Rajapaksas’ rule has diminished hope for justice for Lankan Tamils

The Parliamentary Elections gave over two-thirds majority to the Rajapaksas, whom the Tamils in the country hold responsible for atrocities against civilians.
Since 1987, India has largely maintained distance from the internal policies of Sri Lanka.
Since 1987, India has largely maintained distance from the internal policies of Sri Lanka.
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Raja Lakshmi*, a resident of Vellankulam in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province of Sri Lanka,was a teacher until 2006, when her school and house were destroyed in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan Army and the Tamil Tigers. She has since been doing odd errands to support her children.

In 2011, her oldest son, Thanga Durai, was ‘picked up’ by plain clothes policemen. He was just 14 years old at the time, but Lakshmi swears he had nothing to do with either the LTTE(Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) or any other militant organisation. “We have been waiting for nine years for a semblance of justice and closure. But with both the Rajapaksa brothers and other members of the family coming back to power, we are already seeing the massive changes they are making,” says Lakshmi, who adds that the resounding victory of the Rajapaksa brothers has made their dreams even more distant.

Like Lakshmi, thousands of women have still not gotten closure even 11 years after the longstanding civil war ended in 2009. In 2019, journalists travelling in the war-ridden Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, to cover the Presidential Elections, say they met with several women, lining the streets with old photographs in their hands-of their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers-who had disappeared without any explanation. They allege that the then Sri Lankan government, helmed by the Rajapaksa brothers, illegally arrested their loved ones for a single reason-being Tamil.

Both brothers have been accused of having masterminded and ordered several heinous crimes, during the civil including but not limited to illegal arrests, abductions, physical and mental torture and rape. Gotabaya Rajapaska, who was the Defense Minister during the last years of the civil war, is now President of Sri Lanka. His older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was President in 2009, is now Prime Minister. And while the Rajapaksas have denied the allegations, there has been little done by the Sri Lankan government to promote reconciliation and hold those accountable for war crimes.

What’s more, the issues of alleged discrimination against the Tamils in SL remained unresolved. While Sinhala majoritarianism has escalated, aided by successive governments following the war, Tamils continued to be excluded from the growth story with their past problems unresolved, their present perilous and future uncertain.

The Northern and Eastern Provinces continue to remain highly militarised with 16 of the 19 divisions of the Sri Lankan Army reportedly still stationed there. Although heavy-scale bombing and firing has ceased in the areas, routine and unreasonable searches being reported are still keeping the populace on tenterhooks.

It is on the back of these unresolved issues that the Rajapaksa family strengthened their grip over the Sri Lankan administration, following the 2020 Parliamentary Elections. With the plenitude of their clout increased, apart from President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda, more members of the Rajapakasa family have been given key positions in the SLPP government. Chamal Rajapaksa, the eldest brother has been given the  irrigation portfolio while Namal Rajapaksa, Mahinda's son has been given the youth and sports ministry. Mahinda’s nephew, Shasheendra Rajapaksa has been made the Agriculture Minister.

How did Sri Lanka vote in the Parliamentary polls?

In August of 2020, elections were held for the 225-seat Sri Lankan Parliament where the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) alliance, a formation of 17 political parties won 150 seats with a vote share of 59.09%. The critical two-thirds majority was easily secured by the alliance, paving way for the Constitutional reforms they have been professing.

Tamil National Alliance(TNA) performed poorly in the Tamil-dominated north and east parts of the country. Of the 13 seats in the region, TNA managed to win only six as against their previous tally of nine in the Northern Province. In the Eastern Province, TNA only managed to win two seats, even ceding its Ampara district seat from last elections.

What do Rajapaksas in power mean for minorities?

Sivagnanam Shritharan, member of Parliament from TNA, speaking to TNM alleged, “The absolute majority to the Rajapaksa family means that they can do as they please, without caring about the people. Because of this, the Tamils will have a further erosion of their rights in the country.  Their coming to power will take us down a destructive path and pave the way for family rule over the country.”

Sample this- during his campaign in 2019, when asked about allegations of human rights violations, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had infamously said,  "You are talking all the time about the past. Ask [about] the future! I am trying to become the President of the future Sri Lanka! We can move on’.

For the country’s majority Sinhalese Buddists, the Rajapaksas represent something acutely different. The 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings that killed 267 people left the country unsettled, yearning for decisive leadership. And in 2020, the use of the military under Gotabaya Rajapaksa to handle the COVID-19 crisis which was much worse in the neighbouring countries gave the impression that a clear majority to the Rajapaksas will be the road to a stronger, more secure Sri Lanka.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after coming to power in 2019, pledged to ‘reinforce Sinhala Buddhist supremacy’ and in a bid to increase surveillance in minority-dominated areas, especially Tamil areas by escalating military presence. Many activists have also alleged a crackdown on NGOs sympathetic to the Tamil cause being targeted.

“I have set up an advisory council comprising leading Buddhist monks to seek advice on governance.  I have also established a Presidential Task Force to protect places of archeological importance and to preserve our Buddhist heritage,” pledged Gotabaya in his swearing in speech.

Gotabaya and officials under him have often spoken about the need for a powerful army, the subtext of which, for the Tamils, means that any dissent will be dealt with an iron hand. Several ex-Army officials who had supported his campaign for Presidency were rewarded with plump positions in the government.

But more disquieting than these symbolic prejudice is the Constitutional sweeping changes that are being made by the government.

Two-thirds majority and Constitutional amendments

“The 19the Amendment was the finest piece of regulation in terms of strengthening the institutions and drawing back power from the Executive President. It at least ensured there are checks and balances in ensuring that independent commissions exist,” said Benislos Thushan, journalist and Tamil rights activist to TNM. The 19th Amendment decentralised power in the country by granting independence from the President to the judiciary, public service and Election Commission. It diluted the powers of the President and vested them in the hands of the Parliament and independent commissions and also ensured the inclusion of civil society in the decisions-making process.

The apprehension of minorities being further marginalised after the results of the Parliamentary Elections is not just restricted to the Rajapaksas being in complete control. With two-thirds majority, the extreme right SLPP can make constitutional changes that could be catastrophic for the security of minorities.

In the very first cabinet meeting held under Prime Minister Rajapaksa on August 20, a decision to repeal the 19th Amendment, which was passed under the previous regime in 2015,was taken. And on September 2, the newly-elected government gazetted the draft of 20th Amendment which will now replace the 19th Amendment.

Some of the key and worrisome features of the 20A amendment drafted are:

--The Constitutional Council (CC) which had been created to mitigate political interference in appointments of heads and members of various commissions. It will now be replaced by the Parliamentary Council which will have no members from civil society.

--The three independent commissions-Election Commission, Public Service Commission and the National Police Commission-will be abolished.

--It will return full legal immunity to the President. The 19A Amendment had made provisions for legal action against the President.

--It empowers the President to dissolve the Parliament, at his will, after a period of One year of being into existence.

--It allows for the President to appoint chairpersons and members of the commissions.

--It has removed the Right to Information Commission constituted by the 19A.

--Two more significant commissions, Audit Service Commission and National Procurement Commission constituted by the 19A too have been repealed.

A nine-minister committee is scrutinising the draft of 20th Amendment as it faces opposition from even within the ruling SLPP. But the significance of the changes it suggests is not lost on the Tamils. If brought into existence as law, in its current form, it will snatch away any forum of redressal of their grievances-past and present-and leave them with lesser hope of retribution.

Echoing sentiments of the Tamil populace, Benislos said, “There was so much media propaganda against the minorities. There are fringe-radical elements who have been elected to power along with the Rajapaksas and they can easily amplify some of the radical racial narratives.”

India’s worry

With 19A gone, India now worries that next to face the axe could be the 13th Amendment which was a result of the Jayawardene-Rajiv Gandhi agreement ratified on July 29, 1987. In a bid to decentralise power, the 13A provision in the Constitution allows for Provincial Councils, giving a constrained sense of autonomy for all the provinces, particularly the North and East.

Since 1987, India has largely maintained distance from the internal policies of Sri Lanka, much like now, when no statement has been issued by New Delhi in light of the scrapping of 19A. The Rajapaksas’ growing proximity to China in the last few years is a towering concern for India and any interference could push them further towards the Chinese, causing a major concern in the struggle for power in the region.

Internally too, with no party from the state of Tamil Nadu  pushing the ruling coalition, the NDA government feels they have no pressure to appease the Tamil sentiments of brotherhood, prioritising the India-Sri Lanka-China equation over justice for the Tamils from the island.

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