Colombo, March 20 (Ceylon Today): The Freedom of the World Report 2023 has downgraded Sri Lanka in terms of democratic hallmarks. Sri Lanka has got an overall score of 53/100. Last year’s overall score was 55/100. But this year, as well as last year, its status is the same, namely, “Partly Free”.
In 2023, in terms of “political rights” it has got 22/40, and in terms of “civil liberties”, it has got 31/60.
Here are the main observations:
A culture of impunity regarding official corruption appears to exist in Sri Lanka, in which politicians do not prosecute political opponents on corruption allegations lest they risk scrutiny in the future. Corruption has also impacted the delivery of vital goods; a former chief executive of state-owned Litro Gas noted that corruption was rampant in that sector. In May 2022, Australian and Indian news outlets reported that Namal Rajapaksa, a scion of the Rajapaksa family, was linked to a money laundering scheme along with an Australian company and a Sri Lankan firm owned by a family associate.
In 2020, Gotabaya Rajapaksa established the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate Allegations of Political Victimization, which opposition leaders and rights groups said helped the Rajapaksa family and their associates evade criminal investigations and prosecution. In an October 2022 report, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that the inquiry had “actively intervened in police investigations and court proceedings in several high-profile human rights cases.”
Transparency is lacking in procurement and contracting decisions, including for large contracts with Chinese and other foreign companies. The auditor general in recent years has also noted major discrepancies in the government’s assessments of public debt.
Following the end of the civil war in 2009, the military presence in the Tamil-populated areas of the north and east increased. The creation of the Presidential Task Force for Archeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province in 2020 led to concerns that the government would employ the military to back claims pertaining to Buddhist heritage, to further change the region’s demographics.
Media were critical when reporting on the 2022 anti-government protests, but journalists faced arrest and physical assault while covering them. In March, police and security forces arrested journalists who covered a protest near Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s home. On July 9, paramilitary forces attacked a team of reporters near the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s home. Later that month, security forces assaulted journalists who were covering a raid on a Colombo protest site.
The Roman Catholic clergy has criticized the government for perceived faults in the official investigation into the 2019 Easter terrorist bombings, which had targeted three Christian churches.
Academic freedom is generally respected, but students and faculty feel pressure to avoid discussing sensitive topics, including alleged war crimes, human rights for marginalized groups, Islamophobia, or extremist activities by Buddhist clergy.
The civil war remains a sensitive topic. Awareness of state officials’ harassment of civil society activists working on human rights issues in the north and east has deterred open discussion of such subjects among ordinary citizens. Even anti-government protesters active in 2022 reportedly avoided those issues and discouraged discourse on those subjects.
In April, an activist who administered a Facebook group called “Go Home Gota” was arrested. The Aragalaya protests, which were prompted by the country’s severe economic difficulties, government mismanagement, and corruption, were held for much of 2022. The protests escalated on March 31, when protesters set fire to an army vehicle near Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence and authorities responded with force. Rajapaksa declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew days later.
On May 9, the day Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister, SLPP supporters attacked antigovernment demonstrators in Colombo, injuring at least 20 people. Anti-government protesters also targeted Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) members, with several lawmakers’ homes and vehicles being destroyed. In total, 5 people were reportedly killed from clashes on May 9, while 150 were injured.
On July 9, protesters occupied the presidential mansion forcing Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country. Wickremesinghe’s home and several other buildings were destroyed by protesters that day.
The government maintained a crackdown on the Aragalaya evenafter Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation. Soldiers dismantled a Colombo protest camp on July 21; over 50 people were reportedly injured during the operation. Authorities also targeted perceived Aragalaya participants, with over 100 people being arrested by early August. Also in August, three student activists were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). In September, the government used the Official Secrets Act to briefly restrict assembly rights in parts of Colombo, which were declared “high security zones.”
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are generally free to operate without interference, but some NGOs and activists—particularly those in the north and east that focus on sensitive topics such as military impunity—have been subjected to denial of registration, surveillance, harassment, and assaults. Intelligence personnel have attended civil society meetings and questioned NGOs about their personnel and funding sources. Trade unions protested the government’s handling of the country’s economic crisis throughout much of 2021 and 2022.
Due process rights are undermined by the PTA, which was expanded in 2021 to allow suspects to be detained for up to two years without trial. The law has been used to hold perceived enemies of the government, particularly Tamils. Many detained under the PTA’s provisions have been kept in custody for longer than the law allows. Following the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, hundreds of Muslim suspects were arrested under the act, while Sinhalese anti-Muslim rioters were charged under standard civilian statutes that allowed bail.
The government amended the PTA in March 2022 through an accelerated parliamentary process. But UN human rights experts warned that the legislation’s most severe provisions remained. The PTA has since been used against antigovernment protesters, with three student activists being detained under the law in August.
Military personnel accused of committing war crimes during the civil war later held prominent government roles, while others remain in senior military posts. Police and security forces have engaged in extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, custodial rape, and torture, all of which disproportionately affect Tamils. Aragalaya protesters who were arrested were reportedly tortured while in custody.
Tamils report systematic discrimination in areas including government employment, university education, and access to justice. Ethnic and religious minorities are vulnerable to violence and mistreatment by security forces and Sinhalese Buddhist extremists.
Ongoing occupations and other forms of land grabbing remain serious problems, especially for Tamils in the northeast. Members of minority groups have been targeted by criminals using forged land deeds in Colombo, leading to an investigation in October 2022.
Rape of women and children and domestic violence remain serious problems, and perpetrators often act with impunity. Some very young girls are forced into marriages under Islamic personal law, which the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government sought to change by altering the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA). However, the government was criticized for attempting to revise the MMDA without adequate input from the Muslim community. In 2021, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama objected to the cabinet’s decision to amend the MMDA, in part because it would ban polygamous marriages for Muslims.
While most of the mainly Tamil workers on tea plantations are unionized, employers routinely violate their rights.