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