Sri Lanka must be condemned, without ifs or buts

An important editorial in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that undermines its argument by continuing the Western corporate press obsession with the supposed dictatorship of Hugo Chavez. Human rights abuses obviously occur in Venezuela but the nation isn’t a police state and attempts to paint it otherwise, or compare it to the brutal regime in Colombo, are absurd:

On first‚Ķ¬†running for president of Sri Lanka in 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa pledged to abolish the ”executive presidency” because of the excessive powers that had grown around the position to a dangerous degree since the island nation replaced its British-model constitution nearly 40 years ago.

That was then. Since taking office, Rajapaksa has grown to like wielding those powers. Now, buoyed by last year’s bloody victory against the separatist Tamil Tigers and a landslide re-election in January – partly achieved by widespread abuse of those powers, according to impartial observers – the President is taking ever more discretion unto himself.

Last week, after securing the support of a few loose backbenchers to build a two-thirds majority in parliament, Rajapaksa’s government passed an amendment to the constitution removing the article that limits a president to two six-year terms. A second amendment reduces, perhaps removes effectively, a previous limit on the powers of the president to appoint and dismiss members of the supposedly independent commissions that supervise elections, the police, the central bank and the public service and inquire into human rights abuses and corruption. The aim, says the Sri Lankan foreign minister, is not to politicise these institutions but to ”ensure better governance, that effective people are appointed”. But of course!

The whole process of constitutional amendment took only two weeks from the government securing the necessary majority and tabling the legislation. The main opposition parties either boycotted the vote or opposed the amendments. Jehan Perera, the respected head of Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council, contrasted this rush with ”countries with stable and successful political systems [that] have engaged in mass education and public consultations for a considerable period of time prior to changing the constitution”.

Rajapaksa joins Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as the most recent example of incumbent presidents removing constitutional restrictions against running indefinitely. Both are demagogic politicians with a high degree of current popularity. Yet the sad precedent is that as popularity ebbs, such presidents become increasingly authoritarian and corrupt as they enjoy power and fear to step down.

Already Rajapaksa has gone a long way down that path. The end of the war against the Tamils has not led to the lifting of emergency powers. Death squads still do their work around Colombo against critical journalists and human rights activists. A government minister led protests against the UN investigation of abuses. Three of the president’s brothers occupy powerful government positions. We can expect more desperate Tamils fleeing by boat, and more political refugees of all ethnicities coming by regular transport.