Charu Lata Hogg
Associate Fellow, Asia Programme
President Mahinda Rajapakse has serious questions to answer about international war crimes allegations and domestic political volatility.
Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse prays during a religious ceremony in the port of Hambantota on 22 June 2014. Photo credit by Getty Images.Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse prays during a religious ceremony in the port of Hambantota on 22 June 2014. Photo credit by Getty Images.

On 23 October,  international media reported that the Sri Lankan government had hired its sixth Washington firm to conduct ‘outreach to US media, opinion leaders and possibly US officials’. Re-calibrating American policy towards Sri Lanka has been a key focus of the island nation’s foreign strategy since the United States became the leading proponent of consecutive resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council, calling for accountability in a civil war which lasted nearly three decades. The end of the war was brutal, and both government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) committed serious human rights violations. In a campaign for justice led by the US and actively supported by the UK, the UN Human Rights Council voted to ask the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE for allegations of war crimes and report back to the Council.

The UN investigation currently underway continues to cast a shadow over President Mahinda Rajapakse’s political future. In response, the government is beefing up its own internal measures: In July, it appointed five international legal experts, including two Britons, to be part of an advisory panel linked to the presidential commission investigating the  ‘facts and circumstances that led to the loss of civilian life’ in the final stages of the conflict. Credible Sri Lankan groups like the Centre for Policy Alternatives have already called into question the integrity and credibility of this process.

Apart from the larger issue of delivering justice, President Rajapakse is under fire from his own electorate. In a move likely triggered by his diminishing popularity, Rajapakse declared presidential elections for January 2015, nearly two years ahead of schedule. His ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) party suffered withering losses at the recent provincial council elections, with its share of the vote dropping by more than 20 percentage points from the last election in 2009, reflecting voters’ increasing discontent with rising inflation and rampant corruption. Simmering violence against the Tamil and Muslim minorities, repression of the media and growing concerns over government abuses of power have heightened the popular perception that the post-war peace dividend continues to elude Sri Lanka.

On 30 October,  the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern about the 18th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, adopted by Rajapakse in September 2010, which discontinued the Constitutional Council and empowered the president to dismiss or appoint members of the judiciary and other independent bodies. The committee also expressed its concerns at the impeachment of the former chief justice in January 2013 under circumstances that raised serious doubts about its consistency with basic principles of due process and judicial independence.

In the upcoming elections, Rajapakse is likely to rely heavily on Sinhala nationalist themes, claiming that he alone can preserve peace and prevent a revival of the LTTE, which his supporters allege is being fomented abroad and domestically. To that end, space for negotiations over a devolution of political power from the central government to the elected Tamil leadership in the north has been limited, and military control over the north and east continues to stall genuine post-war reconciliation. According to the 2013 Global Militarization Index, an indicator which assesses the  relative weight and importance of the military apparatus of one state in relation to its society as a whole, Sri Lanka is ranked 36th, far ahead of its South Asian neighbours, including India (74th) and even Pakistan (47th). Sri Lanka faces no external challenge and evidence about a resurgence of the LTTE within the country is thin. Militarization of northern Sri Lanka is developing in a complex and multi-layered process. The military has become increasingly involved in civil administration, development and commercial activities, and thus is becoming the government’s administrative arm in the north.

However, Rajapakse’s political vulnerability has not united the opposition: the largest opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) remains fractured and caught in an internal power struggle:  During the recent provincial council campaign, UNP leaders were unable to agree on a common candidate for the deputy leader’s position. Driven by ambition and unable to unite on a platform of constitutional reform, which would begin with the abolition of the executive presidency, the UNP is unlikely to pose a significant political challenge to the current government.

To complicate matters further, the Sinhala right led by parties such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and the Jathika Hela Urumuya (JHU) could further fracture the Sinhala vote, potentially delivering an unclear result. In the Sri Lankan electoral system, if no candidate wins a clear majority, the top two candidates receive the second preferences from those who voted for the remaining candidates. There are concerns that Rajapakse would not peacefully accept defeat, a situation which  could result in serious post-election violence.

In this situation of volatility, there is a genuine risk of the military emerging from the shadows as a serious contender in Sri Lanka’s politics. Currently, Rajapakse’s government is using the military to promote and safeguard its authority in relation to both minorities and Sinhala Buddhists. However, should next January’s elections turn violent, there are serious concerns that the military might take the opportunity to seize control despite the fact that coups have so far eluded Sri Lanka. In such a scenario, Sri Lanka’s beleaguered democracy would be the ultimate loser.

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