Panel Discusses Sri Lanka’s Post-War Slide Toward Authoritarianism

On 21 February 2013, Constitutional Transitions hosted Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and Professor Radhika Coomaraswamy for a discussion on post-war Sri Lanka, and that country’s slide toward authoritarianism and away from a lasting resolution of its ethnic conflict following the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009.

The event, “Sri Lanka: Post-War to Post-Conflict,” addressed the various ways in which the current government has failed to capitalize on the end of the civil war as an opportunity to strengthen democratic governance and political reconciliation, and has instead undertaken decisions which will ‘sustain and reproduce the roots of conflict,’ according to Dr. Saravanamuttu.

Dr. Saravanamuttu’s presentation focused on three such instances: a refusal to acknowledge the rights abuses and alleged war crimes suffered predominantly by the Tamil population; a frozen process for resolving the country’s ethnic tensions; and the capture of state institutions by the ruling Rajapaksa family. Saravanamuttu detailed the specific rights violations that have accompanied the detention and forced resettlement of internally displaced persons and the militarization of Tamil-majority regions of the country. He openly doubted the government’s commitment to reconciliation, arguing it believed its military victory was sufficient to end any discussion of a greater devolution of power from the central government to the provinces.

Professor Coomaraswamy, echoing these concerns, inquired as to how the regime has been able to maintain its course despite attracting increasing negative attention. Challenging claims that pure private interest motivates the country’s ruling class, she argued the President has attracted real political support from among the Sinhalese elite in the country’s south, grateful for the end of the war and local development, even at the expense of restrictions on individual liberty.

Coomaraswamy identified the major problem facing the country as an erosion of the rule of law, and a lack of meaningful checks and balances or due process. In particular, Coomaraswamy spoke to the absence of civilian oversight over the military and the government restricting the role of independent commissions as two pressing concerns. The military, benefitting from a culture of impunity and an ability to sidestep state bureaucracy, has implemented military government and extensive surveillance of the island’s north and east, while also claiming de facto authority in areas as mundane as park maintenance and selling of crops. The independent commissions, and the 17th Amendment which authorized them, were repealed by the 18th Amendment, which simultaneously removed any presidential term limits.

Dr. Saravanamuttu is the Executive Director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a founding board member of the Sri Lankan chapter of Transparency International, and a widely quoted expert on security and governance issues in Sri Lanka. Professor Coomaraswamy is currently an NYU Global Visiting Professor of Law and Visiting Fellow at Constitutional Transitions. She recently served as the U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.