Sri Lanka: A Path Towards True Democracy Derailed
Updated: Jun 23
By Rashi Bhan
Image: Women engage in interfaith peacebuilding. (Source: PeaceDirect)
With the Rajapaksa administration re-entering power in Sri Lanka, the island nation’s democracy is under threat. Despite being one of the first democracies in South Asia, Sri Lanka is facing a battle within to establish a democratic structure that is accountable and transparent. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration provided a ray of hope in this direction by introducing the 19th Amendment to the constitution in 2015, thus establishing an administrative and bureaucratic structure that many hoped would be truthful and accountable to the citizens of the island nation.
However, this dream appears to be short-lived, as its democratic developments are once again called into question with the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, one of the most divisive figures of the civil war era. He is now the President of Sri Lanka, and his brother, Mahindra Rajapaksa, is the Prime Minister. After assuming power in 2019, the Rajapaksa clan, which held key administrative positions during the civil war, declared that they would repeal the 19th Amendment. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the defense secretary during the civil war era and is feared and disliked by many in Sri Lanka. His government’s policy within a year of coming to power is set against the openness that was being in the country, especially with the abolition of the 19th amendment and the introduction of the 20th amendment to the Constitution.
Any operational structure necessitates constructive criticism to ensure that its tasks are carried out in an effective and efficient manner. A leader or an organisation will not be successful in fulfilling the needs of its people as long as it does not giving people the platform to raise their concerns. Something similar is unfolding in Sri Lanka. The space for civil society and independent media, which had grown in the last few years, is now shrinking with journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and activists being threatened, and with those working on ending impunity and ensuring accountability for past crimes being particularly at risk.
The government, by curtailing the rights of the people to raise their voices against the ills in the society, has led to several questions at various national and international platforms. Its refusal to hold those accountable for the war crimes committed during the 26 yearr long civil war, and its withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, marginalizes the minorities, especially the Tamils. When the government appoints former military and intelligence personnel to key administrative positions in the government, this over militarisation of the administrative structure seems like a major blow, especially for the women of the Tamil Community in the north-eastern region of Sri Lanka, who till today are fighting for their missing sons and husbands and awaiting justice for the violence they faced.
An issue in Sri Lanka’s administrative structure is the lack of women in key positions. It is sad to see that a nation whose majority of electorates are women (at 52%) are not only absent from the government but hardly represented in the Parliament. The nation has only 12 women parliamentarians, with none being given a position in the cabinet. In an era where we talk about gender equality and equal representation, Sri Lanka ranks 182 out of 193 countries in a global database produced by Inter-Parliamentary Union, which ranks countries according to the percentage share of women in their parliament.
With the abolition of various councils that constituted members from the civil societies and appointments being made to the Human Rights, Audit services and other commissions being made by the president, under the new 20th amendment act, redressal for women and children comes into question. This is a matter of concern as most women’s and children’s rights in both public and private spheres are implemented by these independent commissions. The lack of representation of civil society and over indulgence of the government in these commissions will lead to biased decisions in the favour of the government that may not further the welfare of these sections of the society.
We can already see the involvement of this government in the personal sphere of people’s lives. Recent statements made by Sri Lanka’s Public Health Minister Sarath Weerasekara on the government's proposal to ban the burqa, the full-face covering worn by Muslim women, on national security grounds questions the government's intentions around inclusivity and upliftment and representation of the women, especially grom the minority communities. With the passage of the 20th Amendment, which grants the President unrestricted powers and reduces the Parliament to a rubber stamp, many fear that Sri Lanka will be nothing short of a train derailing from the tracks of democracy.
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