Drift towards repression mars the peace in Sri Lanka

Pleas by the US and India on human rights have little effect in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Colombo

The defeat of one of the world’s largest and most lethal terrorist organisations – and the end of a three-decade civil war – should have heralded a bright new dawn for Sri Lanka.

The economy is one of Asia’s fastest growing, and tourism is booming. But three years after the war ended, human rights groups and opposition leaders are warning that the island is descending towards dictatorship, with dissent crushed, the media cowed and the minority Tamils, whose insurrection caused the war in the first place, still treated as second-class citizens.

The US and India, Sri Lanka’s two main trading partners, have expressed frustration at a lack of postwar reconciliation and urged Sri Lanka to do more to protect human rights. At the same time Washington and Delhi have found themselves increasingly marginalised, their leverage limited as the government in Colombo has forged close economic and diplomatic links with China and Iran.

Growing fears for Sri Lanka as human rights groups warn it may be heading towards dictatorship. Photograph: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images Growing fears for Sri Lanka as human rights groups warn it may be heading towards dictatorship. Photograph: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

"The Sri Lanka government have the wind in their sails, and they want to define the future of their country on their own terms," said Harsh V Pant, who teaches at the defence studies department at King’s College London. "It is going to be very difficult for outsiders like India and America to influence anything domestically."

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is enormously popular among the Sinhala Buddhist majority for ridding this country of 21 million of terrorism and war. But critics say he is in danger of squandering the peace. The military runs northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and residents say that anyone who challenges it risks deadly retribution.

But disappearances of government opponents are perhaps the most obvious manifestation of a regime gone wrong, human rights groups say.

This year 52 people have gone missing in the country’s south. Most who have disappeared since the end of the war are Tamils, but also at risk are moderate Sinhalese who speak out. In 2009 a prominent newspaper editor was shot and killed; in January 2010, a cartoonist and political analyst, Prageeth Eknaligoda, left his office and was never seen again.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says 23 journalists have been forced into exile since 2007 and only three have returned. Although self-censorship is widespread, intimidation continues. The police recently raided the offices of two websites and arrested nine journalists for "propagating false and unethical news on Sri Lanka". Reporters Without Borders ranks Sri Lanka 163 out of 179 nations on its global Press Freedom Index.

There was a flicker of hope after the war, when Rajapaksa set up the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. It cleared the army of systematic human rights abuses but recommended measures to promote postwar reconciliation, including the demilitarisation of the north and the investigation of disappearances. But even those limited recommendations have not been delivered.

After his election victory in 2010, Rajapaksa changed the constitution to increase his authority over the police, judiciary and civil service, and end the two-term limit for the presidency. He jailed his poll opponent, Sarath Fonseka, for two years. The president’s brother, Gotabhaya, runs the security apparatus and parts of the economy; another brother, Basil, heads the ministry of economic development, and a third is parliamentary speaker. A nephew runs the state airline.

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