Sri Lanka: Elusive Accountability

Sri Lanka’s political scene continues to lack clarity on the presidential election.

5 mins read
A lotus tower and a walking man's reflection can be seen from a waterway in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 23, 2023.

Sri Lankans observe May 1 ‘the International Labour Day” as a holiday. Political parties hold rallies, often as a show of strength. Three decades ago, President Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed by a LTTE suicide bomber, while addressing the United National Party (UNP)’s May Day rally. This year as many as 19 rallies were held in Colombo. The presidential election poised to be held in Sept-October added interest to the rallies. Notable among them was the rally of the UNP addressed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe. The large number of people who turned up at the rally probably cheered Wickremesinghe, after the historic drubbing the UNP suffered in the last parliamentary poll. Wickremesinghe also lost the election.

Sri Lanka also celebrates ‘Victory Day’ on May 18, the day LTTE separatists were defeated when their leader V Prabhakaran was killed. Tamil families observe it as Mullivaikal Day to mourn their kin who perished in thousands in the last stages of war. As has become the norm, in many places zealous policemen prevented families who had gathered to mourn their dead by offering Kanji to others. In contrast, Sri Lankans celebrated the Vesak festival on the full moon day with Dansala, sharing food and goodies with others. Vesak commemorates the birth, enlightenment (nirvana) and enlightenment (Parinirvana) of Buddha.

The month also saw the Amnesty International (AI) Secretary General Agnes Callamard visiting Sri Lanka. During her visit to Mullivaikal, she met with the bereaved families. At the end of her visit, Ms Callamard addressing a press conference made a fervent plea to the Sri Lanka authorities to meet their national and international obligations to find answers as to what happened to thousands of missing and forcibly disappeared people. She regretted the lack of political will by successive governments and called it a stain on Sri Lanka’s reputation and something every Sri Lankan should be concerned with. Entire families of LTTE men that had surrendered had disappeared. “That means young children and babies. I think the Sri Lankans need to ask where are the babies, where are the children?”

As the AI chief pointed out, Sri Lanka has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest number of disappearances in the world – 60,000 to 100,000. Forcible disappearance had started much before the last episode of Eelam War. The Human Rights Watch points out that since the 1970s, “tens of thousands of people have been ‘disappeared’ in Sri Lanka.” While the JVP and LTTE had contributed their share to the tally, HRW says “about 90 percent of them are believed to have been abducted by security forces.” It says the Sri Lanka government had acknowledged that between 1988 and 1990 alone around 27,000 people were forcibly disappeared. The disappeared not only included opposing armed groups but journalists and human rights defenders as well.

Across the Palk Strait, the month of May will be remembered for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on May 21. He was killed by a LTTE suicide bomber while addressing a meeting near Chennai. As PM, Rajiv Gandhi was behind India’s active involvement in support of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. He was the architect of the India-Sri Lanka Agreement (ISLA) in July 1987. Though ISLA prioritises India’s strategic concerns, it led to Sri Lanka’s formal recognition of Tamil identity, language and habitations. Prabhakaran’s mindless killing of Rajiv Gandhi led to the alienation of India’s hands-on involvement in support of the Tamil cause. The LTTE felt its detrimental impact when it fought the last battles that led to its final defeat in May 2009. Fringe elements in Tamil Nadu politics continue to use pro-LTTE political rhetoric to boost their stake in politics. However, Sri Lanka Tamil separatism no longer figures in Tamil Nadu’s mainstream politics. The ban on LTTE activity continues in India. Both central and state authorities ruthlessly act upon any sign of LTTE revival in Indian soil.

Despite the limitations of ISLA, none can deny the Agreement led to 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka constitution paving the way for the creation of provincial councils with limited powers for autonomy. Touching upon ISLA’s shortcomings, Rajiv Gandhi said, “The Government of India believe that, despite some problems and delays, many of which were foreseen but unavoidable in the resolution of an issue of this magnitude and complexity, this Agreement [ISLA] represents the only way of safeguarding legitimate Tamil interests and ensuring a durable peace in Sri Lanka. Some have chosen to criticise the Agreement. None has shown a better way of meeting the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, restoring peace in that country and of meeting our own security concern in the region. We have accepted a role which is difficult, but which is in our national interests to discharge. We shall not shrink our obligations and commitments. This is a national endeavour.”

It is a pity that successive governments in Colombo have failed to use the full implementation of the 13A as a tool for restoring ethnic amity. Instead, they have used the issue to whip up Sinhala Buddhist nationalism to gain political advantage. PM Narendra Modi extended wholehearted financial and material support when Sri Lanka went bankrupt in 2023. This has paved the way for the two countries to build a win-win relationship as never before. However, both PM Modi and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar have not forgotten India’s “obligations and commitments” to Sri Lanka Tamils noted by Rajiv Gandhi. Both have continued to remind Sri Lanka of its obligation to fully implement the 13A, on every occasion of India-Sri Lanka interaction.

Sri Lanka’s political scene continues to lack clarity on the presidential election. Tamil (including Tamils of Indian origin) and Muslim minority roughly form 25 percent of eligible voters. Their vote can make a difference between the winner and loser. In 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidential contest to Maithripala Sirisena, when Tamils and Muslims overwhelmingly voted against him and in favour of Sirisena.

Among the mainstream political leaders Wickremesinghe probably enjoys a better equation with Tamil and Muslim minorities. Wickremesinghe seems to be working on a plan to win over Tamil support. His initiatives on devolution of powers had a poor start as Tamil polity has not been able to come upon a common agenda. In democracies, this is only to be expected. This is where parliamentary initiatives are needed; unfortunately, Sri Lanka parliament has been overwhelmed by existential issues. Paying attention to an “untouchable” issue like devolution of powers to Tamils is not on their priority.

President Wickremesinghe has had some success in restoring land rights of Tamils. On May 24, he attended a function held to distribute 1286 freehold land deeds to people across Jaffna district. Under the “Urumaya” programme, 13,858 freehold land deeds are set to be distributed in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mannar districts of the Northern Province.

Though President Wickremesinghe is serving in the interim capacity, he has come up with a few controversial enactments. The Economic Transformation Bill is one such effort. It sets ambitious targets for the country’s economy for the next two and a half decades. The Bill provides for a National Policy on Economic Transformation and for the establishment of the Economic Commission, Investment Zones Sri Lanka, Office for International Trade, National Productivity Commission, and Sri Lanka Institute of Economics and International Trade. Though the Bill seeks radical changes, it has not been circulated to elicit public opinion. It has the potential to upset Wickremesinghe’s presidential ambitions.

The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has not yet made up its mind on its presidential candidate, though President Wickremesinghe is probably hopeful of winning its support. The opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), which broke away from Ranil’s United National Party (UNP) will probably again field its leader Sajith Premadasa. However, its leader General Sarath Fonseka has announced his intention to contest as an independent. Ranil Wickremesinghe can be hopeful of gaining support from the SJB ranks due to old loyalties. The leftist National People’s Power (NPP) will field the JVP leader AK Dissanayake. Smaller parties like the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP), Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU), Mawbima Janatha Party (MJP) led by entrepreneur Dilith Jayaweera, the Democratic Left Front, the Communist Party and the Independent MP’s Forum have launched the new political movement ‘Sarvajana Balaya’ (SB). It is yet to make up its mind on the presidential election.

Unless Sri Lanka elects a president who is accountable to the people, it matters little to the people. We can only hope the newly elected president is better than the last one.

R Hariharan

Col. R Hariharan is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies

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