Photo courtesy of Associated Press

Just before the Presidential election of November 16, 2019, the UK’s Guardian newspaper began its editorial on Sri Lanka with this line: “There are worse things than disappointment…”

But the electorate, fed up with the broken promises, inefficiency and corruption of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combination, went on to give a resounding victory to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. That victory was consolidated by a landslide in the general elections of August 2020. Immediately, the draconian 20th Amendment was passed, wresting control from parliament and placing it in the hands of an all-powerful executive president who can rule with few checks and balances. Sri Lanka is, for the foreseeable future, the domain of the Rajapaksa family and their international backer, China.

The honeymoon period has been brief; COVID-19 is rampant, prices of basic goods are sky high while shortages are evident, the country is drowning in debt, corruption continues unabated, big brother is watching our every move, white elephant mega projects are draining funds and the environment is being decimated for profit.

Criticism is particularly vociferous on social media in Sinhala, Tamil and English with stinging memes, cartoons and graphics disparaging the president and the government. Many people who voted for the President are not doubt wishing they had examined the repercussions of a renewed Rajapaksa regime just a bit more thoroughly.

Reflecting on one year under the current leadership, members of the civil society, rights activists and experts had this to say:

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives

The first year of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency has been dominated by its management of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been viewed as a success. This, however, has masked the fact of government and governance by the military or those with a military mindset. From key appointments in the bureaucracy to the Presidential Task Forces, which effectively govern the country, to the two-third majority victory in the general election and the 20th Amendment, the emphasis has been on control and the impression of decisive leadership in contrast to the Yahapalanaya predecessors. From the ending of the singing of the national anthem in the other official language, Tamil, to the inauguration at Ruwanwelisaya, the regime stokes the fires of the Sinhala majority community grievance and spreads the tale of the over-indulgence of the minorities for their vote blocs although, ironically, the 20th Amendment went through with minority votes.

Beyond the platitudinous Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour, the regime does not seem to have a policy other than the supposed panacea of economic development. Viyath Maga, the President’s true following as opposed to his brothers’ party the SLPP, has not come up with a cogent and coherent policy in this respect and particularly with regard to the economy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The failure to do this will spell deep trouble for the regime and deeper trouble for the country. The stubborn refusal to go to the IMF is illustrative of this.

Civil society organisations, especially those working on governance and human rights, are being visited by various arms of the intelligence services and questioned about their finances and work, lawyers are being arrested and, likewise, journalists harassed. There is the threat of NGO legislation, too, whereby every NGO will be placed under the NGO Secretariat, which has been placed yet again under the Ministry of Defence that still functions without a Minister.

The Achilles heel of the regime is the economy and debt in particular. This could lead to a situation in which the populist authoritarianism and majoritarianism of the regime is brought to the fore and tested beyond limits. Constitutional reform will be pursued to distract attention as will the manoeuvring between the China and the Quad and as far as Geneva 2021 is concerned. The economic crisis will persist and the victims will be us and our belief and hope in and for liberal democracy in an united Sri Lanka.

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Bhavani Fonseka, lawyer, on handling of COVID-19 by the military

The military and the security sector have played a key role in contact tracing, surveillance, building and running quarantine facilities and distribution of essential services. While some of this was necessary to contain the spread and assist communities in need, concern is raised with other functions that may fall outside what is legally permissible and target critics, minorities and opponents. Further, the pandemic also justified the re-emergence of a heavy military presence across Sri Lanka with check points manned by unidentifiable armed military men who not only stand guard but recently doubled up to check temperature. Apart from questions as to why armed military personnel are involved in temperature checking, concern is also on privacy and how information gathered is used and will be used in the future.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, there was recognition that the military could play an important role due to its expertise in disaster settings. Over the last few months, the increased militarisation was justified on the basis of proficiency and organisation. But several incidents reported in the media challenge the notion of military efficiency and highlight the use of brute force in the present response including the handling of the garment workers and the Navy cluster.

The government and others involved in the pandemic response must learn from the past including the most recent lapses. A multi-sectoral approach with the inclusion of expertise in different areas is key as opposed to a purely military approach. Also of paramount importance is the adherence to the rule of law with no space for extra legal and ad hoc measures. Additionally, a robust demand must be made for structural and legislative reforms that overhaul archaic laws and provide for effective oversight and accountability. Inability or unwillingness to initiate these and other changes will put more citizens at risk, expose frontline responders and allow for the further entrenchment of the military project.

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Ruki Fernando, Human Rights Activist

The year has seen increasing fears about dissent. Last month, at height of second wave of COVID-19, a 75 year-old Tamil woman human rights defender was grilled for five hours by the Counter Terrorist Investigation Division and many other defenders and NGOs in the North, East and Colombo have faced such interrogations. Some activists from the North and East have been summoned to Colombo for questioning. Journalists have faced reprisals, with five having been assaulted last month. An online commentator was detained for more than five months before being granted bail by a judge who had highlighted the importance of freedom of expression and right to criticise. A prominent rights lawyer and minority rights advocate remains imprisoned for seven months without being charged or produced before a judge, without meaningful access to lawyers and serious concerns about fair trial. Other rights lawyers too have faced reprisals.

Muslims continued to face hostility, particularly in relation to disposal of remains of those dying due to COVID-19. The appointment of Presidential Task Forces to deal with archaeology in Eastern province led to concerns about Muslims and Tamils being marginalised. There have been serious concerns about environmental destruction across the country and at policy level. Workers in the apparel industry, daily wage owners, farmers and others earning low incomes suffered immense economic losses due to COVID-19. It was a bad year for prisoners, with at least four reported as killed by officials, several suicides and many being tested positive for COVID-19 months after appeals to reduce congestion.

Truth, justice and reparations for those affected by war time and post war abuses looked bleaker and bleaker during the year. The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) and Office for Reparations still exist but have not been proactive in fulfilling their mandates. The OMP has not been able to trace fate and whereabouts of even one person and draft reparation policy developed by the Office for Reparations has not been shared with the public. Towards the end of the last government’s term, some Army, Navy and prison officials were prosecuted for enforced disappearances, a prison massacre and killings of protesters demanding clean drinking water but now victims’ families, lawyers and activists worry about negative developments that indicate these cases may not lead to any convictions.

Overall, the last 12 months and the coming months and years looks bleak for human rights but survivors, victims’ families and affected communities will struggle on and they will need maximum solidarity.

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Kalana Senaratne, lawyer, on repercussions for the judiciary

Although is a little too early to comment on the impact of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rule on the country’s judiciary, what can be said in broad terms is that the impact will be a very significant and negative one. This is due to two reasons.

Firstly, it is because of the political culture that President Rajapaksa’s leadership has (re)generated, both wittingly and unwittingly. He has, through his statements, conveyed the idea that he expects no one to impede or challenge the policies and decisions he would be taking as President. Judges are also human beings who are mindful of the tone and tenor of a leader’s message. They would easily, like all human beings, begin to worry about the possible consequences that may follow if they are seen to be deciding cases in ways that challenge the decisions made by the President and the government.

Secondly, it is because of the appointment procedure that is now in place. The 20th Amendment abolished the Constitutional Council, giving the President absolute and unlimited power to appoint persons to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal (including the Chief Justice and the President of the Court of Appeal) and the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) that oversees the lower judiciary. There is also an expansion in the membership of the higher judiciary. This expansion may be necessary to address the law’s delays. However, it comes within the context of the 20th Amendment. Therefore the President now has unlimited powers, not just to appoint a higher judiciary he wishes to have, but one that is numerically larger.

The political and legislative framework that generates a partisan and non-independent judiciary has been set. A judiciary which is not independent and/or is not seen to be independent can only have a debilitating impact on the rule of law. It would take remarkable courage for judges to act independently within a framework of this nature. It is now the task of the judges who are in the higher judiciary, and who will be appointed to the higher judiciary in the near future, to show that the sceptics and critics are wrong.

Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda, academic

The first year in office by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is unfortunately marked by the re-emergence of the autocratic executive presidentialism in our country. The replacement of a weak Cabinet-Parliamentary government by a post-democratic autocracy also happened, quite ironically, by democratic means.

This also marked the rise to political power, under President Rajapaksa’s leadership, a new coalition of social forces at the core of which are very wealthy business and professional classes that are products of economic liberalization of 1977 and Sri Lanka’s integration with the global economy. A key feature of the politics of this class coalition is its contempt to political democracy and its insistence on the removal of the checks on, and limits to, political power. Taking both Singapore and People’s Republic of China as their models of economic growth as well as political stability, this class coalition is the latest contender for state power in Sri Lanka.

In the coming year or so, the face of Sri Lanka’s politics is likely to undergo drastic changes when the new phase of autocratic presidentialism consolidates itself and in turn begins to pursue its project of transforming Sri Lanka into a genuinely post-democratic society and polity.

Click here for a quick video recap.