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Political instability plagued Sri Lanka in 2001, complicating President Chandrika Kumaratunga's efforts to find a solution to an ongoing civil war. After her minority People's Alliance government faced a series of no-confidence motions throughout the year, elections were held on December 5 that returned the opposition to power. A daring rebel attack on the international airport in July left 18 people dead and thousands of tourists stranded, and caused damage estimated at more than $350 million.
Since independence from Great Britain in 1948, political power in this island nation has alternated between the conservative United National Party (UNP) and the leftist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). While the country has made impressive gains in literacy, basic health care, and other social needs, its economic development has been stunted and its social fabric tested by the civil war that began in 1983. The conflict initially pitted several Tamil guerrilla groups against the government, which is dominated by the Sinhalese majority. The war came in the context of long-standing Tamil claims of discrimination in education and employment opportunities, as well as a series of anti-Tamil riots predating independence. By 1986, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which called for an independent Tamil homeland in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, had eliminated most rival Tamil guerrilla groups and was in control of much of the northern Jaffna Peninsula.
In a failed effort to disarm the LTTE, the UNP brought in an Indian peacekeeping force between 1987 and 1990. By 1987, the government was also fighting an insurgency in the south by the leftist People's Liberation Front (JVP). The JVP insurgency, and the brutal methods used by the army to quell it in 1990, killed 60,000 people. A previous JVP insurgency in 1971 had killed some 20,000 people.
As the civil war between the government and the LTTE continued, a suspected LTTE suicide bomber assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. In 1994, Kumaratunga ended nearly two decades of UNP rule by leading an SLFP-dominated People's Alliance (PA) coalition to victory in parliamentary elections, and then won the presidential election against the widow of the UNP's original candidate, whom the LTTE had assassinated.
Early in her term, Kumaratunga tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a peace agreement with the LTTE. Since then, she has pursued a military solution while attempting to devolve power to eight semiautonomous regional councils, including one covering the contested north and east, where Tamils would be in a majority. However, she was unable to enact the relevant constitutional reforms. The UNP, leftist parties, and the influential Buddhist clergy claim the proposals would lead to an independent Tamil state, while mainstream Tamil-based parties say the amendments do not offer Tamils enough autonomy.
Having made the amendments a centerpiece of her campaign, Kumaratunga won early presidential elections in December 1999. Three days before the vote, separate bombings at PA and UNP rallies killed at least 38 people and slightly wounded Kumaratunga. Although the PA won the most seats in parliamentary elections held in October 2000, it failed to win a majority.
In June 2001, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) withdrew from the governing coalition and joined the opposition, leaving the government without a parliamentary majority. The defection came after SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem was summarily dismissed as minister for trade and shipping. In an effort to avoid a planned no-confidence motion, Kumaratunga suspended parliament for two months on July 10. A vote on constitutional reforms was then delayed until September, when proposals to put the police, judiciary, public service, and elections offices under independent commissions were overwhelmingly adopted by parliament after the UNP gave the minority government its support. However, the reforms did not address the issue of the separatist war in the northeast.
Facing a second no-confidence motion in October, President Kumaratunga dissolved parliament and scheduled snap elections for December 5, just 14 months after the last polls were held. In polling marred by violence and intimidation, during which the army prevented tens of thousands of minority Tamil voters from traveling out of rebel-controlled areas to cast their votes, the UNP and its allies won 114 out of a possible 225 seats. UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe became prime minister, although Kumaratunga remains in office as president. In response to a ceasefire offer by the LTTE at the end of December, the new government declared a month-long truce with the rebels, announced that it was lifting an economic embargo imposed on rebel-held territory, and pledged to restart Norwegian-brokered peace talks.
Sri Lankans can change their government through elections based on universal adult suffrage. The 1978 constitution vested strong executive powers in a president who is directly elected for a six-year term and can dissolve parliament. The 225-member parliament is also directly elected for a six-year term, through a mix of single-seat, simple-plurality districts and proportional representation.
While elections are generally free, they are marred by irregularities, violence, and intimidation. The independent Center for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) reported 2,734 incidents of election-related violence during the campaign leading up to the December 5 parliamentary elections. The organization recorded 47 murders and more than 1,500 assaults, threats, and other abuses in the five weeks leading up to the vote, terming it a "clear qualitative and quantitative increase in the incidence of violence" over the previous general election. Their monitoring of polling centers on election day indicated that 779 centers, or 13.41 percent of the total monitored by the CMEV, conducted elections that were "seriously flawed."
While the judiciary is independent, the rule of law is weak. This has allowed security forces to commit abuses with near impunity, often facilitated by sweeping security laws. Since the civil war began in 1983, successive governments have kept all or parts of Sri Lanka under a near continuous state of emergency. President Chandrika Kumaratunga promulgated new, stricter emergency regulations and amendments in May 2000 and extended them islandwide. Previously, they had mainly been in force in the north and east and in Colombo. The new emergency regulations permitted authorities to restrict press freedom; temporarily banned public meetings and processions; and permitted officials to ban organizations considered to be a threat to national security, public order, or the provision of essential services. Like the measures they replaced, the new regulations allowed authorities to hold suspects in preventive detention for up to one year without charge, with a limited right to judicial review. In addition, they removed certain safeguards relating to detention and extended, to nine months, the maximum period that authorities can hold suspects without filing charges under nonpreventive detention procedures. In June, in order to avoid having to ask parliament to renew the country's legal state of emergency, the government invoked the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Public Security Ordinance to claim emergency-style powers against the Tamil rebels fighting in the north and east of the country.
According to the U.S. State Department, authorities detained more than 2,819 people from January to August 2000 under emergency regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Most were released after several days or within several months. Human rights groups allege that the security laws contain inadequate safeguards for detainees and facilitate long-standing practices of torture and disappearances. Amnesty International said in 1999 that "torture continues to be reported almost (if not) daily" in the context of the civil war, while police officers "regularly torture" criminal suspects and people arrested over land disputes or other private matters.
While there has been little progress in reducing acts of torture, there has been a decline in the number of reported disappearances. After eight bodies, including that of a five-year-old child, were discovered in a mass grave at Mirisuvil late last year, 14 soldiers were arrested in connection with the killings, although they have not yet been brought to trial. Security forces were responsible for at least 761 extrajudicial killings or disappearances between April 1995 and the end of 1999, according to the U.S. State Department. Some observers attribute the subsequent drop in reported disappearances to the 1998 convictions of, and death sentences handed down against, five soldiers in the 1996 murders of a schoolgirl and three others in Jaffna.
Nonwithstanding these convictions, the Kumaratunga government generally did not investigate disappearances that occurred between 1994 and 2001. However, it has established commissions that investigated and reported on earlier disappearances that occurred in the context of the civil war with the LTTE or the JVP insurgency. Between 1987 and 1990 alone, some 20,000 people were reported missing. Currently some 350 cases against 550 police officers and members of the security forces are being prosecuted.
In addition to torture and disappearances, soldiers, police, and state-organized civilian militias have also committed extrajudicial executions and rapes of alleged LTTE supporters, as well as of Tamil civilians. In July, a strike was observed throughout the north and east to protest against a rise in the number of Tamil women raped by the security forces. In response to urban terrorism attacks by the LTTE, authorities continued to detain and interrogate hundreds of Tamils, most of whom were released after a few days or hours. The estimated one million internally displaced persons as well as other Tamil civilians in the north and east faced arbitrary arrest, restrictions on their freedom of movement, and other abuses by soldiers and police.
The LTTE directly controls some territory in the northern Vanni jungle and maintains de facto control over many areas in the Eastern Province. The rebels continued to be responsible for summary executions of civilians who allegedly served as informers or otherwise cooperated with the army; disappearances; arbitrary abductions and detentions; torture; and forcible conscriptions of children. In October, Amnesty International appealed to the LTTE to honor its own pledge and halt the ongoing recruitment of children as combatants. The group raises money through extortion, kidnapping, theft, and the seizure of Muslim homes, land, and businesses, and has used threats and attacks to close schools, courts, and government agencies in its self-styled Tamil homeland. The LTTE's urban terrorism attacks in Sinhalese-majority areas in recent years have killed hundreds of civilians, including several high-ranking government officials.
As part of its war against the LTTE, the military arms the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and several other anti-LTTE Tamil paramilitary groups. In July, Amnesty International noted an upsurge of abuses by PLOTE in the Eastern Province and in the Vavuniya area, including disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions, and the forced recruitments of child soldiers. During the year, errant shelling and artillery fire killed scores of civilians in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Overall, the civil war has reportedly killed about 64,000 people, including many civilians.
Much of the information from the war zones is fragmentary because the government has restricted press freedom in general and coverage of the war in particular. New emergency regulations introduced by the government in May 2000 empowered authorities to arrest journalists, ban the sale and distribution of newspapers, shut down printing presses, and exercise prior censorship on all news coverage on broadly drawn "national security" grounds. In another move to strengthen the country's censorship laws, the government banned live broadcasts of all television and radio programs in May. In July, the government warned local publications that printing or broadcasting "false information" about the forthcoming referendum on the constitution could lead to prosecution. However, in a positive step, the government decided at the end of May to lift the censorship of military-related news, and in July allowed journalists to enter the war zone.
In addition to placing broad legal restrictions on the press, the Kumaratunga administration has filed criminal defamation charges against several editors, including Victor Ivan, the editor of the Ravaya newspaper. In June, Dharmaratnam Sivaram, the editor of TamilNet, a well-known Internet news site that reports on human rights violations, was accused by a state-run newspaper of being a spy for the LTTE. At the end of December, Sivaram and a colleague were beaten and stabbed by a group of unknown assailants in a newspaper office in Batticaloa. Security forces occasionally harass and assault journalists, particularly Tamils. While private newspapers, magazines, radio, and television stations criticize officials and government policies, journalists do practice some self-censorship. The government controls the largest newspaper chain, two major television stations, and a radio station; and political coverage in the state-owned media favors the ruling party. Unidentified gunmen killed three journalists in 1999 and a freelance reporter for the BBC in October 2000.
Women are underrepresented in politics and the civil service. Female employees in the private sector face some sexual harassment as well as discrimination in salary and promotion opportunities. Rape and domestic violence against women remain serious problems, and authorities weakly enforce existing laws.
Freedom of assembly is generally respected, although both main political parties occasionally disrupt each other's rallies and political events. Restrictions on public gatherings were vigorously enforced on May 10, when police used tear gas to disperse around 150 Sinhalese protestors gathered in Colombo. Police also banned an opposition rally held in order to protest Kumaratunga's suspension of parliament. When thousands of activists defied the ban, two people were killed and more than 30 were seriously wounded in the ensuing violence. In July, after students at Jaffna University boycotted classes to protest the arrest of one of their leaders, authorities closed the entire university in a bid to end protests against the security forces.
Religious freedom is respected, although the constitution gives special status to Buddhism and there is some discrimination and occasional violence against religious minorities. Some of the worst communal violence in recent years occurred in October 2000, when Sinhalese mobs killed 26 Tamil detainees at a government-run rehabilitation center. Following Tamil protests against the massacre, clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils in several central hill districts killed four people. Ethnic unrest within the Muslim minority erupted in early May. A harsh crackdown by police on a Muslim protest in Mawanella, 12.5 miles west of Kandy, left one man dead and 20 others injured and sparked violent protests in Muslim areas in the already troubled east of the country. The LTTE also discriminates against Muslims and has attacked Buddhist sites in the past.
Except in war-affected areas, human rights and social welfare nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate freely. Trade unions are independent and engage in collective bargaining. Except for civil servants, most workers can hold strikes. However, under the 1989 Essential Services Act, the president can declare a strike in any industry illegal. President Kumaratunga has used the act to end several strikes. Employers on tea plantations routinely violate the rights of the mainly Tamil workforce. Government surveys suggest more than 16,000 children between the ages of 10 and 14 work full-time. A 1998 United Nations study estimated that there are 30,000 child prostitutes in coastal resort areas, although the government and NGOs offer lower figures.