Dec. 18, 2020
Ah, authoritarianism. The word gets thrown around a lot. But what does it actually mean? To put it simply, authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by strong, often corrupt- central power and limited political freedoms. Sound familiar?
When it comes to the word “authoritarianism” itself, we often think of the names the media throws around on a daily basis- e.g. Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un. But alarming authoritarian dictators transgress these popular three names and are unfortunately spread throughout the world. Some of them, the media ruthlessly- and rightfully so- villainizes. But others are not so often talked about. The danger in media unaccounatability and mainstream criticism for these dangerous leaders results in disastrous consequences at the expense of the people whom they were supposed to protect. One such dangerous pair of leaders are the Rajapaksas.
Their recent return to power has brought fear upon Tamils all around the world and has us all questioning the future of democracy in Sri Lanka. One of the main questions being, “Is Sri Lanka on its way to becoming a constitutional dictatorship?”. The question is completely warranted because of the 20th amendments and the two recent task forces President Rajapaksa set up in early June. One was composed entirely to Sinhalese military officials to (apparently) assure a ‘disciplined, virtuous and lawful society’ without defining any of those ideals specifically.
The second task force is composed almost entirely of military officers along with some Sinhalese scholars to (again, apparently) study and preserve archeological treasures in the East, where the majority of the population is Tamil and Muslim. While on the surface level, both these task forces seem somewhat reasonable on paper, the practices that will be exerted by these task forces are malicious and done so with the sole intent of keeping marginalized Tamil and Muslim communities oppressed. With the second task force, for example, it should be noted that archeology has been used historically and extensively in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict to seize land and re-write history. The first task force similarly looks okay on paper but doesn’t address the fact that the military and the people who lead them are composed of an alarming collection of alleged perpetrators and bureaucrats previously accused of “war crimes and crimes against humanity”. Commenting on this fact, the Executive Director of the International Truth and Justice Project, Yasmin Sooka, said “Sri Lanka is now run by a collection of military officers many of whom will have to answer in a court one day for their complicity in the alleged killings of tens of thousands of their citizens in both 1989 and 2009, as well as alleged corruption”. What’s even more alarming than Ms. Sooka’s statement is the fact that in addition to the two task forces mentioned, six more equally ominous task forces have also been created with extensive mandates. While the United States has been aware of the decline of democracy in Sri Lanka, banning war criminals won’t be enough to stop the government from enacting authoritarian rule over its most vulnerable citizens. A divided Sri Lanka’s march towards a constitutional dictatorship is going to kick start a volatile and uncertain state for not only Sri Lanka but also for the south east asian region.
Tamil people in Sri Lanka still have hope for the international community to act with urgency to free them from the current state of war and bring a permanent political solution to the island nation. It’s up to us to deliver that hope.