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The Sri Lankan Dilemma


Jan. 26, 2010 was an auspicious day for the people of northern Sri Lanka. They were eagerly waiting to vote in the first presidential election since the Sri Lankan Civil War between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government came to an end in May 2009. But what followed was a crisis that requires international attention.

The ruling party candidate, Mahinda Rajapakse, asked the people to show gratitude for bringing the 30-year war to an end, and to strengthen his mandate to continue his policies. A coalition of opposition parties offered former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka as their common candidate and asked for a mandate to start a reconciliation process with the Tamils in the north. They also demanded the abolishment of the executive presidency, which is powerful enough to overrule decisions made by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, in order to empower the Parliament to be more responsible to the people by enacting new laws to fight state corruption, foster democracy, and promote freedom of expression. These demands stemmed from the fact that Sri Lanka has already had three armed uprisings after independence because of a rigid system of government.

Following unprecedented levels of abuse of state media by the ruling party candidate, the election commissioner demanded that all media follow ethical guidelines. Upon the state’s failure to enforce law, on Jan. 16, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka ordered the media to follow the guidelines of the election commissioner. This order fell on deaf ears. Violence escalated, and by Jan. 26, four people had died.

The violence did not stop there. On election day, people in the camps for internally displaced people in northern Sri Lanka waited in vain for the buses that were supposed to bring them to their polling stations. The bomb blasts that rocked some areas in the north reminded them of the horror of the war that ended just few months ago and scared many voters away. Fear brought voter turnout down to 20 percent in the north. But 70 percent out of those who ventured out to vote chose Fonseka’s cause. That sent the south a strong message that people in the north were thirsty for reconciliation, democracy, and freedom.

On Jan. 27, Sri Lankans realized that Rajapakse, the ruling party candidate, had won with a majority of 57 percent. Some bewildered voters questioned the results and started to spread rumors that the results had been rigged. However, according to state media, those rumors had been originated with malicious intent. Soon, the police arrested three people for sending out politically sensitive text messages.

A whole section of society was silenced while Rajapakse’s supporters celebrated. I tried to contact my friends who supported Fonseka, but they hung up the phone in fear. The election commissioner came out to officially announce the election results on the evening of Jan. 27. Soon after announcing the results, the government sent troops to encircle Fonseka’s hotel. Fonseka then requested that the Sri Lankan Elections Commission help protect his life and freedom of movement.

Some people might recommend that the international community impose sanctions on Sri Lanka in response to this crisis, but that would be unwise. The conventional policy of cornering governments that restrict democracy enables their leaders to further boost their patriotic image through state media by painting a portrait of a brave leader who stands strong against interfering Western imperialists. This further victimizes people in many ways: it provides leaders with a golden opportunity to censure the media, an opportunity to instill fear among people, a justification to arrest people on charges of conspiracy, and a reason to align with corrupt foreign governments that wait for an opportunity to exploit the situation. Mahinda Rajapakse’s government has already taken measures to block several web based news sources from people living in Sri Lanka. The government has already started to arrest newspaper editors.

In lieu of sanctions, the world must come up with innovative solutions that help oppressed Sri Lankans protect their democratic rights while imposing diplomatic pressure directly on leaders who restrict people’s rights. There are many people in Sri Lanka who are afraid to question the election results because they live in fear of persecution. Governments worldwide must take urgent measures to impose the highest level of diplomatic pressure on the government of Sri Lanka to stop arresting people for any conversation related to the election—this policy breeds extremism.

As a long-term measure, I urge foreign governments to give a higher priority to investments in credible information technology solutions to stop ballot rigging in the list of foreign aid to Sri Lanka. Finally, I implore all concerned countries to avoid imposing economic sanctions on Sri Lanka—they will only further victimize the victimized: individuals who love freedom more than most of their democratically elected leaders.

Thrishantha Nanayakkara was a Radcliffe Fellow co-sponsored by the Harvard Committee on Human Rights from 2008 to 2009.

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