After fifty one days of political turmoil in Sri Lanka, the coup attempt that was launched on the evening of Friday 26th October has failed. Following a series of crucial judgements from Sri Lanka’s highest courts last week, which deemed President Sirisena’s dissolution of Parliament illegal, and his newly appointed government illegitimate, Mahinda Rajapaksa announced on Saturday 15th December that he would “resign” as Prime Minister, a post that was never rightfully his.
In an about-turn that seemed unthinkable just a few days ago, on Sunday President Sirisena hosted a ceremony at which Ranil Wickremesinghe – who has been repeatedly endorsed by a majority of MPs in Sri Lanka’s Parliament – was sworn in once again as the country’s Prime Minister.
For many Sri Lankans, this weekend’s events will be regarded as a triumph of Sri Lanka’s Constitution and democratic institutions against a brazen and reckless power grab. And to be sure, there is much to celebrate. The assertiveness of Sri Lanka’s judiciary, the general absence of serious political violence, and the vigour with which many ordinary Sri Lankans have taken to the streets to protest the coup attempt – all are remarkable features of the past seven weeks that inspire hope and confidence in Sri Lanka’s future.
For many others, particularly those from minority communities who feared the return of a proven authoritarian and alleged war criminal who presided over the deaths of tens of thousands of his own citizens, the failure of Mahinda Rajapaksa to consolidate his grip on power will be met with a sigh of relief. Already throughout the past few weeks there had been signs that the space for activists, human rights defenders and victims’ groups was tightening. Fears were heightened by a series of flagrant attempts by officials to interfere with key human rights cases, release convicted perpetrators from prison, and stymie the work of Sri Lanka’s human rights institutions.
Not out of the woods
Yet despite the restoration of the political status quo prior to 26th October, a heavy note of caution is in order – along with an urgent reminder of the pressing set of issues which the government of Sri Lanka is yet to address. Left unresolved, they could yet lead to a return to the grave abuses, authoritarianism and political violence which many had feared could result from the coup attempt.
For starters, though the constitutional dispute has now been settled, the political dynamic between Sri Lanka’s two highest office-holders appears as toxic as ever. In an extraordinary statement at Ranil Wickremesinghe’s swearing in ceremony on Sunday, President Sirisena, who had earlier remarked that he would not remain in office “even for an hour” if Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister, announced that he would shortly publish a book about their fractious political relationship, while repeating many of his previous accusations of Wickremesinghe’s corruption and irresponsibility. Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe is yet to indicate he intends to seriously pursue the allegations of corruption that have so dogged his party while in power and have been one of the major sources of discontent for both Sirisena and the public at large.
President @MaithripalaS in his critical speech made in front of PM @RW_UNP and other members of the UNF ystrday said he has begun writing his book on RW and will release it by the end of Jan or begining of Feb. RW's reaction is classic@officialunp#SriLanka #SriLankanPolitics pic.twitter.com/mOp4Igwom5
— Jamila (@Jamz5251) December 17, 2018
It is in this context that Sri Lanka now faces the prospect of Presidential and Parliamentary elections, due to be held before 9 December 2019 and October 2020 respectively, according to the Elections Commission. As political commentators have pointed out, the disregard that Sri Lanka’s senior most politicians have shown towards the constitution in recent weeks suggest that there is no guarantee of political stability until then, nor any real certainty that further power grabs will not be attempted in the meantime. And while Rajapaksa has not managed on this occasion to seize control via the back door, he may yet succeed in doing so via the front door should the Sri Lankan electorate decide to hand him, or one of his close family members, the keys at a vote.
The future of dealing with the past
Setting aside the fortunes of Sri Lanka’s political leaders, what can be predicted with greater certainty is the lasting impact that the crisis will likely have on government efforts to address the legacy of serious human rights violations in Sri Lanka, including by investigating mass atrocities committed during the end of the civil war. Prior to the 26th October, the government’s promised agenda on justice and reconciliation was already grinding to a halt. While an optimistic reading of the current situation might highlight the potential for the broad pro-democracy mobilisation seen in recent weeks to be converted into renewed cross-community support for addressing Sri Lanka’s past and breaking the cycle of impunity, the current cloud of government dysfunction will undoubtedly further hamper the chances of meaningful progress.
Moreover there remains a significant gap between, on the one hand, the public’s response to violations of the constitution in recent weeks and, on the other, levels of public awareness and empathy regarding the multitude of ways in which the rights of minority communities are routinely violated by the state elsewhere across the country – including through militarisation, ongoing land occupation, and high levels of surveillance, to name but a few. That so many Tamils have simply not felt like stakeholders in the recent political battle taking place in Colombo, despite their worst fears about how it might unfold, is as telling as it is troubling. That sense of alienation may well intensify as Rajapaksa embarks upon exploiting the role played by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) party in keeping Wickremesinghe in office. Despite making a number of overtures to the Tamil community during his bid for power, Rajapaksa and his supporters have been quick to resort to dog-whistle racism in defeat.
Mahinda Rajapaksa's 'resignation' statement – laden with dog-whistle racism in relation to the fact that Prime Minister @RW_UNP's majority in Parliament rests on the votes of parties representing minority Tamils https://t.co/7KdOtDZvwE
— Sri Lanka Campaign (@SLcampaign) December 15, 2018
More unabashed racism. For those unsure, the bit between the lines reads: "because Tamils are not really citizens." https://t.co/sBq4hns8wF
— Sri Lanka Campaign (@SLcampaign) December 15, 2018
With the crisis in the capital resolved for the time-being, now is the moment for much wider reflection on some of the other major developments in Sri Lanka which have been side-lined in recent weeks. These include the discovery of further human remains, including those of twenty one children, in what is now Sri Lanka’s largest ever mass grave; the publication of new research estimating that over five hundred individuals were forcibly disappeared in the final three days alone of the Sri Lankan civil war; and the arrest and subsequent release on bail of a senior Navy Commander involved in covering up the disappearance of eleven Tamil and Muslim youths in 2008-9.
"Who they were – and who killed them – remains uncertain. However experts agree the presence of children shows this was 'certainly a [whole] community of people.'" Latest report from Mannar, site of the largest mass grave ever uncovered in Sri Lanka. https://t.co/M7oP31lJ7q
— Sri Lanka Campaign (@SLcampaign) December 14, 2018
Unless the serious human rights violations at the heart of these stories are addressed, the perpetrators held to account, and the structures that enable such abuses dismantled, it seems inevitable that swings of the political pendulum in Sri Lanka – both constitutional and unconstitutional – will forever be haunted by the possibility that the worst violations of the past could return. As we look ahead to an important session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2019, that is a message that members of the international community – who were far too quick to ease pressure on the government’s human rights commitments in return for promises and goodwill after the political transition of January 2015 – would do well to heed.