Jan. 26, 2010 was an auspicious day for the people of northern Sri Lanka. They were eagerly waiting to vote in the first presidential election since the Sri Lankan Civil War between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government came to an end in May 2009. But what followed was a crisis that requires international attention.
The ruling party candidate, Mahinda Rajapakse, asked the people to show gratitude for bringing the 30-year war to an end, and to strengthen his mandate to continue his policies. A coalition of opposition parties offered former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka as their common candidate and asked for a mandate to start a reconciliation process with the Tamils in the north. They also demanded the abolishment of the executive presidency, which is powerful enough to overrule decisions made by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, in order to empower the Parliament to be more responsible to the people by enacting new laws to fight state corruption, foster democracy, and promote freedom of expression. These demands stemmed from the fact that Sri Lanka has already had three armed uprisings after independence because of a rigid system of government.
Following unprecedented levels of abuse of state media by the ruling party candidate, the election commissioner demanded that all media follow ethical guidelines. Upon the state’s failure to enforce law, on Jan. 16, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka ordered the media to follow the guidelines of the election commissioner. This order fell on deaf ears. Violence escalated, and by Jan. 26, four people had died.
The violence did not stop there. On election day, people in the camps for internally displaced people in northern Sri Lanka waited in vain for the buses that were supposed to bring them to their polling stations. The bomb blasts that rocked some areas in the north reminded them of the horror of the war that ended just few months ago and scared many voters away. Fear brought voter turnout down to 20 percent in the north. But 70 percent out of those who ventured out to vote chose Fonseka’s cause. That sent the south a strong message that people in the north were thirsty for reconciliation, democracy, and freedom.
On Jan. 27, Sri Lankans realized that Rajapakse, the ruling party candidate, had won with a majority of 57 percent. Some bewildered voters questioned the results and started to spread rumors that the results had been rigged. However, according to state media, those rumors had been originated with malicious intent. Soon, the police arrested three people for sending out politically sensitive text messages.
A whole section of society was silenced while Rajapakse’s supporters celebrated. I tried to contact my friends who supported Fonseka, but they hung up the phone in fear. The election commissioner came out to officially announce the election results on the evening of Jan. 27. Soon after announcing the results, the government sent troops to encircle Fonseka’s hotel. Fonseka then requested that the Sri Lankan Elections Commission help protect his life and freedom of movement.
Some people might recommend that the international community impose sanctions on Sri Lanka in response to this crisis, but that would be unwise. The conventional policy of cornering governments that restrict democracy enables their leaders to further boost their patriotic image through state media by painting a portrait of a brave leader who stands strong against interfering Western imperialists. This further victimizes people in many ways: it provides leaders with a golden opportunity to censure the media, an opportunity to instill fear among people, a justification to arrest people on charges of conspiracy, and a reason to align with corrupt foreign governments that wait for an opportunity to exploit the situation. Mahinda Rajapakse’s government has already taken measures to block several web based news sources from people living in Sri Lanka. The government has already started to arrest newspaper editors.
In lieu of sanctions, the world must come up with innovative solutions that help oppressed Sri Lankans protect their democratic rights while imposing diplomatic pressure directly on leaders who restrict people’s rights. There are many people in Sri Lanka who are afraid to question the election results because they live in fear of persecution. Governments worldwide must take urgent measures to impose the highest level of diplomatic pressure on the government of Sri Lanka to stop arresting people for any conversation related to the election—this policy breeds extremism.
As a long-term measure, I urge foreign governments to give a higher priority to investments in credible information technology solutions to stop ballot rigging in the list of foreign aid to Sri Lanka. Finally, I implore all concerned countries to avoid imposing economic sanctions on Sri Lanka—they will only further victimize the victimized: individuals who love freedom more than most of their democratically elected leaders.
*This article first appeared at Harvard Crimson on February 3, 2010
Emil van der Poorten / September 20, 2013
Thrishantha Nanayakkara is to be congratulated on yet another contribution to CT which projects honesty and sincerity.
I was particularly intrigued by his appeal to aid-donors, “As a long-term measure, I urge foreign governments to give a higher priority to investments in credible information technology solutions to stop ballot rigging in the list of foreign aid to Sri Lanka.”
It makes eminent practical sense and those able to provide financial assistance to the development (return?) of democracy to Sri Lanka would find their efforts much better rewarded in terms of results if they began to follow TN’s suggestion, rather than mouth empty platitudes about “democratic principles” and the need to practice them!
dinuk / September 20, 2013
Thanks Thrishantha, a good piece but a little bit naive about elections which really are the VIOLENCE AND RIOTS AND RACISM open season in South Asia, as well as, the international role in militarizing Lanka and collaborating with Gota the goon’s security shows and DEEP STATE or state within a state..
International “aid”/loan donors have been actively supporting or remain silent about the post- war militarization of the country by Gota the war criminal. Indian and China are militarizing Lanka because of their own interests, while the US is selling arms to India to boost its economy and fight China in the Indian Ocean – but all this regional militarization is detrimental to Democracy Within Sri Lanka which is increasingly a MILITARY DICTATORSHIP with a DEEP STATE and facade of democracy.
Sinhala Civil society should hence call for Lanka to be a “demilitarized zone of peace in the Indian Ocean”, now that the LTTE is gone. The World Bank and IMF that preaches “good governance” and “Do No Harm” (aid should not fuel conflict) in transitional contexts has been funding and subsidizing the expansion of the Ministry of Defense via the UDA. This MUST BE STOPPED and WB closed down! UN claims to be expert in DDR – Demobilizing and reintegrating militaries after conflict has been remarkably silent on the need to DOWNSIZE and right size the military of Sri Lanka, so civil society MUST speak in one voice on this matter and loud and clear – Sri Lanka needs a ROAD MAP FOR DEMILITARIZATION TO RESTORE DEMOCRACY and donors need to help civil society rather than funding that clown Vasu’s Ministry who hasn’t got a clue about social integration..
2. Civil society must also formulate a clear EXIT STRATEGY and plan for PEACEFUL REGIME CHANGE for the CORRUPT and Criminal Rajapassa brothers, sons, extended family cronies who are looting Lanka and are following the Prabakaran model of dictatorship for life. For this, a critique of political culture of dictatorship within ALL POLITICAL PARTIES and the NGO sector needs to be developed and VOTER EDUCATION on need to clean up corrupt governance across the board is important. The culture of geriatrics holding onto positions of power – particularly in the leftist circles – viz . the dead leftists like Vasu and Ranil in the UNP as well as in the Colombo NGO sector needs to be challenged.. this rotten culture of never giving up power is pervasive in political culture – both govt and NGOs!
Thrishantha / September 20, 2013
A good critic. Can you post this under the original note on Harvard Crimson too?
Luxmy Silva / September 21, 2013
How will you make readers visit the site after 3yrs?
Dodo / September 20, 2013
Many think that elections are a sign of democracy and perhaps they are in the appropriate context. In Sri Lanka the practice of Staggered elections renders elections a circus for the abuse of power and state resources by the Rajapakse Dictatorship. Staggered elections should be ABOLISHED to reform the system.
Secondly, We have hear of hundreds of elections violations and complaints. But the perpetrators who are overwhelmingly from the govt. go free. What precisely is the point of collecting all these complaints if nothing is done to hold the violators accountable and put behind bars?
How many complaints does it take for the elections to be called an illegal circus that provides a FACADE of democracy for the Rajapassa military dictatorship? In any case the habit of staggered election must be STOPPED.
The elections monitors form the SAARC, Commonwealth of Clowns ,and UN need to provide answers to these questions. Unless they categorically hold accountable the Regime for countless violations and seek accountability, these observers are merely part of the international aid circus.. The election violation complaints that are unattended merely PROMOTES the current Rajapassa CULTURE OF IMPUNITY!
Peace Lover / September 20, 2013
Thanks Thrishantha but these ideas sadly will remain a dream for many of us
manel fonseka / September 20, 2013
‘The ruling party candidate, Mahinda Rajapakse, asked the people to show gratitude for bringing the 30-year war to an end, and to strengthen his mandate to continue his policies’…but
‘But [in the north] 70 percent out of those who ventured out to vote chose Fonseka’s cause. That sent the south a strong message that people in the north WERE THIRSTY FOR RECONCILIATION, DEMOCRACY, AND FREEDOM.’
This reminds me of the first general election in Britain when the great imperialist Churchill was a hero for his role in the war against the Axis powers. The British people were rewarded for those long hard, tighten-your-belt, & shed blood, sweat & tears, years, with the Welfare state & all the benefits that brought in the fields of health & education particularly. True, Britain drew upon her colonies’ wealth to fund this, but nevertheless, it is doubtful that Churchillian leadership, so geared to war, would have proved what the people needed in time of peace.
Senguttuvan / September 21, 2013
Precisely, dear Manel. But Churchill did not have to then contend with the insidious religious side of the likes of the Buddhist extreme here that have stood in the way between reconciliation, economic progress and prosperity – particularly since 1956. Violence and even assassination is part of their trade. I am puzzled why
the foreign Press does not home on this recurring menace. I can fully
understand even the more gallant of the local media did not risk to
touch this hornest’s nest when we had men of high calibre in the vanguard of the media. It is now collutionist mice, generally ignorant to the core. And, to use the description of Mangala S “most of whom could be bought over with a bottle of arrack” Naturally, there still remain a few who are an exception to the rule to whom I tip my cap.
Thondamanaru / September 20, 2013
Some bewildered voters questioned the results ….. This happens everywhere when the loosers are unable accept defeat.
Anyway, Thrishantha.N with all his education have showed time and time again the fact his [Edited out]
How can elections be a sign of Democracy when George.W.Bush robbed the ellection fro0m Al Gore in broad day light for the whole world to see in a country known to uphold & preach democracy & human rights to the world and then go onto invade Iraq on the pretext of Weapons of Mass destruction.
Hence let SL follow our type of Democracy whether world like it or not. as they have no right to preach to us other than from within and from our very own masses.
masses will decide at an opportune time.
West better correct yourselves first.
hannah.rajaratnam / September 20, 2013
Right,Hoding Elections is the Democratic way.
Holding elections breaking all norms of the civilised and democratic ways of the people’s pursuit to Happiness is another violation of the peoples RIGHTS.
Does the government care about the people’s RIGHTS. No,they don’t seem to care at all.
After every so called ‘democratic election’they end up saying ‘we had a free and fair election’.The people have voted for us- UPFA.!
As for sanctions.Trishantha- What is this about ‘no sanctions should be laid on Sri Lanka’.You seem to be swinging from branch to branch.
Economic sanctions will wake up this government that is marching along hell bent with their own agenda.
We see it,you see it,they see it and the world sees it.
The singhala south must make their voices heard.There is a lot of writing,bickering and fear in the south too but no action.This situation will not make a CHANGE at all.
If the people of Sri Lanka cannot DOWN this government to have their own Peace then they should take another avenue.
You know,I know,they know and the world knows HOW we can do this in our country.But We don’t do much do we.?
If we make the CHANGE ourselves —
Then we don’t have to worry about Economic Sanctions at all.
With the CHANGE we make in our country- Economic help will keep coming unabated without our BEGGING.
It seems you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,so now you are singing a differnt tune.
We can’t have the poisoned cake, try eating and spitting and finally some poison finds its way into us.Cake will be gone and we will be partially poisoned which will throttle us from time to time.
So you see this will be the end.
Sir, you want to take the easy path and give this rediculous suggestion to the south.
Tamils won’t buy it.Too bad.
Give the right advice to the people of Sri Lanka don’t try to advise the International World.
Sounds a stupid suggestion and appeal.
Looks like it is not going to happen – sooner or later Sri Lanka will be in the devils doldrum if WE don’t make the CHANGE ourselves.
Jim softy / September 20, 2013
Look like another useless doctorate.
Live on hypothetical things.
Why don’t you argue that Crusades are still happening ?
Percy Jilmart / September 20, 2013
Sanctions worked against South Africa.
This despotic family government continues to govern with impunity because a majority of the majority supports them.
Western countries have to hit them in the stomach with economic sanctions and deny visas to all Sri Lankans who want to enter the west. That will shock the rich people in this country who support the government.
And finally what will upset the RajaPox supporters the most is if all the test playing countries refuse to tour Sri Lanka and cancel all tournaments to be played in their countries.
Sanctions like this will make our three brain celled idiots think.
Spring Koha / September 21, 2013
I do not agree with economic sanctions and with allowing foreigners the opportunity to interfere in our affairs. Sri Lankans are already suffering from tight visa restrictions, and they are about to get tighter. Ministers and other officials are all but persona non grata in decent capitals, and go under sufferance where they need to. The words of the President and his ministers are treated warily by those who have to deal with them.
I do agree with you that if some of the cricketing nations were to boycott playing Sri Lanka, then our proud people would be galvanised into action, and that would seriously concentrate the minds of our ruling regime and perhaps, just perhaps, change the course of events.
Percy, like your legendary flag waving namesake, you cheer us on in our battle. It may well work. There is nothing like depriving the masses of their favourite fix in order to get a riot going.
hannah.rajaratnam / September 20, 2013
How about CHOGM.?
Spring Koha / September 21, 2013
Firstly, consider the fiasco of Sarath Fonseka. Anyone with an iota of political nous in Sri Lanka at the time we defeated the LTTE would have felt the throbbing pulse of gratitude in the people throughout the land (save possibly in the dazed Northern and Eastern province.) Everywhere the President went he was feted as the saviour who delivered peace. Larger than life cut-outs decorated the highways. Some elevated him to status of King, others to God. It was halcyon days in Medamulana, the capital of Euphoria. Only a fool would stand against MR in an election at that time. Up popped our Sarath; much peeved and in a military strop he stepped up to the plate in high dudgeon. Opposition leaders who had been lifelong politicians ran for cover, hid behind the hansi-puttuwa’s and watched the no-match of the century. The result was really a foregone conclusion though the biggest surprise of all was that our Sarath collected 4million votes. Leave that election aside; it was an aberration. I am not sure that SF is the man to lead us to the promised land. His only use right now is that he may still have enough support in the armed forces who sympathise with the way he was treated and who would defect if the time and circumstances were right. But MR and GR have a vice-like grip on the armed forces today and this precludes any disruptive movement in the country; media and political included. As we have seen, in Katunayake, Chilaw and Weliveriya for example, the boys in fatigues didn’t stop to say grace.
I cannot agree with Thrishantha re the question of involving other countries in our affairs. We should fight our own wars and it really cannot be beyond the smart men and women of this country to devise a strategy and hammer out a solution to deliver a sustainable peace to our people. Foreigners and those of the Diaspora who come to ‘angilli kahanda’, as they say in the vernacular, should be given short shrift. Why do we need outsiders to invest in the integrity of our election processes? Do we not have enough of talent to do it ourselves?
Luxmy Silva / September 21, 2013
”Finally, I implore all concerned countries to avoid imposing economic sanctions on Sri Lanka—they will only further victimize the victimized: individuals who love freedom more than most of their democratically elected leaders”
We may not need economic sanctions – but shifting the venue of CHOGM2013 should be tried to make the point that human rights violations by the state are not accepted.
Luxmy Silva / September 21, 2013
”As a long-term measure, I urge foreign governments to give a higher priority to investments in credible information technology solutions to stop ballot rigging in the list of foreign aid to Sri Lanka. Finally, I implore all concerned countries to avoid imposing economic sanctions on Sri Lanka—they will only further victimize the victimized: individuals who love freedom more than most of their democratically elected leaders” was written 3 yrs ago. After all what happened since then, Thrishantha may have a different view.
Hope Thrishantha responds to this comment.
Thrishantha / September 21, 2013
Still I tend to hold the same view. Technology is a good solution to stop ballot rigging. And I firmly believe that conventional sanctions further push people into the mouth of the perpetrators who live on people’s fear and paranoia. If any sanctions were to be imposed, it should be more focused on the culprits only.
Fathima Fukushima / September 21, 2013
Didn’t you work with the genocidal government army during the war as an advisor plotting the killing of Tamil men, women and children?
manel fonseka / September 21, 2013
Did technology prevent the ballot rigging in Jed Bush’s fiefdom, which led to Al Gore’s defeat?
Dayawathie Gunaratne / September 21, 2013
Quoting it “A whole section of society was silenced while Rajapakse’s supporters celebrated. I tried to contact my friends who supported Fonseka, but they hung up the phone in fear. The election commissioner came out to officially announce the election results on the evening of Jan. 27. Soon after announcing the results, the government sent troops to encircle Fonseka’s hotel. Fonseka then requested that the Sri Lankan Elections Commission help protect his life and freedom of movement.”
This not only you but many that have kept the faith on SF having closely studied the opinion polls held shortly before and the manner how then EC stammered on the TV screen – anyway, I am in a firm belief even today, that none of media men on this earth failed to bring an open discussion with former EC yet. One can lie once, but lies will not lie under the carpet forever :(
hannah.rajaratnam / September 22, 2013
Dayawathie -I hear what you are saying.The upcoming Provincial council results will hit the news stand in a few hours.Lets see whether more will be brushed under the carpet.