Colombo: The return to power of the Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka after a five-year hiatus has triggered concerns about press freedom and human rights in a country that is still battling allegations of crimes against humanity committed towards the end of its 26-year civil war a decade ago.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former military chief, won the country’s Nov. 16 presidential election after a polarizing campaign during which he promised to better the economy and security of Sri Lanka, which suffered a series of Easter bombings by Islamist extremists in April that killed 269 people, Efe news reported.
Some 10 days into power, the president appointed his brother and former president Mahinda, as the prime minister and head of the all-powerful finance ministry.
The eldest brother, Chamal, was given agriculture, irrigation, internal trade, and consumer welfare ministries, leaving the governance almost entirely in the reins of the Rajapaksas one of the most prominent political families that spearheaded the end of the country’s civil war in 2009.
With the Rajapaksas once again in power after losing the 2015 election, human rights activists fear that there will be no progress in investigating the cases of alleged enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings during the government of Mahinda (2005-2015) when Gotabaya was the military chief and presided over the final offensive against the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.
At least 23,000 people disappeared during the decisive assault against the Tamil militants, according to complaints received by the state Office of Missing Persons of Sri Lanka. But Amnesty International says the number of disappeared is between 60,000 to 100,000.
Ruki Fernando, an adviser with a human rights documentation center, said families of the disappeared were worried about the future of the cases.
“The response for the cases of the disappeared was very disappointing from both the governments that came into power since 2009. Now, we have the third government which is much like the first. But we are hoping for the best,” he said.
Fernando was referring to the previous government of Maithripala Sirisena who came to power in 2015 after ending the 10-year rule of the Rajapaksas.
Although only a few investigations progressed during the Sirisena rule after the return of Rajapaksas, the director of the Department of Criminal Investigations, Shani Abeysekara, was transferred and one of his main investigators, Nishanta Silva, fled the country with his family.
They handled several high-profile cases such as the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda and the murder of another journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge.
Human rights campaigner Shreen Saroor, who works for Women in Action, said the current situation in the country was very concerning, especially concerning the minorities in the country.
“Whether we like it or not, the minorities opposed Gotabaya,” Saroor said about the election in which Muslims and Tamil Hindus were believed to have voted against Rajapaksa.
Saroor said the minorities were already fearing heightened militarization in the north and east where a majority of Tamils and Muslims reside.
Civil society activist Gamini Viyangoda alleged that the beginning of the end of freedom of expression in Sri Lanka has already set in as media houses have started self-censoring content to avoid confronting the Rajapaksas.
Columnist Sanjana Hattotuwa had earlier alleged that a newspaper editor rejected one of his articles on widespread racist comments on social media after Rajapaksa’s victory.
Hattotuwa wrote on his Twitter account that the editor said the article won’t be carried due to “orders from above.”
“The censorship need not come from the very top but we see that media outlets are already screening content in support of the new government,” Viyangoda said.
Another issue plaguing the country is economic instability. The country’s economy took a hard hit due to the Easter Sunday attack as tourists feared coming to the country. Tourism is Sri Lanka’s third-largest foreign currency earner.
Ahilan Kadirgamar, an economist at the University of Jaffna, said the new government carries the burden of public debt that, according to the Ministry of Finance, stands at 82.9 per cent of the GDP.
The economist said exactly how the government planned to reduce the debt was not clear.
In his manifesto, Rajapaksa promised to create a “progressive national economy” where youth and local entrepreneurs would be given “new opportunities” to use their skills and talents to strengthen the economy of the island nation, known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.