.

But for the moment, the maturity of the Sri Lankan electorate has been demonstrated in the face of huge odds. And for those of us fighting the good fight, this may well be the (tentative) realization of our once forlorn hopes.

*Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena is a Colombo based civil liberties advocate, columnist for the Sunday Times, Colombo and author. Her recent books include The Rule of Law in Decline (Copenhagen, 2009) and Still Seeking Justice (Geneva, 2010). Version of this piece was carried in the September 2015 issue of Asian Affairs, London, United Kingdom.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    ” majority Sinhalese governments transformed this small island nation “

    The demographics of the island being what they are, Sri Lanka CANNOT have any other kind of government elected DEMOCRATically. Post-election, it still has a majority Sinhala government and the author’s expectations can’t therefore be any different.

    • 15

      Great were the expectations on January 8th. Greater still are the disappointments of September 8th. With unerring sequence, all the ethical bolts for Good Governance are being removed. There will be no more anchoring.

      What was thought to electrify the nation has electrocuted the citizens.

      • 4

        Wake up MS and RW

  • 6

    There is a report out by Freedom from Torture, called ‘Tainted Peace’ which suggests that little has changed in the North and East and the security forces still operate with impunity under the new regime. Will Sirisena be culpable for human rights abuses committed under his watch?

  • 1

    [Edited out] Please avoid typing all capitalized comments – CT

  • 7


    If the gargantuan cabinet created as a result of buying the allegiance of rogue pole-vaulting utterly reprehensible MPs is any yardstick to go by, please be assured the changed guards of early this year and reinforced in August 17 are nothing but politicians well on their way to doing business as usual. Yahapalanaya Meastro My3 who we welcomed with euphoria and a sense of relief is already into wheeler- dealer politics rather than sticking to the plan he was mandated to do. His inaugural speech was full of holes and not of the man who said he will leave the job once the EP is abolished. Unfortunately for us the voters, his partner in crime is that inept and parasitic UNP leader Ranil.

    We the citizenry will have to alternate between hope and disillusionment till kingdom come when it comes to politics in Sri Lanka.

    • 9

      Is the introduction of the President’s daugher into the Polonnaruwa poltico-administrative scene, an indication of things to come or a symptoms of what is happening already? The bloated cabinet, the bringing in of defeated candidates into parliament through the national list and making them ( inclusive of the darkest monsters among them) ministers, and the unfolding scene relating to the President’s daugher, do not portend well for this country. Are we making deals and accomodation with the very forces and phenomenon that the Yahapalanaya movement was exxpected to subdue and defeat? Expediency has been the curse of Sri Lanka and it has reared its ugly head again! We are headed along the same old path once again.

      Ven. Maduluwe Sobitha Thera- whom I conisder the concience of this nation- should make his voice heard and mobilise public opinion against what is happening. What happened to the agrement he signed with all political parties?

      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

      • 1

        Dr RN,

        Maduluwewa Sobitha Thera is hiding somewhere with utter disbelief at what he is witnessing. All that hard work to oust the abhorrent mafia family is slowly coming to naught. Poor Sobitha Thera, must be squirming on his seat.

        It is time another mass movement is galvanised to stop this kind of citizen abuse by utterly predictable smooth talking politicians.

  • 2

    We should give the President and the Prime Minister a little room to;

    First – to form a stable government. With back stabbers and cut throats among the vast majority of SLFP MPs it is a necessary move to have a majority to govern even though one has to ” cohabit with the devil”.

    The above was amply illustrated by the UPFA members during the 7 month rule (January to July).

    Second – The President will make his move at the right time (just like he did with the letter to Mahinda Rajapaksa the sacking of the two General Secretaries.

    Third – Even though everyone seems to call the President all kinds of names, he has always come out the winner in the end.

    Sri Lankans do not ever under-estimate him.

    The “Dogs will Bark” in the gutter press of numerous insignificant epapers.

    JP / USA

    • 1

      Can a stable and by inference a performing govenment be built on a foundation that is being laid?

      The 19th amendment was an example of what happens when expediency and opportunism govern national affairs.

      Its not dogs barking but sirens with revolving red lights beginning to sound!

      The quantum of work that needs to be done, demand clear headed thinking and determined action, not eternal chess games.

      Dr. RN

  • 1

    Ms Kishali,


    Paralyzed by decades of political interference, restoration of an independent media, judiciary and public service will doubtless be difficult.


    The first three tiers of the media, judiciary and the public service are guilty of having aided and abetted the politicians for fear and/or favour.

    Any investigation will be derailed as they try to protect themselves from the guilt and penalties for having succumbed, to the whims and fancies of those who were / are in control.

    In the middle of this same ladder we have the businessmen who pandered to the whims and fancies of these so called “political” rogues to amass wealth by corruption – they too will do everything possible to make sure that they are not held responsible for their guilt ridden associations – most of this block are hand in glove with the administrators of the bring back MAHINDA campaign.

    From the bottom rung of the ladder, we have the thugs, the illicit peddlers of mind altering substances including alcohol. The mercenaries from all ilks.

    Yes, it will “doubtless be difficult” BUT it must be done.

    It can ONLY be attained if it becomes the will of the people – Every new set of politicians will continue cry wolf about malady this to get elected.

    • 1

      Disagree. Do not find excuses for the blatant disregard for good governance by the new govt- especially MS

      What a true and great leader should have and could have done is shown his mettle by doing the right thing- irrespective of the difficulties- and slowly and surely won over the peoples confidence. He has now dashed that.

      MS is only trying to ensure his own security with scant regard for the country and its people

      As I see it, we didn’t really need an election at all.. and all those “lectures and appeals ” on choosing untainted people to run our country.

      Can you just imagine what this jumbo cabinet will cost the tax payer? Can you not see that even the allocation of portfolios is riddled with confusion and overlapping areas

      For people who said RW is a good administrator.. I say.. Really?????? How on earth could he allow this to happen??? Is he so indebted to Sirisena that he has to agree to such madness?

      Sirisena is turning out to be a far greater dictator than MR.

  • 6

    Gargantuan language but meaningless.

    The writer says ” the maturity of the sri lankan voter has demonstrated….”

    The same maturity has been demonstrated from 1948 or is it mature only when they vote for the UNP and christian based ideologies ?

  • 3

    “…. unprecedented family aggrandizement..” Kishali?
    Phew, that descriptor is a bit exaggerated isn’t it, when these 4 brothers (MR, GR, Basil and Chamal) were better qualified than some others in positions within today’s leadership positions?
    Besides, there should be no embarrassment about it since they were elected, were qualified and above all, they delivered the goods!

    • 1

      “They delivered the (STOLEN/LOOTED/PLUNDERED) goods…”

    • 3

      Very aptly put by CountryFirst. (An error “they were all elected”. Not GR.) I cannot recall a minister who had done a better job than GR ever in the history of the country. To accuse MR of wanting to hand over the presidency to Namal is ridiculous. It is often said by anti MR propagandists. Presidents are elected by the people and cannot be appointed by an outgoing president. No wonder NGOs have earned scant regard by the population at large when Civil Liberties Advocates are no more than propagandists. No doubt MR made mistakes during his presidency and warrants critisism and condemnation but, to fabricate and circulate accusations smacks lacking of journalistic ethics. But then NGOs are exempt from ethics it seems!

    • 2


      You are absolutely right. Country should be first not individuals nor a clan.

      “Besides, there should be no embarrassment about it since they were elected, were qualified and above all, they delivered the goods!”

      What sort of goods did the clan deliver, one may ask?

      • 2

        “Delivered the goods” is an idiomatic phrase. The MR presidency delivered what a govt. is expected to do.i.e.,
        First off it secured the country from being hostaged to terrorism.
        Secondly it developed the infrastructure and readied it for local and foreign investment and economic development.
        All in a matter of 5yr.

        Let us see what the Sirisena presidency delivers under its watch.

        • 2


          “Let us see what the Sirisena presidency delivers under its watch.”

          Haven’t you checked the names of ministers appointed recently? Sirisena has delivered, beneficiaries are the crooks, criminals, clan members, ….. Aren’t you happy they are back in business? What more do you want him to deliver?

          “First off it secured the country from being hostaged to terrorism”

          MR and Gota are eternally grateful to VP and Hindia.
          MR delivered a large amount to VP
          MR clan delivered huge amount to themselves.

  • 2

    Madam, for a reputed writer, your piece is very dated. Not a single idea which has not been spoken before (by others).

    What happened to you?

  • 0

    Mr Lal,

    You absolutely spot one – if you believe that the END JUSTIFIES IT MEANS.

    But the End does not justify its means.

    So Gotayaba was out of order – and he will pay for the consequences.

    SO BE IT –

    • 0

      Sure, if found guilty, consequences must follow. Sadly, not in Sri Lanka. Elections will come and go but higher echelons of any govt will be those with corrupt or accused of same. Seems there is an understanding amongst warring parties not to pursue with legal proceedings. Corruption was the CRY leadsing upto the prez elections in Jan 8. Yet, nobody of importance has been charged 8 months later. Why?

  • 1

    to Ms Kishal Pinto-J,
    Thanks for you update on the nation’s political history from 1948 – 2015 noting many unsavoury incidents. There have been unpardonable crimes along the way, yet you named only the Rajapakse who reined for 10years. The massacres of the period in 1988 – 1989 under whose watch they occurred are not named and they are back in power now. Yet, you rejoice! Civil Liberties Advocates need to be truthful and impartial to be effective and the lack of which have contributed to the current sad state of affairs in the nation.

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