By Johan van Slooten
A leading Sri Lanka expert has warned that with last week’s parliamentary victory on constitutional reforms, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse has dealt a final blow to the country’s human rights, civil liberties and true democracy. Charu Latta Hogg, an associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, says that Sri Lanka is heading ‘towards a totalitarian state’.
The constitutional reforms, backed by a large majority of Sri Lanka’s parliament, enable the president to seek a third term, which could keep Mr Rajapakse in office until at least 2022. Other changes include a reform of various councils and commissions, such as Sri Lanka’s national police commission, an anti-briberies council and the national human rights commission.
This is what Ms Charu Lata Hogg, who works for Chatham House’s Asia Programme, is most worried about. “These commissions used to be independently appointed by Members of Parliament, including opposition members, " Ms Hogg told RNW. “But now it will be the president who will solely appoint its members and its chairmen. Essentially, these institutions of democracy will now come under the control of just one man”.
She is especially worried about Sri Lanka’s national commission for human rights violations. “It is supposed to document and investigate human rights violations against the people of Sri Lanka. But how effective will it be when the council will be appointed by the president himself? What happens if it is asked to investigate violations by the government or the president?”.
Mr Rajapakse is currently riding on a wave of popularity after he declared victory last year over the Tamil Tiger rebels in the northeast, ending a 25-year civil war in May 2009. Regarded as the main force behind the government army’s victory, Mr Rajapakse clinched an ouright victory in last year’s presidential elections - but not before he'd taken out his main rival, military chief Sarath Fonseka, by placing him under arrest and declaring his bid to run in the elections as invalid.
“The end of that war was a blessing for Sri Lanka in many ways,” says Ms Hogg, “but it has lead to totalitarian streaks creeping into Mr Rajapakse’s regime, as the government is simply not challenged anymore. Opposition comprises of many different factions and the government puts them under great pressure. Some opposition members even find it strategically wiser to side with the president rather than carry on protesting his policies”.
This was proven in last week’s vote, when many opposition MPs decided to vote in favour of Mr Rajapakse’s reform plans.
The international community seems to be reluctant in breaking ties with Sri Lanka, says Ms Hogg. “The EU is quite firm in its criticism, but the US is not very clear. They’ve shown support in the war on the Tamil Tigers, but they have also criticised Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record”. Not that it will matter to the people of Sri Lanka – the government seems to be more interested in consolidating ties with countries like India or China, which have been wooing Sri Lanka for a long time.
“The government is stirring up patriotism, saying the West is against the people of Sri Lanka," says Ms Hogg. One example is the heavy protest after the UN announced an independent investigation earlier this year into possible war crimes during the final stages of the Tamil Tigers war. “With Mr Rajapakse’s current popularity, it’s not that difficult at all to mobilise the people”. - courtesy: Radio Netherlands Worldwide -