The war ended in 2009, but corruption and authoritarianism have reached new heights under the rule of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005 to 2015, and his brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa elected in 2019.Yet while Sri Lankas backsliding democracy stands out, so too does the resilience of its civilians.Most Sri Lankans may reject pluralism and justify the prevailing majoritarian milieu, but they make abundantly clear they value the right to protest and vote.
The Rajapaksa family have drastically weakened democracy in Sri Lanka, but face a stirring civilian resistance that is picking up momentum.
And they will not be aided by the United States — who did not extend Sri Lanka an invitation to its upcoming online ‘Summit for Democracy’. The summit aims to challenge authoritarianism, address corruption and advance human rights — all difficult goals for Sri Lanka, since the majoritarian politics that led to civil war and grotesque human rights violations still lives on. The war ended in 2009, but corruption and authoritarianism have reached new heights under the rule of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa
Yet while Sri Lanka’s backsliding democracy stands out, so too does the resilience of its civilians.
Most Sri Lankans may reject pluralism and justify the prevailing majoritarian milieu, but they make abundantly clear they value the right to protest and vote. If the former contributes to democratic backsliding, the latter at least allows for electoral democracy.
How democracy fell into a backslide The ethnocentric policies that rule Sri Lanka efficiently took hold within a decade after independence— Sinhalese
The government only reversed course in February 2021, when it required predominantly Muslim states in the United Nations Human Rights Commission to vote against a resolution brought against it.
Rampant corruption is another major factor undermining the rule of law in Sri Lanka. Family, friends and allies of the Rajapaksas have profited from lofty, well-paying state-funded positions that require little work. Today Gotabaya, Mahinda, two other brothers, and Mahinda’s son oversee departments and agencies that collectively control nearly 70 percent of the island’s budget. This takes place while the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Political Victimisation, created by Rajapaksa’s Government, absolves the family and their allies of criminal charges. Officials from the previous government’s Attorney General’s Office and Criminal Investigation Department who filed the charges are now being prosecuted for allegedly fabricating evidence.
Chinese-funded projects have played a large role in promoting Rajapaksa, just as Chinese state support for the family has aided their authoritarianism. The no-revenue generating, non-concessionary, non-transparent, and unsolicited “blingfrastructure” projects have lined Rajapaksa pockets, but also have saddled Sri Lanka with massive unpayable debts and led to a dire economic climate. Sri Lankans have revolted against resultant scarcities, showing the island’s resilience as a democracy. Sri Lanka was pushed into debt by civil war, but war-related corruption has seen the debt increase. Repaying China for exorbitant infrastructural projects, debts owed to non-Chinese entities, and corruption that persisted through the pandemic have all contributed to a severe balance of payments crisis. Government coffers contain only around US$1.5 billion in reserves as of November 2021, while debt payments for 2022 amount to around US$4.3 billion. The foreign currency shortage has prevented banks from providing importers lines of credit, which has caused long queues for essential items like petrol and milk powder. The government banned chemical fertilisers, saving around US$400 million and appealing to nationalist sentiment by claiming locally-produced organic fertiliser was better. But the decision led to widespread protests from farmers. Teachers also went on strike, citing rampaging inflation, made worse by the government recklessly printing money. Protests have been led by grassroots civil society groups. Previously, village-level groups may have avoided challenging Rajapaksa
It seems illiberal democracy stands to dominate the world in the years ahead, and this will certainly be the case in Sri Lanka, where majoritarianism is here to stay. But an illiberal democracy can be improved faster than a mature autocracy. The trick is to craft an ethnoreligious compact where majoritarianism coexists in a peaceful and diverse setting. While Sri Lanka’s leaders should be pushed to reconcile with minorities, reject ethno-religious violence, and promote a more pluralist setting, one must be realistic about what to expect. Pro-democracy advocates should continue to engage with the government while advocating for democratic reforms. Less engagement will push the country’s leaders to further lean on autocratic states and exacerbate democratic backsliding.
There’s also an opportunity to leverage the island’s dependence on western export markets to push for pro-democracy policies.
The Elections Commission and anti-corruption bodies remain important for promoting transparency, and sanctions remain a live option to stimie individuals and their families who violate human rights and thrive on corruption.
(360info.org) By Neil DeVotta, Wake Forest University Winston-Salem (US),