Last Tuesday, on 2 June, Sri Lanka entered a period of unconstitutional executive rule. Following its dissolution for elections on 2 March, the country’s Parliament has now been suspended for more than the three-month period specified by the Constitution. Although parliamentary elections (initially planned for 25 April) had to be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa refused to recall Parliament, preventing scrutiny of the executive’s actions during a public health crisis.
On the same day last week, the Supreme Court dismissed a number of cases that challenged the dissolution of Parliament and the date of the new election, set for 20 June. As yet, no reasoning for the court’s decision has been published.
Meanwhile the new date for the election, 20 June, has been thrown into doubt by the Election Commission. During proceedings in the Supreme Court, the Commission said that it would not be possible to hold an election in June, as an election could not be held until ten weeks after health officials had declared conditions safe. The Chairman of the Commission has said that the new date for the election will be announced by 12 June. However, it seems unlikely that a poll could be held before mid-August, by which time Sri Lanka will have been without a Parliament for almost six months. As we went to press, it was reported that the 5 August had been set for the date of fresh elections.
Filling the vacuum
In the meantime, the President has been busy establishing structures which will allow him to govern without Parliament and bypass the Cabinet of Ministers.
In what appears to have been a deliberately timed move, shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision on 2 June, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a new Presidential Task Force, with a mandate to “build a Secure Country [and a] Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society.” Among its membership – which is all Sinhala, and composed entirely of police officers, and serving and retired military men – are multiple individuals credibly accused of mass atrocity crimes, war crimes, and other serious human rights violations.
On the same day, another Task Force was established to manage “Archaeological Heritage” in the Eastern Province. Again, the body boasts a number of military and ex-military men among its membership. It is also entirely Sinhala – deeply inappropriate for any Task Force in multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, but even more so for a body tasked with preserving heritage in the most diverse of Sri Lanka’s provinces, where Tamils and Muslims make up around three-quarters of the population and land issues are hotly contested. Even more alarming, the only religious leaders on the Task Force are Buddhist monks, one of whom has a track record of promoting aggressive state-sponsored ‘Sinhalisation’ in Trincomalee district at the expense of Tamil and Muslim communities.
Since coming to power in November, President Rajapaksa has appointed no fewer than seven Presidential Task Forces which circumvent the accountability of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy. Civil society groups have raised questions about the legality of these Task Forces and criticised the extraordinarily broad and vague powers which they have been given, many of which overlap with existing civilian agencies. For example, Sri Lanka’s most recent Task Force is empowered to take “necessary immediate steps to curb the illegal activities of social groups which are violating the law which is emerging as harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society at present in some places of the country” – placing a question mark over the role of the law enforcement bodies which are already in place. Given the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding their functions and powers, challenging the decisions of the Task Forces will not be easy.
With Sri Lanka’s Parliament in a state of suspense, these military-dominated Task Forces are filling the gap, providing President Rajapaksa with a means of centralising power and governing with minimal oversight. While militarisation and the centralisation of power are not new phenomena in Sri Lanka, the concentration of key posts directly in the hands of the military and intelligence officials is unprecedented. Civil society groups have warned of “serious implications [for] the rule of law, reconciliation and constitutional democracy” should this military takeover continue.
The absence of Parliament and the recent crackdown on dissenting voices across the island, means that pushing back on Sri Lanka’s authoritarian slide is likely to become an increasingly difficult task from within Sri Lanka. That is why it is so important that members of the international community begin to act.
Sri Lanka is a member of the Commonwealth, a group of nations which lists democracy, human rights, and the rule of law among its core principles. The Commonwealth Secretariat and Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) have the power to discuss “situations of concern” in member countries, including serious violations of the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth, and to suspend membership where appropriate. It is essential that the Commonwealth takes action on Sri Lanka’s democratic crisis now.
Sri Lanka’s looming debt crisis – and the imminent need for further international borrowing – provides another avenue through which members of the international community can push back on President Rajapaksa’s authoritarian turn. Without parliamentary oversight, the government has no legal power to approve new loans, and international financial institutions and their member states should make it clear to the Sri Lankan government that they will not offer or approve further credit until (at the very least) the Sri Lankan Parliament has approved a new budget and increased the debt ceiling. Meanwhile, alternative forms of development assistance, including emergency support to civilian agencies to help mitigate the threat from COVID-19, can help ensure that ordinary Sri Lankans are not penalised.
In the early stages of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Presidency, the international community waited and watched to see how this new President would behave, despite repeated warnings from human rights groups about the need for a much tougher stance. It is now quite clear that the President is putting his vision of a centralised, militarised, Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka into action – fuelling a palpable sense of fear among the country’s minority Tamil and Muslim communities. Democratic institutions in Sri Lanka such as the Parliament and the Supreme Court have proven unable to halt this slide towards authoritarianism. It is time for the international community to step up.
Psst. Still confused about what’s been happening in Sri Lanka? If so, the below might help – a handy infographic which breaks down some of the most important developments. If you’re as concerned as we are by recent events, please do consider sharing it on social media, or with your elected representative.