By Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits*
In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic provided additional cover for the regressive turn in Sri Lankan politics. The consequences of the economic and political crisis became apparent shortly before the end of the year as the Rajapaksa family tightened its grip on the Sri Lankan state.
From early 2021, the dead came to haunt the Rajapaksa regime, while the government – against all medical and scientific advice – continued to enforce the cremation of dead Muslims. This provoked considerable opposition from local civil society groups, the medical community and some in the international community. The policy was later changed, not because of any change of government heart, but more likely intended to avoid hurtful words at the UN Human Rights Council deliberations in March in Geneva, when a country -specific resolution in Sri Lanka was delivered.
While alleged war criminals continue to enjoy impunity, the regime has suppressed freedom of expression, harassment and intimidation of journalists and expanded the use of strict laws, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act. (PTA). Although such measures were noticed in the international forum, the government used the pandemic as an excuse to silence dissenting voices and suppress protests. These include mothers in the North seeking justice for missing children, young people protesting the privatization and militarization of higher education (the KNDU Bill) and farmers protesting the overnight ban on the import of chemical fertilizer.
Strong words at the UN Human Rights Council in March and the High Commissioner’s September oral report on Sri Lanka added pressure on the government to address lingering injustices seriously and urgently. Strong opposition was raised over Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record during debates related to the extension of the EU GSP+ tariff scheme in the European Parliament in June. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister in Geneva and permanent representative to the United Nations in New York both claimed an international conspiracy in response.
There is some glimmer of hope for victims of war crimes in practice. The administration of US President Joe Biden has imposed travel bans on some of Sri Lankan’s top military. The Hague-based People’s tribunal has indicted the Sri Lankan government after investigating the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunge in 2009-a vocal journalist who reported on the scandalous MIG-deal in 2006 involving Sri Lankan President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was defense secretary.
The government played the victim in the domestic arena. The newly-formed Commission on Political Victimization has been mandated to investigate the ‘victimization’ of public servants and state officials working in corporations, the army and police. The lofty goal of the Commission was not met, and instead it became a way to ensure that the ruling Rajapaksa family and their friends continued to refrain from dealing with justice. Those who filed legal complaints against regime supporters were ‘urged’ to withdraw them.
Further militarization of the state is evident in the appointment of more military personnel to civilian positions. Partisans, military elites and Buddhist monks received many rewards for supporting the regime, while Rajapaksa ensured the intensified ‘Buddhization’ of state institutions. Prominent Buddhist monks were given high positions in the Human Rights Commission and one was appointed as Vice Chancellor of Colombo University. Ang Bodu Bala Sena The leader of the (Buddhist Task Force) Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara-a convicted criminal who incited violence against the minority Muslim community-was ironically appointed to the President’s new pet political project, ‘One country, One law’.
The Rajapaksa regime’s mismanagement of the state’s economy through continued rewards to crony capitalists and family members has further exacerbated Colombo’s economic slowdown. Credit agency Fitch Ratings predicted the coming economic crisis after downgrading the Sri Lankan economy to CC status in December 2021. In the last quarter of 2021, the Sri Lankan economy weakened by 1.5 per cent and foreign currency reserves shrank from US $ 7 billion in 2019 to US $ 1.5 billion in December. Subsequently, government import restrictions led to widespread food and fertilizer shortages.
Further difficulty was added to households struggling with rising inflation through a series of gas cylinder explosions due to poor quality gas imports. Colombo has also lost grace to the IMF, which has offered COVID-19 relief packages to most countries except Sri Lanka, citing the government’s reluctance to reorganize its ailing economy. The rapid passage of the Port City Bill has worried some citizens and media, noting that the bill primarily benefits close friends and relatives of the Rajapaksas-while strengthening close ties with state companies. of China.
As Fitch downgraded Sri Lanka’s economy to the CC, disgruntled citizens downgraded the President’s status from ‘Terminator’ to ‘Nandasena’, his first name. This symbolic political move was an attempt to distinguish between the decorated war-winning defense secretary-often identified by his second name, Gotabaya, or pet name ‘Terminator’-from the President entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding the welfare of all.
It is hard to imagine what positive political and economic developments can reasonably be expected in Sri Lanka in 2022. The pandemic means that global economic growth is likely to be sluggish or even negative, and Sri Lanka’s political elite seems to intend to worsen the domestic economic crisis. . Perhaps Prime Minister Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa’s spiritual visit to India at the end of the year-as well as his offerings to India’s deities-will miraculously cure Sri Lanka’s ills. The US $ 500 million in emergency loans requested by Colombo from India that could materialize in 2022 is more likely.
*About the author: Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits is Assistant Professor of conflict and peace studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Source: This article was published by the East Asia Forum and is part of a series of special EAF features in 2021 review and next year.