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Autocrats Ascend - Newsletter, 24 August 2020

In his first address to Parliament since the parliamentary elections, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa laid out his vision of the island which emphasised the need to “protect and nurture the Buddha Sasana” but failed to make mention of the plight of Tamils and Muslims. In the past, Sri Lankan leaders have made token remarks towards other peoples on the island, however, the Rajapaksa administration, having won on a staunchly Sinhala Buddhist nationalist ticket, no longer sees the need for such trivialities.

Instead, he emphasised the need to repeal the 19th Amendment, which restrained the power of the Presidency, and to maintain a “unitary state”. This statement follows remarks from Sri Lanka’s State Minister of Provincial Councils, Sarath Weerasekara, that he would strip the 13th Amendment of clauses that would be crucial to the devolution of powers. Whilst political commentators speculate on whether the reforms brought by the Rajapaksa administration will hamper democracy or undermine the independence of public institutions, the verdict is already in.

Rajapaksa spoke of his establishment of a Presidential Task Force, which is being led by an all-Sinhala Buddhist committee that includes notable military officials accused of war crimes. Two committees are of particular concern, one to “preserve Buddhist heritage” and one for the establishment of a “disciplined and virtuous society”. The former aims to streamline the Sinhalisation of the Tamil homeland and further enable land grabs whereas the latter undermines the autonomy of public institutions in the name of national security. According to the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP):

“the Task Forces risk creating a parallel state and potentially give the President, his family and former military comrades unparalleled control over patronage networks and the use of public assets,”

As Sri Lanka slides towards authoritarian rule, Tamil politicians, such as Ponnambalam and Wigneswaran, have been defiant insisting that the North-East has received a mandate which demands accountability for mass atrocities, greater control over economic development in the region and ultimately the right to self-determination.

“That mandate cannot be violated. That is a mandate that has been consistently given by the Tamil, right through the 72-year history of this country,” said Ponnambalam.

With Sri Lanka’s backwards trajectory towards increasing militarised authoritarian rule, there have been increasing calls for sanctions on high-ranking Sri Lankan officials implicated in war crimes.

In response, Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary launched an unsurprising attack on the Tamil diaspora, specifying a need to eliminate a “separatist ideology” as the Rajapaksas called for a special inquiry into “slanderous” NGOs as well as how they are funded. Multiple human rights organisations have spoken out against Sri Lanka’s chilling assault on free speech and “intimidation of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders, and journalists in Sri Lanka”. There will be further destruction of democratic norms and the intensified domination of a supremacist state.

As a woman’s skeleton was uncovered at a possible mass grave in Jaffna, the discovery served as another grim reminder of what the Rajapaksa regime has brought and the road that lies ahead.

Viruben Nandakumar, Staff Writer
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