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.
Following 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.