Sri Lanka’s Political Faltering and Entrenched Ethnic Divisions

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa in an Independence Day speech to ease tensions over the recent arrest of opposition leader Saratha Fonseka, following elections in January 2010. Photo courtesy of Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters.

September 9, 2011

Brookline, MA

After more than a quarter century of violence and ethnic division, the world had cause to hope that Sri Lanka’s May 2009 military victory over the rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, would finally bring peace to the small island nation.  That fragile peace now appears fraught with tension as longstanding emergency laws remain in place, allowing the government unrestricted detention and military surveillance over ethnic minority Tamils in the North.

Despite international criticism and high level reviews conducted by independent organizations like New York-based Human Rights Watch, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government still detains 3,000 former rebels of the 11,000 that surrendered at the end of the war. The Sri Lankan government has been accused of widespread abuses in its efforts to stamp out the insurgency, and a UN panel has cited the possible slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians in the final push northward.[1]

Presidential elections in January 2010 following the military campaign ensured Rajapaksa’s enduring power, as he consolidated his grasp on the presidency and proposed to amend the constitution in order to remove presidential term limits.  He arrested the opposition leader Saratha Fonseka, a former general and leading ally in the war against the Tamil Tigers.  Mr. Rajapaksa had in fact campaigned on a platform to devolve power by giving more representation to regional bureaus. Ironically, he may now be rescinding those offers because elections this summer gave Tamils a majority in 18 of 26 local councils in the North and East of the country, regions with abiding loyalties to the ethnic minority.[2]

The Rajapaksa administration has promised to rebuild infrastructure, schools, and health services in the war torn areas, focusing on national reconciliation between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil population.  Those vows look strikingly hollow as little development has been made on these fronts.  If Rajapaksa can give credence to his reform platform by decentralizing power, releasing prisoners, and bolstering local representation as well as development, he may be able to pave the way toward lasting peace and stability. But if the President continues to consolidate power and ignore Tamil demands for equal opportunities and welfare, the country may resort to its violent tradition of ethnic division.

[1] Bharatha Mallawarachi, “Sri Lanka Said to Still Violate Rights: Laws Keep Many Ex-Rebels in Jail,” in The Boston Globe, Sept. 9, 2011.

[2] Lydia Polgreen, “Tamil Parties Make Strong Showing in Sri Lanka,” in The New York Times, July 24, 2011.

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