Commentary Magazine


Sri Lanka’s Troubled Democracy

Sri Lanka has chosen a funny way to protest against claims that its democracy is waning.

Officials have impounded an issue of the Economist that features an editorial against Sri Lanka’s latest constitutional amendments. The editorial claims that the abolition of presidential term limits signals the Sri Lankan president is planning for a long stay in office and that another amendment expands the president’s powers and removes checks on the executive branch.

This apparent censorship is especially unfortunate given the magnitude of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s past accomplishments. In 2009, his government oversaw the end of a 26-year-old civil war. His steadfast refusal to negotiate with Tamil Tiger terrorists set an example for counterinsurgency success.

Mr. Rajapaksa lost some credibility earlier this year after he won the election but then court-martialed his opponent, former army chief Sarath Fonseka. This was especially damaging because the close election had forced candidates to appeal to the Tamil minority – a welcome development in repairing Sri Lankan unity.

Impounding the Economist isn’t the only instance where press freedom has been threatened in Sri Lanka. Among other encroachments on liberty in the last year: Prageeth Ekneligoda, a journalist critical of the government, disappeared and has yet to be found; the oppositional Lanka News Web has been blocked for more than a year by the country’s primary Internet provider; three other publications were blocked before the election; and the Sri Lankan government has turned to Chinese IT experts to learn how to block “offensive” websites. That efforts to stifle free speech have extended beyond domestic publications to the international media suggests growing impunity.

Already, Reporters Without Borders has listed Sri Lanka among its countries under surveillance, and Freedom House reports that since 2009, “official rhetoric toward critical journalists and outlets has grown more hostile, often equating any form of criticism with treason.”

Sri Lanka’s democracy was able to withstand a bloody civil war lasting more than a quarter century. It would be a tragic irony if it couldn’t survive peacetime.

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