Human rights activists in Sri Lanka are anxious. “I can’t believe we are back here again,” one wrote me recently. “Things are getting bad,” said another, fearing bloodshed.
Their worries aren’t unjustified. On October 26, President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly dismissed the prime minister and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa – the former president linked to widespread abuses whom Sirisena had defeated in the January 2015 presidential elections.
In 2014, Sirisena had broken ranks with party leader Rajapaksa to run for office. He garnered support from a broad-based coalition opposed to an administration that was seen as increasingly corrupt and authoritarian. Five years after the end of the horrific three-decade civil war with Tamil separatists, Rajapaksa’s government suppressed the media, targeted rights activists, and continued to arbitrarily detain and torture perceived opponents. Sirisena said he would promote good governance and the rule of law.
The new government brought about a significant shift. Journalists and rights activists returned to work without constant fear of arrest or worse. The Sirisena government made international commitments for justice and reconciliation, pledging at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015 to ensure accountability for conflict-related abuses. While attempts at justice faltered, victim groups sought answers for those who had disappeared and the return of land occupied by the military. The national Human Rights Commission functioned independently, and the Office of Missing Persons started work. Many issues needed to be addressed, but there was cause for hope.
Sirisena’s constitutionally questionable appointment of Rajapaksa as prime minister, and the decision to suspend parliament until November 16, came as a shock to many. The president said his intention was to “strengthen democratic governance, freedom of the people, human rights and fundamental rights and media freedom.” Instead, the move raised fears about a return to past abusive practices in the country.
This week, thousands of Sri Lankans protested Rajapaksa’s appointment as a coup and demanded democratic rule be restored. The matter is expected to turn on whether Sirisena has the votes to uphold his decision in parliament. Sirisena had told diplomats that he would convene parliament on November 5, but later said that parliament will remain suspended.
These events are a reminder that human rights reforms cannot be taken for granted in Sri Lanka, particularly when those responsible for past abuses have yet to face justice. Sri Lanka may get a second chance to restore democratic freedoms – or it may find itself ending up back there again.