|When Sri Lanka’s military forces finally defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009 ending thirty years of civil war, the outcome was greeted in many parts of the country with joy by a people who had endured years of terrorism and violence, writes Saliya Pieris. However, with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, the country now faces another struggle of developing a truly democratic society underpinned by the rule of law, judicial independence and a vibrant civil society.
Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s oldest democracies with domestic political autonomy granted to the people of Ceylon in 1931 by the British. As such, Sri Lanka’s political model was styled upon the British parliamentary system, with an executive prime minister and cabinet responsible to parliament. And from that moment onwards, including through independence in 1948 and the country becoming a republic in 1972, civil society institutionshave remained strong, vibrant and independent. All this notwithstanding periodic civil turmoil including ethnic riots in 1958, the assassination of Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike in 1959, an attempted military coup in 1962 and a student insurrection in 1971. It was not until the 1970s that rollbacks to Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions began to occur.
Sri Lanka’s current president, Mahindra Rajapakse is a charismatic and populist politician who has continued to chip away at democratic institutions, much in the manner of his predecessors, though at a much faster rate. Rajapakse has moved to remove all limits hitherto in place on his powers. Retired Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka who defeated the Tamil Tigers, challenged Rajapakse in the 2010 presidential election but soon after his defeat was arrested and jailed until May 2012. The Constitutional Council and independent commissions were overturned or had their powers truncated, and the limit on two presidential terms was abolished.
Since 2005 there have been several disturbing attacks against independent journalists critical of the government including the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the anti-government newspaper the Sunday Leader. Last July, police carried out raids against several anti-government web sites and arrested employees for allegedly bringing the president’s dignity into contempt. There continue to be state-sanctioned abductions of political activists and several people have died while in police custody. Rajapakse appointed an independent commission, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in 2010 to investigate these activities.
After lengthy deliberations, earlier this year the LLRC released a report calling for an independent judiciary, a transparent legal process and strict adherence to the rule of law. In addition, it called for investigations into abductions and for measures to prevent harassment and attacks against media personnel and civil society institutions.
However, significant problems still remain in Sri Lanka, especially regarding judicial independence. Indeed, the judiciary has suffered a spate of attacks in the past three months. In July, supporters of a government minister attacked a court house in the north of the country. More recently, assailants attacked the Secretary to the Judicial Service Commission after the commission issued a statement alleging unprecedented governmental interference in its operations.
In Sri Lanka itself, not everyone has taken cognizance of the systematic erosion of democratic institutions. The middle and upper classes, including the business community, have mostly shown apathy in confronting these issues, as has the popular media. While many in private will agree that they are concerned about the threats to rule of law and democracy, they dare not voice these opinions in public.
Civil society in Sri Lanka needs to take a more proactive role in challenging the barriers confronting democracy and to bring pressure to bear for change. Encouraging and empowering the people of Sri Lanka and proactively engaging the Sri Lankan government by the international community are important components if this democratic deficit is to be overcome.
|This is an extract from a longer article published by the East-West Center.RTWT.Saliya Pieris is a 2012 Eisenhower Fellow and an Attorney-at-Law who represents cases in Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court. He can be contacted via email at email@example.com.|