Photo courtesy of Mahendra Dhammika

As Sri Lankans continue to suffer the effects of the economic crisis and varied human rights abuses, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has made clear his willingness to use force against people who protest without state permission. “The military will be deployed. Emergency Law will be enforced. Another Aragalaya will not be allowed,” he declared on November 23, claiming that the public no longer supports such protests. Dissidents continue to be detained and he has indicated that there is no prospect of an election soon.

The economic crisis continues to hit the poor hardest despite mention of welfare in the recent budget and the direction set out in a speech is likely to widen the gap between the rich and the rest. A “capitalist…open market economy” which was “export oriented” albeit with some social protection, was held up as an ideal, with reform of “the universities which are today taking money direct from the government and which have not developed, unfortunately.” A shift away from state ownership is emphasised yet with more investment in the expensive infrastructure projects that have driven up debt.

He has been sending out mixed messages including promises of progress in treatment of minorities, largely aimed at convincing international partners that improvements are underway as well as dampening opposition at home. However many critics are unconvinced including overseas governments whose support is important at a crucial time for the country. Amid widespread scepticism, unless there is real evidence of major change, this approach is unlikely to work for long and if the situation gets worse leading to widespread unrest the leadership’s credibility will be further undermined.

Hard line stance with some soft words

In recent weeks, there have been various reminders that inconsistency has been one of President Wickremesinghe’s hallmarks as a politician and, in some ways, has served him well. Despite having led the once mighty United National Party (UNP) to a crushing defeat with just one MP among 225 in the 2020 parliamentary election, he rose to the position of president amid overwhelmingly peaceful mass protests which led former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee. Meanwhile Sri Lankans’ ongoing demands for human rights were echoed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), European Union and other partners.

On May 9, the UNP tweeted President Wickremesinghe’s condemnation of the regime’s attempts to crush protest. He condemned the attack on Galle Face protesters, demanding that the entire government, not just the prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa should resign. “The people are asking the Government for a solution to the crisis, and the Government has resorted to violence,” to quote a tweet. President Wickremesinghe informed government party leaders “that if the GoGotaGama protest site is disrupted by the government, using the Emergency Law, then he will withdraw from all discussions and will cease to assist the Government in solving the crisis.” A few days later, he was part of the government, and would go on to drive out dissidents from Galle Face and trample on freedom of assembly.

In Parliament, he became reliant on the Rajapaksas’ party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. By late November he was happy to be photographed sitting next to, and cordially chatting with, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his wife.

Keen to win favour with the Indian government as well as buying time with sections of the opposition, he has held out hope of moves towards addressing grievances among Tamils with talks promised; Tamil parties have come up with proposals that include decentralising power. It was indicated that there could be a truth and reconciliation commission similar to that in South Africa yet those exposing inconvenient truths were still being punished. For instance police turned up at the home of the family of Tamil journalist Selvakumar Nilanthan, who fled the country to be safe, and even foreign reporters risk being assaulted.

Supposedly there was a moratorium on the use of the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which has been used largely against Tamils and Muslims, awaiting its replacement by a law more in line with basic standards of justice. Yet some are still being held under this law and it is now being actively used again to lock up student protesters with the threat that this could be rolled out to anyone else the government regards as a nuisance. If the rights of ethnic and religious minorities were secured in the present and truthful answers supplied to those harmed in the past at a time when both government and LTTE forces engaged in mass abuses, this would be a major stride towards healing and national unity, yet there is understandable mistrust.

Human rights related criticisms of recent governments have taken account of economic and social as well as political rights, highlighting the suffering of people on low and medium incomes. While the government drew media attention to welfare measures in the November budget, it was pointed out that these were starkly inadequate. Food insecurity is expected to get even worse over the next few months.

President Wickremesinghe, while threatening Sri Lankans on November 23 with ongoing misuse of emergency powers and the military to quell protest, made gibes against human rights defenders. Confusingly he also stated that “I won’t let Dinh Diem’s rule in this country. There is no room for Dinh Diems in this country.” This referred to ruthlessly repressive politician Ngo Dinh Diem, who served as prime minister of the US-backed South Vietnamese regime from 1954 to 55, then President until his death in 1963. His attempts to stamp out dissent by imprisoning and sometimes killing opponents deepened opposition, including by Buddhist clergy. Presumably Sri Lanka’s President wanted to distance himself from violent authoritarianism yet his track record is unconvincing.

Wasting the opportunity for change

When President Wickremesinghe took office, many in Sri Lanka and beyond who had been critical of the previous regime were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. While some problems are less pressing, especially for those who are comparatively well off, goodwill has largely been squandered.

Police brutality is still rife, with even 10 year olds reportedly tortured through electric shocks and arbitrary arrests continue. A call from the Human Rights Commission not to extend detention orders for student leaders Wasantha Mudalige and Galwewa Siridhamma Thero under the PTA was ignored.

As an open letter from academics pointed out much of the country’s current plight was connected with past injustices, vital lessons from which have not been learned. They wrote of the need to “reclaim the democratic space to put an end to authoritarian repression.”

Amnesty International has urged that terror charges against students leaders be dropped as has Human Rights Watch, which also highlighted the humanitarian crisis and need for the International Monetary Fund and major foreign creditors to protect economic and social rights.

In late November, US President Joe Biden pledged to help promote accountability for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) including funding programmes in Sri Lanka and elsewhere which “support civil society efforts to investigate and document acts of CRSV to aid in the pursuit of justice for victims and survivors.” Two members of Congress introduced a resolution to the House of Representatives “in support of the peaceful democratic and economic aspirations of the people of Sri Lanka” and highly critical of current violations in the treatment of minorities and dissidents. On December 1, in a tweet after meeting Tamil MPs, the US Ambassador emphasised that “reiterated that advancing human rights, rule of law & reconciliation among all communities in #SriLanka are keys to a stable & democratic SL.”

Also on December 1, in the UK’s House of Lords, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon,  Minister of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, underlined ongoing commitment to “international efforts over many years to promote accountability, reconciliation and human rights in Sri Lanka, including, most recently, implementing UN Human Rights Council Resolution 51/1. The resolution renewed the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report on Sri Lanka, and to protect and preserve evidence of past human rights abuses to use in future accountability processes.” The UK and USA are members of the UNHRC Sri Lanka Core Group.

The US government and European Union released a general statement on December 2 on defending human rights defenders across the world online, particularly significant because President Wickremesinghe’s recent remarks included a dig at human rights defenders.

If President Wickremesinghe continues to disappoint the many Sri Lankans whose most basic rights are not being upheld, relying instead to threats, he may find it increasingly difficult to secure the support he needs to hold on to power.