The South Asia Channel

Five Years After: Illiberal Democracy and Potemkin Peace in Sri Lanka

As the sun settles on a hot spring day, the streets of Vavuniya, a Tamil-inhabited town ravaged in Sri Lanka's bloody civil war, are normally deserted. But on a muggy evening last March, the main road resembled an open-air bus terminal. Stretched along a seemingly endless line, buses, filled with the families of Tamils who disappeared during and after the war, sat idle. The families, numbering in the hundreds, had planned to arrive in Sri Lanka's de facto capital, Colombo, to present petitions to the U.N. mission, but they never reached their intended destination. Local police officers quarreled with the drivers, and the passengers were eventually forced to evacuate the buses. "We did nothing wrong," one woman whose son went missing at the end of the war told me. "They treat us [like] we have committed a crime when all we want are answers."

Stories like this have sadly become all too prevalent in a postwar society in which critical inquiry is at best irritant and at worst subversive. In March 2014, for example, two local human rights activists, Ruki Fernando and Fr. Praveen Mahesan, were detained for two days without formal charges or legal representation under Sri Lanka's draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. Journalists must also exercise extreme caution. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sri Lanka is ranked the fourth-worst country in the world for providing impunity in journalists' killings and disappearances, surpassing even war-ridden states like Afghanistan and Syria.

Sri Lanka's nearly 30-year war ended in May 2009 with the Sri Lankan military's defeat of the militant, separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but five years since the war's bitter conclusion, the root causes of the conflict still linger. In a country where Sinhalese -- the majority, overwhelmingly Buddhist ethnic group -- make up roughly three-quarters of the population, many hoped the LTTE's defeat would usher in greater efforts to accommodate long-standing Tamil fears of marginalization and to establish a more comprehensive democracy. Yet what has emerged appears to be Potemkin peace -- a country ruled by an ethnocentric regime not interested in redressing wrongs, but in consolidating power.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now in his ninth year of power, is widely admired. His beaming face, plastered on billboards and signs lining Sri Lanka's congested roads, is a pervasive presence in the small island country. To ardent supporters, Rajapaksa, who hails from a Sinhalese-Buddhist stronghold region in the deep south, is a hero who finally defeated the LTTE and freed Sri Lanka from the captivity of a seemingly endless war. Indeed, he is frequently viewed as a modern-day incarnation of King Dutugemunu, a renowned Buddhist king who defeated King Elara, an invading Tamil king who ruled part of Sri Lanka more than 2,000 years ago. There is, however, one significant difference between the two leaders: Rajapaksa was more expeditious. "It took 13 years for Dutugemunu to regain lost territory and establish total sovereignty over Sri Lanka. But it took less than three years for President Mahinda Rajapaksa to achieve the same goal," notes the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense's website.

This delicate mix of unmitigated triumphalism and Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism has been the linchpin of Rajapaksa's ever-expanding power and influence after the war. The Sri Lankan Constitution has been changed to end presidential term limits and grant the president final authority over appointments to the civil service and the judiciary. When the Supreme Court handed down a series of rulings against the government, Rajapaksa simply had the chief justice removed, replacing her with a longtime ally. According to one estimate, 94 government departments come under the control of the Rajapaksa family. His two younger brothers head two of the most important ministries, Defense and Economic Development, and his eldest brother is the speaker of the Parliament. A new international airport in Hambantota, Rajapaksa's hometown, and an ultramodern performing arts center in the shape of a petaled lotus flower, both named after the famed president, are subtle reminders of his strength and influence.

Such unfettered power has and continues to be a major stumbling block for genuine reconciliation. In a conscious effort to deflect pressures for an international investigation, Rajapaksa appointed a domestic commission of inquiry, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, to investigate wrongdoing during the war and recommend policies for reconciliation. After an 18-month inquiry, the commission submitted a detailed report, but many of its crucial recommendations have yet to be implemented. Provincial elections were held in the Tamil, largely Hindu, Northern province for the first time in 25 years in 2013, but the newly elected provincial government has no meaningful power. Administrative decision-making authority still rests heavily with the central government.

Economic development, not political concessions, is where Rajapaksa has put almost singular emphasis, believing it is the foremost panacea for reconciliation and peace. As I traveled across the north recently, having last been there over two years ago, the change was noticeable -- roads once damaged have been paved, railways once closed are now open, and buildings once destroyed have been rebuilt. There are, however, deliberate reminders of the war that took place there. In Kilinochchi, the former headquarters of the LTTE, a large water tower toppled during the war lies off the main road in the center of town. An inscription on a government sign nearby reads: "This tower is a silent witness to the brutality of terrorism.… Terrorism shall never rise again in our great land. We are free.''

The wide-ranging presence of the Sri Lankan military is another lingering remnant of the war. Armed soldiers stand guard at makeshift stations along the roads while others navigate the snarled traffic. The government insists that the continued military presence in Tamil-speaking areas is needed for security reasons, but others see the presence of the military, which is entirely Sinhalese, as yet another sign of government arrogance and insensitivity. "I feel angry every time I see them," one Catholic priest from Mannar, who wished not to be named, told me. And the construction of large, elaborate military bases suggests that the military intends to stay here for the long haul.

Sri Lanka has not, however, gone without its fair share of scrutiny. It hosted the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 2013, but Canada and India boycotted the meeting, citing human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government, including the indiscriminate killing of as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians by Sri Lankan forces in the final months of the war when victory was clear and magnanimity was evidently absent. In March, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution, sponsored by the United States, to conduct a comprehensive investigation into possible war crimes and human rights abuses. But many in Sri Lanka view such efforts as an affront on the small country's sovereignty. The minister of external affairs recently stated that Sri Lanka will not cooperate with or participate in the U.N. inquiry.

Sri Lanka's intransigence toward international critics has coincided with an upsurge in sectarianism committed to preserving Sinhalese-Buddhist culture. The Bodu Bala Sena, a new militant group of Buddhists monks, has begun targeting Muslims, who they believe are a major threat to Sinhalese hegemony. (Muslims make up less than 10 percent of the population.) The group has waged an anti-halal campaign across the country and has been linked to an attack on a mosque in the Grandpass area of Colombo. No one has been charged.

Realities like these seem, however, to go unnoticed by Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka is "rapidly progressing, from war to peace," he told a huge, applauding crowd at a recent Independence Day celebration.

Spring is supposed to be a time for new beginnings, but five years since the end of the conflict, Sri Lanka appears to be slowly but surely repeating the past.

Malik Neal is a Fulbright research scholar studying the root causes of conflict and postwar reconciliation in Sri Lanka. He has previously studied and worked in Sri Lanka and is now based in Colombo. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. government or the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission.

Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images