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Freedom in the World

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores


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Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political fractiousness continued to weaken the Sri Lankan government and polity during 2005, mostly as a result of differences between former president Chandrika Kumaratunga's ruling People's Alliance (PA) coalition and its partner the leftist People's Liberation Front (JVP) over the correct approach to the peace process and to rehabilitation efforts conducted in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami. The year ended with a narrow victory for the PA candidate, Mahinda Rajapakse, in the November presidential election, but the government continues to rule without a clear mandate. Meanwhile, wrangling between the southern political factions continued to impede any meaningful progress on peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) separatist rebels. The February 2002 ceasefire is technically still in place, but was increasingly tested during the year by violations, mostly on the part of the LTTE; those violations included politically motivated killings, skirmishes with government troops and breakaway factions, the forcible conscription of child soldiers, and restrictions on freedom of expression and of association.

Since independence from Britain in 1948, political power in this island nation, formerly known as Ceylon, has alternated between the conservative United National Party (UNP) and the leftist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). While the country made impressive gains in literacy, basic health care, and other social needs, its economic development was stunted and its social fabric tested by a long-standing civil war that has killed an estimated 65,000 people. The conflict initially pitted several Tamil guerrilla groups against the government, which is dominated by the Sinhalese majority. The war, although triggered by anti-Tamil riots in 1983 that claimed hundreds of lives, came in the context of long-standing Tamil claims of discrimination in education and employment opportunities. By 1986, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which called for an independent Tamil homeland in the North Eastern Province, had eliminated most rival Tamil guerrilla groups and was in control of much of the northern Jaffna Peninsula. At the same time, 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 1989, killed 60,000 people.

In 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga ended nearly two decades of UNP rule by leading the SLFP-dominated People's Alliance (PA) coalition to victory in parliamentary elections and then winning the presidential election. Early in her term, she tried to negotiate a peace agreement with the LTTE, but following a renewal of hostilities by the LTTE, she reverted to focusing on a military solution to the conflict. Kumaratunga won early presidential elections in 1999, but the UNP and its allies gained a majority in parliamentary elections held in December 2001 and Ranil Wickremasinghe, the UNP leader, became prime minister.

In response to an LTTE ceasefire offer, the new government declared a truce, lifted its ban on the LTTE and its economic embargo on rebel-held territory, and restarted Norwegian-brokered peace talks. A permanent ceasefire accord with provisions for international monitoring was signed in February 2002. By December, the government and the Tamil Tigers had agreed to share political power in a federal system. Although the LTTE suspended its participation in peace talks in April 2003, it stated that it remained committed to a political solution.

However, the peace process has remained constrained since then by conflict between the main political parties about how to approach the Tigers, as well as by intransigence on the part of the Tigers themselves. In November 2003, President Kumaratunga declared a state of emergency and temporarily suspended parliament, stating that recently revealed LTTE proposals for the establishment of a Tiger-domi-nated interim self-governing authority (ISGA) in the North Eastern Province were a threat to national security. Although the state of emergency was pulled back and parliament resumed functioning, Wickremasinghe claimed that his ability to govern had been severely curtailed by the fact that Kumaratunga continued to hold the important defense portfolio.

The impasse was broken when the president dissolved parliament and called for elections to be held in April 2004. Bolstered by the direct support of the Marxist JVP, Kumaratunga's new PA-led United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition won 105 out of 225 seats and managed to form a minority government. Apart from the JVP, other extremist and ethnic-based parties also made inroads, including a new party formed by Buddhist clergy, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU, or National Heritage Party), which won 9 seats. The new government's tenuous grip on power became immediately apparent when it failed to secure the election of its candidate to the post of Speaker of Parliament; instead, the UNP was able to win the position with the help of votes from members of the smaller ethnic parties.

Though Kumaratunga remained committed to finding a political solution to the ethnic conflict, progress in resuming meaningful peace talks was complicated by the addition to the ruling coalition of the JVP, which adamantly opposes granting more powers to the provinces or to the LTTE, and by the presence of pro-Sinhalese forces such as the JHU in parliament. Such stances are completely at odds with the LTTE's insistence that any future talks include discussions on the formation of an ISGA, which would give the LTTE effective rule over the North Eastern Province, and Kumaratunga was unwilling to risk the stability of her coalition government by proceeding with talks on such a basis.

Meanwhile, the ceasefire with the LTTE continued to hold, despite increasing incidences of violations. Uncertainty was also created in early 2004 when the LTTE leader in the Eastern Province, Colonel Karuna, who controlled an estimated 6,000 out of a total of 15,000 LTTE troops, formed a breakaway faction, alleging discrimination in the treatment of eastern Tamils by the LTTE leadership. However, his rebellion proved to be short-lived; after fierce internecine fighting in April, Karuna disbanded his forces and went into hiding, although clashes and killings between the two groups have continued as both attempt to reassert their control over the east. The LTTE has alleged that the government has provided logistical support to Karuna, although the government denies these claims.

The December 2004 tsunami devastated parts of the Sri Lankan coast, killing 31,000 and displacing up to 500,000 people. Initially, it was hoped that the disaster would force the LTTE (whose cadres had been weakened by the destruction) and government to work together on the extensive rehabilitation efforts required, but after an immediate period of cooperation, tensions emerged over the details of the proposed Post-Tsunami Operations Management Structure (P-TOMS) agreement. While some alleged that it discriminated against Tamils and Muslims, the JVP opposed the overall framework of the agreement, arguing that it gave the LTTE too large a role in the reconstruction effort. When President Kumaratunga signed the agreement in June 2005, the JVP pulled out of the ruling coalition and asked the Supreme Court to declare the P-TOMS agreement to be illegal. In July, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the president to enter into the agreement but rejected several of its provisions, thereby hindering its overall implementation. With a diminished strength in the legislature, the ruling coalition was further weakened and unable to move forward with its policy objectives, including restarting the peace talks.

In another key decision, the Supreme Court ruled in August that the presidential elections, which Kumaratunga had controversially tried to postpone until 2006, should be held in 2005. As Kumaratunga was barred from standing again because of term limits, the PA nominated Mahinda Rajapakse, prime minister since 2004, as its candidate. Against the wishes of Kumaratunga and some other party leaders, Rajapakse immediately took a hard line, alienating minority groups and making preelection alliances with the JVP and JHU in which he committed himself to abolishing the PTOMS mechanism and renegotiating the ceasefire agreement. As a result, largely, of an LTTE boycott, which led to extremely low voter turnout in the Tamil-majority northern and eastern areas (for example, 1.2 percent in Jaffna as compared with more than 70 percent nationally), Rajapakse narrowly won the November 17 presidential election with 50.3 percent of votes cast, as opposed to 48.4 percent for his opponent, former prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. Calls for the vote to be re-admin-istered in certain areas were rejected by the election commission.

Throughout the year, the increased incidence of ceasefire violations and violence, mostly instigated by the LTTE, that was noted in 2004 continued to rise. Political killings included members of rival Tamil parties, suspected Karuna sympathizers and government informants, and journalists and human rights workers. High-profile assassinations included that of Rizwi Meedin, a senior intelligence agent, and of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was killed in Colombo in August. Kadirgamar, an ethnic Tamil, was a vociferous critic of the LTTE and had led the drive to have the LTTE declared a terrorist organization. Heightened tensions between all three ethnic communities-Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim-in the east led to almost daily killings and other forms of intimidation. Low-level fighting between the LTTE and Karuna factions and skirmishes between the LTTE and the army have also continued, bringing the two sides close to direct military confrontation in July. The LTTE has also continued to recruit and train new cadres and enhance their military capabilities, which leads some to believe that in the absence of a political settlement, the group may risk a return to outright war.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Sri Lanka can change their government demo-cratically. 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 unicameral parliament is directly elected for a five-year term through a mix of single-seat, simple-plurality districts and proportional representation. Elections are open to multiple parties, and fair electoral laws and equal campaigning opportunities ensure a competitive political process.

While elections are generally free and fair, they continue to be marred by some irregularities, violence, and intimidation, and the LTTE generally refuses to allow free elections in the areas under its control. The interim report issued by the independent Center for Monitoring Election Violence noted that with 368 incidents on election day, the 2004 parliamentary elections were considerably less beleaguered by violence and malpractice than previous polls had been. The interim report of the European Union Election Observation Mission on the November 2005 presidential election noted that the election had proceeded fairly smoothly in the south, despite some inappropriate use of state resources for campaign purposes and biased reporting by both state-run and private media outlets. However, voting in the north, held under a boycott enforced by the LTTE, was marred by violence and intimidation (including political killings and grenade attacks on polling stations and on the buses designed to carry voters into government-controlled territory) and resulted in very low levels of voter participation.

In recent years, the fact that the executive and legislative branches of government have been controlled by competing parties headed by long-standing political rivals has led to a general unwillingness to effectively resolve issues and construct coherent state policies. Although President Chandrika Kumaratunga's coalition was able to unseat the UNP's Ranil Wickremasinghe in the April 2004 elections and form a minority government headed by her choice of prime minister, the coalition lacks the mandate and parliamentary strength to accomplish meaningful change. Differences of opinion between the main political factions over the correct way to approach the peace process have led to an inability to formulate a united strategy toward the LTTE and its specific demands during the ongoing but currently stalled negotiations.

Official corruption is a growing concern, and the legal and administrative framework currently in force is inadequate in terms of either promoting integrity or punishing the corrupt behavior of public officials. No current or former politician has thus far been sentenced for bribery or corruption, although a number of cases are under investigation or prosecution. Sri Lanka was ranked 78 out of 159 countries surveyed in the 2005 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is provided for in the constitution, and independent media outlets can generally express their views openly. However, the Colombo-based Free Media Movement (FMM) has noted that state-run media-including Sri Lanka's largest newspaper chain, two major television stations, and a radio station-have been used by the government for political ends, including pressure on editors and biased election coverage. The LTTE does not permit free expression in the areas under its control and continues to terrorize a number of Tamil journalists and other critics. Increasing tension and violence during 2005, both between the government and LTTE and between the LTTE and other Tamil factions, negatively affected journalists' ability to cover the news freely, particularly in the troubled north and east. A number of journalists and media outlets faced intimidation (including death threats) during the year, two Tamil journalists were killed, and distributors and Tamil media outlets were also attacked.

Journalists, particularly those who cover human rights issues or official misconduct, continue to face intimidation and threats from the police and security forces and from government officials; the critical English-language newspaper Sunday Leader and its editor, Lasantha Wikramatunga, were particularly singled out by authorities in this regard during the year. In a growing trend, those perceived as being supportive of Tamil interests have drawn ire from Sinhalese nationalist groups. In May, the FMM received death threats from one such extremist group, while other journalists and media outlets, such as Sudaroli, a Tamil-language newspaper based in Colombo, have also been targeted. Meanwhile, reporters attempting to cover the news face harassment by political activists, Sinhalese nationalist groups, and the LTTE. The environment for media workers worsened particularly prior to the November presidential election campaign. Internet access is not restricted.

Religious freedom is respected and members of all faiths are generally allowed to worship freely, although the constitution gives special status to Buddhism and there is some discrimination and occasional violence against religious minorities. The LTTE discriminates against Muslims in the areas under its control and has attacked Buddhist sites in the past. The U.S. State Department's 2005 Report on International Religious Freedom notes that Christian missionaries are occasionally harassed by Buddhist clergy and others opposed to their work. Tensions between the island's Buddhist majority and the Christian minority-and in particular, evangelical Christian groups-are worsening, according to a 2004 report released by the U.S.-based Jubilee Campaign, with a sharp increase in attacks against churches and individuals noted from the end of 2003 and the introduction of anticonversion legislation in July 2004. This trend continued in 2005, as the JHU made repeated efforts to push such legislation through Parliament.

The government generally respects academic freedom. However, the LTTE has a record of repressing the voices of those intellectuals who criticize its actions, sometimes through murder or other forms of violent intimidation. Groups such as the University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna (UTHR-J) have faced particularly severe harassment at the hands of the LTTE.

Freedom of assembly is generally respected, although political parties occasionally disrupt each other's rallies and gatherings. On several occasions during the year, police used excessive force to disperse demonstrations. In June, the BBC reported that police used tear gas and batons to break up a protest by Buddhist monks opposed to a tsunami-aid deal with Tamil rebels. Except in conflict-affected areas, human rights and social welfare nongovernmental organizations generally operate freely. However, the LTTE does not allow for freedom of association in the regions under its control and reportedly uses coercion to force civilians to attend pro-LTTE rallies.

Sri Lanka has a strong workers' rights tradition, with more than 1,500 trade unions registered. Most unions are independent and are legally allowed to 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. Kumaratunga used the act to end several strikes. Employers on tea plantations routinely violate the rights of the mainly Tamil workforce.

Successive governments have respected the constitutional provision for an independent judiciary, and judges can generally make decisions in an atmosphere free of overt intimidation from the legislative or executive branches. However, there is growing concern about the perceived politicization of the judiciary, in particular regarding the conduct of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Sarath Nanda Silva. According to the FMM, in recent years Silva has narrowed the scope of human rights litigation, dismissed a number of judges without holding an inquiry or disciplinary hearing, and consistently defended the government in legal actions relating to political disputes. At the lower levels of the judiciary, corruption is fairly common among both judges and court staff, and those willing to pay bribes have more efficient access to the legal system.

Despite an overall reduction in the number of human rights abuses committed by police and security forces, the rule of law remains somewhat weak, and torture and prolonged detention without trial continue to be issues of particular concern. Such practices are facilitated by legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), under which security personnel can arrest and detain suspects indefinitely without court approval. Most of those detained under the PTA were released following the February 2002 ceasefire, but several dozen have been kept in custody, according to Amnesty International. Emergency regulations, under which detainees can be held for up to a year without trial, were brought into force after the tsunami and again after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005. Although more than 1,700 suspects were detained during the year under these regulations, the majority were released within 24 hours.

There has been little progress in reducing acts of torture by the security forces and police, particularly of detainees during routine interrogations in order to extract confessions. The independent National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), established in 1997, is empowered to investigate human rights abuses but has suffered from insufficient authority and resources. It recently focused its attention on the issue of police torture and has opened investigations into cases involving more than 100 police officers; perhaps as a result, the NHRC was attacked in October 2005 by unknown persons who ransacked offices, destroyed files, and set papers on fire. Cases of custodial death and custodial rape also continue to occur, with several dozen cases being reported in 2005. A lack of aggressive prosecution of the majority of past abuses contributes to a climate of impunity for those who have overstepped the bounds of the law. In May, Human Rights Watch criticized the Supreme Court acquittal of the remaining defendants in the case of the 2000 mob killing of 27 Tamil inmates at the Bindunuwewa detention facility.

The LTTE has effective control on the ground in large sections of the north and east of the country and operates a parallel administration that includes schools, hospitals, courts, and police and other law enforcement personnel. The Tigers raise money through extortion, kidnapping, theft, and the seizure of Muslim property, and have used threats and attacks to close schools, courts, and government agencies in their self-styled Tamil homeland. Despite their involvement in the peace process, the rebels continue to be responsible for summary executions of civilians, "disappearances," arbitrary abductions and detentions, torture, and the forcible conscription of children to be used as soldiers. Press reports, as well as an exhaustive November 2004 Human Rights Watch report, indicate that the Tigers continue to recruit thousands of teenage girls and boys despite their June 2003 pledge to release all children within their ranks. Recruitment efforts are at times so intense that parents keep their children home from school so that they will not be forcibly abducted. In July 2005, the BBC reported that UNICEF had noted an increase in recruitment by the LTTE during the previous two months, and this trend continued during the latter half of the year.

The LTTE has also targeted Tamil political parties, journalists, and human rights activists that challenge its claim to represent the Tamil people, particularly the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP). The U.S. State Department's 2005 report said that more than 100 people were killed as a consequence of their political affiliation during the year, including EPDP members, followers of the breakaway Karuna faction of the LTTE, military intelligence officers, elected officials, and members of civil society. In addition, the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission has received reports of more than 1,466 politically motivated abductions. The Tigers typically deny all involvement in politically motivated violence, as well as the abduction of children, despite clear evidence to the contrary. In 2005, killings of army and navy personnel, as well as of suspected informers and intelligence agents, also dramatically increased.

Tamils maintain that they face systematic discrimination in several matters controlled by the state, including government employment, university education, and access to justice. Thousands of Tamils whose ancestors were brought from India to work as indentured laborers in the nineteenth century did not qualify for Sri Lankan citizenship and faced discrimination and exploitation by the native Sinhalese. However, in October 2003, parliament approved legislation granting citizenship to about 170,000 previously stateless "Indian" Tamils. Tensions between the three major ethnic groups (Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim), which lead to occasional violent clashes, remain a concern. According to Refugees International, an estimated 350,000 internally displaced refugees remain unwilling or unable to return to the northeast and continue to live in government-run camps throughout the country, while at least 500,000 were displaced as a result of the tsunami.

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. Although women have equal rights under civil and criminal law, matters related to the family, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are adjudicated under the customary law of each ethnic or religious group, and the application of these laws sometimes results in discrimination against women. The government remains committed to ensuring that children have good access to free education and health care, and has also taken steps to prosecute those suspected of crimes against children, including pedophilia.