A dictator in the making?

Fresh from victory against the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka’s president is taking steps to stay in power indefinitely
A dictator in the making?
Rajapaksa (left) says he wants to build the economy; ‘75 per cent of the government’ is controlled by his family | Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters

It was a ceremony fit for a king. Adorned in white dress, surrounded by powerful family members and military officials, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in for his second term on Nov. 19. The lavish procession incorporated some of the country’s dominant institutions: Buddhist monks gave their blessing, and the sound of a 21-gun salute rounded off the event. In his speech, Rajapaksa made grand promises. This would be a new era for Sri Lanka after the island nation’s brutal 26-year civil war, which he helped to end in 2009, during his first six-year term, by defeating the Tamil Tiger insurgency. He promised to employ that same leadership to maintain peace, rebuild democratic institutions, and accelerate the economy.

But leaders who win wars are not always the best governors in peace. A string of increasingly repressive and undemocratic moves by the Rajapaksa administration has caused opponents to worry that Sri Lanka’s economic growth and development are camouflaging human rights transgressions and a tilt toward authoritarianism. For one, there are the changes he’s made to the constitution since being re-elected. Though he pulled in nearly 60 per cent of the vote in the election held last January, he recently rallied a majority in parliament to pass an amendment that removed constitutionally set term limits, ensuring he can remain in power indefinitely.

The vote was also rushed through just one day after Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled that the amendment could be made without a referendum. “This changes the dynamic in Sri Lanka pretty fundamentally,” says Alan Keenan, the International Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka project director and senior analyst. “The ability of Sri Lanka to bounce back from previous bouts of authoritarianism and undemocratic governments was because the president couldn’t stay in power.” Historically, Sri Lanka has been a beacon of democracy in the Indian Ocean region, despite its civil unrest. But these actions have led critics, including Robert D. Kaplan, author of the new book Monsoon, to wonder whether Sri Lanka will go the way of Pakistan and Burma—toward eroding civil liberties, radicalization and violence—instead of following democracies like India.

Rajapaksa also appears to be on a moral crusade. There have been crackdowns on anything deemed “indecent,” including posters showing “women with their legs out,” and Internet pornography. Advertising alcohol was banned, and even real-life displays of affection—kissing in public, hand-holding—have been targeted.

The media also appear to be a target. While incidences of abuses against journalists have long been recorded in Sri Lanka—in the long years of war, there have been arrests, assassinations, torture, and abductions of both local and foreign reporters—the situation may have worsened since Rajapaksa first won power in 2005. According to Amnesty International, since 2006 at least 14 media workers have been unlawfully killed, and some 20 journalists are thought to have fled the country in response to death threats, which is more per capita than have left Iran.

No one has been prosecuted for those attacks. And the campaign against free expression has recently been stepped up under Rajapaksa. In January of last year, the government imposed a media blackout on the Tamil war zone in the north, and denied access to humanitarian and aid workers who were trying to reach the estimated 300,000 civilians trapped in the battleground.

There is also the question of what happened to Rajapaksa’s main election opponent, Sarath Fonseka, a former army general and close ally of the president. After the election, Fonseka was arrested and is currently serving a 30-month jail sentence in the largest prison in the country. The government said he broke laws relating to his army conduct. Critics, however, say Fonseka was probably muzzled because he was going to give evidence of war crimes that occurred during the final stages of the battle against the Tamil Tigers. The arrest, it would appear, is a sign of Rajapaksa’s strengthening hold on power.

It’s a grip that extends beyond Rajapaksa’s own hands. “Something in the order of 75 per cent of the Sri Lankan government is controlled by the president, his brothers, or one of their sons, daughters and cousins,” says Keenan. While Rajapaksa is president, commander-in-chief and minister of defence, finance and planning, ports and aviation, and highways, one brother, Basil Rajapaksa, is the current minister of economic development. Another, Gotabaya, is the defence secretary. A third is parliamentary speaker, with the power to reject any motion to impeach the president. There’s also Rajapaksa’s son Namal, now a member of parliament, who is being groomed to carry the family dynasty into the future. “They have untrammelled authority to do whatever their will is,” says Keenan. “There are very few parts of the world where you have such absolute control by a few brothers.”

For now, Rajapaksa says he will focus on economic development. Since the U.S. and EU have halted the flow of money into Sri Lanka because of alleged human rights violations, the president has turned to countries like Iran and, in particular, China, which has been investing millions of dollars in Sri Lanka, outpacing even India’s long-standing ties with its neighbour.

A symbol of the budding relationship: in November, the first ships sailed into a trade-enhancing port in the southern town of Hambantota, which was built using Chinese loans. Arms from China were also used to fight its civil war. Some anaysts now say that China, in its hopes to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean region through a “string of pearls”—port facilities in Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh—has added Sri Lanka to that list. However, Nilanthi Samaranayake, an analyst at the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) who focuses on South Asia, says it’s important to remember that, “Sri Lanka is a developing nation, and it hasn’t only been pursuing Chinese money. It’s been pursuing anybody and everybody’s money.” Regardless of the speculation around China’s motives, it’s clear that Sri Lanka is cooling its ties with the West as it ramps up relations with some of its less democratic neighbours.

Rajapaksa has defended his actions, saying a strong leader is what’s needed to get post-war Sri Lanka back on its feet. “This is a president who has a huge mandate and has to do a great deal of work to make sure the country moves forward,” one of his spokesmen has explained. But this quest for economic expansion has come without a commitment to resolve the ethnic tensions at the heart of the nearly three-decades-long war. For now, there’s only hope that—in a country with a history of violence and no safety valves to unseat the government—Sri Lanka’s long-awaited peacetime won’t be marred by a brutal ruler.