Sri Lanka | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Sri Lanka received a downward trend arrow due to a weakening of opposition forces within Parliament, sustained government pressure on human rights activists and other critics, and a worsening military conflict with the Tamil Tiger rebels in which numerous human rights abuses have taken place.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, who continued his authoritarian style of governance during 2007, faced increasing resistance from within the ruling People’s Alliance coalition but staved off calls for an early election. He also maintained his pursuit of a military solution to the long-running conflict with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. High levels of violence—including open warfare, terrorist attacks, and politically motivated disappearances—fed into a spiraling humanitarian crisis, with more than 4,000 people killed and thousands newly displaced during the year. In a prevailing climate of impunity, numerous human rights abuses occurred throughout the country, and rights to freedom of expression and association were increasingly restricted.

Since independence from 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 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-running civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people. The conflict initially pitted several ethnic Tamil guerrilla groups against the government, which is dominated by the Sinhalese majority. Although triggered by anti-Tamil riots in 1983 that claimed hundreds of lives, the war came in the context of long-standing Tamil claims of discrimination in education and employment. By 1986, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), which called for an independent Tamil homeland in the merged 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 an estimated 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 rebels, 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 2001 parliamentary elections, and UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe became prime minister.

In response to an LTTE ceasefire offer, the new government declared a truce, and a permanent ceasefire accord (CFA) with provisions for international monitoring was signed in February 2002; the accord prohibited political assassinations and recruitment of child soldiers but left large chunks of territory under LTTE control. 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 was constrained by infighting between the main political parties about how to approach the Tigers, as well as the Tigers’ own intransigence.

The impasse between the southern parties was broken when Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament in early 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 nine seats. Though Kumaratunga remained committed to finding a political solution to the ethnic conflict, progress was hampered by the addition to the ruling coalition of the JVP, which adamantly opposed granting more powers to the provinces or the LTTE, and by the presence of pro-Sinhalese forces such as the JHU in Parliament.

Meanwhile, the ceasefire with the LTTE continued to hold, despite an increasing number of violations. A complicating element emerged in March 2004 when Colonel Karuna (the nom de guerre of Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan), an LTTE commander in the east who controlled an estimated 6,000 out of the total 15,000 LTTE troops, formed a breakaway faction called the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP or Karuna group), alleging discrimination in the treatment of eastern Tamils by the LTTE leadership. His rebellion was initially quashed, but he gradually rebuilt his cadres, and armed clashes between the two groups continued as both attempted to reassert their control over the east. By 2006, the reinvigorated Karuna faction had become loosely allied with the government, which provided it with logistical support in exchange for valuable intelligence. As with the other parties in the conflict, the faction also increasingly engaged in killings, abductions, forced conscription, and other abuses against civilians.

In August 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the presidential elections, which Kumaratunga had controversially tried to postpone until 2006 on technical grounds, had to be held later that year. The PA nominated Mahinda Rajapakse, the prime minister since 2004, as its candidate, but against the wishes of Kumaratunga and some other party leaders, he immediately took a hard line, alienating minority groups and forging preelection alliances with the JVP and JHU. Largely as the result of an LTTE boycott and intimidation of voters, which led to extremely low voter turnout in the Tamil-majority northern and eastern areas, Rajapakse narrowly won the November presidential election with 50.3 percent of the vote, as opposed to 48.4 percent for Wickremasinghe. Calls for the vote to be rerun in certain areas were rejected by the election commission.

Rajapakse’s primary political objectives were to consolidate his position within the party and his coalition’s position within Parliament. Despite a groundbreaking October 2006 memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the SLFP and the UNP, under which the latter agreed to support the government in six key areas for two years, the ruling party urged UNP members to defect and join the government outright. The president also wooed smaller parties with promises of cabinet seats and other perks. In addition, Rajapakse cultivated a more authoritarian style of rule, relegating Parliament to a secondary role. According to a report by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), the president and his three brothers, who were appointed to key positions, made all the crucial decisions, with the cabinet and other party stalwarts serving as implementers and advisers. The process by which a constitutional council nominates members of key independent commissions was sidestepped; the council itself was not reconstituted after the terms of its members expired, and in its absence, the president unilaterally appointed loyalists to official posts.

Rajapakse’s successful policy of encouraging UNP defections resulted in the collapse of the MoU in early 2007, and in a signal that he expected compliance with his decisions, Rajapakse dismissed several ministers from his own party who questioned his tactics. Tensions emerged throughout 2007 between party legislators and the four Rajapakse brothers, who controlled most public spending as the heads of the key ministries of finance, defense, ports and aviation, and nation-building. By midyear, two former SLFP ministers had formed a new party, the SLFP Mahajana Wing (SLFP-M), which joined with the weakened UNP in a new opposition alliance, the National Congress. Another smaller party, the Ceylon Workers Congress, left the government briefly but rejoined the fold in return for concessions. In September, Parliament opened an investigation into lingering allegations that Rajapakse had colluded with the LTTE during the 2005 election to enforce the boycott that had disenfranchised many Tamils and contributed to Rajapakse’s narrow victory. At year’s end, the government was shaky but had survived a vote on the budget and avoided the need for early elections.

On the issue of the peace process, the president had initially tried to build consensus among the main southern political parties, convening an All-Party Representatives Committee that submitted its report in January 2007. Meanwhile, after a hiatus of almost three years, peace talks between the government and the LTTE had taken place in February and October 2006, but they accomplished little except to bring both sides to the negotiating table. Prospects for further talks dimmed in 2007 as consensus-building among the southern parties stalled, fighting with the LTTE escalated, and both sides engaged in targeted killings of key political leaders. The government and LTTE appeared more interested in pursuing military options and slid inexorably back into an undeclared war.

Levels of violence had started to rise after Rajapakse’s election, when a series of LTTE ambushes in the north and east triggered April 2006 air strikes on LTTE positions, the first major military operation since the 2002 ceasefire. A pattern of daily attacks in the north and east resumed, punctuated by LTTE land-mine and suicide attacks throughout the country. In an aggressive military strategy, government forces struck LTTE camps and several high-profile leaders. The LTTE targeted both the security forces and the Karuna group in the east. The advantage shifted back and forth between the government and the LTTE, favoring the government at the end of 2006. The army had won control of the eastern province by June 2007, though pockets of rebel activity remained; the navy was able to sink a number of LTTE vessels; and government forces killed a senior LTTE leader—S. P. Thamilselvan, head of the Tigers’ political wing—in November 2007. However, the LTTE retained the ability to strike almost anywhere in the country, carrying out bus bombings, suicide attacks, assaults on military bases, and its first-ever aerial assault on the Colombo airport. In an unexpected twist, Karuna was arrested in Britain in November while traveling on a forged diplomatic passport, and his faction had reportedly been taken over by another commander named Pillayan. As in 2006, more than 4,000 soldiers, rebels, and civilians died in the conflict in 2007, a dramatic increase from the ceasefire period.

Conditions in the north and east have markedly deteriorated in the past two years, with rising hostilities creating a humanitarian crisis and leading to a variety of human rights abuses. Largely indiscriminate aerial shelling by the Sri Lankan military in Tiger-controlled territory, as well as ground operations, have killed dozens of people and displaced tens of thousands. Overall, some 300,000 civilians have been newly displaced by the fighting, and conditions in many camps are worrisome. People’s mobility and commercial and social activities remained curtailed in 2007 by curfews, road closures, and security checkpoints. All parties to the conflict engaged in human rights violations, including civilian killings, abductions, detentions, political assassinations, child conscription, and extortion. Young Tamil males were most at risk of harassment by all sides. This drastic increase in violations was accompanied by the international monitors’ dwindling ability to track the situation, as the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was forced to reduce the scope of its activities and cut staff to approximately 30 monitors. Although violations were concentrated in the conflict areas, they took place throughout the country, facilitated by the use of emergency and antiterrorism legislation to detain perceived security threats or critics of government policy. In a move that was ultimately quashed by the Supreme Court, the government in June 2007 attempted to expel several hundred Tamils from the capital.

Largely as a result of international censure, the president established a commission of inquiry in December 2006 to investigate 16 recent high-profile cases of abuse, and in February 2007 invited the previously formed International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) to assist and monitor the commission. After the commission’s investigations were reportedly hampered by the attorney general’s office, the IIGEP reported that its advisory role was met with disregard and that a formal international monitoring mechanism should be put in place instead. However, the government ignored this suggestion and assumed a belligerent stance toward both local and international critics of the country’s worsening human rights situation.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Sri Lanka is an electoral democracy. The 1978 constitution vested strong executive powers in a president who is directly elected for a six-year term and can dissolve Parliament. The prime minister heads the leading party in Parliament but otherwise has limited powers. The 225-member unicameral legislature is directly elected for a six-year term through a mixed proportional-representation system. 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 areas under its control. The independent Center for Monitoring Election Violence reported that the 2004 parliamentary elections were considerably less beleaguered by violence and malpractice than previous polls. The European Union’s Election Observation Mission noted that the 2005 presidential vote proceeded fairly smoothly in the south, despite some inappropriate use of state resources and biased reporting by both state-run and private media outlets. However, voting in the north was suppressed by the LTTE, which enforced a boycott through acts of violence including grenade attacks on polling stations and the buses intended to carry voters into government-controlled territory. Since the elections, intimidation by armed groups has dramatically shrunk the space for nonviolent Tamil politics in the north and east, while the warlike situation has led to more muted opposition from southern political parties. President Mahinda Rajapakse has faced allegations—denied by the government but corroborated by former supporters of the president—that his 2005 campaign colluded with and paid off the LTTE in order to suppress Tamil votes. In September 2007, Parliament opened an investigation into these claims, and the probe was ongoing at year’s end.

Governmental coherence has been improved by the fact that the executive and legislative branches are now controlled by the same party. Some observers charge that Rajapakse’s centralized, authoritarian style of rule has led to a lack of transparent, inclusive policy formulation. The power of the president and his three brothers—who control an estimated 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s budget due to their cabinet positions—led to increasing resentment among other party members during 2007.

The 17th amendment to the constitution was designed to improve governance and depoliticize key institutions by creating a constitutional council responsible for appointing members to independent commissions that would oversee the police, the judiciary, and public servants. Owing to a parliamentary impasse, Rajapakse failed to reconstitute the council in 2006 after the terms of its previous members expired. Instead, he made unilateral appointments to the public service and police commissions in April, and to the human rights commission, judicial services commission, Supreme Court, and other judicial bodies in May. Some local groups allege that these actions have threatened the independence of the institutions and created a class of appointees who owe their positions to the president.

Official corruption is a continuing concern, and the current legal and administrative framework is inadequate for promoting integrity and punishing corrupt behavior. Sri Lanka was ranked 94 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. Although hundreds of cases are being investigated or prosecuted by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, no current or former politician has been sentenced.

Media freedom continued to decline in 2007, as media outlets faced increased censorship and other restrictions, and journalists faced a heightened level of attacks and intimidation, particularly in the wartorn north and east. Although freedom of expression is provided for in the constitution, a growing number of laws and regulations—including the Official Secrets Act, emergency regulations reintroduced in 2005, antiterrorism regulations introduced in December 2006, and defamation and contempt-of-court laws—restrict this right and have led to overt self-censorship by journalists. While state-run media outlets are increasingly being influenced by the government, private media have become more polarized, shrinking the space for balanced views. Official rhetoric toward journalists and media outlets perceived to be “unpatriotic” or critical has become more hostile, with high-level officials regularly making statements that equate any form of criticism with treason.

The sharp increase in violence since 2006 has severely affected journalists’ ability to cover the news. The LTTE does not permit free expression in its domain and terrorizes a number of Tamil journalists and other critics. The Karuna faction and security forces have also been responsible for abuses. At least five journalists were killed and numerous others were abducted or otherwise intimidated during 2007. Despite its calls for protection, the largest-circulation daily in Jaffna, Uthayan, faced repeated attacks and harassment, and the paper’s editor and news editor have been forced to live semipermanently at the paper’s offices. A number of Tamil newspapers have been banned or seized by various factions, and distributors have been attacked or warned not to sell certain papers; several independent outlets have closed due to threats against them. Journalists throughout Sri Lanka, particularly those who cover human rights issues or official misconduct, face intimidation and threats from security forces and officials. In a growing trend, those perceived as being supportive of Tamil interests have also drawn ire from Sinhalese nationalist groups. Several journalists decided to leave the country for short periods of time in 2007, including prominent defense correspondent Iqbal Athas, who fled three times following repeated threats. Previous cases of attacks on journalists have not been adequately investigated or prosecuted. Internet access is generally not restricted, although the government occasionally bars access to pro-LTTE websites.

Religious freedom is respected, and members of all faiths are generally allowed to worship freely, but the constitution gives special status to Buddhism and there is some discrimination and occasional violence against religious minorities. The LTTE discriminates against Muslims and has attacked Buddhist sites in the past. Tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Christian minority—and in particular, evangelical Christian groups, who are accused of forced conversions—have worsened since late 2003, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 Report on International Religious Freedom, with a sharp rise in attacks against churches and individuals. In 2006, a parliamentary committee met to discuss the JHU-sponsored Prohibition of Forcible Conversions bill, and it remained under consideration at the end of 2007. In recent years, the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim sect has faced increased threats and attacks from members of the Sunni Muslim community, who accuse Ahmadis of being apostates.

The government generally respects academic freedom. However, the LTTE has a record of silencing intellectuals who criticize its actions, sometimes through murder or other violence, and progovernment Tamil groups have also allegedly made threats. Groups such as the University Teachers for Human Rights–Jaffna have faced particularly severe harassment by the LTTE. Both students and professors are at risk in conflict zones; during 2007, at least three students were killed at Jaffna University.

Freedom of assembly is typically upheld. Although the 2005 emergency regulations give the president the power to restrict rallies and gatherings, permission for demonstrations is usually granted. Police occasionally use excessive force to disperse protesters. The LTTE does not allow freedom of association in its areas and reportedly forces civilians to attend pro-LTTE rallies. Caught between both sides, aid workers are increasingly unable to operate safely in conflict-affected areas. Several dozen nongovernmental organization (NGO) and humanitarian workers were killed in 2006 and 2007. In two particularly chilling cases, 17 local staff of the international group Action Against Hunger were murdered in their compound in Mutur in August 2006, allegedly by government forces, while two Red Cross workers attending a seminar in Colombo were slain in June 2007. International staff of groups such as Doctors Without Borders are subject to new visa and work-permit regulations imposed by the Ministry of Defense in 2006, and are on occasion barred from rebel-held areas. During the year, human rights and social welfare NGOs throughout the country, particularly those considered “unpatriotic” or unwilling to support the official line, faced greater threats and harassment from authorities, including assaults on their gatherings and a proposed parliamentary investigation into their activities.

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, but the 1989 Essential Services Act allows the president to declare a strike in any industry illegal. Even though more than 70 percent of the workforce on tea plantations is unionized, employers routinely violate the rights of the mainly Tamil workforce. The government has increased penalties for employing minors, but thousands of children continue to be employed as domestic servants, and many face abuse.

Successive governments have respected the constitutional provision for an independent judiciary, and judges can generally make decisions without overt intimidation from the political branches. However, in recent years there has been growing concern about the politicization of the judiciary, particularly with respect to the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Sarath Nanda Silva. During 2006, there were several questionable judicial rulings in favor of members of the government, and two senior Supreme Court judges resigned. Corruption is fairly common in the lower courts, and those willing to pay bribes have better access to the legal system.

The rule of law remains weak, and conditions deteriorated during the year. In November 2005, the new government transferred authority over the police force to the Ministry of Defense. Heightened political and military conflict in 2006 and 2007 has led to a sharp rise in the number of human rights abuses committed by security forces, including arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, torture, custodial rape, and prolonged detention without trial. Torture occurs in the context of the insurgency and during routine interrogations to extract confessions. Such practices are facilitated by emergency regulations reintroduced in 2005, under which detainees can be held for up to a year without trial. In December 2006, the government reinstated certain provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, giving security personnel powers to arrest and detain suspects indefinitely without court approval. Additional legislation introduced later that month, the Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities Regulations, was criticized for providing an overly broad definition of terrorism and granting immunity to those accused of rights abuses. These laws have been used to detain a wide swath of perceived critics, including political opponents, journalists, and members of civil society, as well as Tamil civilians suspected of supporting the LTTE. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented hundreds of cases of abduction and disappearance committed by the security forces, amounting to one of the largest such totals in the world. Most of the abuses take place in the conflict-ridden north and east, particularly the Jaffna Peninsula, where extrajudicial killings occur on a nearly daily basis.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is empowered to investigate abuses but has traditionally suffered from insufficient authority and resources. A lack of aggressive prosecution of the majority of past abuses, coupled with inadequate protection for victims and witnesses, contributes to a climate of almost complete impunity. Since 2006, as a result of the continuing impasse over reconvening the constitutional council, appointments to key bodies such as the NHRC and the National Police Commission have been made unilaterally by the executive branch, raising questions about the suitability and independence of the appointees and further weakening these institutions.

The LTTE has effective control over roughly 10 percent of Sri Lankan territory and operates a parallel administration that includes schools, hospitals, courts, and law enforcement. The Tigers raise money through extortion, kidnapping, theft, and the seizure of Muslim property, and have used threats and attacks to close government schools and other facilities in their self-styled Tamil homeland. The LTTE also imposes mandatory military and civil-defense training on civilians in its areas. After a respite during the ceasefire period, the rebels have resumed summary executions, political assassinations, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, and the forcible conscription of children, all of which remained areas of serious concern in 2007. The Tigers typically deny involvement in such activity, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

Press reports indicate that the Tigers recruit teenage girls and boys, violating pledges to release all children below age 18. Recruitment efforts, which increased in 2004 to compensate for the loss of the Karuna faction, are at times so intense that parents keep their children home from school to prevent their abduction. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the LTTE requires all Tamil families to provide them with at least one member. Despite periodic releases, UNICEF estimates that more than 1,500 children remain in LTTE custody. The Karuna faction has also been accused of abducting hundreds of boys and young men, often with the complicity of security forces. A number of armed Tamil groups and criminal gangs also engage in kidnapping for ransom.

During 2007, the rate of politically motivated violence remained high, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the north and east. The LTTE killed hundreds of people during the year, including Tamil political activists, followers of the Karuna faction, military intelligence agents and suspected informers, elected officials, and members of civil society. In retaliation, the government and state-supported Tamil paramilitary groups targeted LTTE officials and members of pro-LTTE political factions. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, more than 4,000 people (including civilians, security forces, and rebels) were killed nationwide in the violence in 2006, and a similar number were slain in 2007, the majority of them LTTE rebels.

Tamils maintain that they face systematic discrimination in areas including government employment, university education, and access to justice. Legislation replacing English with Sinhala as the official language in 1956 continues to disadvantage Tamils and other non-Sinhala speakers. Thousands of Tamils whose ancestors were brought from India to work as indentured laborers during the 19th century did not qualify for Sri Lankan citizenship and faced discrimination and exploitation. However, in 2003, Parliament granted citizenship to about 170,000 previously stateless “Indian” Tamils. Tensions between the three major ethnic groups (Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims), which lead to occasional violent clashes, remain a concern. Both the government and the LTTE generally fail to prevent incidents of communal violence from spiraling out of control.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 450,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sri Lanka, of whom about 300,000 have been newly displaced in 2006 and 2007 by fighting in the north and east. The vast majority are unwilling or unable to return to their homes, and live either with relatives or in government-run camps, while a smaller number live as refugees in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The government has reportedly engaged in the forced resettlement of Tamil IDPs to insecure areas. Others were forced to move from newly created “high security zones” and “special economic areas” in the north and east. According to Human Rights Watch, following the collapse of the ceasefire accord, citizens from the north and east are once again required to obtain a pass to travel and live in other parts of the country. The general militarization of the conflict areas has led to serious restrictions on freedom of movement, as well as military control over many aspects of civilian administration. In June 2007, the government attempted to expel several hundred Tamil civilians from Colombo on the grounds that they had no “valid reason” for being in the capital; however, following a petition brought by CPA, the prominent think tank, the Supreme Court issued an interim order halting the process.

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, with hundreds of complaints reported annually; 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 it has also taken steps to prosecute those suspected of crimes against children, including pedophilia. A general increase in violence during 2007 also resulted in greater violence against women in conflict areas, including rapes.