2001 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 3.5
Civil Liberties: 4
Political Rights: 3


Complicating her efforts to find a political solution to Sri Lanka's 17-year-old civil war, President Chandrika Kumaratunga's ruling coalition managed only a narrow victory in the October 2000 parliamentary elections. While still aiming to defeat the rebels on the battlefield, Kumaratunga had hoped that a strong election showing would allow her to pass constitutional amendments aimed at marginalizing the rebels by devolving power to minority Tamils.

Since independence from Great Britain in 1948, political power in this island nation located in the Indian Ocean off southeastern India has alternated between the conservative United National Party (UNP) and the leftist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). While the country has made impressive gains in literacy, basic healthcare, and other social needs, its economic development has been stunted and its social fabric tested by the civil war that began in 1983, which initially pitted several Tamil guerrilla groups against the government, which is dominated by the Sinhalese majority. The war came in the context of longstanding Tamil claims of discrimination in education and employment opportunities, the country's high unemployment rate, and a series of anti-Tamil riots pre-dating independence. By 1986, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which called for an independent Tamil homeland in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, had eliminated most rival Tamil guerrilla groups and controlled much of the northern Jaffna Peninsula.

In a failed effort to disarm the LTTE, a UNP government brought in an Indian peacekeeping force between 1987 and 1990. By 1987, the government was also fighting an insurgency in the south by the Marxist, Sinhalese-based People's Liberation Front (JVP). The JVP insurgency, and the brutal methods used by the army and military-backed death squads to quell it in 1990, killed 60,000 people. A 1971 JVP insurgency had killed some 20,000 people.

As the civil war between the government and the LTTE continued, a suspected LTTE suicide bomber assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. In 1994, Kumaratunga ended nearly two decades of UNP rule by leading an SLFP-dominated People's Alliance coalition to victory in parliamentary elections, and then won the presidential election against the widow of the UNP's original candidate, whom the LTTE had assassinated.

Early in her term, Kumaratunga tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a peace agreement with the LTTE. Since then, she has pursued a military solution while trying to pass constitutional amendments that would devolve power to eight semiautonomous regional councils, including one covering the contested north and east where Tamils would be in a majority. Yet Kumaratunga has been unable to enact the constitutional reforms because her coalition has neither the necessary two-thirds parliamentary majority nor enough support from opposition parties. The UNP, leftist parties, and the influential Buddhist clergy claim the proposals would lead to an independent Tamil state, while mainstream Tamil-based parties say the amendments do not offer Tamils enough autonomy. Meanwhile, the army recaptured the Jaffna Peninsula in 1996, but it suffered major losses in the northern Vanni jungle in 1998 and 1999 and lost much of Jaffna to the rebels in 2000.

Having made the amendments a centerpiece of her campaign, Kumaratunga won the early presidential elections on December 21, 1999. Under an estimated 73 percent turnout, the president took 51.12 percent of the vote against 42.71 percent for the UNP's Ranil Wickremasinghe, who had called for unconditional negotiations with the LTTE. Three days before the vote, separate bombings at PA and UNP rallies killed at least 38 people and slightly wounded Kumaratunga.

Although the PA won the most seats in the October 10, 2000 parliamentary elections, it failed to win a majority and will be able to pass the constitutional amendments only if it gains the UNP's support. Under a 70 percent turnout, the PA won 107 seats; the conservative UNP, 89; the JVP, 10; the Tamil United Liberation Front, 5; the Eelam People's Democratic party, 4; and the National Unity Alliance, 4.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Sri Lankans can change their government through elections. The 1978 constitution vested strong executive powers in a president who is directly elected for a six-year term and can dissolve parliament. The 225-member parliament is also directly elected for a six-year term, through a mix of single-seat, simple plurality districts and proportional representation.

While elections are generally free, they are marred by irregularities, violence, and intimidation. The independent Center for Monitoring Election Violence reported incidents of murder, bombings, or fraud at 365 polling centers in nearly half of the country's 168 electoral divisions during the October 10 parliamentary elections. The organization also recorded 71 election-related murders and over 1,000 assaults, threats, and other abuses in the weeks leading up to the vote. Given these developments, a European Union monitoring team said the campaign and voting took place "in an atmosphere of violence and intimidation." However, a Commonwealth monitoring team called the overall election process satisfactory, even though it reported bias in the state media's coverage and misuse of state resources during the campaign. Following the December 1999 presidential elections, the UNP and some independent poll monitors had accused the governing People's Alliance of some electoral fraud and harassment of voters.

While the judiciary is independent, the rule of law is weak. This has allowed security forces to commit abuses with near impunity, often facilitated by sweeping security laws. Since the civil war began in 1983, successive governments have kept all or parts of Sri Lanka under a near-continuous state of emergency. After the LTTE began a major spring offensive, Kumaratunga promulgated new, stricter emergency regulations and amendments in May and extended them islandwide. Previously, the emergency regulations had mainly been in force in the north and east and in Colombo. The new emergency regulations permitted authorities to restrict press freedom; temporarily banned public meetings and processions; and permitted officials to ban organizations considered to be a threat to national security, public order, or the provision of essential services. Like the measures they replaced, the new regulations allowed authorities to hold suspects in preventive detention for up to one year without charge, with a limited right to judicial review. In addition, they removed certain safeguards relating to detention and extended, to nine months, the maximum period that authorities can hold suspects without filing charges under nonpreventive detention procedures.

According to the United States State Department, authorities detained more than 1,970 people in 1999 under emergency regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which permits officials to detain suspects without charge for 18 months. Most were released after several days or within several months. Human rights groups allege that the security laws contain inadequate safeguards for detainees and facilitate longstanding practices of torture and disappearances. Amnesty International said in 1999 that "torture continues to be reported almost (if not) daily" in the context of the civil war, while police officers "regularly torture" criminal suspects and people arrested over land disputes or other private matters.

While there has been little progress in reducing acts of torture, there has been a decline in the number of reported disappearances, notwithstanding several disappearances near Vavuniya in August that were reported by Amnesty International. Security forces were responsible for at least 761 extrajudicial killings or disappearances between April 1995, when the LTTE broke a ceasefire, and the end of 1999, according to the U.S. State Department. However, more than 600 of these disappearances occurred in 1996, when the army was consolidating its hold over the Jaffna Peninsula. Some observers attribute the subsequent drop in reported disappearances to the 1998 convictions of and death sentences handed down against five soldiers in the 1996 murders of a schoolgirl and three others in Jaffna.

Notwithstanding these convictions, the Kumaratunga government has generally not investigated disappearances that have occurred since it came to office in 1994. However, it has established commissions that investigated and reported on earlier disappearances that occurred in the context of the civil war with the LTTE or the JVP insurgency. The government said in 1997 that three commissions established in 1994 to inquire into disappearances between 1988 and 1994 had found evidence of 16,742 disappearances, mainly committed by security forces while suppressing the JVP. The government established a fourth commission in 1998 to investigate some 10,000 cases of disappearances that occurred in 1994 or earlier that the three commissions did not complete.

In addition to torture and disappearances, soldiers, police, and state-organized civilian militia, called home guards, have also committed extrajudicial executions and rapes of alleged LTTE supporters, as well as of Tamil civilians, in reprisal for LTTE attacks that killed soldiers or Sinhalese civilians. In response to urban terrorism attacks by the LTTE, authorities continued to detain and interrogate hundreds of Tamils, most of whom were released after a few days or hours. The estimated one million internally displaced persons as well as other Tamil civilians in the north and east faced arbitrary arrest, restrictions on their freedom of movement, and other abuses by soldiers and police.

The LTTE directly controls some territory in the northern Vanni jungle and maintains de facto control over many areas in the Eastern Province. The rebels continued to be responsible for summary executions of civilians who allegedly served as informers or otherwise cooperated with the army; disappearances; arbitrary abductions and detentions; torture; and forcible conscription of children. The group raises money through extortion, kidnapping, theft, and the seizure of Muslim homes, land, and businesses, and has used threats and attacks to close schools, courts, and government agencies in nominally government-held areas in its self-styled Tamil homeland. Malnutrition reportedly remained a problem in areas of the Vanni controlled by the LTTE, despite some government food and medicine shipments.

In an effort to silence rival Tamil views, the LTTE has in recent years killed several mainstream Tamil politicians and members of government-affiliated Tamil militias. The LTTE's urban terrorism attacks in Sinhalese-majority areas in recent years have killed hundreds of civilians, including several high-ranking government officials.

As part of its war against the LTTE, the military arms the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and several other anti-LTTE Tamil militia. PLOTE has committed extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, and other abuses in the Eastern Province and northern Vavuniya town. During the year, errant shelling and artillery fire killed scores of civilians in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Overall, the civil war has reportedly killed more than 60,000 people, including many civilians.

Much of the information from the war zones is fragmentary because the government has restricted press freedom in general and coverage of the war in particular. The new emergency regulations introduced by the government in May empowered authorities to arrest journalists, ban the sale and distribution of newspapers, shut down printing presses, and exercise prior censorship on all news coverage on broadly drawn "national security" grounds. The regulations superseded more limited censorship regulations imposed in 1998 that had only applied to war-related coverage. Using its new powers, the government censored war-related articles and shut down the sole Tamil-language newspaper in Jaffna City and a printing plant that had published the pro-opposition Sunday Leader. On June 30, the supreme court ruled on procedural grounds that the actions of the censor had no force in law. The next day, the government reimposed censorship in way intended to correct the procedural problems. The government temporarily lifted much of the media censorship in advance of the October elections but continued to censor most war coverage. Authorities also continued to bar journalists from traveling to the war zone.

In addition to placing broad legal restrictions on the press, the Kumaratunga administration has filed criminal defamation charges against several editors, one of whom received a two-year suspended sentence in September over a 1995 article criticizing Kumaratunga's first year in office. In addition, security forces have occasionally harassed and assaulted journalists, particularly Tamils. While private newspapers, magazines, radio, and television stations criticize officials and government policies, journalists practice some self-censorship. The government controls the largest newspaper chain – Lake House Group – two major television stations, and a radio station. Political coverage in the state-owned media favors the ruling party. Unidentified gunmen killed three journalists in 1999 and a freelance reporter for the BBC in October 2000.

Women are underrepresented in politics and the civil service. Female employees in the private sector face some sexual harassment as well as discrimination in salary and promotion opportunities. Rape and domestic violence against women remain serious problems, and authorities weakly enforce existing laws.

Some of the worst communal violence in recent years occurred in late October, when Sinhalese mobs killed 26 suspected LTTE supporters and other Tamil detainees at a government-run rehabilitation center in central Banarawela town. Following Tamil protests against the massacre, clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils in several central hill districts killed up to four people.

While it is difficult to verify claims by some Tamils that they face discrimination in education and employment opportunities, some 75,000 of the estimated one million "hill Tamils" lack citizenship and face difficulty in accessing social services. Comprising just a part of the overall Tamil minority, the hill Tamils are descendants of workers whom the British brought to Sri Lanka from India in the nineteenth century to work on plantations.

Freedom of assembly is generally respected, although both main political parties occasionally disrupt each other's rallies and political events. Religious freedom is respected. Conditions in asylums and remand homes are often extremely poor.

Except in war-affected areas, human rights and social welfare nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate freely. Trade unions are independent and engage in collective bargaining. Except for civil servants, most workers can hold strikes. However, under the 1989 Essential Services Act, the president can declare a strike in any industry illegal. President Kumaratunga has used the act to end several strikes. Employers on tea plantations routinely violate the rights of the mainly hill Tamil workforce. Government surveys suggest more than 16,000 children between the ages of 10 and 14 work full-time. A 1998 United Nations study estimated there are 30,000 child prostitutes in coastal resort areas, although the government and NGOs offer lower figures. In its annual report for 1999, the Central Bank said that gross domestic product grew by 4.3 percent in 1999, but would have grown an additional 2 to 3 percentage points without the war.

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