Could terror attacks lead to a roll-back of recent Democratic strengthening in Sri Lanka? Time will tell.
On Easter morning, April 21, the world watched as Sri Lanka fell victim to a series of coordinated terror attacks across three cities. The eventual death toll topped 250 persons with hundreds more injured, marking the worst terror attack to take place in the country and the first since the 2009 end of the country’s three-decade Civil War. The attack is being blamed on two domestic Islamist groups, with apparent ties to ISIL.
The attack’s source raises the fear that it will lead to renewed ethno-religious tensions. The country is highly diverse: its population is majority Buddhist (70 percent) with relatively equal minority Hindu (12 percent), Muslim (10 percent) and Christian (7 percent) communities. Since 2012, there has been growing targeting of the Muslim community by extremist Buddhist groups. Indeed, the weeks since the attack have seen some reports of religious flare-ups once more, including most recently in Negombo, one of the cities targeted in the Easter attack.
The government, in trying to reduce tensions, has taken several emergency measures in the name of security. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, it restricted social media and messaging app access to stem the spread of false information. Though, the Committee to Protect Journalists cited journalists struggling to pass on verified information to their respective audiences due to the bans. It also placed a face-covering ban aimed at Muslim women wearing the hijab. And in the Negombo flare-up, it established a city-wide curfew. These risk-mitigating measures may be valid in the current environment, but raise the question of whether civil liberties will be curbed more broadly.
Curbing civil liberties would be noteworthy in any country, but in Sri Lanka – a country of unsteady democratic footing – the stakes are awfully high.
A history of challenged democracy
Sri Lanka has a long history of (imperfect) democratic norms but faced a direct challenge to these under the rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served as President from 2005 to 2015. A Journal of Democracy article named “Democracy’s Near Misses” summarizes, “Rajapaksa’s rule was marked by nepotism, corruption, and a degradation of rule-of-law institutions such as courts, prosecutors, and the police”. Rajapaksa amended the constitution to allow himself to run for a third term and called a snap election giving opponents only six weeks to campaign. Neil Devotta, in the same Journal, claims Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa “stood out for the depth and speed of its sad slide into an authoritarian morass”. The country’s classification as a ‘hybrid regime’ during Rajapaksa’s rule by organizations such as Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit are testament to this.
Sri Lanka’s (slight) rise out of democratic backsliding is attributable mainly to the 2015 election, in which Maithripala Sirisena – a former colleague of Rajapaksa – broke off and surprised the incumbent with a narrow election win. The victory was heralded as a triumph for democracy.
Since 2015, the ensuing strengthening of democratic norms has proceeded in some areas but stalled in others. Just seven months ago, the country became embroiled in a constitutional crisis stemming from a unilateral attempt by President Sirisena to dismiss Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and dissolve Parliament (after legislators did not support such a move). In an ironic twist, the intent was to place Rajapaksa into the Prime Minister role. The move was ruled unconstitutional and eventually reversed. As one consequence, Human Rights Watch claims the crisis, “slowed progress on ensuring truth and justice for grave rights violations during the 27-year-long civil war”. This under the rule of the leader heralded for bringing Sri Lanka back from the brink.
It is in this political context that a few months later Sri Lankans awoke to find their country torn apart by a series of suicide bombings.
A trade-off: Anti-terror security versus civil liberties
Terror attacks can serve as a catalyst for political movement to the extremes. As shown by Brookings’ Dan Byman in a recent report, terrorism often leads to strengthening of extreme political positions through weakening the citizenry’s trust in their government. In addition, there are frequently political incentives for leaders to satisfy public fears through limiting rights in favor of security, often specifically targeting minority populations. Byman shows, for example, that following the 2015 Paris attack by ISIS (which claimed 130 lives) there was a political shift of support to France’s right-wing parties – the same ones that spewed anti-immigrant rhetoric.
More broadly, terror attacks bring to the surface an inherent tension between civil liberties and maintaining state security. As Fritz Allhoff argues in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law & Public Affairs, properly balancing benefits to security against losses to liberty is challenging but fundamental to any policy response. Differences in societal interpretations of the ideal weightings between these two forces dictates the potential for civil liberty loss resulting from terror.
Certainly, cases of encroaching on civil liberties in the name of national security exist in the sturdiest of democracies. In the United States, for instance, the USA-PATRIOT Act emanated from 9/11 and provided law enforcement a host of investigative tools geared to stop terror plots. Pew Research shows that the U.S. population consistently favored protection over civil liberties in the decade following 9/11. And at the time, some argued the government should go even further in lowering civil liberty protections in the name of anti-terror activity. Brookings’ Stuart Taylor argued in 2003 that to stop domestic terror activity, law enforcement agents should be free to interrogate suspects without Miranda warnings or a lawyer present. His article, Rights, Liberties, and Security: Recalibrating the Balance after September 11, also suggests that preventive detention should be considered, while recognizing it would, “represent the sharpest departure from centuries of Anglo-American jurisprudence and come closest to police statism”. That the United States still grapples with the inherent tradeoff is testament to the lasting effects a terror incident can have on a state’s democratic foundations.
Sri Lanka’s future: an unwritten chapter
Sri Lanka is at a point of inflection. Just as the United States contended with questions of civil liberty suppression in favor of anti-terror security, so will Sri Lankans have to consider similar trade-offs. Per Ginsburg and Huq, party elites and nonelected institutions have a special role to play – they were critical to maintaining the state’s democratic foundations during Rajapaksa’s rule.
Early indications of the post-attack period are mixed: while some civil liberty suppression has occurred in the aftermath, it is too early to determine if it will last. And some encouraging signs have appeared: for instance, President Sirisena’s immediate commitment to keep Presidential elections in 2019 as Constitutionally mandated. On the other hand, there is speculation that the attacks will lead the Rajapaksa family to reclaim Presidential control. Indeed, the government’s ability to navigate the state through a turbulent post-attack recovery will likely determine its political fate at the ballot box.
One thing is certain: the host of political and policy shifts that accompany a major terror attack have the potential to stifle Sri Lanka’s democratic strengthening even further – and thus require attentive watch.
Photo credit: AFP / Al-Arabiya English
Ben, this is a great post. I think you really highlight how crucial of a time this is for Sri Lanka, and how important the next couple of months will be. In reading your post, I was reminded a lot of the idea of promissory coups established in Bermeo’s On Democratic Backsliding. In particular, the idea of a government gaining power in an emergency situation (like the attacks in Sri Lanka), but then never actually giving that power back. I think it is definitely an interesting way to look at the attacks and the government’s actions in the aftermath, as well as the broader repercussions thereof.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is now the president of Sri Lanka as a result of an effective election campaign, underpinned by a lack of faith in the preceding government. When Maithripala Sirisena was elected as president in the 2015 presidential election, his main competition was Mahinda Rajapaksa who was running for a third term as president, as allowed by the constitutional amendment his government made. As you explained in your post, the country had grown weary of the power-grabbing antics and nepotism of the Rajapaksa regime. The Rajapaksa government was blatant in their shift towards autocracy through the abuse of state apparatuses such as the military and the constitutional amendment you mentioned. But after just one term with the less authoritarian Sirisena administration during which the Easter Sunday attacks took place, a majority of Lankan voters clearly began to miss the sense of security that the iron fist of the Rajapaksa regime provided. With the election of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, comes the potential for democratic erosion. Disappearances of journalists who spoke up against the Rajapaksas and marginalization of ethnic minorities are no longer worries of yesteryear. However, it is obvious that the country has come to terms with this and possibly even favors a more domineering government. How is it that the same people who voted the borderline autocratic Rajapaksas out of office in 2015, suddenly wanted that same government back after one term served by a government that showed far less abuse of power?
During the thirty-year long war against the LTTE, the country had never been through a singular attack of the magnitude of that of Easter Sunday 2019. The country was suddenly reminded what it was like to live in fear and the Rajapaksas were able to capitalize on this when criticizing Sirisena’s government. In Liberal Democracy’s Crisis of Confidence (Journal of Democracy 2018), R. Wike and J. Fetterolf claim that “Support for nondemocratic approaches, specifically autocracy and military rule, is often greater on the political right.” citing data from a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017, showing that there is significant support for military regimes, political strongmen and populist political figures amongst countries that have right-leaning societies. After the Rajapaksa regime was ousted after the 2015 presidential election, the country saw a shift towards respect for due process and democratic norms. However, as soon as national security was threatened by terrorism, the people swiftly reevaluated its priorities. Wike and Fetterolf’s claims applied to the situation in Sri Lanka immediately after the attacks and manifested in the form of anti-muslim sentiments and condemnation of the Sirisena government and its inability to protect its citizens. The Signs of Deconsolidation (Foa and Mounk) cites a very similar situation in Venezuela before Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1999. Foa and Mounk state that “levels of confidence in politicians and political institutions were consistently low throughout this period. In the year Chávez took power, only 20.2 percent of the population expressed confidence in Parliament.”. Their article explains how people tend to favor authoritarian leaders, when democracy has failed them, instead of seeking more competent leaders who would still operate within the democratic and constitutional frameworks of their nation. Loss of faith in the government and democratic processes were key factors in Sri Lanka’s shift away from respect for democratic norms in the 2019 presidential election. However, on the other hand, it is important to look at what the shortcomings of the Sirisena administration meant for democracy. Incompetent leaders who were not held accountable for their failures are also a feature of democratic backsliding and the Sirisena government is a prime example of this.
In the immediate aftermath of the Easter bombings, there was a rapid spread of hate speech via social media, which was combated by a government-imposed block of all social media. Did Social Media Polarise Society in the Aftermath of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Attacks?, an article by Sandunika Hasangani at Sri Lankan think tank LKI, states that the idea that such content promotes violence is “mainly speculative with poor empirical base.” claiming that there have been no studies on the effects of social media in Sri Lankan ethnic conflicts, thus far. Maithripala Sirisena’s government using their power to curb free speech, while not as brutal as the journalist disappearances during the rule of the former regime, still represents unsubstantiated curtailment of civil liberties at the discretion of the government. Maithripala Sirisena displayed a further lack of institutional forbearance when exercising his right to provide presidential pardon to Jude Jayamaha, the convicted party in Sri Lanka’s most high profile murder case. In their book How Democracies Die and article in the New York Times, How Wobbly Is Our Democracy?, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt state that institutional forbearance or “not deploying one’s institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it’s legal to do so” (How Wobbly Is Our Democracy?, NYT, Jan. 2018) is one of the necessary norms for a functioning democracy. The Sirisena government may not have ordered the abductions of journalists or the killing of surrendering enemies of the state, the way the former Rajapaksa government is alleged to have done, but many of Sirisena’s actions too, are due to a lack of institutional forbearance. This behavior could have only contributed to the people’s dissatisfaction with his leadership, diminishing the contrast between the institutional forbearance of the Sirisena and Rajapaksa governments.
Sri Lanka went from an autocratic regime, to an incompetent government and has now chosen the former once more. The choice was a simple: “Autocrat who keeps us safe or someone who respects democratic processes more, but cannot protect us”. Democracy creates winners and losers and in Sri Lanka, a leader with rampant disregard for democratic norms is once again in power. In Sri Lanka’s 2019 presidential election, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was the clear winner, but the loser was democracy.