By Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Even as the Sri Lankan nation inches closer towards national elections scheduled for 2015 – almost two years before the due date – the prospects for democracy in the island nation appear bleak.
The seeds of impending unrest have already been sown in the country, and unfortunately, the government is to blame for the same.
The militarisation of the Island
Today, five years since Colombo won the war against the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka is a comparatively peaceful place. However, lurking in the midst of the relative peace and in plain sight are the very potential elements that are likely to be activated – by the government – to reach ends otherwise unfavourable for the citizens of Sri Lanka, regardless of religion or ethnicity. These are the security forces of the country that include the police corps, and mostly the army.
One look at Colombo and it is not difficult to notice the heavy militarisation the city has been subjected to. That there is order in the city and it is well-maintained sometimes distracts the visitor from the obvious reality of militarisation staring at one at all times; but not for long.
While it is understandable that the capital city needs to be guarded zealously, and therefore the presence of armed forces personnel in the city can be justified, the numbers of security forces deployed in other parts of Sri Lanka cannot be easily justified. Indeed, there exists a surplus of armed forces personnel due to the recruitment that took place during the years of the war against the LTTE. While many of these soldiers have been redeployed for non-military tasks following the conclusion of the war, many have also been tasked with security-related jobs. It is inexplicable then the fact that recruitment to the armed forces is still in full swing.
Ominously, in July 2013, President Mahinda Rajapaksa issued a Public Security Ordinance Order via which he called for “…all the members of the Armed Forces specified in the First Schedule hereto, for the maintenance of public order…,” listing all administrative districts of the country. This ordinance is still in place despite the fact that Section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance explicitly states that “Where circumstance endangering the public security in any area have arisen or are imminent and the President is of the opinion that the police are inadequate to deal with such situation in that area, he may, by Order published in the Gazette, call out all or any of the members of all or any of the armed forces for the maintenance of public order in that area.”
Given that the country isn’t in a situation prescribed by the constitution as a prerequisite to bring the armed forces to maintain law and order, there appears to be a sinister scheme of things underway.
Towards elections or towards dictatorship?
There are several issues at stake as far as the upcoming elections are concerned. President Rajapaksa got re-elected to the office in 2010 after his first six-year term. Although he won in the 2005 elections, the margin of votes was slim; but his government’s victory over the LTTE and the end of the civil war ensured his second term. However, the general sense one gets in interviews and general conversations with people from various classes and ethnicities across the country is that there exists a very real sentiment that the president and his family members (who hold key positions in the government) have done more for themselves than for the country, and that they are trying to ensure this trajectory for decades to come.
There are several allegations of corruption, electoral fraud, and nepotism against the incumbent government. The freedom of press is in doldrums. Buddhist radicalism (and nationalism) is at an all-time high, and Islamophobia is exponentially on the rise. The June 2014 riots targeting Muslims in south-western Sri Lanka is a case in point. There have been reports that despite curfews, blinding flashlights were used when mobs attacked the civilian communities. This is hauntingly reminiscent of the tactics that were used by the Sri Lankan security forces to track and corner LTTE cadres.
The issue here is that the incumbent government is one that won the war against terror. That is their USP, and this time around there is no war they can bank upon winning to use for their election campaign. Therefore, there appears to be a concerted effort towards building a false sense of a possibility of unrest – whereby the campaign can once again be based upon a promise to end the new ‘problem’. This would also help make their case for the increasing militarisation and devolution of police powers to the armed forces. Already, there are daily media broadcasts about the days of the civil war and reminding people how it was President Rajapaksa who defeated the terrorists.
In his second term as president, Rajapaksa did manage to bring in a lot of investment, albeit mostly from China, but he appears to be taking other pages out of the Chinese handbook, especially on the latter’s handling of the Tibet crisis. Already, on Oct 10 Colombo issued a travel ban disallowing foreigners from entering the Northern Province. Over various conversations with people from South, South-western and Northern provinces some days ago this author noticed a general sense of unease among the Sri Lankan civilian population regarding the country’s political future. This evident sense of unease cuts across religious, ethnic and political lines.
For any hope of stability in the country to take root there is a need for sustainable de-militarisation, and strong opposition candidacy in the upcoming elections. If the current trajectory continues, a Sri Lankan deep state wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine and the country would be in the throes of a near-dictatorship regime.
Like a subject of this author’s interviews who preferred to remain anonymous said, “It doesn’t matter whom I vote for. The vote will automatically go to the president.”
(Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy is Research Officer (IReS) and is a member, Editorial Board, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. She can be contacted at email@example.com)