Sri Lanka is a country stained by a history of contested identities and civil war. In May 2009 the twenty-six year struggle between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority ended after government forces seized the last area controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels. Post-war Sri Lanka has since slipped off the international stage. Little is known about its President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man walking the corridors of power, unchallenged and unobserved.
It is not political apathy but terror that secures Mahinda Rajapaksa his de facto dictatorship. The legitimacy of a government derives from the consent of the governed, but if that consent derives from fear, if that consent is a product of a suppressed people, that government should not be accepted by the international community. No credible opposition exists in Sri Lanka; the opposition leader Sarath Fonseka, the Army General who won the war, has been in prison since February 2010 and was today given a three-year sentence for making allegations against the President’s brother. An amendment passed last year granted Rajapaksa an unlimited term in office.
The Sri Lankan government is compiled of sportsmen, celebrities and members of Rajapaksa’s own family. One brother (the one Fonseka allegedly defamed) is secretary of the Ministry of Defence. Another brother is the Minister of Economic Development, and another is the Speaker of Parliament. His eldest son and rumoured successor, Namal Rajapaksa, was elected as a Member of Parliament in 2010 and his nephew is the Chief Minister of the Uva Province.
The political system is in disarray. The President has a file on each member of his cabinet containing information that would strip them of their position if they spoke out or made allegations of corruption. Former Deputy Minister Mervin Silva was never reprimanded for tying a public servant to a tree last year after they failed to attend an anti-dengue campaign. More recently the Government’s monitoring MP shot and killed a presidential adviser of the same party.
Press censorship ensures the ignorance of the majority. Journalists are writing under pseudo names, regularly receiving threats and sometimes scarifying their lives for a story. Protest is met by martial intervention. The Government is currently drafting university students into military run community projects; sidelining student movements through engagement with ‘shramadana activities’. The Inter University Students Union (IUSF) has recently condemned the military shramadana incentive and the use of ex-military men as University security officers.
It is widely acknowledged Mahinda Rajapaksa used Tsunami aid to fund his own political campaign and international aid organisations were unable to access refugees during the war. This allowed the government to claim that there were six thousand displaced Tamils in one particular refugee camp when in reality there were thirty six thousand; effectively starving and eradicating vast numbers of innocent civilians. On-going rehabilitation projects are dispersing Tamil refugees across the country, preventing the formation of large Tamil communities that would enable a Tamil MP to be elected and the vocalisation of political grievances.
In Britain, the Oxford Union invited President Rajapaksa to talk to its students last December. The British foreign office sent home two Tamil women tortured by the government during the war, who has been sent to testify by the Tamil’s political organisation ‘PLOTE’. Amsterdam’s ambassador refused to comment on the human rights violations of its new commercial partner and China, in a desperate bid to grasp control of the Indian Ocean, continues to invest in Sri Lanka’s ports and natural resources.
Earlier this week, Australian Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland dismissed a court case brought by a Melbourne man against President Rajapaksa, which alleged he had committed war crimes and human rights violations. A backbench rebellion in Colombo is desperately needed, but that will only be possible if the international community takes Rajapaksa to an international court, severs economic ties and puts human rights before political expediency.